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After 25 years, what has devolution delivered for workers? Not enough.

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It’s been 25 years since devolution in the UK started gathering speed, with the first legislative frameworks for devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland agreed in 1998.

To mark this milestone, we decided to take stock of what devolution has delivered for working people. As a first step, we commissioned Centre for Research in Employment and Work (CREW) academics to research whether and how devolution has raised employment standards. 

In this blog I consider key findings from their new report launched today – and reflect on what needs to happen next. 

Where are we now?

As this helpful primer explains, devolution - the process of transferring power from Westminster to the nations and regions of the UK – has led to a patchwork of deals, with different levels of power and resources conferred on devolved authorities.

Since 1998 successive UK governments have pursued devolution. The pace has picked up in England in recent years, where two ‘trailblazer deals’ expanding powers have just been agreed and several other new devolution deals are underway.

The Labour Party is also looking to expand devolution. The Gordon Brown-led Commission on the UK’s Future wrapped up at the end of 2022 with proposals to ‘create a virtuous circle where spreading power and opportunity more equally throughout the country unlocks the potential for growth and prosperity’.

Since then Lisa Nandy MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, has pledged that under a Labour government, ‘every part of Britain that wants it will be able to access powers over skills, employment support and housing that support their local communities’.

So far, employment rights (collective and individual), health and safety at work and aspects of workplace training in Scotland, Wales and England have been reserved to the UK government, meaning devolved authorities in these areas have no power to legislate around these issues. Labour has endorsed keeping a national labour rights framework, as outlined in its New Deal for Working People.

What has devolution delivered for working people?

A few of things jumped out at me from the CREW report.

First, some devolved authorities have innovated in using the powers available to them to promote good work on their patch. This has seen them raise the bar above the currently weak national employment rights framework, which has seen poor quality, insecure work become a mainstay of the UK labour market in recent years.

For example, the Scottish Government’s Fair Work Convention has cemented a tripartite relationship between unions, government and employers. It has also helped increase the proportion of people earning the Real Living Wage, improved employment security, narrowed gender and ethnicity pay gaps and increased collective bargaining coverage in Scotland.

Across England, some elected devolved authority leaders have set up employment charters or pledges – essentially locally-developed yet voluntary employment standards. Perhaps the best known of these is the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter established following a 2017 campaign pledge by Metro Mayor Andy Burnham. Members commit to various aspects of good work including improving employment security, flexible work, decent pay, health and wellbeing, and trade union recognition and collective bargaining.

Second, as the Manchester charter clearly shows, political will has been critical to advancing employment standards in devolved authorities. But when good work commitments are linked to individual leaders and not formally ‘baked in’ to devolution deals there is a real risk that change at the top can lead to a roll-back in localised gains.

Third, the formal role of trade unions in devolved structures has been mixed. In Wales, a “Welsh way” of social partnership working has led to development of a new Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Act. This offers significant potential to cement social partnership in Wales by putting a duty on public bodies to engage with trade unions when they are setting out what they will do to comply with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2016.

Yet this gold-standard approach is far from reality everywhere. For example, recent consultations around the East Midlands Combined County Authority devo deal proposed a role for the private sector in the authority’s governance boards - with no mention of a similar role for trade unions.

What needs to happen next?

Devolution looks set to stay firmly on the political agenda in the years to come. But so far it has not delivered enough for working people.

This needs to change.

Workers and their unions need to be meaningfully engaged in debate and decision-making related to devolution at all levels – from devo deals to devolved authorities’ support for union recognition and collective bargaining in-house and across their area.

The TUC is ramping up effort to make this a reality. Watch this space!

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