Exclusive – Edward Davey talks to Personnel Today about workplace dispute reforms

Edward Davey, minister for employment relations, talks exclusively to Personnel Today about the Government’s plans for reforming the ways in which workplace disputes are handled. Here, he explains the reasons behind the proposed changes and encourages employers to take part in the Government’s consultation on the reforms.

In January 2011, the Government launched a radical consultation looking at reforming the employment tribunal system, which many claimed was “broken”. While I would not necessarily agree with this description, I would say that we do think it is in need of urgent streamlining and reform. As part of the ongoing employment law review, we are looking at the system to see where it could be improved.

Edward Davey
Edward Davey, minister for employment relations

We have now reached the halfway stage of the 12-week consultation and we are pleased that we have already received a large number of responses. We put forward a host of reasons as to why we need to act, including: that the system as it stands is too bloated; that there are too many tribunal claims per year; and that it hinders growth and stifles businesses’ ability to recruit. We are, therefore, proposing to simplify the system and to raise the qualification period for unfair dismissal from one to two years. Also, we have announced that the Ministry of Justice will be consulting on introducing employment tribunal fees later in the year.

One of our key aims is the resolution of workplace disputes at an early stage, and this is usually in the best interests of all concerned. We know that one way to achieve resolution in the workplace when individuals have been unable to sort things out themselves is through mediation. Successful mediation can mean that employers and employees avoid the subsequent stress, hassle and cost of a tribunal claim by stopping the issue escalating.

As many of you will know, mediation is a confidential process whereby an independent, impartial person helps individuals to address difficult work issues. Quite simply, it is an informal solution to a potentially serious work problem, whereby both parties decide the solution. Mediators do not make judgements or determine outcomes – they help the parties to get a better understanding of the issues and help to clarify the options for resolving their problem. It is also a quicker, easier and less costly way to come to an agreement – and success can mean that both parties avoid an employment tribunal, which is a key aim in our consultation. Mediation is something that I believe all parties should consider seriously as an option to resolve any workplace problem.

At the moment, we know very little about how much successful mediation takes place. This is because when it is used and it works we do not hear about it, as there is no employment tribunal claim. We want to know how much mediation is taking place, what employers’ experiences of it are and what the reasons are for it not being used more often to resolve disputes. This is why I would like to encourage employers to contribute to our consultation. We have heard from a wide variety of parties, but would welcome further views too, particularly in relation to the use of mediation to resolve workplace problems.

As well as mediation, we believe that more conciliation can help to avoid the stresses and cost of a tribunal claim. We propose requiring potential tribunal claims to be sent to Acas in the first instance so that, where both parties agree, Acas can provide pre-claim conciliation. Currently, only one-fifth of claims in tribunals have gone to Acas first – yet where they have, many have been successfully resolved with no tribunal claim following on. We think, therefore, that Acas can help to resolve more potential tribunal claims where parties have been unable to sort things out themselves.

We also want to hear views on compromise agreements. We recognise that sometimes employers will decide that a compromise agreement is the best approach to dealing with a workplace problem – often used when there is a “parting of the ways”. We hear that they are often regarded as a cheaper and better way to come to a conclusion. We want to get employers’ views on the advantages and disadvantages, and whether or not any barriers to their use exist.

So, to conclude, we are particularly keen to hear your thoughts on mediation, pre-claim conciliation by Acas and compromise agreements. How do you use mediation, conciliation and/or compromise agreements? What other ideas do you have for early resolution?

Quite simply, nobody wants to go to an employment tribunal. But if, as a last resort, this is the only way to solve workplace problems, we want to implement a system that is cost-effective, hassle-free and as simple and straightforward as possible. This is why the consultation includes a number of proposals to streamline the system.

Please respond to our consultation here.

Edward Davey

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