In 1916 a sub-committee of the Reconstruction Committee was set up under the chairmanship of J H Whitley MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, to consider the question of the relations between employees and employer. In a report in six parts, published in 1917 and 1918 (Cmnd 8606, 9001, 9002, 9085, 9099 and 9153). the Whitley Committee made recommendations for the establishment of national joint councils, district councils and works committees in each industry, on which employers and employees would be equally represented.
In 1918 the War Cabinet set up an interdepartmental committee under G H Roberts MP, Minister of Labour, to consider the Whitley report and its application to the civil service. Its report proposed the creation of joint consultative councils in government industrial establishments. Meanwhile, a sub-committee under Sir Thomas Heath, Joint Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, considered the application of the Whitley Report to the non-industrial civil service.
After this sub-committee reported in March 1919, recommending a modified application for government departments, a period of negotiations between the government and civil service staff associations led to the setting up of a provisional joint committee which met during April and May 1919 to consider the way in which the Whitley Report could be applied to the administration departments. Chaired by Sir Malcolm Ramsay, Treasury Controller of Establishment, with G H Stuart-Bunning of the Postmen's Federation as Vice Chairman, the Joint Committee agreed a constitution for a National Council for the Administration and Legal Departments of the Civil Service.The council, generally known as the Civil Service National Whitley Council, met for the first time on 23 July 1919
It consisted of twenty seven representatives of the government as employer - the official side - and of the same number of representations of the civil service as employees - the staff side. Its scope was to "comprise all matters which affect the conditions of service of the staff". The council was chaired by a member of the official side, while the vice-chairman was from the staff side. The official side consisted of representatives of government departments and, in the 1920s, three government MPs. It was very much dominated by the Treasury which provided its chairman and secretary. From 1968 until 1981 the Treasury's role was taken over by the Civil Service Department. The staff side consisted of representatives of civil service staff associations (trade unions). In 1980 it was reconstituted as the Council of Civil Service Unions.
The role of the council was to secure the greatest measure of co- operation between the state, in its capacity as employer, and its civil servants. It provided a machinery for dealing with grievances and for determining pay. Its decisions were to be arrived at by agreement between the two sides and were to become operative on being reported to the Cabinet.
The National Council rarely met after the 1920s and largely conducted its affairs through committees, while negotiations increasingly took place between the national staff side (representing the employees and trade unions) and the Treasury. During the Second World War formal 'Whitley business' was virtually suspended, and after the war there were only two meetings of the full Council, in 1949 and 1950, before 1969.
The National Council was mirrored at a departmental level by the establishment of Departmental Whitley Councils.