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Goodbye to the class war?

PFI: Workers are now having their say in the bidding process for PFI schemes. Brian Warner examines the potential power of the unions in public private partnerships

THE CLASS War ended on September 28 this year.

On that momentous day, Prime Minister Tony Blair decreed to the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth that class had officially gone out of fashion.

Some years before Mr Blair, a gentleman who went by the name of Canute commanded the waves to go back.

There is no record that they obeyed.

Yet there is evidence that the traditional antagonism between workers and employers is receding in perhaps an unlikely area - the arcane world of the Private Finance Initiative.

Last year in Treasury Taskforce guidelines, paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson called for the 'removal of the cloak of secrecy surrounding PFI. Hidingbehind the empty phrase 'commercial confidentiality' will no longer be an option,' he warned.

Unison was the first union to gain the right to grill short-listed bidders in a move driven by union-sponsored health minister Alan Milburn.

Now that this arrangement has been extended to other unions,notably construction union Ucatt, how is it working out in practice?

The unions seem to be happy in the main.

For instance, Steven Weeks, Unison's national officer, thinks that the union's presence at meetings with PFI bidders is far more than a token gesture.

He says: 'It's a big step forward. We get involved at the early stages of the bidding process - about eight months before preferred bidder stage - and unions recommendations can have a considerable influence on the clients' choice of bidder.'

Mr Weeks adds: 'We often have better information on bidders than clients because we hold anextensive database on the companies.'

He also believes that the interview process can help familiarise bidders with no previous experience of what it would be like working for particular clients.

But he is still uneasy about certain aspects of the process: 'Clients can still overrule ourrecommendations and there is no right of appeal. We will be raising this issue with the government.'

The interview process allows information about bidders to be exchanged and can influence unions' attitudes towards certain firms for better or worse.

For instance, Mr Weeks says that Unison gives the thumbs-up to the ISS/Mediclean partnership over its union recognition and training polices and to catering firm Gardner Merchant.

But this 'good firm', 'bad firm' rating is just what worries Norman Rose, director-general of facilities management trade group, the Business Services Association.

He argues: 'Decisions should be taken on a commercial basis only. If other things are taken into consideration, you end up with aggravation.'

Mr Rose reasons: 'Firms cannot afford to be anything other than good employers. If they can't fully motivate staff they won't win work and soon they won't be in business.'

He believes that clients themselves have been in the game long enough to know who the good and bad employers are - 'it's public knowledge'.

But he still holds that, on balance, union involvement in theselection process is a good thing.

'Unions are generally reasonable and getting round the table gives the opportunity to deal with any questions, fear or antagonism then and there.'

One of the major bidders in the field, which preferred not to be named, echoes these sentiments.

'On the whole, it's a good thing that unions are on board, we've got nothing to hide and we're relatively relaxed about it,' a company source says.

Yet he also has misgivings: 'I don't think the unions could influence the ultimate choice of preferred bidder, but there is a danger of vexatious disputes breaking out, with unions trying to settle old scores.'

And he adds that the unions' right to interview could make an already lengthy selection process even longer.

'The unions being there is another stage in what is a long and tortuous process before we reach the preferred bidder stage.'

But in general the source sees unions at PFI negotiations as a positive move and one which could even benefit bidders in the long run. 'There is an understandable nervousness among employees about what will happen to them when private firms take over.

'This transfer to the private sector can come relatively late in someone's career and bidders can use interviews to give support and reassurance.'

Guy Pigache, a director at Charterhouse Bank which has funded several major PFI deals, also has few fundamental objections to bringing the unions on board.

He says: 'It's good that unions have a voice. They know there are good and bad employers from members' feedback and this can work to the benefit of clients.'

Ucatt Scottish national secretary Alan Ritchie says that earlier this year union officers grilled five candidates for a £136 million PFI scheme to rebuild or revamp 29 schools in Glasgow.

What kind of questions were the hopefuls asked?

One of the union's main concerns was to make sure that the bidders 'employed qualified crafts people, not cowboys'.

Other questions, says Mr Ritchie, include firms' grievance procedures, continuity of employment policies and employment practices.

'If, say, a contractor has no directly employed staff, the alarm bells would start ringing.'

The atmosphere, he says, is cordial.

'There's no feeling of hostility and all the bidders we've talked to so far say they're willing to do business with the unions.'

Unison's PFI checklist

UNISON has prepared a seven-point marking-system checklist for union officials to use when they grill bidders for PFI work.

Transfer of undertaking (protection of employment)

General approach. Score out of 20

NHS staff and the company's track record

How long will employment be guaranteed to staff who transfer? The extent to which the company is likely to use subbies.

Score out of 20

Pension scheme

Does the company's pension scheme compare favourably with the NHS scheme? Continuity of the right to retire early under the NHS scheme. Score out of 10

Injury benefits

Will the company honour the terms of the NHS scheme or provide a suitable alternative? Score out of 5

Short-term contracts

Will staff currently on temporary or fixed-term contracts be transferred? Company policy on short-term contracts and agency staff. Score out of 10

Health and safety at work

The company's track record and policies. Score out of 10

Future strategic direction

How does the PFI project fit into the organisation's plans and why is it tendering for it? Score out of 5