Interview: Allison Roche, Policy Officer, Unison

From New Power Report, December 2016

The energy industry requires social dialogue and a coherent sector strategy, says Unison’s Allison Roche, to counterbalance its current fragmentation  

Unison the union has 1.3 million members working in the public services, which include private contractors providing public services and utility companies. In covering energy, its policy officer Allison Roche balances support for members who are workers in the energy industry with those who are simply customers.

She says that for both groups, the energy industry is not delivering at the moment. Why? “The underlying problem is that there is no strategy in place. We need one.”

She is concerned that a longstanding consensus over energy direction is decaying. “The fact that climate change has been removed from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS] is an indication that we have infrastructure being planned without a climate change structure underpinning it. Energy is a part of that,” she says. That is of particular concern now, because with the result of the Brexit vote we are at a point where major structural change could happen.

The union generally had a ‘remain’ position ahead of the referendum, but given the result, Roche says, “We have an opportunity, through exiting the EU, to create new energy infrastructure.”

But, she suggests, we are not in a position to take that up: “The opportunity for Brexit is that if we want to become a global trade leader we have to have something to trade, in the form of manufacturing and goods; … whether it is making things like solar panels, design opportunities, research, whatever. But to do that you need funding and you need a forum to say ‘what do we need?’, and ‘what does the world need’. None of this is pulled together and there is no strategy. It’s haphazard.”

She says the government “talks about becoming the engine of the green economy. But we haven’t even got a committee bringing stakeholders together“. But she welcomed plans for an Energy Innovation Board, announced by secretary of state Greg Clark in November, which will bring together different branches of government which fund energy innovation to ensure they are working together. She said the Board, which will be chaired by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, was a “step in the right direction”.

It also needs buy-in from the public, and Roche is concerned that there is little public understanding and discussion of energy, and as a result no opportunity to build a strategy.

“The problem is that there needs to be lots of new infrastructure and no-one is willing to pay for it. But no-one talks about that and it’s not just frustrating for unions. It annoys the big six just as much, because they don’t feel there is a clear strategy,” Roche says. She wants to see a committee that would bring together BEIS, civil servants, representatives from construction and the energy industry, trade union representatives etc. “The idea is to pull policy together and report back to the minister,” says Roche.

For Roche, that also requires a social dialogue that will bring the public into the debate. In particular, she wants to see Trade Union Energy Democracy – a global initiative arising in the USA – in the UK. She explains that Trade Union Energy Democracy is a process, “The outcome comes from a democratic debate and we don’t have one at the moment.

“So it could be about co-operatives or public ownership. But we have issues around fuel poverty in this country and those people should be part of the conversation about where we are going. Hinkley Point C, for example, we know is not going to be inexpensive.

“When we exit the EU what will replace air pollution legislation? And similarly for energy: we know there are targets for renewables and energy efficiency. Will the government be obliged to meet them? In Europe this debate takes place in the European Social Council. And elsewhere in the EU there are sector boards who discuss pay and conditions for workers, what the strategic plan is, and how they relate that to government. We need something similar to that here. If we had an energy sector board there would be a lot more coherency around how we plan our energy.”

She says it would also provide some context for debate around key issues like fracking. “Is the government right that we have to frack to avoid being dependent on gas imports or is there another way using more renewable energy? There is no commission that has looked into that.”

I ask about the union’s role but Roche says the lead has to come from government. “When we negotiate with employers we put it on the agenda and we can talk to our workers about it, but you need drivers to come from the government”.

That leadership is lacking, she says. The government thinks that taking a decision to go ahead with Hinkley Point C “will look like we are doing something. But around meeting our targets and a ‘just transition’ [to low carbon] there is a gap. The ‘just transition’ is going to cost money and individual employers are not going to put that up when there is no coherent plan.

“If government wants to lead [on green energy] it has to fund research, create centres of excellence and bring forward a package of measures. That’s the way to be a global leader”.“


Local energy

Although Roche welcomes the so-called ‘municipalisation of energy’ and local authority suppliers, she doesn’t see them as the solution to this problem.

“Municipal supply of energy is really too small. It can all sound great, but for us as a trade union there are issues that are important for people as well. The larger employers have really good terms and conditions, skilling programmes and apprenticeships. Hinkley Point C, for example, works very well to provide engineering jobs.

“Smaller local organisations won’t have those high skills – so they are not the total solution to providing a highly skilled green economy.” In fact, she is concerned that overall, a shift from a few large energy companies to a large number of small ones may result in a de-skilled and less well-protected workforce. Some small companies may not recognise unions, for example.

She sees that Brexit may be used opportunistically to soften current beneficial employment terms for workers: “Some of Theresa May’s policy advisers want to reduce regulations or so-called ‘Red Tape’ on small businesses. Last week they suggested a three-year moratorium on regulations such as maternity leave and the minimum wage.” If that happened in small energy firms, “the burden of public ownership through municipalisation of energy would be on energy workers and we are saying that is not the way forward”.

Nor, she suggests, is it the way to develop the skill sets that can enable the UK to build a world-leading green economy.

Back to public ownership?

At the Unison National Delegate Conference 2016 a motion affirming Unison’s policy to bring the energy industry back into public ownership was back on the agenda and it received support from mem­bers. Unison has an annual conference specifically focused on energy. At the 2016 conference nationalisation was back on the agenda and it received support from members. What does that mean in practice? Allison Roche explains, “A motion was passed that asked us to revisit the arguments for renationalisation and the costs and benefits.“

In the past that would have meant lobbying for a change in the big six companies. Would they be the focus now?  “That’s the question,” says Roche, emphasising again how important it is that people better understand the industry and how it is changing.

“You could argue that it might happen by default, through the municipalisation of energy.” But she says that raises different issues. “There are 300 local authorities. What impact would that have? You would be creating a new workforce but would you be losing an expert workforce? That has to be considered.”

So for Roche the next phase is research, building communications, engaging with all stakeholders and creating alliances. “We will put a bid into our general political fund and get a research report done on it. [We have to look at how] the context is changing.  What are the interdependencies?  Just shouting ‘renationalisation’ doesn’t solve everything.”  She says Unison will be holding an energy seminar in early Spring 2017 “to look at some of the impacts that  technological and policy shifts can have on finding solutions for secure, affordable and renewable energy in the future”.