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Collective conciliation Q&A - confidential, effective, free of charge

For trade unions and employers who face problems at work which result in a dispute Acas can help. Collective conciliation can move parties towards a resolution of a dispute through the expertise of an impartial and independent third party.

We've put together a list of questions and answers about our collective conciliation services to let you know more about how it all works.

What is collective conciliation?

Collective conciliation is facilitated or assisted negotiation where Acas helps employers and employees (normally via trade unions) to try to reach mutually acceptable settlements of their collective disputes. Acas does not judge whether one side is right or wrong or impose its own solution on the parties.

There is no compulsion to use collective conciliation and any agreement is voluntarily entered into by the parties.

Why use collective conciliation? What can it add when parties have explored the issues thoroughly themselves?

A neutral, impartial and independent third party can bring a new dynamic when parties cannot reach agreement in direct talks between themselves. In fact, conciliation is normally only appropriate when the parties have exhausted their own procedures without resolving the dispute or when they agree that other overriding considerations require it. Although it will not impose solutions, Acas will actively seek to find common ground to enable the parties to move towards agreement. Independent research has confirmed that collective conciliation is highly successful - helping the parties resolve nine out of ten disputes.

What is the role of the collective conciliator?

The job of the collective conciliator is to help the parties settle their differences by reaching a lasting agreement. This objective cannot always be achieved in full. Sometimes the conciliator must be content to help the parties reach a temporary accommodation or perhaps narrow the extent of their difference without resolving it. It is sometimes only possible to clarify the issues in dispute.

How does it work?

Conciliators work with broad assumptions. One of these is that by coming to conciliation the parties want to reach agreement - as long as a satisfactory outcome can be found. There is also an assumption that the parties will be generally cooperative.

Conciliation processes are various and flexible. The conciliator will normally begin by having informal discussions with the parties, either jointly or separately, to gain an understanding of the dispute and to clarify the issues.

He or she has no powers to determine the outcome of the dispute and relies on the parties' own willingness to engage in finding a solution. The conciliator will try to bring a fresh dynamic to the bargaining process and will encourage parties to consider whether there are any options that will enable them to break their deadlock. Conciliation will sometimes involve the conciliator challenging assumptions and positions, often playing 'devil's advocate' role and, on occasion, offering suggestions themselves. It will also help where feelings are running high by restoring a more constructive, reflective, and less emotive environment to move discussions forward. An agreement can only be achieved with both parties' consent.

Will Acas report on what happens in collective conciliation discussions?

Acas respects the confidentiality of talks it holds and makes no public statements on the progress or otherwise of negotiations - unless the parties jointly request us to do so.

Will there be a charge?

The collective concilation service is free.

What disputes are appropriate for collective conciliation?

The main issues that are referred for conciliation include:

  • annual pay reviews
  • other pay and terms and conditions, eg shift patterns, annualised hours,
  • bonuses
  • changes in working practices
  • discipline and dismissal (if an employee representative or a group of people are involved)
  • redundancy consultation and redundancy selection
  • recognition, where amongst other things we can carry out membership checks and ballots to establish the level of support.

How does collective conciliation differ from arbitration?

Voluntary arbitration provides a method of settling disputes between employers and trade unions by inviting one or more impartial persons to make an award which the disputing parties agree to accept in advance. Whilst awards from voluntary arbitration are not legally binding, they are nevertheless regarded as 'morally binding' and the arrangements for arbitration are made only on the clear understanding that the awards will be honoured by the parties.

Arbitrators are not employed by Acas but are drawn from a panel of people trained and approved by us.

Is there a charge for arbitration?

No charge is made for collective arbitration. The parties are responsible for their own costs.

What evidence is there that conciliation works?

An independent study by Ipsos Mori - pdf icon Acas conciliation in collective employment disputes [557kb] - and published by Acas research and evaluation section in 2008 evaluated customers' views of the benefits of collective conciliation. Among other things, those using the service said Acas was trustworthy, impartial and proactive in seeking to get an agreement.

The research also found that Acas collective conciliation made progress towards an agreed resolution faster, bought the parties closer together and helped avoid industrial action.

How can I make contact with the service?

Call the Acas Customer Services team on 0300 123 1150.