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In my life: CSP chief executive Phil Gray reflects on his career

After nearly 16 years as the CSP’s chief executive, Phil Gray is about to retire. He talks to Ian A McMillan about his early influences, his career and the satisfaction of heading up an influential professional body and trade union

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Phil Gray

It was something of a homecoming for Phil Gray when, for three years running, CSP’s annual conference was held in Liverpool, next to the River Mersey in an area that once heaved with ships being loaded and unloaded.

Now it bustles with tourists, conference delegates and party goers, thanks to a rejuvenation programme.

Phil, who has clocked up nearly 28 years at the CSP over two terms – first as director of industrial relations and latterly as chief executive – grew up a mile or so north of the docks.

Household names who share his ‘Scottie Road’ origins include singer and TV celebrity Cilla Black and actor Tom Baker.

‘Scotland Road was typical back-to-back Victorian housing with few green spaces. It was a tough, working class area but perfectly safe for the people who lived there,’ Phil recalls.

The CSP has played a central role in his career, but arguably, in return, he has played a crucial part in the society.

Once a Catholic

Born in 1949 into a Catholic family with Scots, Irish, French and Italian links, Phil was a teenager in the 1960s when Liverpool basked in the limelight.  He saw The Beatles perform early on in the pop group’s career at the now legendary Cavern Club.

‘It was extremely sweaty and the band was drowned out by the noise of girls screaming, which was the fashion then. The 1960s were an exciting time to be around, perhaps most of all – and this is something we miss now – because people could ask questions and challenge things in a way they couldn’t before.’

Going to a ‘crummy’ inner-city Catholic primary school, Phil, along with almost all his classmates, failed the 11-plus exams that could have paved the way to grammar school.  But he swapped the hubbub of the inner city for five years as a boarder at St Richard’s, a Catholic seminary set in the beautiful countryside of Worcestershire.

What led to such a dramatic step? ‘A Catholic missionary priest had come to our primary school to talk about economic and education development initiatives in Africa, Indonesia and India.

‘I was sold on the idea of helping people who were much worse off than you to develop. I persuaded my parents – much to my father’s annoyance, as I was his only son – that I wanted to become a missionary priest.’

Mr Gray senior worked in a factory owned by Plessey Electronics, a telecommunications company, where he was also a shop steward.

In the evenings, he regularly supplemented his wages as a drummer in jazz and dance bands.

‘My father loved the music, something I have inherited from him. My mother worked in local shops while my family on the Irish side were involved in the fish trade.’

The boarding school drew boys from all over the country. ‘Most of the teachers were missionary priests and many came from Europe, the US and elsewhere. It was a safe, supportive environment and I received an excellent education.’

His decision to leave the seminary at 16, armed with a ‘reasonable number’ of O-levels, was a pragmatic one. ‘I realised that there was a major obstacle in the way of me becoming a celibate Catholic priest – women.’

Phil blocks any suggestions that he has been motivated by religious zeal. ‘I have a strong religious background but I’m not engaged in a religious crusade. I want, in any way I can, to help people do better than they otherwise would have done.’

Among many appointments outside the CSP, since 2004, he has been vice chair of the Catholics in Healthcare Forum of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

‘My family have always been committed trade unionists and saw the value of working people trying to improve their own salaries and working conditions. I believe strongly in the values of public service, and that communities, whether large or small, can work together,’ he says.

Back in Liverpool, aged 16, Phil got a job as a shipping clerk in the iconic Liver Buildings but decided that acting might be his true vocation.

Although offered a place in several drama schools, he took to the road with a professional touring group putting on plays for schoolchildren.

One of the actors was Frances Tomelty, who came from a famous Irish acting family and subsequently married Sting.

‘She took me under her wing and helped me survive’, he says. ‘We had enormous fun but the vast majority of actors are unemployed at any one time.’

That level of insecurity was not for Phil, who took a pragmatic decision to pursue a career in human resources (HR), or ‘personnel’ as it was then known.

His father put him in touch with a personnel manager at Plessey and the 18-year-old Phil went in for an informal chat about how he might get into the HR field.

He was astonished – as was his father – when, a few days later, he was offered a job. He ‘grabbed the opportunity’.

By 1969, aged 19, Phil had a qualification in personnel management – he completed a two-year course at Liverpool Polytechnic in one year on a part-time basis – and spent the next five years at Plessey, recruiting staff and negotiating with both blue and white collar unions over pay and conditions. He learnt, he says, to see ‘both sides of the argument’.

‘If you do not understand, and have respect for, the other side’s perspective, then you stand no chance of negotiating – all you do is end up shouting at each other. It’s never as simple as one side’s right and the other side’s wrong.

'Life’s more complicated than that.’

‘Nevertheless, fighting for people to be treated fairly, to have opportunities to develop and be rewarded fairly for the hard work they’ve put in is a fundamental part of the employment contract. If you’re negotiating, you are trying to get the best arrangement you can for the people you’re representing.’

A turning point in his career

In the 1970s, Phil faced a brick wall in terms of career progression because he didn’t have a degree (‘nobody from my extended family had ever been to university’). He had, though, been to night school to gain the necessary A-levels and, before he left Plessey’s, had been offered a place at Cardiff University to study economics and industrial relations.

Phil had a seminal moment before he left.

‘I had the “joy” of personally having to make 500 people redundant out of a factory with 1,800 workers. The company had decided towards the end of a financial year that this had to happen.’

The emotional pain and frustration he felt back then still rankles, and, it’s clear, there’s still plenty of fire in Phil’s belly, despite his impending retirement. ‘I had to face men who had given a lifetime of really good service and had hardly taking a day’s sick leave. It was really traumatic to see people breaking down in my office, but, even worse, I subsequently found out that the decision was all about temporarily boosting the worth of the company’s shares in the stock market.

‘Two months later, the company was recruiting again.’

Phil went on to gain a first class honours economics degree at Cardiff University in 1976, despite becoming a student activist. Among other initiatives, he led a student rent strike in his second year that forced the university authorities to withdraw plans to implement a sharp hike in accommodation fees.

Subsequently, he stayed on at Cardiff for an extra year as student union president. It was the influence of a fellow student, his girlfriend Pauline – later to become his wife – who persuaded him not to pursue a career in politics.

He accepts that MPs who successfully combine meeting work demands with a settled family life are a relative rarity. Phil and Pauline married in 1979.

‘By my late 20s I had decided that I would “switch sides” and would not be going back to the HR fold.’ More studies ensued, with Phil enrolling at the London School of Economics (LSE). He gained an MSc in  personnel management and employment law in 1977.

As he was about to graduate, Phil spotted an advertisement on an LSE notice board. The CSP, whose headquarters are a mere 10-minute walk away, was looking to appoint its first industrial relations officer, and Phil felt he fitted the bill.

‘I joined in October 1978 and stayed for 12 years, helping to set up the trade union service from scratch.

‘The CSP had registered as a trade union a year earlier. It had about 12 stewards on a regional and country basis, and that was about it. The society had been recognised since 1949 as being able to negotiate nationally on pay and conditions, along with many other professional organisations.

‘But it had not been doing this very professionally, so my role was to set up the structures, create a stewards and safety rep system and establish very strong training courses and information systems. We have always aimed to enable physiotherapists to support themselves through having great volunteer activists to deal with issues in the workplace, with the support of full-time officers in the background.’

Praise for his successor

For Phil, the proof of the CSP’s effectiveness is that so many physios who subsequently flourished in the NHS and elsewhere as managers first cut their teeth as CSP stewards, among them his successor, Karen Middleton.

‘These are very bright, articulate and able young people who, in their representative capacity, were put on an equal footing in negotiations and discussions with senior managers and even chief executives. It might be a bit nerve-racking at first, but you are there as a representative of the profession.

'You are there as an equal, and it’s a rapid learning curve which you’d rarely get through other means. It’s brilliant continuing professional development.’

‘Karen [Middleton] was a steward for several years at Barts in east London and went on to become chief allied health professionals (AHP) officer at the Department of Health (DH).

‘She’s brave, she’s feisty and she’ll be able to make the arguments on behalf of physiotherapy very well. Like me, she will be accountable to the democratically-elected CSP Council. I’m sure Karen will do an absolutely brilliant job at the CSP.’

Among the many feathers in Phil’s ‘cap’ during his first tenure was his role in a campaign in the early 1980s to persuade ministers to set up an independent pay review body (PRB) for what are now termed AHPs. (Indeed, Phil was the originator of the term AHP, and the one that preceded it – professions allied to medicine or PAMs).

At that time the CSP, among other unions, was bridling at the fact that their members had been branded as being ‘at best semi-skilled’ in one of a series of reports on NHS pay scales produced in 1980 by a body known as the Clegg Commission.

‘That caused an explosion and we organised a massive march and rally in London with about 6,000 members turning up. Of course, the CSP had far fewer members then. It was, in effect, a “middle class strike”, though we had ensured that there was cover in the workplaces,’ Phil notes.

With a characteristic chuckle, he says the upshot was that ‘we won’.

With 12 years under his belt at the CSP, in 1990 Phil moved west across central London to take up the post as the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) national director of labour relations.

‘My main role was to negotiate nationally over pay and conditions for 350,000 members. I was the first non-nurse to have that role and worked there for almost nine years.’

In 1996, the CSP awarded Phil an honorary fellowship, which recognised his successful period at the CSP. ‘It was, I think, the first time a non-physio had been nominated in this way,’ he says.

When in 1998, the CSP advertised the post of chief executive officer, Phil was initially reluctant to apply. ‘It was the second time it had been advertised in a year – someone had come and gone quickly. The CSP had been tearing itself apart internally. There had been a bitter and unhelpful civil war over whether the CSP should be an integrated union and professional organisation. For two years or so before I returned to the CSP, people focused in on themselves rather than looking externally at members’ problems, and asking how they might change the world out there for members and for the patients they served.’

Several people encouraged him to apply and he reconsidered, realising it was too good an opportunity to miss. ‘People had been working hard for six months to build a reconciliation and I came in to implement that. There were a number of radical changes such as making the CSP’s organisation much more streamlined.

‘CSP Council used to have 49 members, it’s now less than half that size. It used to have a lot more committees than it does now.

‘I came back as chief executive officer in 1998, which means by the end of 2013, I will have been at the CSP for a total of 27 years and eight months.

Not one to rest on his laurels

‘Though people knew I could do a good job and that I loved physiotherapy and working with physiotherapists, we went through a few quite difficult years in getting matters on to an even keel. But we never fell back into internecine warfare because I knew where I wanted to go and also knew where the bear traps were!

‘My vision was to enable the profession to expand and improve patient care, while modernising the organisation internally – the IT systems, buildings, management structures, you name it, it needed attention!’

Despite the heavy workload, Phil avoided the ‘all work and no play’ maxim that ensnares many chief executives.

He has lived in Milton Keynes, some 56 miles north west of London, since the 1970s, bringing up five children (three girls and two boys, now all adults aged from 21 to 32) with Pauline, an interpreter and translator. Being a driven person, he exploits the train journeys by catching up on reading or work matters.

‘I don’t work the hours I do because anybody orders me to or because I’m a martyr – I do it because I am committed to it and I enjoy it.’

When he does relax, it’s by walking and cycling at weekends and on holidays. While maintaining an interest in Liverpool FC’s progress, he has become a season ticket holder at his local club, MK Dons.

It’s hard to imagine retirement means Phil will hang up his boots: indeed, he has already been appointed as the new chair of the influential Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance.

Having abandoned thoughts of being a celibate priest, it seems fitting that he has worked in organisations whose members are mainly women.

‘I am entirely comfortable with that,’ he responds, suggesting that women bring a different a culture to an organisation than men.

‘The CSP has been a great place to work. I think the culture, which I helped create, is very positive, engaging and outward-looking.

‘We have invested in our talented staff’s development and now have modern IT systems; clear planning and objectives. We also ensure we deliver the annual business plans agreed by the CSP’s elected Council.

‘And we enable our elected leaders to be effective leaders of their profession.’

Phil is a voracious reader who enjoys absorbing and analysing large amounts of information. He reflects with a smile on the huge, positive changes in the CSP during his 15 years as chief executive.

‘The CSP is a very successful, integrated, united and financially secure organisation, with enormous support from its growing membership.’  

Annual member surveys, together with this year’s staff survey, show that the CSP is highly regarded by its members and by its motivated workforce.

Phil praises the senior management team and the ‘stunningly large’ group of nearly 5,000 ‘volunteers’ who play their part on national boards, committees, professional networks, and as stewards and safety reps.

‘The CSP,’ says Phil, ‘remains a strong and effective campaigning and lobbying organisation that tries to improve the external world as well as challenge it.

'The society campaigns for improved patient care, and innovations in delivery, such as self-referral.

'We also challenge NHS cuts and wasteful reorganisations, fragmented competition and reductions in NHS pensions.

‘We have had great success in raising the status and the profile of the profession.

'Just look at the large number of very positive press articles and TV coverage about the profession that have appeared each year.’

Profession and CSP in ‘strongest position’

Did Phil come to a sudden decision to retire? ‘I did mull things over for a while, and could have retired earlier. But I can now genuinely say I achieved many of the things I set out to do.

'Of course, I will leave the CSP with some sadness after nearly 28 years. But it’s the right time to hand over to someone with a fresh voice who will push things onwards.

‘By the end of this month, we will have at least 52,000 members, which compares to just over 29,000 when I was offered the chief executive post.

'We also have around 95 per cent of practising physios as members – and it was quite high at close to 90 per cent when I took up the post.

‘We have expanded the CSP and the profession by more members in the last 15 years than the organisation did in the previous 50 years.’

Phil beams as he speaks about his '15-year mission' to expand the profession. ‘Our argument, which we have made up hill and down dale, has been that physiotherapy can deliver better and more cost-effective care, and we’ve had the research base to back this up. Nowhere is this approach exemplified more than in the successful campaign to gain prescribing rights.

‘The CSP is in the strongest position it’s been in during its whole history. Both the profession and the society have got a great future.’ fl

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