What’s going on “in the room”?

Everything you might want to know about ACAS conciliation

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

What happens when the two sides of a pay and conditions dispute come together on the auspices of the Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service (ACAS)?

ACAS is an arms-length public body, funded by the Department for Business and Trade. It’s been around since 1896, and exists to provide support and advice to employers, unions, and others on industrial relations. It publishes advice and support, has a statutory “early conciliation” role in individual disputes (before these reach an employment tribunal) and will also act to support negotiations where the two parties are unable to reach an agreement.

Collective conciliation brings the two “sides” together – usually employers and trade unions – with the support of a neutral “conciliator”, who helps to establish common ground from which a way forward will hopefully become apparent. Conciliation discussions are confidential, allowing for a positive environment to be developed – but may result in an agreement or notes from the meeting which will be drafted with the support of the conciliator.

ACAS has offered this service since 1974 – it steps in at the behest of one or both parties in order to help bring about a settlement. It’s always voluntary, and tends to focus on negotiations where standard processes have been exhausted.

SO what happens “in the room”? As ACAS puts it:

The conciliator’s role is to listen to the viewpoints of each side and to communicate with the opposing side in a neutral fashion, taking an impartial perspective without judging the strengths and weaknesses of the positions taken by disputing parties or recommending a solution. Conciliators may offer their professional judgement of the pros and cons of positions taken by parties and their experience of other disputes, the application of good employment practice and the law in similar situations”

Again, it’s all about trust and impartiality. The idea is that where discussions have become entrenched in the same old arguments, an external facilitator can make it easier for the two sides to talk and to reach a compromise.

Independent research conducted by Ipsos in 2016 found that ACAS helped bring about a successful outcome in 76 per cent of cases – with the overwhelming majority of agreements (91 per cent) made during conciliation subsequently implemented. Even in those cases where an agreement was not reached, it was reported that the process helped bring the two positions closer together.

Of note is the need for flexibility on all sides of the dispute – in ACAS resolved disputes 81 per cent of participants (both employers and unions) reported that the deal involved some movement from their original negotiating position, with the same amount of movement reported on both sides.

Higher education pay disputes have reached ACAS before – the breakdowns in the New JNCHES process are getting to be the rule not the exception. Former UCU general secretary Sally Hunt even spent three years as an employee member of ACAS from 2015.

ACAS facilitated talks are successful in resolving disputes because they can cut through some of the more oppositional elements of negotiations. But they only achieve an agreement where both sides are willing to move forward from their starting position.

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