Yesterday morning I went along to hear the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, set out how the Government intends to proceed with reform of both employment law and the employment tribunal system – reforms that his Department’s press release describes as ‘the most radical shake-up of the employment law system in decades’.
The most radical shake-up in decades? Or just since the last shake-up (2008)? Or since the one before that (2004)?
In his speech, delivered to an audience consisting almost exclusively of employers, Cable surprised no one by confirming that the qualification period for legal protection against unfair dismissal will increase from 12 months to two years.
This constitutes a charter for rogue employers that will at a stroke – assuming it will apply to all workers from April 2012, and not just new starters – make the jobs of some three million people even more insecure than they are already. Quite how this will help deliver the rise in consumer confidence that George Osborne needs to boost the British economy’s anaemic growth rate, Mr Cable did not say.
In addition, all those wishing to make a tribunal claim will have to ‘go to Acas to be offered pre-claim conciliation’ and in the tribunal system itself witness statements will be taken as read. The upper limit on deposit orders and costs awards will be doubled to £1,000 and £20,000 respectively, witness expenses will be abolished, and judges will sit alone, without lay members, in unfair dismissal cases.
On the plus side, Cable said that the Government will ‘explore options for a rapid resolution scheme’ to provide ‘quicker, cheaper decisions in low-value, more straightforward claims’ – he gave the example of someone denied owed holiday pay. Citizens Advice has argued for this for many years, and the idea was taken up by Michael Gibbons in his 2007 review of the employment tribunal system – but not by the then government. We’ll have to see whether the Coalition runs with it – there will be a consultation next year.
So far… so not very radical. The journalists in the room were of course keen to know whether Cable had killed off the ‘no fault dismissal’ proposal from multi-millionaire venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft, and it would appear that the business secretary has indeed kicked this wacky idea into the long grass. Stating that he hasn’t yet seen ‘any evidence that this would help’ businesses or economic growth rates, Cable indicated that his Department will simply issue a ‘call for evidence’, so that ‘both sides can put their case’.
Even after adding in consultations to come on simplifying compromise agreements, the rules on agency workers and the rules on TUPE; a ‘call for evidence’ on reducing the current 90-day consultation period on planned redundancies to 60, 45 or even 30 days; and a consultation next year on ‘protected conversations’ – the idea touted in recent weeks by Nick Clegg and the CBI, and which the sole trade unionist present this morning attacked as ‘legalised bullying’ – it is hard to agree with the rather breathless assessment of the BIS press office.
In my view, the greater vandalism to the employment tribunal system, and so to the protection of vulnerable workers’ rights, is the proposed introduction of hefty application and hearing fees by the Ministry of Justice (on which a consultation will be issued ‘shortly’), and the abolition of most legal aid for employment advice. And on this, Cable gave every sign of being in sympathy with our view that such fees will create a substantial barrier to justice for low-paid workers.
During the Q&A session that followed his speech, the Business Secretary went out of his way to emphasise that he and the Employment Relations Minister, Ed Davey, are ‘both Liberal Democrat MPs’ committed to ‘protecting workers’ rights’ and ‘we do not want [fees] to create a barrier to people seeking to defend their rights’.
Cable even called in aid his Conservative predecessor Michael Heseltine, who he said had warned (during a BBC TV interview earlier this week) of the ‘danger of creating a widespread fear of dismissal’. And then he was off, to do some TV interviews himself and – hopefully – do battle with Ken Clarke over tribunal fees.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.