Acas – the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service – is a body that nobody normally can take offence. Like motherhood and apple pie, it is seen as a virtuous organisation that promotes peace,harmony, and fair play in a warring world between workers and bosses over jobs,pay and conditions.
So it might seem unlikely that such a body could end up in a bitter dispute with its own staff. But that is exactly what is starting to happen following a decision – completely unprompted by government – to make radical changes to its services to the public.
These include cutting the number of advisory helplines from 11 to 4, closing its office in Liverpool, which employs 50 people, and according to the union, downgrade work so lower paid people provide both advice and conciliation work.
The helpline is particularly popular with workers and employers alike. According to its annual report 96 per cent of its users would recommend its service to a friend and 94 per cent thought the people on the end of the line were really knowledgeable about its work.
Acas appears to have decided to streamline its services as part of an efficiency measure anticipating that perhaps Whitehall – which funds 90 per cent of its work – will start cutting its budget.
According to its officials all this is to be achieved without shedding any jobs.
A spokesman said :“Acas has undertaken a thorough review on how to best meet the needs of its customers across the country whilst securing better value for money for the taxpayer.
“Our national Helpline service is being reorganised into four central locations across the country and Acas North West will have a single area office in Manchester in line with our other regions across the country.
“There are no plans to reduce the number of Acas staff due to these changes so our customers will still receive the same high quality service from Acas North West and our national helpline service.”
The unions however don’t believe this. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents along with the FDA, its staff, is talking of going to a tribunal to accuse Acas, of all things, of failing to consult its own staff.
The PCS union say the conciliation service in London is at risk and the future of Acas’s head office functions and the future role of the Certification Officer – the official that policies union disputes and registers trade unions – is under review,
The union says Acas is making black workers take the brunt of the changes and believes they will lose their jobs. Acas insists that those working in Liverpool will get jobs in Manchester – and they will pay their fares to their new office.
This potential dispute is all the more interesting because the current chairman, Sir Brendan Barber, who is backing the changes, is the former general secretary of the TUC, the body that champions workers and unions.
So far the TUC is silent about its views on the change. But one of its union members, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS is not.
He says: “With the Tories ploughing on with damaging cuts and trying to undermine trade unions, Acas’s employment services are needed more than ever.”
“It should demonstrate best practice, not behave like a rogue employer by putting jobs at risk and creating uncertainty, stress and anxiety.”