HRMC Trinity Bridge House is a large Tax Office in Salford that employs 1,800 staff, many of whom work in customer operations providing call centre services around a range of tax products. The workforce structure is described as ‘quite flat’, reflecting a typical call centre profile, 55 per cent of staff are female and an estimated 7 per cent are aged under25. The work of HMRC is organised through 36 business streams. Union density at the Salford site is 90 per cent across PCS and ARC. Collective bargaining is predominantly undertaken at a national level between PCS and HMRC. A ‘house’ joint consultative committee also exists at the branch level and union learning activities are reported to this group.
The operational context was shaped by a focus on efficiency savings that government departments had already been required to address. In 2006-7, HMRC introduced an efficiency programme known as Pacesetter, introducing LEAN-type programmes with the aim of enhancing performance and improving productivity by 30 per cent. The LEAN process included task focused teams working on problem solving to improve processes, reduce waste and address inconsistencies in service delivery. The efficiency savings programme led, amongst other changes, to the closure and relocation of the site’s post room. The union and local managers worked jointly to offer retraining and support the re-deployment of the 12 staff affected.
HMRC signed the Skills Pledge in 2007, making a commitment to support the development of staff with qualifications below Level 2 to improve basic skills. HMRC learning and development focuses predominantly on business stream processes and includes a ‘LEAN academy’ and management and leadership development programmes. Work-related learning is generally not accredited, although HMRC has been introducing apprenticeship and NVQ programmes and some staff work towards professional qualifications in accounting and tax (such as ACCA, CIMA awards) A personal development (PDE) process operates whereby managers review staff development needs on an annual basis.
Union learning activity
At the national level, PCS have been involved in union learning since ULRs were first trained in 1999. A number of local/regional projects were supported by the ULF in these early years. In 2006 (Round 9), the TUC’s ULF team encouraged all large unions to focus their ULF bids on the development of a national learning strategy to provide coherence and consistency in their learning work and develop internal structures that could provide a sustainable support structure for ULRs. In response to this, the Council of Civil Service Unions (CSSU) agreed a model learning agreement with the Cabinet Office in 2006, which set out a framework with which central government employers and unions in the sector could develop departmental agreements around lifelong learning. The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) and ARC (the revenue and customs section of the FDA – the union representing senior managers in the civil service) developed a national learning agreement with HMRC based upon the CSSU/Cabinet Office framework in 2007. In addition to the usual references to the role of the employer and ULRs, the agreement also included reference to employer support for Branch Learning Co-ordinators (BLCs) and where needed (i.e. in larger departments) regional learning coordinators (RLCs). The BLC’s role is to coordinate the work of the ULR team and develop a branch learning plan. In the HMRC agreement BLCs have 25 per cent of their time allocated to this role. The RLCs provide support for BLCs and a link to the HMRC national learning organisers and the PCS ULF learning team. In the HMRC agreement RLCs can spend 60 per cent of their time on this role. In 2009, PCS and the Cabinet Office also agreed a framework agreement for joint work on supporting apprenticeships.
The value of this supporting structure is evident in the case. At Trinity Bridge House, the first ULRs were trained in 2001. However, these ULRs were not well linked into the branch and there was no learning agreement in place. Furthermore, staff and local managers were not clear on the ULR role. As a result, initial union learning activity had limited success. A key turning point came when, in 2008, it was announced that site’s training suite was going to close and training would take place at an alternative City centre site. The ULRs and RLC put together a business case to local management to create a union learning centre in the building and identified a suitable space utilising furniture from the vacated training suite. The business case focused on the fact that staff were unaware of the departmental Personal Development System and experienced difficulty accessing outside learning opportunities off site. The room helped to raise the profile of the ULRs and allowed for learning courses to be delivered more easily on site.
A ULR was also elected to the new BLC role in 2008. BLCs have responsibility for motivating and co-ordinating the work of the ULRs, reporting to the national team on learning activity and in developing a branch learning plan. The new BLC at Trinity Bridge House approached the Unionlearn regional team to see what support and advice they could give. Unionlearn provided a number of practical ideas about enhancing the learning offer and also suggested that the branch apply to Unionlearn North West’s regional union learning fund, the Learning and Skills for All Fund (LSfAF). The successful bid funded full release time for the branch learning coordinator 15 months (as opposed to the 25 per cent time allowed through the learning agreement). Each LSfAF project also has a Unionlearn project worker to provide guidance on project delivery and to help ensure that reporting mechanisms meet the requirements of the external funders, the Regional Development Agency and the then Learning and Skills Agency, now Skills Funding Agency.
Learning at Work Day (LAWD) provided a central focus for the work of ULRs to bring learning providers on-site, raise staff awareness of the ULR role and provide them with an opportunity to take part in learning tasters in an informal setting. This event ran twice in 2009 at Trinity Bridge House and included an FE college, NextSteps, three higher education providers and a private provider offering accounting qualifications. The days also included sessions run by HMRC staff delivering informal learning sessions on family history, writing and publishing and guitar lessons. During LAWD 2009, 370 staff attended over two days and the providers reported 140 individuals registering for detailed course information.
The ULRs at Trinity Bridge House surveyed staff attending LAWD to identify common areas of interest and ideas for future events. The most requested theme was more information about HMRC’s own learning programmes. Learning activities delivered through the union learning centre in response to learner needs have included family history, numeracy, IT, employability/CV writing skills and modern languages. In addition, ULRs have supported staff to access learning off-site including access to professional accounting qualifications and higher education. ULRs were involved in negotiating agreements with HMRC and an external provider who initially offered to run a fully (government) funded accountancy programme for those without a degree level qualifications wanting to take part. Negotiations were required between the branch learning coordinator, HMRC and the provider as the training organisation wanted HMRC to underwrite the course fees in the event of any problem with the drawdown of government funding during the programme. HMRC would not underwrite the funding. The provider agreed to draw up a revised contract without this guarantee but the offer of the fully funded courses was withdrawn but the ULRs were able to negotiate a 50 per cent discount with payment terms, for those who had signed up on the original basis and were looking to continue to the next level.
The learning room has also been used for branch rep training, helping to build the profile of the ULRs with other reps. In addition to course delivery and signposting, ULRs also help colleagues to prepare for their PDE sessions with line mangers. This support helps to empower staff by increasing their understanding of the PDE system, of how capabilities can be evidenced and, where needed, possible development opportunities to meet learning needs. Learning activity has been much more successful than in the period in 2001/02 when ULRs were first trained but not linked into the branch. In the six months’ prior to the case study visit the ULRs engaged 296 staff (16 per cent of the total workforce) in learning activities: of these learners, 10 people achieved a skills for life qualification, 8 achieved a level 1 sign language, 76 participated in NextSteps CV skills workshops and 47 were referred to other learning.
A site level learning committee was established to oversee the running of the regionally funded LSfAF project. The project steering group involves the branch, ULRs and local management. This, members reflect, has also helped to raise awareness amongst management of the ULR role. Data are reported to the steering group by the BLC, who is the LSfAF project lead. He maintains a database of all learners that are supported by the ULRs, retains information on progression and evidence of learner achievements in accordance with the RDA’s and LSC’s requirements for LSfAF monitoring. Data on learning activity is reported by the BLC into the PCS national data collection system which collates data on learning activity across all branches. At the national level a PCS-HMRC learning committee meets regularly to review union learning activity. Lines of communication with the national learning project are maintained via the group Regional Learning Co-ordinator. Both of these structures (workplace and national) operate separately from other IR machinery, although JCCs, the Revenue NEC and HMRC People Function (with responsibility for IR) have been involved on issues such as negotiating facility time for ULRs or time for learning. At the operational level there are regular ULR meetings held on site to report on and plan future activity.
There has been a focus on the embedding of learning in the branch through locating the delivery of rep training and union office activity alongside lifelong learning. Learning is now a standard item at branch committee and site joint-negotiating committee meetings. The senior branch reps also confirm the benefits of building learning into the work of the branch, both in terms of strengthening the branch team and in developing dialogue with the employer:
‘The ULRs are now very active. The branch learning coordinator has been key to that. We have increased the size of the branch rep team by about 10 per cent overall with respect to the new headcount. The learning centre has been helpful to provide us with a presence.’ (HMRC Senior Branch Officer1)
“There is no difference between the importance of learning, health and safety and representation – for us they are all part and parcel of the same thing.’ (HMRC Senior Branch Officer2)
The union learning agenda has also helped to improve perceptions of the union both by staff and management. As a local manager explained, with reference to the national agreement:
‘If you ask some people out there they would see the union as a load of pickets, shouting the odds. But the union does other things that are really important and this highlights that. The (learning agenda) personalises them more. Management seem to have good relations here with the union reps which gives a good positive environment. The fact that the senior management have sanctioned it helps with these positive relations.’ (HMRC line manager)
The full-time release of the BLC with support from the regional union learning funding has been particularly useful in helping to build union learning activity to a point where it is now more established in the workplace: staff are more aware of and engaged in learning. The interviews with learners and a local manager highlighted the benefits for those taking part. One member of staff who was re-deployed from the post-room into a clerical role expressed delight at a having “taken the plunge” to take part a numeracy and IT course. This learner made reference to how the learning helped overcome some of the barriers faced by staff during re-deployment:
‘I knew there was some snobbery on the (contact centre) floor about some of us coming up from the post room. But the course has really helped us with that, to build our confidence and let everyone know that we can do it, that we’re just like them.’ (HMRC Learner)
The benefits of a group learning approach were also extolled by a line manager:
‘For (my team member) it has been great, he feels much more comfortable around computers. He has loved the interaction, he feels a part of the group in the learning, there has been 12 of them, it has been really good for all their confidence.’
Other benefits noted by learners include improved confidence to face changes at work and apply for jobs in the future. As Learners’ commented:
‘I have been 19 years on the job, I am confident in my generic job role but there are changes coming at work, on the way we plan our work, everything, and this is helping me prepare for that.’
‘This (numeracy and IT course) has improved my confidence to go for jobs in the future and think ‘Yes – I can go for that’. I think I learned more on that course than from 5 years at secondary school.’
‘I have improved my ability to work in percentages and increased my knowledge of what we do. (The course) was a general refresher - it makes you realise how much you've forgotten along the way. I loved going to the sessions it really broke the day up.’
For the HMRC the wider benefits of learning at the workplace have been discussed informally between ULRs and managers. These are expressed mainly in terms of building learner confidence and in meeting Leitch/Skills Pledge aims. Managers and union reps also stress that ULRs work to ensure the quality of learning experience through sitting in on courses to assess provider performance and provide direct support to learners. There is no formal evidencing of workplace impacts of learning on, for example, learner engagement in training or on other business performance measures.
The learner survey undertaken during the case study provides some interesting indications of impact. Ten of the fourteen learners responding to the survey indicated that they were ‘non-traditional learners’. However, all said that they would like to continue their learning, suggesting that union learning has been successful in engaging this group and motivating them to continue. Although the majority of learning undertaken is not vocational (two of fourteen learners were engaged in vocational learning) the majority of learners (eight of fourteen) felt that the learning had helped them improve the skills needed for their current job in some way. There is some evidence of progression in learning; six of the fourteen surveyed learners had participated in more than one type of union learning activity and five learners increased their level of qualification as a direct result of taking part in union learning. This includes learners studying at Levels 2, 3 and 4.
Additionality and sustainability
Deadweight effects appear to be low in that the majority of the learning reported would not have taken place without having been initiated by the Union: four of the fourteen learners said that they might have taken up similar learning elsewhere without the support of the ULRs. Other aspects of additionality are evident, as the learning centre would not have happened without the work of the ULRs and RLC making the business case to management. The regional union learning fund has helped to build a ‘critical mass’ of activity which has led not only to the specific learning outcomes reported, but other activity such as involvement in a Collective Learning Fund project and piloting the web-version of the Unionlearn Climbing Frame. The ULRs from the branch have also been supporting learning activity in neighbouring HMRC branches to offer advice and practical support for learning events in those workplaces.
In terms of sustainability, the branch reps are confident that the boost given to the learning infrastructure on site has meant that it is now much more likely to continue. There are 11 ULRs trained and an active BLC co-ordinating activity. However, both reps and managers note that the challenges facing the organisation in the face of public sector budget cuts may also impact upon the union learning agenda. The national learning and development manager notes:
‘There has been no sea change in our relations with the union, but there is going to be severe pressure on resources to do this kind of work and an increased focus on work/business outcomes.’ (HMRC manager)
In this operating context, the scope for sustaining union learning may be threatened by the pressure on staff ULR facility time and on time for learning. However, a number of views were given as to why management engagement with ULRs might increase in the medium term. Some felt that managers may be more disposed to link with ULRs as a route to learning support for staff that cannot be provided in-house. ULRs may also been seen more favourably within the wider employment relations/HR context. For example, one manager noted trends in next generation HR practices  to ameliorate the effects of severe budgetary cuts and the consequent negative impact on employment relations. In this respect, employer support for union learning can offer a route to building better workplace relations with HR practices that seek to build ‘authentic’ employee engagement (op cit). Others note that staff interest in the learning offer is likely to increase. As one ULR observed at Trinity Bridge House, the recession has already had an impact on the demand for learning:
‘The economic recession has been a wake-up call for people. Although we have not had job cuts here as yet, the signs are not good and this has helped people to see that what we are offering them is something of an insurance policy.’ (PCS ULR)
Barriers and challenges
Barriers and challenges related to the engagement of learners, building a learning culture, funding for learning and gaining support from management. The staff interviews included a number of comments on, in their view, the limited scope for ‘upward’ progression and the routine nature of their work. As one member of staff commented:
‘There is no chance of promotion here. It is a bit like ground-hog day. We have PDEs but I am not sure that people take them seriously.’ (HMRC learner)
The union reps note that engaging learners and overcoming initial suspicion of union learning has been a key challenge. This is attributed in part to that fact that staff work in a setting where personal development and engagement in learning is not the norm for many staff. Analyses of market failure in training and education point to the cost and risk factors that inhibit workers from investing in their learning and development. Cost barriers were evidence in this case study. During the lifetime of the current learning project the public funding available for adult learning had become much tighter. Learning providers were less able to offer fully subsidised courses. At the local level ULRs negotiated with one provider to offering discounted accounting courses but they ‘eventually pulled back on the funding offer because of new limits placed on their (public funding) budgets’. One learner noted how the course run at Trinity Bridge House helped reduce cost barriers:
‘I would not have done the course if it wasn't free. I don't earn very much and that kind of thing wouldn't be on my list, things for the kids come first.’ (HMRC Learner)
ULRs have partly mitigated cost barriers for some learners, by for example, accessing free skills for life provision, negotiating fee reductions with providers and developing a Collective Learning Fund model. However, the reps confirm that access to affordable learning has become more difficult in the past 18 months. The joint work on site between unions and management has also been effective in overcoming barriers related to individual confidence in learning ability and fear of negative perceptions about having time off to learn. As one learner explained:
‘I really enjoyed the course I am glad I took part and completed it. I surprised myself that I got level 2. When I started I wasn't clear how difficult it was going to be, so I was really chuffed to pass.I got support from the ULRs to get involved and the ULR was great in helping us with the homework - printing off test papers and exercises. I also have a good manager who encouraged me to go, so even though it had been agreed that we'd get the time off, I didn't feel bad about leaving work early to attend.’.
Joint working has also been important in term of addressing potential competing priorities. For example, during the planning period for the 2010 Learning at Work Day tensions arose when, after initial agreement on LAWD 2010, reps were told that release would not be granted for staff to attend LAWD events because of a clash with national priorities for learning and development. The issue was resolved through negotiation, illustrating the importance of mechanisms such as the learning agreement, the RLC role and good working links between reps and management on the JCC. The issue was eventually resolved following the intervention of the Regional Learning Coordinator in a full and frank exchange of views with the senior manager.
Respondents comment on the potential for union learning and the HMRC learning and development offer to be better integrated and more clearly offer complementary activities. For example, ULR help in encouraging staff participation in HMRC initiatives such as apprenticeships (as is outlined in the 2009 ARC/Cabinet Office agreement on apprenticeships). Nonetheless, branch reps generally felt that there was good senior level (national level) support in HMRC for union learning, although that this has not always translated to awareness and support at the local level. Branch reps feel that middle management response had been “at best, slow”, exacerbated by the key sponsoring managers moving on. In this case, the learning agreement has been a valuable tool to help raise awareness of the framework in which union learning has developed and make the case for lifelong learning. However, given the size of the organisation delivering the vision of the learning agreement requires complex transmission mechanisms. As the following quotes illustrate, the learning agreement is generally used as a tool to promote joint work on learning:
‘It is less of an agreement and more of a promotional tool, a commitment from the management and union to work together on learning.’ (HMRC Regional Learning Coordinator)
‘The main value of the learning agreement is that it helps raise the value of lifelong learning. The agreement and the functioning of the agreement tend to be taken as given, rather than be held to account. So, this does make it vulnerable to being side stepped and this may be what we are faced with in the light of austerity measures.’ (HMRC Manager)
Some union reps feel that the lack of management engagement means that, to ensure the sustainability of union learning, there needs to be an even greater focus on building learning within the branch:
‘as long as we have the support for ULRs in the branch we can continue with the learning agenda with or without the (local) management, but clearly both the union and HMRC can benefit so much more if we work together on this.’ (HMRC Branch rep)
The case study illustrates the way in which one union has worked to build sustainability of the learning agenda through using a national learning agreement and how reps and management have worked at the local level to build learning activity at one workplace. The case illustrates the range of factors that, alongside the learning agreement, are important in building workplace learning. A key focus for achieving sustainability in this case is integrating learning and the work of ULRs with other union branch activity whilst retaining a degree of separation from other IR issues. Practical support and funding from unionlearn, especially to provide full-time lead-ULR/BLC release has also helped generate a ‘critical mass’ of activity. The complexity structures and changing operational context in HMRC mean that the transmission of the commitments made in the national learning agreement to the local level is not straightforward.