Behind the scenes with Acas

By Carolyn Quinn
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's From Conflict to Compromise

  • Published

Patience, persistence, timing and diplomacy - all in a day's work for the Acas conciliator. Since the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service was set up in 1975 it has become a household name, stepping in to try to find a way through seemingly intractable differences during industrial disputes.

Image caption,
Acas have been called in to try to solve the dispute between unions and Tube management

For a Radio 4 documentary I have been behind the scenes at Acas to find out the techniques deployed by its skilled negotiators as well as talking to some of those who over the years have been on the receiving end of a helping hand from one of their chief conciliators.

Though planned months ago, the programme coincidentally goes out just days after strikes on the London Underground, at the BBC and among London Firefighters, and comes at a period when many people are fearful of an increased period of industrial unrest across the UK as job cuts and budget reductions start to bite in the coming months.

The current chief conciliator at Acas, Peter Harwood, may look and sound like a mild-mannered guy - but he is to industrial flare-ups what Red Adair was to oil well fires; if he cannot prevent them, he will do his best to limit the damage and calm things down.

He is not one to blow his own trumpet about his skills.

"I liken it to marriage guidance," he says.

The Acas chairman Ed Sweeney says Peter Harwood is the type of man who can tell you that you are going to be hung, drawn and quartered and you will thank him.

Harwood himself admits he "tries to get people to look over the cliff and see how far down the rocks are".

From the winter of discontent, through the 1984/5 miners' strike and Wapping dispute up to the present day the Acas team have been there quietly trying to find a bridge between warring employers and unions, offering face-saving solutions and following up behind the scenes as conflict resolution proposals are put into practice.

Mr Harwood has been there 24 years.

He says the trick is to put the two parties in separate rooms and then shuttle back and forth between them, gradually piecing together their bottom lines before bringing them together.

"You can be in the Acas building for 24 hours, either end of the corridor and never see the other side, Acas shuffling backwards and forwards," says Jack Dromey, a former union negotiator, now a Labour MP.

It takes "professionalism, persistence and huge emotional intelligence. They are scrupulously fair," says Jocelyn Prudence who, as negotiator for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, spent many a long hour at the Acas headquarters during a strike by lecturers in 2006.

Mr Harwood found himself away from base for three days without a change of clothes or a wash bag when the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute suddenly flared up last year and prompted further wildcat strikes.

He helped find a solution to that dispute despite his physical discomfort.

But he admits that across a range of talks, sometimes a little discomfort can help speed talks along.

"You sometimes make the judgement that perhaps hungry people are more likely to settle," he says.

Crow's respect

In the past year alone Acas dealt with 900 collective disputes - what you and I know as strikes or potential strikes.

Of those 94% were either resolved or the parties were moved towards a resolution.

Mr Harwood keeps a citation from Bismarck in the back of his mind: "Diplomacy is making ladders for people to climb down gracefully."

He told me: "People don't settle when they're angry, people settle when they are cautious and a bit nervous about the future."

There have been regular attenders at Acas - the staff and unions at Royal Mail for instance.

Only recently the RMT union and London Underground were there trying, and failing, to prevent walkouts on the tube, the latest of which took place last week.

Over the years the RMT boss Bob Crow has grown to respect the conciliators.

He says they are "good people, who wouldn't stitch you up - they wouldn't stitch up management either".

But even Mr Harwood's almost endless patience was tested to the limit when, last May, members of the Socialist Workers Party broke into the Acas headquarters during talks between BA and Unite as they tried to solve the cabin crew dispute.

The organisation clings tightly to its reputation for impartiality - pointing to the make-up of its council - combining leading figures from business, the unions, and academics.

They could have some testing days ahead if, as some predict, Britain enters a fresh period of protracted industrial turmoil.

Who knows what scale of unrest may or may not be looming on the horizon.

But whatever the situation Acas is tried and tested in the delicate art of securing compromise in the face of anger and resentment.

As its chairman Ed Sweeney says: "We stand ready to try and help, that's our job."

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