EMPLOYMENT law is a devolved responsibility for the Northern Ireland Executive. Differences with Great Britain have been emerging and a strong case is being made, particularly by employers, to reduce them.
Monitoring the evolution of labour law here is a particular responsibility for Kirsty McManus, assistant director of the CBI (NI), who sees it as a critical issue in reducing the competitiveness gap in comparison with the rest of the UK. "It is one of the top four issues identified by the Economic Advisory Group," she said.
The most significant differences, if the law is more onerous in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain, may have an adverse impact on the attractiveness of Northern Ireland as a location for new investment. In addition, the CBI (NI) is also advocating some selected developments where Northern Ireland might get 'ahead of the game'.
Top of the priority list, to facilitate speedier resolution for employment disagreements, is a referral system where all such disputes would be considered by the specialist staff in the Labour Relations Agency (LRA). This procedure would ensure that conciliated agreements are encouraged and could save the time and expense of an industrial tribunal.
In support of more informal solutions, the CBI (NI) supports the suggestion of the LRA that Northern Ireland should set up, through the LRA, a procedure allowing disputes to be assessed by an independent professional.
Central to the pleas for improvements are proposals for the better working of the system of industrial tribunals. The tribunal system is seen as currently tilted against employers. The proposals endorse the greater emphasis on neutral assessments followed by scope to tribunals to charge fees from applicants (possibly refundable if the claim is upheld). Tribunal panels would also be given authority to take quick action on a claim that is assessed as vexatious. The panels would also be asked to use a more inquisitorial approach in a hearing.
Some recent developments in Great Britain are commended by the CBI (NI) for local adoption.
Northern Ireland should follow Great Britain in the introduction of a system of 'offers to settle' as an incentive to encourage the making and acceptance of earlier reasonable offers to settle a dispute at a tribunal.
To be eligible to make a claim for unfair dismissal, in Great Britain, an employee must have had at least two years of qualifying service. This was formerly a one year requirement. Northern Ireland employers have a strong preference that here should make the same change.
Also, in Great Britain any compensation for unfair dismissal is to be capped at maximum one year's pay. This change has not yet been promised here.
Northern Ireland has longer compulsory consultation periods when firms need to make employees redundant. This may make changes slow to implement.
Two further issues are on the CBI (NI) discussion agenda. Under the TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations) provisions when workers are transferred to a new employer, the CBI (NI) favours the change made in Great Britain that working conditions should have fair and reasonable pay and conditions instead of unchanged pay and conditions.
This large agenda is now an important issue for the rebalancing of the local economy.