Page last updated at 17:41 GMT, Monday, 2 December 2002

Q&A: What is Acas?

The BBC and the trade unions, Bectu, Amicus and the NUJ, that many of its staff belong to, have agreed to talks following a strike last Monday. But what is Acas and how could it help? BBC News Online explains.

What is Acas?

Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, is an independent, statutory body which is made up of employers and trade union representatives under an independent chairman.

It is not directed by the government, but meets to try and negotiate settlements in industrial disputes.

Its functions include conciliation, where two parties seek to reach a voluntary agreement with the help of an independent mediator, and arbitration, where the two parties agree that a third party will come up with a binding solution to their dispute.

It has around 900 staff and 11 offices across the UK, and has been carrying out these functions for more than 100 years. It was given legal status in 1976.

Why hasn't it been involved before?

Before Acas can become involved in a dispute, the agreement of both parties is required.

This was given following Monday's strike, when many BBC news programmes had to be cancelled after high staff support for strike action.

The strike was over the BBC's refusal to negotiate with the unions over plans to cut 3,780 jobs.

The BBC's management said the impact of the strike had not been as great as expected but both sides agreed to conciliation.

The meeting will be chaired by Acas national conciliator Tony Studd.

Stephen Dando, head of the BBC's human resources department, BBC People, is representing the broadcaster in the talks. All three unions are also sending representatives.

How this works?

Normally Acas will meet separately with the two sides in any dispute to try and discover whether there is any common ground.

Only after this process is completed will the negotiators bring both sides together. Sometimes both sides end up in the same room. Sometimes they remain in different rooms and a conciliator visits each of them, acting as a go-between.

Where several parties are involved then sometimes are all parties will be split up.

There are four parties in the BBC dispute - three unions and the management.

But in this dispute, as the three unions are acting together, they are most likely to form a single unit. It is not clear if BBC's management will be in the same room or a separate room.

After the various sides have set out their position, the Acas chair may try to suggest a settlement.

In the absence of a quick solution, Acas may try to keep the two sides negotiating for some time in order to encourage them to broker a deal.

Will Acas succeed in preventing further BBC strikes?

The broadcast unions have urged members to continue to prepare for next week's 48-hour strike on Tuesday and Wednesday, in order to maintain pressure on the BBC's management during the negotiations.

However, they have said they are hoping for "meaningful negotiations". The BBC said it was too early to comment.

But anything could happen if both sides really have come to the table without preconditions as they claim.

In the past, a stumbling block has been that the unions want a negotiation with all options on the table, including a chance to review the BBC's reasons for job cuts, and an assurance of no compulsory redundancies.

BBC management want a consultation in which they tell the unions what they are planning to do but do not promise to alter their plans.

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