Further to my blog earlier today, the Government has announced its proposals for far-reaching employment law reforms. A consultation entitled “Resolving Workplace Disputes: A Consultation” (Consultation) has been published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Tribunals Service. The Prime Minister said the proposals highlight the Government’s “determination to ensure that employment law is no longer seen as a barrier to growth”.

According to BIS, the key proposals set out in the Consultation are as follows:

  • “Giving businesses greater confidence to hire new staff by increasing the qualifying period for employees to be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal from one to two years…;
  • Encouraging parties to resolve disputes between themselves as early as possible – requiring all claims to be lodged with Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) in the first instance to allow pre-claim conciliation to be offered…;
  • Speeding up the tribunal process – extending the jurisdictions where judges would sit alone to include unfair dismissal, introducing the use of legal officers to deal with certain case management functions and taking witness statements as read…; and
  • Tackling weak and vexatious claims – providing the Employment Tribunals with a range of more flexible case management powers so that weaker cases can be dealt with in a way that does not mean disproportionate costs for employers.”

The Government has also published an “Employer’s Charter” (Charter). The Charter sets out eleven courses of action an employer is entitled to follow, on the basis it acts fairly and reasonably. For example, the Charter states that an employer is entitled to:

  • contact a woman on maternity leave and ask when she plans to return;
  • ask an employee to take a pay cut;
  • reject an employee’s request to work flexibly if [the employer has] a legitimate business reason; and
  • dismiss an employee for poor performance.

One proposal which had generated much discussion prior to the publication of the consultation and which I mentioned earlier was that of asking claimants to pay a fee for raising a Tribunal claim. The Government confirms that a further consultation will be held in the Spring, once options have been developed “more fully” (page 50 of the Consultation).

The proposals contained within the Consultation and the ethos of the Charter suggest that the Government is at pains to show support for businesses struggling in the current economic climate. Any proposals which will result in quick and easy resolutions for workplace disputes must be positive. One hopes, though, that any changes will not be at the expense of employee rights and fairness. According to the BBC, the TUC has already expressed concern, maintaining that the well-documented rise in Tribunal claims “reflected the way that some employers treated their staff”, thus suggesting that the majority of claims are justified under the current system.

It remains to be seen what happens next: it will be interesting to monitor the reaction to the Consultation and Charter.