Good Riddance to Employment Tribunal Fees

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but the Cameron Government’s decision to charge fees for people to raise claims in the Employment Tribunal has finally been shown to be illegal.

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In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has ruled that charging people up to £1200 so they can challenge the legality of their employer’s actions is illegal.

Fees were never introduced in Northern Ireland, and it is notable that there was no drop off in the number of applications to go to their Industrial Tribunal.  Meanwhile, across Great Britain, ET applications plummeted by 70%.  In Scotland, the SNP Government stood for election in 2015 with a pledge that, as soon as they had the power to do so, they would legislate to remove Employment Tribunal fees, justifying this on the premise that someone who has just unfairly lost their employment is unlikely to be able to find the money and will, therefore, be denied access to justice.

Introduced in 2013, fees were initially justified as being to reduce the number of “weak claims”, though a financial incentive later became apparent with the Justice Minister at the time stating

We want people, where they can, to pay a fair contribution for the system they are using, which will encourage them to look for alternatives.

That case was never particularly convincing and the result, inevitably, was that many people with a valid claim were unable to bring it because they couldn’t pay the fee.

Alongside the fees, the Cameron Government also introduced mandatory Early Conciliation.  This is a process whereby the parties, with facilitation by ACAS, can try to reach an out of court settlement and is something applicants have to do before they can complete their ET application.  Although there’s nothing wrong with this in principle, my experience of it wasn’t good.  I have found few employers prepared to negotiate towards a settlement, preferring to gamble on whether or not the applicant could find enough cash for the fee.  Perhaps, with fees now found to be illegal, there will be a greater incentive for all sides to take a more pragmatic, conciliatory approach.

Dave Prentis, the UNISON General Secretary, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling saying:

The government has been acting unlawfully, and has been proved wrong – not just on simple economics, but on constitutional law and basic fairness too.

In this context, the positive role of trade unions shouldn’t be underestimated, and not just because it is through UNISON’s expertise and persistence that this ruling has been achieved, but more locally and practically as well.  A well-trained union rep can defuse and head off the vast majority of cases referred to them, most often through facilitating a pragmatic solution, sometimes through persuading an individual that their case doesn’t stack up.  As an example, this leads to a significant reduction in the number of cases going to grievance, and those that do proceed tend to be much better presented.  This is something that many employers could easily miss.

That principle also filters through to ET applications.  Unions take great care in presenting cases, cases they support are exceptionally unlikely to be regarded by the Tribunal as “malicious, vexatious or frivolous” or “in bad faith”, and a significant proportion are successful.

Of course, most trade unions opted to pay these fees for their members, but many, many people who weren’t in a union must have been denied access to justice by this ill-conceived policy.  While it is likely that those who applied to the ET will have their fees repaid, at this stage it seems likely that those who couldn’t afford the fee at the time will have missed their opportunity, but it remains to be seen if any pragmatism will be shown in that respect.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the issues raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

Taylor Report on Employment – where now?

 We (OK, a few of us) were on tenterhooks waiting for the publication of the Taylor Report into employment practices in the UK, but will it make things clearer or further muddy the waters?

Uber, Deliveroo and Pimlico Plumbers have all been answering legal questions about the legitimacy of a business model that sees them, and other companies, claiming the people work for them are self-employed, so they don’t have to pay Employers’ National Insurance, pension, holidays, sick leave, etc., as their competitors do.  At the outset, Taylor commented that there were areas into which he wasn’t tasked to delve (tax & National Insurance, for example), so it hasn’t, perhaps, been the free and open review that had been called for by many.

There are, however, several aspects that are unlikely to go down well with factions of the Conservative government.  Speaking in May, Taylor said:

“As we encourage people to vote . . . to inform themselves of issues, to volunteer in their community, is it defensible to say that for eight or more hours a day they should accept being ignored, denied information, treated as mere cogs in a machine?”

That could easily be interpreted as a call to reverse moves by the Cameron Government to apply cumulative restrictions to the ability of trade unions to provide that voice.  It could also be that Theresa May’s surprise decision to announce in November:

“…we will shortly publish our plans to reform corporate governance, including … proposals to ensure the voice of employees is heard in the boardroom.” 

might actually come to fruition, though there has been precious little mention of the radical reforms of employment law mentioned in the run-up to the general election.

However, it also suggests that implementation of the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004 (ICER) hasn’t had the impact that it could and should have had.  Certainly, many trade union activists viewed ICER with suspicion, partly because merely informing and consulting can achieve relatively little without scope for negotiation. Similarly, some employers saw it as a way to prevent unions from getting access to their workplace.  However, those opinions have been changing over time, as demonstrated by the TUC’s “Democracy in the Workplace” report from 2014.  There is considerable evidence that employers that actively engage with their staff are more successful than those that don’t:

“Happy and productive people equals growth” (ACAS)

Many were calling for a simplification of the categories, preventing confusion over whether people are employees, workers or self-employed: instead, Taylor seems to be recommending that a further category is introduced, that of “Dependent Contractor”, something more than self-employed, clearly less than a worker, but that is presumably intended to level the playing field.

Quite how the Government will react to the findings is, frankly, anyone’s guess, especially with the level of distraction coming from Brexit, May’s increasingly slender majority, rumoured challenges for the Tory leadership (and, hence, the job of Prime Minister) and Labour apparently surging ahead of the Conservatives for the first time since the General Election, it’ll be a real surprise if they turn to this as a matter of urgency.  But it is the response of Government to these findings that will determine whether or not they make a positive difference for employers and those they employ.

Instead, attention will again be drawn to Uber’s fortunes in the Employment Appeals Tribunal in September.

From where I’m sitting, one answer is in the hands of every employer; improve your working relationship with your staff and, in turn, make the business more productive and more profitable.  That’s an area where I would certainly like to help.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the issues raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Are you dying to go home?

Every year more people are killed at work than in wars.

28 April 2017 is the annual Workers’ Memorial Day.  It’s hard to believe that the world of work is still so dangerous.  Of course, many of us underestimate the risk of many of the things we do each day – how many people treat driving along the road as the single most dangerous thing that most people in the UK do, yet every day 5 people die doing just that.  The same goes for many of the activities we do every day at work – lifting and carrying heavy boxes, walking up and down stairs while talking on your mobile phone, and a whole list of other things we all do in our working day, often without thinking.

Some people describe taking precautions to prevent such activities from injuring people as “health & safety gone mad”, but the aim is to make sure people go home from work as healthy as they were when they arrived.  In spite of those measures, 142 people in the UK still didn’t make it home after going to work in 2014/15.  Even more worrying are the estimates of 13,000 people dying each year because of past exposure to harmful conditions at work, 8,000 people dying of occupation-related cancers and 4,000 from exposure to dust, fumes or chemicals.  And that’s in the UK where we’ve had the Health & Safety at Work Act in place since 1974.  The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that more than 1 million people die worldwide each year from work-related factors, almost double the number who die due to war.

Workers’ Memorial Day provides an opportunity to reflect, to remember the people in the UK and across the world who have died trying to make a living and support their families and possibly to attend one of the many events to mark the Day across the country.

And Workers’ Memorial Day is an opportunity to avoid being complacent and to avoid the trap of viewing the basic common sense of anticipating ‘accidents’, and taking steps to stop them from happening, as an unnecessary imposition.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Trade Unions face big new fines

Trade Unions face big new fines

“The number of working days lost are at historically low levels when looking at the long-run monthly time series back to the 1930s.”

Sneaking past the radar, under cover of Brexit, the Government is running a number of consultations, including ones around the Trade Union Act 2016 and Corporate Governance. The Corporate Governance review deadline has passed, so the gathered information is now being collated and interpreted, but other elements are still in play. The consultation that caught my eye was consultation on the Certification Officer’s enforcement powers. This will introduce significantly tighter rules on the election for senior positions, vetting of candidates and the management of political funds, with unions facing fines of up to £20,000 if they breach those rules.

As is often the case, there’s a stick for when things go wrong, but no carrot to encourage a more positive approach to be deployed. The consultation in process doesn’t seem to be leveling the playing field so much as presenting another set of hurdles for unions to jump in order to be effective in representing the voices of their members.

Only last November Theresa May stated “…we will shortly publish our plans to reform corporate governance, including … proposals to ensure the voice of employees is heard in the boardroom.” at the CBI Conference. She backtracked pretty quickly, and the concept that staff have a valid (essential?) voice in the successful governance of businesses and charities was diluted in the document that was published, but it was still there. There is, therefore, an opportunity for employers to provide a channel for that voice.

And all of this comes at a time when strikes are at close to their recorded low – to quote from the Office of National Statistics report UK Labour Market: Mar 2017:

“The number of working days lost are at historically low levels when looking at the long-run monthly time series back to the 1930s.”

Yet, while CEOs across the land still proclaim their staff to be their biggest asset, most still decline to draw on staff knowledge of the business, the problems it faces and many possible solutions.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Trade Union Act looms large…

This extremely useful summary by David Morgan at Burgess Paull of the upcoming changes through the Trade Union Act caught my eye, and brought to mind some of the key issues surrounding the Act.

The existence of this legislation in the first place is a bizarre piece of ideological policy making, since it certainly isn’t/wasn’t responding to an actual need. To quote from the Office of National Statistics:

“The 2015 working days lost total (170,000) is not only lower than the total last year, but is the second lowest annual total since records began in 1891 (the lowest was 157,000 in 2005).”

As well as being of questionable need, the legality of the provisions has been questioned in many quarters, but most notably, perhaps by the Governments own Equality & Human Rights Commission. In January last year, the EHCR warned that the provisions may breach international law, stating:

“As it stands, the Trade Union Bill is in danger of imposing potentially unlawful restrictions on everyone’s basic human right to strike. Joining a trade union and peacefully picketing outside workplaces is a right not a privilege and restrictions have to be properly justified and proportionate.”

Although some changes were made before the Bill passed into law, research compiled by the Industrial Law Society suggests that these did little to address concerns in relation to human rights. If this latter article is correct, although we might have expected to see a number of challenges under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights should employers opt to assert the new laws, these cases will be difficult to build and therefore may not emerge. Most of the large unions seem to be focusing their efforts on getting better organised, while experience shows that they will adapt to the new legal framework in spite of the additional inconvenience.

Interestingly, and in stark contrast to the Whitehall position, the Scottish Government announced in November 2016 that it was creating a Trade Union Modernisation Fund “to support modernisation of trade unions and help mitigate the negative impacts of UK legislation.” In that context, it will be interesting to see if there are differences of approach north and south of the border once the legislation has been enacted.

Of course, I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Disciplinary Penalties: You’ll Have Done Your Time?

This is an interesting one.  An  Employment Appeal Tribunal has recently ruled that an employer acted fairly in dismissing someone while taking into account a number of disciplinary issues that were, according to their procedures, ‘spent’.

The case is an extreme one, with the employer having taken 18 formal actions against the individual over a 12 year period.  The employee then did something that carried a mandatory final written warning.  However, the employer decided that the previous disciplinary record, in spite of all penalties having expired, should be taken alongside the latest misdemeanour, leading to their deciding to dismiss the individual.  Most Disciplinary Procedures are quite clear on how long a warning will remain on an individual’s personal file, and most employees will assume that, once that time has passed, they no longer need to worry about the record. There are, however, policies that say a record can be kept longer (even indefinitely) for a range of purposes – possibly the most common being to use as a deciding factor in a redundancy situation, but there are others.

For years, I’ve advised people to make a Data Subject Access Request for their personal information once they’re clear of the penalty, so anything that should no longer be on their employment record will be removed, just in case they get taken into account in any future situation (e.g. redundancy).

One of the problems is that very few companies have the resources to be meticulous about keeping their staff records (or their other filing) absolutely up to date.  The result is that, even if the policies say nothing, records of things that have happened years ago can remain on the file to be seen by whoever next needs to access it.  If that happens to be for a future disciplinary, is it reasonable to expect an investigating officer to ignore that information once they’ve read it?  They may try hard not to consider it but, subconsciously perhaps, they now know this individual has a history.

Even if that history has no relevance to current circumstances.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment. Alternatively, if you’ve been affected by a similar issue and would like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

Time to call time on out of hours e-mail?

The French now have an absolute right NOT to check their e-mail out of hours, but why do people do it in the first place?  Is a law necessary?  And how much of it comes as an expectation of the employer, and how much is self-inflicted?

I suspect there may be a PhD in accurately finding the answer to these questions, but few employment contracts demand that you are available and responding 24 hours a day and for most people the actual expectation is that they work their normal contract hours, plus give a bit of flexibility when they need to get something done.  It’s interesting that France has felt the need to protect people from the pressure (perhaps to protect them from themselves?) by introducing a law that guarantees the right not to check e-mail when you’re not working.

In the days of paper correspondence, people would expect a response to their communication perhaps within the week, but after 5 or 6 days was often the best that could be achieved once everything was balanced into the diary.  That steadily changed as electronic communication came to the fore.

The step changes in expectation, however, came with the rise of the laptop and the BlackBerry.  While the traditional BlackBerry is an endangered species, teetering on the verge of extinction, more and more people are carrying a smart phone on which they can not only send and receive e-mail, but they can browse the internet, log into cloud drives, even edit documents.

I’ve had colleagues in the past who expected instant responses to their e-mails – one reportedly started criticising my lack of response because I hadn’t replied within 2 hours of them e-mailing me.  Whether or not that was true, the fact that someone was prepared to relay it indicates how believable it is in the modern world of work that expectations have become so utterly and completely unreasonable.

This whole situation has become exacerbated by the increasing use of Twitter and other social media by businesses looking to communicate with their customers and clients.  Twitter has brought the expectation of instant responses, or at least within a few minutes, to the extent that some staff are now being tasked with responding to all Tweets within very short timescales, while there has been a growth in suppliers offering social media management services so you can outsource the “instant” responses and focus on more considered answers to legitimate questions.

It is inevitable that this focus on more and more rapid response should spill into people feeling they’re not doing their job properly if they don’t meet the timescales.  That, combined with increasing presenteeism, means people are often tempted into having a quick check of their work e-mail once they get home.  Or just before they go to bed.  Or as soon as they wake up in the morning.  Or while they’re SUPPOSED to be off work ill.  This last one is particularly concerning as the increased stress will undoubtedly delay their recovery, while they are unlikely to get any thanks or recognition from their employer for having done so.  Indeed, a responsible employer should be seeking to stop such behaviour, as has been reported on the parts of Volkswagen, Daimler, Axa and other companies.

To highlight the folly of this lifestyle change, keep an eye out for more information about Work Your Proper Hours Day, an annual event instigated 13 years ago.  Given the amount of unpaid overtime you probably work, including checking your e-mails out of hours, WYPHD falls on the day each year when you (as an average worker) actually start to get paid for the work you do.  And in 2015 people in the UK worked £31.5 billion worth of hours without getting paid a penny.  This year it falls on Friday 24th February.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787

Brexit in the workplace – what now?

The long and the short of it is that nothing will change immediately – the impact of European case law remains unchanged, albeit the vast, vast majority of case law originates through the UK’s Employment Tribunal system (primarily at EAT and Court of Appeal).

EU Directives on Employment Law are implemented through enactment into UK Legislation, usually by Regulation, less frequently by primary legislation. In this respect, many of the laws that have originated from the EU have become workplace norms (e.g. protection of fixed-term workers and part-time workers).

There is a risk that more recent and less accepted legislation may be under pressure to be repealed (e.g. Regulations on Agency Workers). There may also be changes over time in relation to the calculation of holiday pay and accrual of annual leave during sickness absence.

No doubt a surprise to many, there are various aspects of Employment Law where the UK provides greater than that stipulated by EU Regulations. This covers holiday rights, protection against discrimination, TUPE (which covers service provision transfer in the UK, unlike elsewhere in Europe), etc.

That said,  companies working throughout Europe and currently depending on UK laws to meet the requirements for a European Works Council may need to review their arrangements.

What about the rights of EU Nationals to work in the UK?  Well, it’s again difficult to say as yet, but special permissions may be needed to work here in future, perhaps with sponsorship, as is the case for non-EU nationals, but in the meantime, EU nationals working here are entitled to stay and continue working. The main protagonists on the Leave side made contradictory statements, so it is difficult to tell what may change, though Theresa May stated a desire to clarify this point quickly, while Nicola Sturgeon has moved to say their position is secure in Scotland.

But what will happen if there are non-UK nationals applying for jobs now? If they are employed, they may be forced to leave in a year or two’s time, but NOT employing them because of that would currently be illegal discrimination.

The UK currently already has a points based system for non-EU nationals which COULD be extended, at least for skilled workers, though Tier 3 (unskilled workers) would need to be reactivated. There hasn’t been a need for non-EU unskilled workers because that gap has been filled from within the EU, but that source is clearly likely to dry up as/when the UK withdraws from the Single Market.  If employers have a need for unskilled workers that they can’t meet from domestic recruitment, this needs to be flagged up with the Government.

A Week to Celebrate Volunteers

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National Volunteers’ Week runs through until 12th June 2016, so I thought I’d flag it up and take the opportunity to explore an activity that has become increasingly politicised.

Volunteering is one of the great industrial relations controversies of recent times, albeit one that bubbles along underneath the ones that grab the bigger headlines (fancy more austerity, anyone?!).  For decades, it has been the mainstay of charities, community activity and sports clubs, but in recent years there has been a drive for volunteering to provide things that many people view as public sector duties.

We all seem to have forgotten, but David Cameron’s Big Idea when he became Prime Minister was the Big Society – essentially, in a world where there were going to be extreme cuts to public sector funding, the vision was that the strain would be taken up by voluntary effort.  That’s where the controversy starts, of course.

When budgets are tight, Governments always push for “improved efficiency”.  However, in governmental terms being ‘efficient’ doesn’t mean making optimum use of the resources at your disposal, or even finding ways to do more with what you have – UK Governments of every hue have used the same definition: “improving efficiency” means “do the same or more with fewer people”, rather than doing things better.  So organisations have been faced with arbitrary cuts to their staffing regardless of the potential impact on their ability to deliver statutory responsibilities on behalf of the Government.  In many respects, “Big Society” was the anticipation of that dilemma.  Had society been successfully motivated to volunteer for the requisite roles, they could indeed have plugged some of the gaps.

As the UK ploughs through its 8th year of austerity, with several more years to come, according to George Osborne’s forecasting, greater and greater “efficiency” is being sought in the delivery of public services.  Many organisations have adapted to serious cuts in their budget by reducing the number of people they employ.

The real problem comes in trying to continue work in areas where people have been made redundant.  This isn’t so much a legal issue (replacing a paid member of staff with a suitably skilled volunteer wouldn’t invalidate the redundancy) as a political issue (note the small ‘p’).  Often, the people with the relevant skills are those who’ve just been made redundant so, unless they’ve taken early retirement, persuading them to do the same job, just not to be paid for it, seems an unlikely scenario.

But are the same skills available elsewhere?  Often they aren’t, but when they are, there is another issue to consider- can you persuade the remaining staff, who are now seriously loaded with work, whose morale has been undermined and whose colleagues have been pushed out, that they should take on the additional workload of managing volunteers to do that same work?  A serious flaw in the model is that it’s all too easy to underestimate the amount of professional effort it takes to motivate, organise and deliver using volunteers.  Some of the bigger charities have been doing it for years, and still they need teams of staff dedicated to just that.  It is also an approach best used to deliver “added value” items.  Someone under an employment contract has an obligation to do the job they’re employed to do.  By contrast, if you’re trying to deliver basic services, and a volunteer decides not to turn up, there’s nothing much you can do about it – having managed numerous projects over the years, this is a very real issue that makes project and resource planning much more difficult.

There’s also the problem that people tend to volunteer to do things that they either enjoy doing or in which they have a fundamental belief, so there’s a big problem in getting them to volunteer for things that they believe should be the responsibility of central or local government, or that they simply don’t get a kick from doing.  And why not?  It’s their precious time that they’re donating, so they have an absolute right to use in the way that they want to use it.

Don’t get me wrong: the efforts of volunteers are incredible, and the number of things that happen just because some people are willing to give up their time is exceptional.  You can’t argue with an estimated value to the UK economy of £23.9 billion.  The question is whether or not it is an efficient, reasonable and dependable way to deliver public services: to my eyes, getting something for nothing sounds too good to be true, and we all know what they say about things that sound too good to be true…

Here Comes the Trade Union Act 2016 (but is time running out for the union movement?)

DSCN0519So, the Trade Union Act slunk onto the Statute Book on 5th May. We now know what it says, but do we know what it means?

The short answer is “sort of”, but it’s very close to “not really”…

What we do know is that among other things:

  • any industrial action needs to follow a ballot with a minimum 50% turnout
  • ballot papers must make clear the dispute and the action proposed
  • 14 days notice of specific action must be given to employers
  • in “important public services” ballots must also be supported by at least 40% of eligible voters

We don’t actually know as yet when the provisions will come into force, but there are several other uncertainties at this stage as well.  For example, it has yet to be defined which public services are deemed “important”, though we can probably predict that it will include Health and Education.  Furthermore, as with all laws, the final impact will be shaped by cases that go through the courts so, with questions remaining on the impact of this legislation on workers’ human rights, there may be uncertainty for some time.

What is clear is that the impact in the devolved administrations will, for the foreseeable future, be minimal as the Governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have all said that they won’t be implementing the provisions of the Act. So what can we expect to see in England?

Well, the intention behind the Act is clearly stated as making it more difficult for trade unions to take legal industrial action, particularly in what are being called “important public services”. This seems to have been a response to disputes in recent years where some unions have proceeded to industrial action with significantly lower turnout than is now being demanded.  A collective breath of relief will have been taken amongst all unions that the threat to allow employers to hire agency staff to complete strikers’ work was dropped from the final legislation.

The Government has recently taken a bloody nose in relation to it’s plan to do away with “check-off”, the mechanism by which union subscriptions are paid direct from people’s salaries, in spite of that system having little or no cost for employers.  Having now established through the courts that DWP’s implementation of that approach was unlawful, the Government now risks claims for compensation from the unions that have been affected.

The unions had responded through consultation on the Trade Union Bill that it was unreasonable to dictate the levels of turnout while the Government insisted that they continue to conduct ballots by paper and post.  In that context, it’s interesting to note the concession that there will now be an independent review of electronic balloting.  In spite of that, it is also worth highlighting that there have been many troublesome disputes, notably the ongoing one with Junior Doctors in England, where the turnout has significantly exceeded those imposed by the new strictures.

Given that, it remains the best approach for employers, especially those who are not bound by Government instruction, to work with their staff, including the unions where they are present, to make sure they avoid the dispute in the first place.