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.

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.

 

What Can Strathesk Resolutions Do For You?

Approaching Bass Rock from the south

Strathesk Resolutions specialises in helping businesses to identify, resolve and, ideally, avoid individual or collective problems with their staff through targeted analysis, mediation, training, coaching and mentoring.

We draw on years of experience working collaboratively and constructively to achieve the right outcome to complex industrial relations situations.  We deliver straightforward advice, training and solutions that encourage and develop relationships based on understanding, cooperation and trust.

Our open and honest approach ensures fairness to all sides whilst guaranteeing the needs of both the individual and the organisation are properly considered. Having worked with Trade Unions for years we understand the need for clear and concise communication, whilst influencing and negotiating in an expert manner.

You can expect us to thoroughly explore your problems, ensuring that we properly understand the problem before we start working towards a solution.  We will also keep an open line of communication to ensure that you are fully aware and involved in developing approaches.

Who’s to Blame for Blame Culture…?

I remember a former CEO doing a Q&A session at an all-staff meeting. After various questions about the direction the organisation was going, someone asked about blame culture – the response was robust: “I won’t tolerate blame culture – if it happens, the individuals responsible will be identified and held accountable”. In spite of the guffaws around the room, the said CEO clearly couldn’t see the irony inherent in this statement. Yet blame culture remains part and parcel of many businesses across the UK.

This is a shame as it inhibits people from raising issues that need to be raised if an organisation is to continue improving its performance.  After all, how do you know where you’re going wrong if people are scared to point out where you are?  At it’s worst, the fear of being blamed even prevents people from coming clean about their mistakes, and how many employers wouldn’t rather learn from mistakes than not know about them? Even worse, the worry that they’ll be blamed may persuade some people that it’s better to say nothing, even if they know something illegal has happened.   The irony of this latter point is that the law is on their side – in theory.

The Public Interest Disclosures Act 1998 provides protection for anyone who makes a disclosure so they shouldn’t be sacked, or disadvantaged for having done so.  The Act covers disclosure of criminal offences, breaches of legal obligations, miscarriages of justice, danger to individual health and safety, damaging the environment or attempting to conceal any of these things.  If someone DOES suffer as a result of having blown the whistle, they have the right to make a claim to the Employment Tribunal and, if upheld, a dismissal would be automatically unfair.  Since 2013, the ET has the power to reduce the settlement if they think the initial disclosure was done in “bad faith”.

A critical point is that people need to follow the specified procedure, and are only protected if they state that they are making a disclosure under the Act.  The trouble is that many employers don’t have the mechanisms, or resources, to make sure that suitable protection is put in place before, during and after an investigation – or they don’t make it easy for their staff to find the right procedure to follow.  And if people use the wrong procedure to make their disclosure, or don’t specifically invoke that protection, it’s very possible that the law will leave them high and dry. That leaves people feeling too exposed, so it becomes easier to sit tight and say nothing, or leave (and still say nothing). There is also the problem that the legal protection of the Act only kicks in once someone can demonstrate that they’ve suffered a detriment (e.g. been sacked), by which point there is often no way back.

So, if the UK seriously wants to instigate a culture under which people report issues they see at work, perhaps we need to start by ensuring that people can be open about honest mistakes.  Thereafter, have the confidence to develop genuinely open and clear procedures so people can believe that they ARE protected – not just by the law – and encourage people to report things without fear and we might make some headway. Similar to the progress many organisations are making towards developing a safety culture, where staff routinely remind each other of safe processes, eventually perhaps we’ll learn to accept intervention as a helping hand rather than a criticism.

The future for Employment Tribunal fees?

Applications to the Employment Tribunal in Great Britain have nose-dived since fees were introduced in 2014. But is it good for 70% more people to bite their lip? And is there an alternative to calling their bluff?

Recent Employment Tribunal figures show that the total number of claims for unfair dismissal in Great Britain fell to 12,652 in 14/15.  Compare this to the 92,000+ unfair dismissal claims in 11/12.  While cause does not necessarily imply effect, the timing of this fall correlates exactly with the introduction of fees for each application to the ET.  The recent figures confirm the trend implied by previous figures since the introduction of the fees, evidence enough to convince the current Scottish Government to announce that, under the new powers in the Scotland Act, and IF they are re-elected in May, that they will withdraw the fees from the Scottish ET (which would bring Scotland into line with Northern Ireland, where the fees were never introduced in the first place).

Few people who take a case to ET return to that employer, even fewer successfully raise a claim and stay employed there. Conversely, the costs of recruiting and training someone new are enormous – the 2015 CIPD/Hay Resource & Management Planning Survey indicates that recruitment costs alone can be up to £10,000, not including training and development.  Compare that to the costs associated with resolving a problem so a member of staff can remain a member of staff.

At the same time, of the unfair dismissal cases that were upheld, the median award was £6,955, a drop in the ocean compared to the legal costs, operational disruption and emotional upheaval involved in a Tribunal – most often, there are no winners.

Far better would be to find a mutually acceptable solution – whether through mediation, developing managers or by introducing more effective processes, or a combination of all three. Invest a little in mechanisms to avoid the ultimate employer/employee conflict, and potentially boost morale and productivity into the bargain, or pay the costs – the choice is yours.