We were in the hallowed legal portals of Farringdon’s Bleeding Heart Restaurant last week for a client dinner on the still vexed issue of holiday pay. “Hallowed legal portals”, because so far as I know, no other restaurant has been cited so frequently in the employment law reports as just the only place to go for a decent spot of covenant-busting and a little post-prandial breach of fiduciary duties.  They also do a very good coffee.

We had to open with an acknowledgement – that despite the absolute nature of my recollection, Peter O’Toole had not said in the film Lawrence of Arabia that “doing nothing was generally best” http://www.employmentlawworldview.com/lawrence-of-arabia-makes-surprise-contribution-to-uk-holiday-pay-debate/. Apparently it was Anthony Quayle.  Pressing on despite this setback, our dinner guests considered with the kind contribution of a senior member of the Engineering Employers Federation’s Employment Policy Team whether doing nothing could really remain a sensible holiday pay position at this stage, a full year after the EAT’s decision in Bear Scotland.

Despite the breadth of sectors represented, including retail, financial services, recruitment and advertising, there was a remarkable commonality of view. While it was of course sensible to be providing behind the scenes for some possible accrued holiday pay liability, none of our guest organisations had yet sought any negotiation or reached any agreement with staff representatives (unionised or not) about the inclusion of overtime or commissions in holiday pay calculations.   Despite this inaction, only one of our attendees had had a Tribunal claim on the point.  This is a function perhaps of the relatively limited quantum of most holiday pay claims per individual, a sum which will often be less than the Tribunal fees incurred in making the claim in the first place.

We floated the proposition that an employee’s entitlement to an allowance for commission or overtime in his holiday pay should depend upon his being able to show (at least on a balance of probabilities) that he would have earned that extra money had he not been on leave, i.e. that he had suffered some actual loss. Most of our attendees seemed willing to take that loss as a given based on recent average overtime or commissions rates. Where such extra earnings are pretty regular and pretty consistent, that might well be a sensible approach.  However, the financial services attendee, being from a sector which pays fewer but larger supplementary sums above salary, could see some mileage in this argument.  If such a lumpy payment fell within the reference period for the holiday pay calculation, it could seriously distort the figure and turn it into a number wholly unconnected with what the employee would actually have earned had he not been on leave.  None of the cases or commentaries have yet mentioned this possibility (apart from the most throw-away line in the Acas Guidance http://www.acas.org.uk/holidaypay). Nonetheless, it will surely gain new legs as an idea if and when the Government confronts the reality of drafting legislation to define a “normal pay” formula which works equally well over the myriad different shapes and sizes of supplementary payment arrangements in the UK market.

Might some clarity on this be derived from Mr Cameron’s impending begging session in Europe? His original podium-thumping was about procuring material changes to the Working Time Directive as applicable to the UK, but his formal overture was watered down to a gripe about lessening employer red tape.  The collective view around our table was that the EU will listen politely to Mr C and give him nothing.  The more cynical among our guests (that is to say, all of them) considered that he would then introduce some “clarificatory” amendments to the Working Time Regulations which would make little or no actual impact on employers but could be presented to a puzzled electorate as an indication of the merits of his tough stance in Europe.

I asked our guests at the outset of the dinner what they wanted from it. Almost exclusively it was reassurance that they were not alone or acting foolishly in doing nothing about holiday pay at this stage.  In cases where there are no unions, no pressing reputational issues and no easy means of determining what supplement to holiday pay would be appropriate anyway, it was reassurance which we were happy to give.