Rights issueOn 8 Apr 2003 in Personnel Today The issue of union learning representatives is causing some confusion. SimonKent explains their role in upholding employees’ rights to training anddevelopmentStatutory rights for Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) are due to come intoforce in early May as part of the Employment Act 2002. Uncertainty may surroundtheir precise official role, but it is generally felt by all – from the unionsto the CBI – that these newly recognised lay representatives will bringbenefits to both employers and staff by encouraging the take up of training,particularly in the area of basic skills. According to the Regulatory Impact Assessment for introducing thesestatutory rights, published by the Employment Relations Directorate of the DTIlast summer, statutory backing was judged necessary for these newrepresentatives to realise their potential. Citing the case that only 11 percent of employers offered literacy and numeracy training compared with the 20per cent of adults with serious problems in this area, the assessment concludedthat ULRs could trigger an increase in employee productivity worth £140m overeight years. The law itself (contained in Section 42 of the Employment Act 2002) givesULRs statutory rights to paid time off while receiving the training necessaryto carry out their duties, plus further paid time off to carry out thoseduties. To this extent, the rights afforded them are no different to thoseenjoyed by existing union representatives. They ensure that the ULR has theopportunity to be effective in their role. However, controversy stills dogsthis issue – what exactly should a ULR be doing? “In the original government documentation, they appeared to be entirelyabout basic skills,” says Robbie Gilbert, chief executive of the Employers’Forum on Statute and Practice (EFSP). “But at some point, they becameconcerned with the whole range of training. “I don’t believe it has ever been thought through as to how the ULRswill work with the employers’ own provision of training.” At the time of going to press, there are several publications in thepipeline to help all parties involved to get the most out of ULRs. TheDepartment for Education and Skills (DfES) is set to publish its Employer’sGuide to Union Learning Representatives in the late spring. Drawn up inconsultation with the CBI, with input from a number of employers, this casestudy-based resource will give practical, real-life examples of the work ofULRs and the benefits to employers. It will appear on the DfES, DTI and Acaswebsites, and will be available to employers on request. The TUC has already published diverse information and case studies involvingULRs, including the recent pamphlet Union Learning Representatives – New Rights,New Opportunities, which outlines the duties and practical activities of theULR. The TUC is also working with the Chartered Institute of Personnel andDevelopment (CIPD) on a publication funded by the Learning and Skills Councilto give advice to all staff and employers on how best to facilitate ULRs.Again, no precise publication date has been set. Crucially, the revised Acas Code of Practice for Time Off for Trade UnionDuties and Activities – the only document which may be cited at tribunal toassess whether an employer is implementing the new regulations appropriately –has yet to be passed by Parliament. While it has government backing and isexpected to be passed in ‘late spring’, it could face delays due tointernational events. Victoria Gill, learning, training and development adviser at the CIPD,believes case study material is important for employers. “One aspect ofULRs is a fear of the unknown,” she says. “If you see other people’sexperiences – positive or negative – you can learn from that.” At the same time, she identifies the need for a ‘realistic framework’ togovern ULR activities, and says the CIPD is keen for clear guidelines to bepublished to ensure that conflicts do not arise between ULRs and anorganisation’s HR/training department. So what should these departments be doing now? Given that the code ofpractice simply refers to rights to time off and not to the wider role of ULRs,the EFSP’s Gilbert warns against jumping the gun. He argues it is better todiscover how unions wish to move forward with these new rights and respond tothat, while continuing to lobby for clearer guidance. However, Derek Kemp, group managing director of Human and Legal Resources,believes employers must act now to realise the benefits of ULRs. “Therehas to be a proactive move by the employer to recognise the ULR’scontribution,” he says. “You need to agree their role and decide how best they can contributeto training within the organisation. The ULR’s role is likely to be verydifferent in a local authority compared with one in a high-tech ormanufacturing company.” HR and legal departments are already helping clients address their policiesto integrate the work of ULRs into their business. Policies relating to theconsultation process and to training and development activities need to beaddressed. Simon Spencer, corporate employment lawyer with legal firm Morrison andForester, is also in favour of action, encouraging employers to negotiate andagree on the ULR’s role, rather than waiting for them to work it out forthemselves. “In some organisations there is already a blurring or overlapping ofactivities among union officials,” he says. “Existing officials mayalready be engaged in activities which should now be the responsibility oflearning representatives. HR departments must agree in advance precisely whatthe activities of the ULRs and other officials are, so that when they take paidtime off, they are engaged in work they are meant to be doing.” While tribunal cases concerning ‘reasonable’ time off for union activitiesare not common, they do occur and, Spencer argues, having an agreed definitionof a representative’s duties reduces the probability of such disagreements. To some extent, instigating a dialogue on ULRs shouldn’t be too difficult –simply because representatives can only exist where independent trade unionsare already recognised. Affected organisations should therefore already havesome communication structure through which ULRs can be managed. Complicationsmay occur in instances of statutory recognition of a trade union and/or wherenegotiation agreements are considered legally binding, but such scenarios arerare. Regardless of legal procedures, ensuring ULRs are integrated intoorganisations and supported by training and development is key to ensuring thatbenefits are realised and problems are not created. Kemp warns of the demotivating effects of allowing ULRs to raise trainingexpectations only to have them left unfulfilled by the organisation. Measuresmust be taken to ensure both parties are singing from the same hymn sheet. What is a Union Learning Representative (ULR)?A ULR is an officially recognisedemployee in a unionised workplace who has received training from their union toenable them to give advice on training and learning opportunities to fellowunion membersWhat they can do: By law:– They can take paid time off to undertake training to allowthem to carry out their duties as a ULR– They can take paid time off to offer fellow union memberstraining advice and inform them of learning opportunities– Union members have the right to access their ULR in worktime, but the employer does not need to pay them at this timePotential roles:– They can research and establish resources for learning activities– They can work with the employer to design learninginitiatives, carry out learning surveys and establish learning agreements withemployers– They can set up and run learning centres or employeedevelopment schemes– They can help organisations access learning resources viaLearndirect and/or the Union Learning FundWhat they can’t do– They cannot provide paid or unpaid time off for theirunion members to undertake training – an employer’s consent is required for this– They cannot (by law) give advice or support to non-unionmembers– They cannot exist in places which do not already recognisetheir trade unionDo they only do union training, or do they get involved incompany training?– Training provided has little to do with the unionitself. The ULR can work to provide training on whatever subject they feel isrelevant. Their position in the workforce makes them particularly useful forthe provision of basic skills– ULRs can get involvedin promoting company training according to agreements between the company andthe representative. They are useful for ensuring maximum take up of in-houselearning and training initiativesCan they take money from company budgets for union training,or does the union pay?– Union Learning Representatives cannot make any demands on thetraining budgets of companies. The employer retains full control over allfinancial arrangements– Funding, or some initiatives, can be sourced through theUnionLearning FundDoes the company have to pay for some training?– It can if it feels it is appropriate or useful. In many ofthe training partnerships already established, companies have contributedthrough the provision of training spaces – on-site classrooms,etc – and throughgiving time off for employees to spend on learning activitiesDo they make recommendations that companies can ignore or docompanies have to do what they ask?– There is no compulsion for companies to followrecommendations made by ULRs. However, rather than ignore them, companiesshould consult and consider the input they receive from these representativesURLs and their benefitsThere are around 3,000 ULRs inexistence, working with firms ranging from Metroline buses and Gloucester CityServices, to Birds Eye and British Bakeries. Anne Murphy, a project worker withUSDAW, the union that piloted many ULRs and campaigned for statutoryrecognition, is adamant that employers have felt the benefits since suchinitiatives have been in operation. “In my experience, there hasn’t been one organisation thathas implemented something, then walked away from it rather than working withthe idea to see it go from strength to strength,” she says.At Littlewoods, an initiative originally created through theUnion Learning Fund has grown to include the provision of an on-site learningcentre managed by a steering group made up of representatives from the unionand employer. Littlewoods has given space for the learning centre, but as therequired technology comes from a local college and the learning takes place inthe employees’ own time, training provision is not at great cost to the company.”We see working in partnership with learning reps as acrucial part of our overall efforts to develop a learning culture withinLittlewoods retail,” says the company’s training manager Ann McGrath.Indeed, the partnership has resulted in the roles and responsibilities oflearning representatives being enshrined within the organisation’s LifelongLearning Policy.Employers’ dutiesUnion Learning Representatives mustbe members of an independent trade union recognised by the employer. They canonly work with staff who are also trade union members.Unions must give the employer notice that ULRs are to undergotraining and confirm in writing that such training has been undertaken withinsix months.The ULR is entitled to reasonable paid time off for thefollowing functions:– Analysing training needs– Providing information on training– Arranging training– Promoting training– Consulting with the employer about training– Preparation for the above activities– Undergoing training relevant to their role as a ULRThe Acas Code of Practice for Time Off for Trade Union Dutiesand Activities will be used to determine what constitutes reasonable time offand sufficient training for ULR duties.What it means for the organisation:The DTI Regulatory Impact Assessment on statutory rights forULRs estimated initial training for ULRs would require five days paid leave,and that carrying out duties and undergoing subsequent training would requirenine days of paid time off per year.The same document suggests three hours of a middle manager’stime per ULR per year would be required for admin purposes, such as receivingand processing official notices and individual requests by ULRs for time off. 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