Belfast Telegraph

Decisive action is needed on laws on employment

By John Simpson

Do changes in Northern Ireland employment law need to match changes in Great Britain? Are there any specific reasons for changes because Northern Ireland is now out of step?

Dr Stephen Farry, Minister for Employment and Learning, has asked for advice on 82 questions affecting the contractual arrangements between employers and employees. Interested parties have been invited to comment before November 5.

If the minister wishes to make sure that local employment law is carefully targeted to ensure that the labour market functions to encourage the expansion of the economy, he would be well advised to identify only a smaller number of issues where there is some degree of urgency in making changes.

By casting his consideration across such a wider range of topics, he risks, first, losing the momentum for change and, second, opening a wider debate that will divert attention to questions which are less immediate.

The Minister has a choice. He can undertake a comprehensive review, develop considered proposals and take a large piece of legislation to the Assembly. Alternatively, on a shorter time scale, he might start a reform process with an initial series of conspicuous changes.

An effort to be comprehensive risks becoming more time consuming and could leave more urgent questions pending for too long.

Recent consultative conferences arranged by organisations such as Legal-Island and the CBI(NI) have focused on a discrete range of issues where Northern Ireland now differs from GB.

Among the emerging changes which must be considered in Northern Ireland are:

1. Should an employee who is dismissed have rights to make a claim for unfair dismissal only after two years in employment rather than one year as at present?

2. Should the maximum potential compensation for unfair dismissal be capped at (say) a lower level such as 12 months pay?

3. Should an employer or employee be able to have a protected conversation on contract issues without a possible adverse inference being drawn (as, for example, a discussion on prospective retirement of an older worker)?

4. When a larger employer is announcing the need for redundancies, should the time line for consultation with employee representatives be shortened from 90 to 45 days (along with changes for smaller scale redundancies)?

These changes are planned or have been made in Great Britain. In Northern Ireland, employers in particular would wish to see comparable local changes, partly to avoid potential difficulties for UK-wide organisations.

Then there are other possible local variations to ease areas of difficulty.

5. Should an employee be offered, or required to accept, an arrangement for ‘early conciliation’ (or mediation) prior to a complaint being considered by an Industrial Tribunal and with what consequence if they refuse?

6. Should an employer be obliged to take part in ‘early conciliation’ and with what consequence if they refuse?

7. Should early conciliation on a disagreement also provide for a possible ‘neutral assessment’ of the merits of the dispute and should the outcome be protected to the parties or reported to any Tribunal?

These changes, with some support from the Labour Relations agency, would help to reduce the time taken for individual employment disputes to be settled with no need for a full tribunal hearing.

The Minister is asking for supporting evidence on any proposed changes. In the early discussion there is an emerging difference of emphasis.

The request for evidence can be interpreted as whether there is a large number of relevant examples or cases.

Alternatively, some respondents to the consultation will want to argue that the evidence lies more in the perception of fairness rather than particular numbers.

This applies particularly to the possible rule change on time limits before unfair dismissal may be claimed.

If any or all of these changes are merited, then waiting until 2015 or later for legislation or regulation is unhelpful.

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