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Tuesday 21 November 2023

Influencing the debate: Dave Penman reflects on conference season

By Dave Penman
Dave Penman on how the FDA can remain politically neutral while helping to shape the future political landscape – and how members’ views are vital.

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It’s been more than 40 years since the FDA last held a national ballot for industrial action over pay, so the decision to do so this Spring was not one the Executive Committee took lightly.

As a politically impartial union, the FDA has never been intricately involved in the party conference season. We have our own Trades Union Congress annual conference, which takes place the week before the party conferences - the FDA is always proud to be part of the wider trade union movement.

At the TUC conference, we moved motions on the strengthening of pay review bodies as well as improving standards in public life. The conference gives us an opportunity to highlight more widely issues that are important to our members, as well as helping to shape the future of the trade union movement.

In 2019, our centenary year, we attended all the main party conferences to promote our Impartiality Matters report, which we commissioned from the public policy think-tank, the Smith Institute. Since then, we have looked to partner organisations who are discussing issues that are relevant to our members at party conferences, both to help shape debate and promote the union as a thought leader with politicians and wider stakeholders.

Over the last two years, we have partnered with the Institute for Government at both the Conservative and Labour conferences. Our joint fringe meetings this year were on constitutional reform and the political appetite (or not) for it. The discussion covered devolution both to nations and regions, standards enforcement, the impartiality of the civil service and even reform of the House of Lords.

No-one pretends that attending conference guarantees influence, but it helps the union shape the debate and demonstrates that whilst we are politically neutral, like the civil service itself, we are not politically uninterested. As a union, our members often have a unique perspective on how elements of government function. We have built a strong reputation for publicly defending the impartiality and integrity of the civil service and I would hope the way in which we’ve done this demonstrates that we can try to influence political debate on issues that are vital to our members, without being party political.

As we approach the next General Election, it’s our job to articulate issues that our members think are critical and should be considered, by whoever forms the next government. It is an area in which we tread very carefully. So for example, we would never weigh in on a debate over whether taxes should rise or fall, but we can talk authoritatively about how investing in HMRC staff can help reduce the tax gap, bringing in greater revenue from taxes already levied. We’re able to discuss the challenges for prosecutors as technology changes and the burdens it places on the volume of material that has to be reviewed - whether on mobile phones or body worn cameras - helping to inform debates on the resources required to deliver ministerial promises.

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Dave Penman at the joint FDA-IfG event at the Labour Party Conference
There are many other areas where, as political debate sharpens as an election draws nearer, we want our members’ unique insight to help shape some of that debate, always ensuring we are never seen to take sides.

We will also be vocal with politicians that they need to match their commitments with the resources required to deliver, as well as addressing the long-standing issues of a failing reward pay system that neither recruits, retains nor motivates civil servants, either effectively or efficiently. And as ever, we will be at the forefront of the argument that an impartial, professional and permanent civil service best serves the interest of the country and considering ways this can be protected after years of being undermined and attacked.

We take both our role as the advocate for committed public servants and our political neutrality equally seriously. As ever, we are centred on our members’ interests -you have an opportunity to help shape how we respond on these issues as well as to participate in some of the public events that will help promote our message.

Read more: FDA at TUC 2023, Conservative Party conference and Labour Party conference

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