The union and “job fears”

The trade unions that operate at the ONS seem to have their focus on preserving their jobs and by doing so they risk losing the moral high ground. Looking back at a major intervention by the union in 2005, the workers showed that they can have their finger on the pulse. Then they correctly called the department’s troubles, rooted in political interference and poor leadership, that have engulfed the ONS in recent years and are only now being left behind. One can only hope that behind the public statements the unions are working to deliver the change that is required to ensure that the quality of the statistics rises to where it needs to be. That is the only way to preserve their jobs in the long run.

Ahead of the Bean review being unveiled on Wednesday the PCS union rep at the ONS apparently got his time on a BBC TV programme this morning.”ONS job fears over government review, says PCS union” is the BBC news headline trailing the interview.

The union spokesman says: “We believe we produce high quality economic statistics and we don’t want to see any of our work or our jobs move out of Newport.” As all users would know, the quality of the statistics is mixed and that’s likely to be the line set in the Bean review. Sir Charlie Bean has previously said the ONS is “maybe not quite such a strong performer” as it once was. It is inevitable that change is on the way and that will mean change for the staff. The unions must accept that there are problems.

While the ONS staff are, as the article says, “anxious that a government review will lead to jobs leaving south Wales”, that is unlikely to be the short-term consequence. I know of no one who thinks that Newport will not remain the largest site for the ONS. Unfortunately the impression given by the unions is that they want nothing to change as a result of the Bean review. The usual union line of resistance to change – keep the same jobs, the same practices in the same place – is understandable but not sustainable.

The union did admit some likely outcomes: “We welcome any recommendation coming from the Bean Review, to increase the economic expertise in London, because they can liaise with the Treasury, the Bank of England, that makes sense.” Adding “we would strongly oppose any proposal to transfer work or jobs from Newport.”

The unions are not that easy, one imagines, to work with on change management. It looks as if the PCS is already in dispute with ONS about pay.  It seems quite likely that the ONS will be looking to Bean to give it the mandate (and money) to change. The BBC article quotes an ONS spokesperson saying: “ONS has welcomed the Bean Review as a good opportunity to review our systems and processes for measuring the changing UK economy.” Bean and the ONS management know only too well that massive change will be needed over the next decade if the ONS is to survive in anything like its current form.

Historical footnote: 2005

The PCS web pages still show a report about the ONS produced in 2005. The problems were arguably greater then. The report was in response “to a series of challenges represented by the Gershon job cuts programme, relocations under the Lyons programme, the statistical modernisation programme and the review of civil registration.” The punchline was that ONS trade unions said the “Government should intervene and halt the modernisation and relocation programmes”. In a mirror of the current campaign, the union was against the move of staff from London to Newport!

The PCS report set out the three main issues that the ONS then faced, in summary (and quoting):

  • the modernisation programme has proved vastly expensive. It is failing to deliver on its objectives and is now draining resources from key statistical outputs
  • ONS’s present financial crisis is further threatening ONS’s statistical outputs
  • the relocation plans are not viable, are ill-considered and are a very dangerous threat to delivery of ONS’s key outputs

It’s unclear who was pulling the strings then but events suggest that the executive management weren’t in control, presumably boosting the union’s grievances. As we now know that plan for relocation (out of London and down to Newport) was unsound in many respects. Despite the ensuing problems, the grandees that made the recommendations and the senior staff that implemented it have now all got their gongs, and moved into well heeled retirement or the House of Lords. The office seems to be on the mend now but they really were dark days, darker than we thought at the time.

Newport footnote:

The paper reminded me of the2003 quote from the then Director for HR and Planning who said, “The trick to making this (relocation) work will be convincing people that working in Newport doesn’t mean living in Newport”.  Naturally none of the management posts relocated. Umm.


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