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Wednesday 12 August 2020

Introducing FDA Wales/Cymru

By Tommy Newell
When former FDA President Gareth Hills stepped into his new role as the union’s full-time National Officer for Wales, he did so with a clear purpose in mind: “To become the authentic voice of the FDA in Wales”.

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Graham Martin

It’s “around that branding” that Gareth has approached his recent shift from life-long civil servant – and long-term FDA representative – to full-time trade union officer. Indeed, the idea of developing that brand is crucial to Gareth’s vision for the FDA in Wales: one of his first acts as National Officer was to develop a new distinct logo for FDA Wales/Cymru, to reflect the distinct voice he’s already started to develop.

That doesn’t just mean having a born and bred Welsh person at the forefront – although Gareth has been brushing up on his Welsh language: “I’m not bilingual, I’m just trying to learn… I’ve got a B at O Level from about 1978, so I’m not claiming I’ll ever be fluent but I’m determined to have a go”. In practice, it means working with members, engaging with employers and creating relationships with the press to build a more public profile for the FDA across the country.

“There’s a lot of work to do around organising, but a lot of that has to start with building the brand and building the profile of the FDA in Wales. For me, that’s the real challenge,” Gareth explains. “Even with existing members, the more they see of the work the FDA is doing, the more they feel part of a union where they can step up and do something themselves and take on a role. It’s a big challenge but it’s the one that really excites me.”

Of course, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gareth’s first few months haven’t gone quite how he initially planned. “I’d have hoped by now to be in the FDA’s new office in Cardiff. I’ve had to put aside work on an organising plan to concentrate on the pandemic. For example, by early summer I’d have hoped to have spoken to every Director General and every employer in my bargaining pitch. That’s not proved impossible, but COVID-19 and remote working has meant having to adapt and use a very different approach to building relationships with employers and other unions.”

"There’s a lot of work to do around organising, but a lot of that has to start with building the brand and building the profile of the FDA in Wales. For me, that’s the real challenge."

Gareth hasn’t let the “all-consuming” nature of COVID-19 dampen his drive but he does believe it will define his first year as a full-time officer at the FDA. “It’s not going to last forever – it’s going to last for a long time but it’s not going to last forever,” he says with a degree of cautious optimism. “But I think the first year is going to be seeing us through COVID, seeing us through a safe return to work.”

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“We’ve got to make sure those workplaces are safe and there’s a lot of work to do around that”, he adds. In addition to working directly with employers across Wales to ensure “maximum safety measures are in place well ahead of any return to workplaces”, Gareth has also been engaging with Welsh Government and the Wales TUC on the broader COVID-19 response and the lasting impacts of the pandemic. As part of this work, he has raised serious concerns around the funding model of cultural institutions in Wales, which are facing huge financial pressures due to the dramatic fall in visitor numbers.

“Amgueddfa Cymru [National Museum of Wales] and Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru [National Library of Wales] are really suffering,” he explains. “Amgueddfa Cymru alone has seen a drop in income of £400,000 a month.”

According to Gareth, the pandemic has only exacerbated the “already perilous financial position both institutions face”, caused by a decade of reductions in grant-in-aid funding (the direct funding they receive from the government).

"I think the first year is going to be seeing us through COVID, seeing us through a safe return to work. We’ve got to make sure those workplaces are safe and there’s a lot of work to do around that."

Submitting evidence to Senedd’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee inquiry into the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, Gareth has called on the Welsh Government to “invest whatever is needed to safeguard national treasures”. He believes the ability of cultural institutions to generate income is “unlikely to go back to pre-pandemic levels for a number of years” and, as such, is calling for grant-in-aid funding to increase substantially in real terms “to protect Wales’ rich cultural heritage”.

Despite the pandemic being at the top of the agenda, Gareth has also pressed forward with ‘business as usual’ union work, helping to secure a 2.5% pay rise for Welsh Government staff. While he welcomed the deal – which members voted to accept by a resounding 98% – Gareth gives an honest reflection that he’d “hoped for greater Ministerial recognition of the work of Welsh Government… not least the key role Welsh Government civil servants have played in responding to COVID-19”.

“After almost ten years of pay freezes and pay caps, Welsh Government staff deserve an award that fully reflects and recognises their contribution to the Welsh economy, Welsh society, and every Welsh citizen,” he explains.

Coming from Blaengarw, a small village in the county borough of Bridgend, Gareth initially “always wanted to get into the Welsh Office”, after his father had impressed on him from a young age the importance of getting an education and the value of a job in public service.

"I always said I’m a builder. I didn’t build walls and houses, what I built was schools, hospitals, libraries, playgrounds, nurseries; that’s the money I brought in. I used that analogy for a long while and that was the basis of my two years as President of ARC."

“After leaving Aberystwyth University with a History degree I started off in what was the Lord Chancellor’s department, which I think would now be the Ministry of Justice,” he reflects. “I went in at AA grade but I was quickly put on temporary promotion in the courts. I was encouraged to apply for what’s now Executive Officer grade and then I was posted to Inland Revenue in Bridgend.”

It’s within Inland Revenue, and its successor department HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), where Gareth would spend the next 34 years of his career. His appreciation for the “noble purpose” of tax collection began when he was doing clerical work in the department and only became more defined as he worked his way up to become a fully qualified tax inspector.

“At heart I always regarded myself as a tax inspector and my home in HMRC has been what we call large business. So, dealing with those FTSE 100 large corporations, household names, and doing work with them to ensure they are paying the right amount of tax.

“As I moved through into more complex investigation roles – particularly in dealing with larger corporates but also high wealth individuals, the relentless pursuit of those for avoidance and evasion, bringing in millions every year – that kind of fuelled the residual feelings I had around public service and how it funds those vital public services, which I then took into my role when I was Association of Revenue and Customs (ARC) President.”

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Despite National Officer for FDA Wales/Cymru being Gareth’s first job as trade union officer, he is no stranger to the union movement, having become a Centre President in AIT – now known as ARC, the FDA’s section for members in HMRC– after being a member for only six months. He then progressed to be an ARC Committee member, ARC President and eventually FDA President.

As ARC President, one of Gareth’s focuses was to work in partnership with HMRC to uplift both the department’s and the union’s public image.

“I always said I’m a builder,” he explains. “I didn’t build walls and houses, what I built was schools, hospitals, libraries, playgrounds, nurseries; that’s the money I brought in. I used that analogy for a long while and that was the basis of my two years as President of ARC. Just to try and get that message across, and I think we achieved something there.”

Gareth brought this ethos with him into his term as FDA President, but believes “there is a big difference” between the two roles. His time as ARC President gave him a chance to take more of an “operational role” and be involved in “hands on negotiation”, whereas his time as President of the FDA gave him a chance to focus more on strategy, organising and recruiting to the union as a whole – something he’s determined to build upon in Wales.

While he’s open about the fact it can be difficult “to stop thinking like a lay official and start thinking like a National Officer”, all of this experience gives Gareth a unique insight into his new role.

“I know the civil service, I know the union and I know Wales. The civil service background and bargaining I’ve done as a lay rep stands me in good stead as a National Officer but, obviously, that will only last me so long. I’m looking forward to developing in the role, meeting the new challenges posed by COVID-19 and delivering for all of our members in Wales.” 


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