In a return to the 1980s, employment tribunal changes came into effect last week that attack workers’ rights and make it easy for bad bosses to fire staff at will.
The government says the changes are part of a reform package that will “deliver direct net savings to business of more than £10 million a year with wider benefits to employers estimated at more than £40 million a year”.
However, they are nothing of the sort – this is a dogmatic return to Thatcher-era employment law – designed to make it harder for workers to seek redress at an employment tribunal and make it easier for bosses to sack workers at will.
The fact is many employers and their organisations have privately said they see no reason to change the law and it is not a top priority for business.
The Small Business Barometer commissioned by BIS and published late last year asked what the biggest obstacles to success were:
• 45% of small and medium-sized businesses cited the state of the economy;
• 12% said problems with obtaining finance from the banks followed by taxation, cash flow and competition;
• Only six per cent of small companies listed regulation as their main barrier to growth.
• Reducing job security won’t decrease unemployment 4 Oct 2011
The changes now in force include:
• The qualifying period for claiming unfair dismissal will rise from one to two years;
• Witness statements at tribunals can now be provided in writing (or taken as read) as opposed to the current rules where a witness reads their own statement – this is an important part of tribunal procedure giving the applicant an opportunity to explain their case personally;
• Judges will now be allowed to sit alone to hear a case, with no “wing members” – usually (but not always) a trade unionist and a representative from employers’ organisations giving much wider experience and balance.
• The maximum level for costs awarded to businesses winning a “vexatious tribunal claim” will rise from £10,000 to £20,000.
• Deposit orders required by claimants when a judge determines part of a claim is unmerited will increase from £500 to £1,000.
These are soley designed to deter workers from bringing employment tribunal claims against an employer.
In addition to the above, the government intends to publish the average value of awards and time taken to reach a hearing. Included in the guidance for tribunal application and response forms, this information will provide all parties with a greater understanding about what to expect from the tribunal process before they enter the system.
On top of all this, last month’s budget included commitments to “scrap or improve” 84 per cent of health and safety regulation as well as introducing sector-based reviews to ensure regulations are enforced in a way that results in the lowest possible cost to business.
The government says this is part of the “one in, one out” rule whereby a minister who wants to introduce a new rule which generates “costs for business” must first identify a corresponding cut in regulation elsewhere with the same value. Nowhere else in the world operates such as system.
These new rules will put the most vunerable workers at a severe disadvantage. Young people and women are less likely to build up two years’ service; unscrupulous and bad employers may use the new rules to lay off staff with less than two years’ service rather than following any proper redundancy procedure.
As Anna Jeevanjee, senior associate at Hogan Lovells, warned:
“A disgruntled employee who lacks the requisite service to bring an unfair dismissal claim might well decide to bring a claim for discrimination on grounds of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion or belief, age or disability, or a whistle-blowing claim instead.”
These changes may appear to be minimal, but they take away employees’ fundamental rights to fairness at work and are ushering in another series of attacks on employment rights and Thatcher’s unfinished business.