Belfast Telegraph

UK industrial tribunal system reform plans revealed

The Government has revealed proposals to increase the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims from one to two years and suggested fees for taking employment tribunal cases under plans to reform the system.

Ministers laid out a series of "important reforms" for consultation aimed at improving the way the "costly and time consuming" employment tribunal system worked.

Tribunal claims rose to 236,000 last year - a record figure and a rise of 56% on 2009 - and business has to spend almost £4,000 on average to defend itself against a claim, said the Government.

"We've heard loud and clear the concerns from businesses up and down the country that the system has become too costly, takes too much time, and that it is too easy to make unmerited or vexatious claims.

"We're particularly concerned that it places unnecessary strains on small businesses," said a government spokesman.

Key changes being proposed include increasing the qualifying period before workers can bring a claim for unfair dismissal from one to two years after businesses said the existing legislation was too weighed against them when it comes to the decision to employ people.

The Government will also consult on introducing fees for bringing a tribunal claim, saying there were concerns that the current system leads to a large number of unmerited or vexatious claims.

Ministers also published an Employers Charter setting out what measures could already be used to manage staff "reasonably, fairly and lawfully".

Business Secretary Vince Cable said: "Disputes in the workplace cost time and money, can affect morale, reduce productivity and hold back businesses.

"We often hear that knife-edge decisions about whether to hire new staff can be swung by concerns about ending up in an employment tribunal if things don't work out.

"Today's proposals address these concerns and should help give employers more confidence.

"In the business world there is also a common misconception that employment protections are all one-way - towards the employee. The Charter we are publishing today tackles this myth by setting out clearly some of the most important rights that employers already have in the workplace."

John Cridland, the CBI's Director-General Designate, said: "For far too long the tribunals system has put the interests of lawyers above those of employers and employees. Given that 2010 saw a 56% rise in tribunal claims, the Government must look at ways of strengthening the process.

"It is in everyone's interests that disputes are resolved swiftly and fairly. Introducing an element of charging would help weed out weak and vexatious claims, clearing the way for more deserving cases to be heard.

"Extending the qualifying period for unfair dismissal is a positive move that will give employers, especially smaller ones, the flexibility and confidence they need to hire."

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "Delivering justice to the thousands of people who every year are wronged at work should be at the heart of any change to the tribunal system.

"While employer groups complain that tribunals are costing them too much, they have lost sight of the fact that if firms treated their staff fairly, few would ever find themselves taken to court.

"Instead of making it harder for employees who've been treated badly at work to seek justice, ministers' time would be better spent looking at why so many companies, especially small employers, have such poor employment practices.

"Rather than being taken in by the employer lobby, the Government should stand firm and allow employment tribunals to continue holding rogue employers to account, and delivering justice for all workers who have been discriminated against or treated unfairly."

Steve Radley, director of policy at the Engineering Employers Federation, said: "These proposals are a potentially welcome package of reforms to the employment tribunal system. In taking this forward Government must develop a firm approach that will help deter spurious claims and simplify the system, whilst ensuring that mediation is the first port of call and a recourse to legal action the last.

"This should also be the first step in what should be a parliament-long project to reduce the burden of employment legislation on companies.

"Employers are currently facing a number of major challenges such as the removal of the default retirement age and changes to the use of agency workers. These will have a substantial impact on managing a business."

David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said: "Employment tribunals are one of the top business issues and we strongly welcome the Government's move to reform the system.

"The current system wastes business time and money, and distracts employers from growing their businesses and creating much-needed jobs. In particular, the introduction of a fee for claimants will help to discourage spurious and baseless claims."

The BCC also welcomed a proposal to require all claims to be lodged with Acas to allow conciliation before they reached a tribunal.

"This is a very positive step but must be accompanied with enough resource for Acas to deal with new claims," said Mr Frost.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, said: "With hundreds of thousands of people facing the loss of their jobs in the austerity cuts this year, it is now crystal clear that the Government intend to give bosses the right to hire and fire at will.

"You will have to wait two years for protection under the law with these plans and that's a green light for workers to be dumped out on the cobbles just before they get their 24 months service under their belts."

Belfast Telegraph

Weekly Business Digest Newsletter

This week's business news headlines, directly to your inbox every Tuesday.