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National Gallery Industrial Dispute

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 25 June 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

I want to draw to the House’s attention the dispute taking place at the National Gallery, which has been the most extended period of industrial action at the gallery in the history of British cultural institutions. It is time for the Government and all those who want to see the dispute brought to an end to intervene so that we can bring both sides together before further damage is done to the gallery, its staff and its reputation.

There have now been 45 days of strike action since February by staff who have a reputation for loyalty to their service. It has been caused by plans by the management to privatise two thirds of the workforce—400 of the 600 jobs—which would be so damaging to the gallery and to the service provided to the general public. The dispute has disrupted the gallery’s functioning and damaged its reputation. During the period of industrial action, most of the rooms are closed to the public, talks and educational events are cancelled and much of the gallery cannot function as normal.

Staff morale at all grades is at rock bottom, and that has been intensified by the gallery’s decision to dismiss Candy Udwin as the senior Public and Commercial Services Union representative at the gallery. The gallery has so far refused to reinstate her, despite a ruling by an interim relief hearing that it is likely that she was unfairly dismissed for trade union activities.

I am seeing a distressing trend across the public services of trade union activists being dismissed in the course of their duty of raising concerns about their services. Does my hon. Friend agree that the trend seems to be escalating? I am thinking of the situation in Barts hospital, where the occupational therapist Charlotte Monro was also dismissed, although she was just reinstated in March.

There have been a series of examples of what can only be described as victimisation, and I fear that this is one of them.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the National Gallery is in my constituency. I have received a number of representations and am very concerned about what is said tonight. I am afraid that I will have to leave shortly, but I will read the full Hansard report of the debate. This dispute is particularly regrettable because the gallery was one of the first employers in central London to pay the living wage, which we should all support. I hope that he will give at least some credit in that regard, although I accept that there are some very worrying specifics in relation to the case to which he refers.

I certainly will, because it was a campaign by the PCS that achieved the living wage, but it was intervention by Ministers and others, as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, that urged the employers to give the living wage in London. That shows that interventions by Ministers and others do work in these cases. All that I am asking for today is that we all recognise our responsibility to try to bring both sides together to resolve the dispute, because the gallery is a national institution of great significance.

Some 22,000 have already written to Mark Getty, who chairs the gallery’s board of trustees, calling for Candy Udwin to be reinstated. The gallery’s argument on the matter is that cuts in its grant aid require it to organise a greater number of fundraising events, and that it therefore requires greater flexibility from its workforce. The gallery claims that the staff and PCS have

“refused to agree any changes”

or to agree greater flexibility and that, therefore, it had no choice but to outsource them to a private company. That is simply untrue, as has been shown in the evidence I have seen directly from the union and in meetings with the staff. The union has put forward an alternative plan that proposes a new flexible contract that would guarantee the gallery all the flexibility it needs, as well as being supported by the staff. The union has persistently asked gallery managers and trustees for the opportunity to discuss the alternative plan properly, which it believes has never happened.

The PCS tried to engage in talks at the gallery last year, and at ACAS earlier this year, and it continues to call for talks. The union has even carried out its own scoping exercise, which confirms that there would be support from the staff for its plan and that its proposals would guarantee the flexibility that the gallery requires. The union will shortly present its detailed proposals to ACAS and invite it to organise an independent scoping exercise to confirm the union’s findings with regard to the flexibility of working that will meet the gallery’s demands. Interestingly, as recently as this week, in Newsweek magazine, the outgoing director, Nicholas Penny, was reported as

“voicing a preference to keep visitor services in house.”

There is a responsibility on all of us, including the Minister, to encourage a resolution to this dispute to help get both sides back to talks before further damage is done to the gallery and its reputation. If we can help to encourage the gallery and the union to find an agreeable solution, that would give the incoming director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, and the new chair of trustees, Hannah Rothschild, who take up their posts in August, an opportunity to heal the wounds of this dispute and the damage done by it and take the gallery forward with the staff in support of them.

I know that Ministers are loth to intervene in arm’s length bodies, but the National Gallery is funded by the taxpayer and has national significance, so it is a special case, where ministerial involvement is required. As the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) said, everyone was pleased when the intervention took place that helped to ensure that the gallery overturned its previous refusal to pay the London living wage, which will now be paid from 1 July. It would be possible for all of us present in the House, including the Minister, to make a statement to encourage the gallery to attend talks at ACAS in an attempt to resolve this dispute. That has happened before in past disputes and should happen again today.

The crux of the issue is that the National Gallery is arguing that it needs to raise additional funds through out-of-hours fundraising events—an important part of its strategy to cope with the reduction in grant aid. However, everyone is now saying that that should not be at the expense of the quality of the service that the gallery provides to those who visit it for free. In November 2013, the gallery and the board of trustees agreed with this, arguing that privatisation would not be in the interests of the gallery in terms of the quality of service or financially. A document published by the trustees said:

“A well trained and committed workforce in-house, with a good understanding of the Gallery’s specific circumstances”

will provide the best quality of service for the National Gallery, its 6 million visitors, and all those who access its collections for education and enjoyment.

There is no evidence that that does not remain the case. In fact, all the evidence shows that so far the privatisation and outsourcing is leading to reductions in the quality of terms and conditions for staff and of the service that those staff provide. There is some evidence for this at the National Gallery. CIS, the private company that has been brought in on a temporary basis to provide visitor services and security, has told its staff that it is not their job to answer questions from the public about the paintings. This is a gallery! PCS believes that there has also been an increase in the number of complaints from members of the public about the behaviour of the staff working for CIS.

Let us contrast that with the National Gallery’s own staff. They are extremely knowledgeable about the collection and see it as part of their duties to inform the public about the paintings, where they are located, and if they are off-show for any reason, as well as giving information or advice if asked. That is a crucial service provided at the gallery, especially for those visiting for the first time or those without specialist knowledge of the collection. Staff who are planned to be outsourced include those in the information service, those who deal with school bookings and support for school visits, and those who deal with complaints and freedom of information requests. The process of privatisation is going on apace, threatening all the expertise that has been built up over generations.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is long overdue that the Government intervened in this dispute in one of the jewels of our heritage? Does he also agree that it is extremely shortsighted of the management of the National Gallery to seek to privatise public sector jobs in this way, because what will happen is what always happens—permanent, stable staff, who are invested in their work and in the museum, are replaced with non-permanent, insecure, privatised staff, and that must, over time, lead to a diminution of the offer to the general public?

It is interesting that the shortlisted companies bidding to take over two thirds of the staff jobs are security companies: CIS and G4S. These are companies with specialist knowledge of security, not of art, the gallery itself or its history, and certainly not of dealing with people who want to see and enjoy artistic talents going back centuries.

The National Gallery managers claim that they are only doing something that has already happened in other museums and galleries, but that is just not true: no large gallery or museum has introduced an across-the-board outsourcing of two thirds of its workforce, including all the front-facing staff, which is what the National Gallery proposes to do. The National Gallery is therefore proposing an experiment in the face of widespread opposition from not only the staff, but the general public: 45,000 people have signed a petition against the proposals.

The costs already involved in the employment of CIS are shocking: £1 million has been spent on this private company, effectively to use it as a strikebreaking force during this dispute and to avoid the current legal restrictions on the use of temporary staff to replace striking workers. The company was introduced when outsourcing was first announced in July 2014. The stated reason was the need for additional events during the Rembrandt exhibition. However, the gallery’s own staff have covered all other exhibitions, including the Leonardo exhibition in 2011-12, which was even busier, with more extended opening. To be frank, if there was £1 million to spend on the National Gallery, it should be spent on ensuring that it operates more effectively and to redress the 20% fall in the number of visitors over the past five years.

What has made this dispute even more bitter is the victimisation that I mentioned earlier. The management has refused to engage seriously with the union on the alternative plans, but it has also gone further and victimised a PCS representative, which, to be frank, is despicable. Candy Udwin was a PCS representative involved in helping lead the union’s campaign against the privatisation plans. She was dismissed. What for? For sending an email to a union representative which included an estimate of the CIS costs and suggesting he request information about the costs from the head of human resources. Even though the head of human resources replied that the figure was entirely wrong, Candy Udwin has been dismissed for gross misconduct, since sharing that estimated figure was deemed to be a breach of commercial confidentiality. This would be farcical were it not for the effect it is having on this PCS representative.

An employment tribunal recently awarded Candy Udwin interim relief and ruled that it was likely that a full hearing would find that she had been unfairly dismissed on the grounds of her trade union activity. The judge’s ruling stated that it was likely that her actions would be found

“not to be blameworthy let alone gross misconduct.”

I urge the Minister to encourage the National Gallery to review its decision to dismiss Candy Udwin and to allow her to return to the job she loves and to represent PCS members at the gallery.

The National Gallery has failed to carry out an equality impact assessment of part of the proposed changes and to meet its public sector equality duty under the Equality Act 2010. This has been raised with the gallery and with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The Government’s Equalities Office works from within the Minister’s Department, but his Department claims that the provisions of the Equality Act and the public sector equality duty do not apply and can be ignored. Staff protected under the Act, such as the disabled and the aged, are to be told that they have to stand all day, and women with childcare and caring responsibilities could have flexible working practices imposed on them. The union has pressed for six months to work constructively in this area with the Minister’s Department, but without success. Is the Minister comfortable with the equality duty being ignored in that way, and will he review the Department’s decision?

Why is this happening? To be frank, I think there is a crisis of management at the National Gallery. If the director still claims, as has been quoted in Newsweek this week, that he would prefer the staff to remain in-house, and if the executive committee and the trustees still believe, as they did up to the beginning of 2014, that outsourcing would not be in the best interests of the gallery, it might be instructive to understand why there has been such a change of heart. I think it is because of the crisis of management there.

Over the course of two years, nearly all the senior managers left the gallery, whether voluntarily or otherwise. Ten National Gallery directors and senior managers resigned, were dismissed or left with a compensation package between 2012 and 2014. The gallery’s leadership style in response to the problem that they are now experiencing appears to be to remove and replace personnel, rather than to tackle any of the issues that they have to confront.

Once removed, staff have often been replaced by temporary advisers. Where do they come from? For example, there is the employment of David Commins—previously G4S security manager for the Olympics—as the gallery’s security adviser, who was then responsible for the introduction of CIS and the development of the privatisation proposals. A new head of human resources, RoseMarie Loft, was also employed at that time. This appears to reflect an absolute crisis of management at the gallery. I think there is concern right the way across the piece that, actually, unless the issue is resolved, it will sour the introduction of the new director and the new chair of the trustees.

There has been a huge campaign on this issue. Only a few weeks ago, Trafalgar Square was filled not just with strikers, but with their supporters. Artists turned up to read speeches and poems and to present artwork expressing their concern about this overall dispute. An alliance has developed right the way across those who receive the services of the National Gallery and enjoy them and those who provide them, so there must be a way forward before further damage is inflicted on the staff, the reputation of the gallery and the future of the service. This dispute is not going away, because there is such a sense of grievance among the staff themselves, particularly with regard to the victimisation of their trade union representative. There is a view that constructive talks could be held immediately that would find a resolution to the problem on the basis of the alternative plans proposed by PCS. It would not take much to get both sides together to resolve the dispute.

I suggest that we agree some proposals today, and I urge the Minister to back them. First, from this House, we should set a deadline for management and unions voluntarily to come together within 10 days. We should urge them both to get round the table and negotiate. At the end of that 10 days, however, if management and unions have not entered into talks, I believe that the Minister should intervene. His Department funds the National Gallery, and his Department will be held responsible if the National Gallery’s reputation and service is damaged beyond repair as a result of the dispute. Therefore, if there is a lack of willingness from the National Gallery’s management at the end of the 10 days voluntarily to meet with the unions, I believe it is up to the Minister to force them to come together, to convene the meeting, to be at the round-table discussions and, at least, to plan out how the dispute can be resolved. This is too important a dispute for Ministers or individual MPs—particularly London MPs—to stand on one side.

As has been said, this is one of our national treasures—the National Gallery—with 6 million people visiting it every year. We have cherished it over generations, but its reputation could now be severely damaged. I urge the Minister to intervene at this stage. All of us who have looked at the issue think there is a resolution to the dispute if there can be serious negotiations. The onus falls upon all of us to ensure that those negotiations take place.

I am grateful for the chance to respond to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I thank him for securing this debate on this important issue. It is obviously a very sensitive matter and it has caused some emotion. He referred to the rally that was held at the end of May in Trafalgar Square. I had the privilege of watching his speech on YouTube today, and I certainly recommend it to all other hon. Members. It was an impassioned and passionate speech in which he talked about how he would bring this issue to the Floor of the House. He described the trustees of the National Gallery, in respect of this dispute, as “philistines”. He used another word that I do not think I would get away with passing off as parliamentary language, but you can watch it on YouTube, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I am sure you will after the debate.

As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, although the National Gallery is funded by Government, it operates at arm’s length from Government and is responsible for its own staffing arrangements. This debate is really about the National Gallery’s much-needed plans to modernise its arrangements. There is an ongoing modernisation programme and I think that the National Gallery is doing what is needed to provide a service that meets the needs of the public today.

At its heart, the National Gallery has a duty to protect, preserve and curate its priceless collection, and to preserve free access to its galleries. I am pleased that the Government have been able to maintain free access to the permanent collections of our national museums. However, the gallery also has to provide a relevant service to the public—a public whose demands have changed over the years. Visitors have different and high expectations of the gallery, and I want those expectations to be met.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the gallery is a great success story. It is the third most visited museum or gallery in the world, after only the Louvre and the British Museum. As he mentioned, more than 6 million people come through its doors every year. The National Gallery needs to meet that huge demand and to provide a good offer to the people who visit it that matches their expectations on security and facilities.

The current staffing arrangements mean that the National Gallery cannot provide a guaranteed level of service outside the restrictive set of standard hours. That limits what it can offer the visiting public. The management of the gallery have decided that the ability to extend opening hours is necessary, and I agree with them. Under the current arrangements, there is no contract to guarantee the availability of staff for evening openings, meaning that for its Friday evening openings, the gallery has to employ a completely separate workforce. On occasion, an insufficiency of in-house staff has led to the contracting in of external staff to cover even exhibition openings and other evening events. I understand that staffing costs at the gallery are projected to increase by almost a third over the next five years, with no extra provision of service. That is a wholly unsustainable situation.

As has been mentioned, the National Gallery engaged with its staff and the unions for five months, in an attempt to increase flexibility, introduce new working patterns and guarantee a minimum level of service at all times. As part of that process, a basic salary above the London living wage was offered as a minimum for all staff. After that extended period of negotiation, no agreement was reached. With the lack of an agreement, the gallery was keen to move ahead with the necessary changes. I have been assured that engagement with the union has continued, via ACAS. More recently, the union was again invited to offer an alternative to the provision of services by an external provider.

Any move will see the 315 staff transferred to an external provider via TUPE, meaning that all their terms and conditions of employment will be protected. There will be no redundancies as a direct result of the transfer.

The union has come up with its alternative plans, which the management have not yet considered. It wants the management to go to ACAS to look at those plans. Would the Minister welcome that initiative, because it would bring them back round the table?

That is new information to me. My understanding is that the National Gallery has made it clear to the unions that it would look at any alternative offer. I am not sure what the status of the offer that the hon. Gentleman mentions is and I have not had a chance to hear the National Gallery’s perspective. However, the gallery is at quite a late stage of the procurement process and, in theory, contracts for outsourcing the service will begin later in the year.

Can I get this clear? As a matter of principle, the Minister would welcome the management and the unions going to ACAS together.

As a former lawyer, I am cautious about making commitments on the Floor of the House that go beyond the general principle that I do not think it is appropriate for the DCMS to interfere in the negotiations between the National Gallery and the unions. Given that there have been five months of talks, I would say that it is, in principle, for the National Gallery to decide whether it thinks the unions have come up with something that is qualitatively different from offers that have been made before and whether it is therefore appropriate to re-engage in any talks. I would say that—

No, I will not give way for a third time at the moment. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will make a couple of extra points, and then perhaps there will be time for me to give way again.

If the modernisation programme goes ahead, the gallery will be able to extend its opening hours and guarantee provision for extended evening openings on Fridays and at weekends, which is when a lot of people now wish to visit galleries, and for special events. That will lead to increased income for the gallery, but even more importantly it will make it relevant to a whole new group of visitors. Late events attract more and more people—I believe that as many as 5,000 visitors attend some of them. The gallery has also introduced a great new membership scheme, with 20,000 members, so it is making great strides to increase its income, which will allow it to be more resilient.

It is my understanding that staff will benefit from the modernisation programme. The previous Culture Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), worked with the National Gallery to ensure that it was in a suitable situation to supply the London living wage to all staff. That will start next week, and we should all welcome it. I believe that the National Gallery is the first national museum to introduce the London living wage for all its staff.

I understand that the incoming director, Gabriele Finaldi, and the new chairman of trustees, Hannah Rothschild, are aware of the situation. Ms Rothschild was of course a member of the board that took the decision to outsource staffing services as part of the modernisation programme. It is important to make the point that I do not believe the process is being rushed through.

I think this would be an appropriate point at which to give way to the hon. Gentleman for a third time.

I just want to get the Minister’s view clear. Surely he would welcome a resolution through negotiation and talks, and would therefore urge all sides to get together for those talks at this stage.

At some point the National Gallery has to take a decision to move on, and my understanding is that it asked the unions to come up with an alternative offer by 8 June. That deadline, which I understand was an agreement between ACAS, PCS and the National Gallery, was not met. As I have said, it is not my intention to tell the National Gallery what it should do. The process has not been rushed and there has been a great deal of engagement with the union during the process.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the individual who has left the gallery. As he made clear, there is a legal process, and the National Gallery has acted in line with the judge’s orders to this point in ensuring that no detriment is suffered pending the tribunal in October. Of course, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on a case that is effectively sub judice.

I think we can all agree that the National Gallery is a fantastic institution with a truly world-class permanent collection owned by the public of this nation.

The Minister has received his briefing from the National Gallery, and I will happily provide him with a briefing from the union so that he can get a more balanced view. As far as I am aware, the management have not considered the alternative plan. He tells us that there was a deadline of 8 June. I know of no such deadline, but we are talking about a matter of a fortnight. The staff have put forward alternative proposals that could resolve the dispute. Does he not think that in the long-term interests of the gallery, the management and the union should be urged to get together to consider that alternative plan? That would at least give the new director and the new chair of trustees a way to take the gallery forward to a long-term future in the interests of all those who cherish it.

As I think I have made clear a number of times during this important debate, from what I know of the dispute, the National Gallery has engaged extensively with the union to seek a way forward. We know what its aim is—to modernise its working practices to take account of the desires and needs of visitors in the 21st century. As I have said, I support its modernisation programme, and I think the National Gallery is a fantastic institution. I particularly support the introduction of the London living wage next week.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.