A panel of emplyment lawyers have traded blows with MPs today over controversial plans to introduce a new formulaic scheme involving, ACAS forms and prescribed deadlines.
Early compulsory conciliation, as proposed in the Enterprise and Regulatory Bill, will not ease the burden on tribunals or make the resolution of employment disputes easier, a group of MPs heard this morning.
Firstly, a panel of employment experts were keen to contradict the assertion in the bill that that employment claims were rising.
John Morris, senior partner at Carlisle firm Burnetts and part-time employment judge since 2000, said this was not supported by evidence. Statistics provided at a recent meeting with ACAS and the Tribunals Service showed that the number of tribunals had fallen year on year, except for multiple claims, equal pay and airline disputes. The other two employment law specialists on the panel, Stephen Miller, of McRoberts, and Simpson Millar’s Joy Drummond, agreed.
Responding to the suggestion by Iain Wright, Labour MP for Hartlepool, that “everybody seemed to agree that early conciliation was a good idea”, Drummond said the difficulty was not so much on the principle – including making the step mandatory – but in the method proposed in the bill. As currently drafted, she said, the proposed rules were “unnecessary complicated, would lead to more litigation, more costs and management time for employers, not to mention placing additional hurdles in front of claimants with a valid claim”.
Drummond said the new rules would replace the current process involving one form within one time limit, which the tribunal sends to ACAS for possible conciliation, with two forms and two different time limits. “I can see all sorts of problems with that, both evidential and legal,” she commented.
She told MPs that the now-repealed and much-maligned disciplinary and grievance procedures that had to be followed before a claim could be brought to a tribunal and generated satellite litigation, would “look like a picnic” in comparison.
The panel of experts agreed with Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP for West Leicestershire, that the tribunal procedure had become more complex, but ascribed this to the fact that the law had become more complicated.
She accepted that small businesses had particular problems, “but in my experience the people who are most in needs of basic employment rights are often the most low paid, and they tend to be employed by small businesses”.
“Small businesses are not always angels,” she went on. “As an employer you have responsibilities – yes, that has to be balanced against being able to run a business and to hire people, but one of my fears with this bill is that in trying to encourage small businesses to employ it will lay traps for unsuspecting employers.”
Instead, she asked: “Is it not more responsible for the government to educate businesses about the traps and how they should behave rather than participate in and legislate on the basis of a myth?”
Drummond also criticised an amendment tabled earlier this week on protected offers and settlement agreements, saying it contained major flaws: their narrow scope – unfair dismissal – and the introduction of a test of ‘improper’ action for which there was no definition in employment law.
Julian Smith, Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon, said he felt as if he were “part of a Grimms fairytale with the employers being cast as the big bad wolf; it is highly biased evidence from many of you”.
The committee is expected to report by 17 July.