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A trade union agenda for devolution

Abigail Hunt
Policy officer - Public Services
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date

The devolution of powers away from Westminster has gathered pace in recent years, notably in England where several new devolution deals have recently been agreed and others are under negotiation. This trend looks set to continue in the years to come. 

In this paper we present a trade union agenda for devolution, developed alongside our affiliated trade unions. We lay out principles and priority actions to ensure that devolution supports working people, reduces inequalities and delivers quality public services.  

The TUC devolution principles 

We propose the following ten principles that should underpin devolution at all levels, and outline what each principle means in practice:  

  1. Solidarity between the regions and the nations of the UK.  

This means that we have regard to the long-term interests of all working people, their families and communities across the UK. Solidarity underpins trade unionism – and building solidarity between the regions and the nations of the UK is an important pillar of a trade union agenda for devolution. Intrinsic to this is the promotion of equality of esteem and treatment within and between the nations and regions of the UK.  

  1. Devolved authorities should adopt tripartite working so that workers’ interests are regarded with an at least equal weighting as those of employers. 

This means that formal tripartite working mechanisms between relevant authorities, trade unions and employers should be established in existing and newly devolved authorities. Within this, collective worker voice and trade unions should have an equal status to employer/business representatives at all levels, to balance out employer interests with those of the collective voice of workers.  

Devolution offers the potential to open new spaces for tripartite dialogue to establish a locally-relevant agenda for devolved areas, based on collaboration, strong public services and tackling poverty, inequality and exclusion. We have consistently made the case for ‘co-production’ within devolution - with citizens, trade unions, businesses, political leaders and officials working together to design and deliver local development and industrial strategies.  Within this, trade unions are able to play a key role as experts on how to deliver high quality and productive jobs and workplaces and progressive public services. 

  1. Devolution should support all workers and deliver decent work, including by ensuring trade union recognition and collective bargaining arrangements within any new devolved authority bodies.  

This means that devolved authorities should be exemplars of good employment practices within their own structures and by ensuring that all development, economic and industrial plans support the achievement of decent work within the devolved authority.  

There should be no detriment to any new or existing workforce within a devolved authority body, including in terms of job losses or displacement, erosion of staff terms and conditions, or trade union recognition and collective bargaining. This includes both the workforce of newly established bodies as well as workers delivering any outsourced public service. TUPE and two-tier regulations arrangements must apply. Regional and city-level devolution should ensure trade union representation on regional bodies including regional pay negotiations. 

Achieving this principle requires devolved authorities to have a firm commitment to developing an active learning, skills development and training culture in their core workforce and in the workforces over which they have direct influence.  

It also means that devolved authorities should use procurement as a tool to support decent work, including by requiring all suppliers to adhere to decent work standards.  

  1. Devolved authorities should use the powers available to them to go above and beyond the UK-wide statutory employment framework, including by developing locally-relevant employment standards.  

This means that devolved authorities will lead the way in promoting and implementing decent work, including by engaging in ongoing institutional mapping and awareness-building of employment and industrial law and local labour market conditions, in collaboration with local tripartite structures.  

It also means devolved authorities will embrace innovative means to develop locally-relevant employment standards and other mechanisms to secure good work within their jurisdiction. They will also use all available options to ensure their implementation and impact, including by harnessing powers secured within devolution deals (e.g. local skills development and training), and by requiring compliance with them during public procurement. 

  1. Further devolution of power and resources should be pursued only where there is a clear case that it will benefit all working people.  

This means that new or expanded devolution powers should only be pursued where there is a clear case that this will benefit all working people in the devolved authority area, including through the effective delivery of economic, industrial and social strategies and by supporting regeneration, access to decent employment, continued access to relevant training and skills development, and environmental sustainability. Subsidiarity should work alongside effectiveness: powers and budgets should be held at the level where the most optimal outcomes for working people can be achieved.  

To achieve this, devolved authorities should work with tripartite partners to analyse local labour market conditions and to inform decisions about whether the powers and resources available to them are sufficient to deliver decent work within their jurisdiction. Trade unions must also be represented in any devolution negotiations, and full consultation with the public and workers on any proposed devolution deal carried out.  

It is also important that devolution is not the only route to securing increased central government investment and support – there should be no detriment to areas that choose not to pursue devolution or where a favourable devolution deal has not yet been secured.  

  1. Devolution should strengthen democracy, accountability and transparency. 

This means that there should be open information and genuine stakeholder engagement – including the engagement of trade unions – in the establishment and functioning of devolved bodies. Any decision to increase local determination of aspects of service provision, for example, should consider opportunities to increase workplace democracy and collective worker voice from the outset. 

Full accountability and trust in devolved institutions can only be secured through genuinely democratic and inclusive structures. The institutions need to be seen by the local population as being truly reflective of their needs. Without this, devolved authorities risk being seen as another bureaucratic, administrative layer of local government and service provision, rather than new, vibrant representative bodies that can truly engage with, and respond to, the direct and active engagement of all local populations.  

This would suggest that devolution needs to be more than merely delivering projects and managing budgets – as crucial as they are. Devolution needs to explore securing power from Whitehall to empower local actors (as guaranteed through tripartite principles) to shape localities. It also needs to increase active engagement of all citizens in politics at all levels and ensure transparency of all structures and processes. This includes giving public authorities greater powers to bring outsourced public services back into public ownership and control as a more accountable and inclusive way means of delivery. 

To that end, we need to ensure that tripartite partners are constitutionally written into governance structures at all levels. Meaningful trade union participation is critical to ensure inclusivity and that the voice of workers is heard in debates around the economy, jobs, public services, equalities and transport. Unions also have a key role to play in monitoring the implementation and impacts of all aspects of devolution deals and the operations of devolved authorities, with meaningful mechanisms in place to highlight negative impacts on workers or employment conditions. 

  1. Devolution should support delivery of locally-responsive, quality public services.  

This means that devolution should result in sustainable and quality local public services that meet local needs, and which support the creation of decent jobs and drive up pay and conditions for the workforce delivering them, including equalities outcomes. They will also be well funded and well-resourced as well as publicly accountable, with in-house service planning, administration and delivery as the default. Additional powers should be given to public authorities to bring services back into public ownership and control where barriers to doing this exist. All negotiations and decision-making around the devolution of public services should take place with the full involvement of trade unions.  

This also means that devolution must not be used as a means for central government to pass on its responsibilities to devolved authorities in the wake of ongoing and devastating national public sector spending cuts, and in this process transferring the responsibility and risks for cuts to public services and public spending away from Westminster. For devolution to work, appropriate resources need to be put in place.  

Conversely, devolution deals should not impose any preconditions over the planning or implementation of public services; nor should they lead to any detriment to public services provided at other levels of devolved authority within a region or those in other areas not included in a deal.  

  1. Funding for devolved authorities should be fair and fully take into account socio-economic and labour market conditions of the relevant area and the administrative costs of devolution. 

This means that fair funding formula should be applied across all devolved authorities, which takes into account the socio-economic and labour market conditions of the relevant area and the administrative costs of devolution. UK government budgets should be transparent in terms of additional spend with devolution consequentials, and a convention should be in place so that devolved authorities are able to budget for multi-year periods and not be dependent on decisions on a UK level.   

Financial settlements should also support decent pay and conditions for all workers employed directly by devolved authorities as well as outsourced workers involved in delivering authority contracts, including by putting in place the predictable, secure and sufficient funding streams necessary to deliver annual above-inflation pay rises for workers.  

  1. Conventions should be established and adhered to where there are shared responsibilities.  

This means that conventions must be agreed to determine procedures for working on issues where there are overlapping responsibilities so that there is a clear protocol between different levels of power. This should include engaging the relevant authorities at an early enough stage to shape decision making and must apply across all levels of government, and also include public services where their coordination and delivery spans multiple levels or bodies of devolved authority.  

  1. Devolution should support place shaping and social justice. 

This means devolution should positively embrace local identities and support social justice, including by achieving equality within and between devolved authorities.  

Increasing social and economic opportunities and outcomes through tripartite dialogue and innovative programmes and policies across the entirety of a devolved area is both possible and necessary.  This can be achieved by embracing learning and best practice from trade unions to support social and economic justice. 

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