Fighting for good sense

Acas chairwoman Rita Donaghy remains optimistic about the UK’s industrial
relations climate, but believes companies could do a lot more to avoid using
the conciliation service

The UK’s official arbitration service Acas is facing a tough 12 months with
the introduction of more domestic and European employment laws and growing
industrial unrest.

As well as mediating in large industrial disputes, the Advisory,
Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) is also responsible for resolving
thousands of individual workplace disputes on issues such as harassment,
discrimination and unfair dismissal.

The organisation employs around 800 staff and is run by a council of 12
members drawn from business, unions and the independent sector.

Rita Donaghy (pictured right), the body’s chairwoman, is undaunted by the
challenges presented by forthcoming legislation such as the Employment Act,
which is due to come into force in April and the ongoing review of the
Employment Relations Act.

"We are the agency that has to give common sense advice on new
employment legislation. Our job is to make policy easy to understand and ensure
that employers implement it in the right spirit," she explains.

The plethora of legislation currently being introduced and debated is making
things tougher, although Donaghy claims employer’s concerns about new laws are
often misplaced.

She believes many organisations are becoming paranoid about workplace laws
when in fact they already have the facilities to deal with any changes without
incurring extra cost.

"It’s often a risk that employers can over formalise these things and
we need to help take the fear out of new legislation."

However, Donaghy is expecting another increase in the number of employment
tribunal applications – which exceeded 100,000 in 2001-2002 – as a raft of new
regulations such as the introduction of statutory grievance procedures and
equal pay questionnaires are bedded in.

Under the Employment Act, employers and staff will have a duty to go through
internal grievance procedures to attempt to resolve workplace disputes before
any application to employment tribunal is made.

Tribunals will adjust awards to penalise either party if they have not
followed the process.

Critics have suggested this could just be a box ticking exercise and is
unlikely to reduce the number of applications.

Donaghy says Acas will revisit its grievance code when the Employment Act is
introduced to try and clarify what employers need to do.

"We will look at the code because we don’t want to be inconsistent and
I hope it won’t become more complex."

"New legislation might see a leap up in the short term because that’s a
natural trend. But once that gets settled in the numbers will come back down,"
she says.

Donaghy believes Acas is developing the expertise to be able to settle more
disputes at an earlier stage and is optimistic that in the long-term the number
of employment tribunal applications will reduce.

"We’re working hard to reduce the number of tribunals and we’re looking
at the way conciliators do their job. The figures have dropped in the last
three months and 75 per cent of all cases are now solved before reaching a

Acas’s voluntary arbitration scheme, which was launched in May 2001 to help
resolve workplace conflicts outside the employment tribunal system, is to be
reviewed following a lack of interest from business.

Donaghy thinks the scheme could prove an ideal way of resolving disputes
over flexible working rights, also due to be introduced in the Employment Act.

This will mean employers will have to provide more flexible hours for
parents who request them unless there is a business case for not doing so.

"The case load (for the arbitration scheme) has been very low and I
think people are worried about signing away the right to appeal. I still think
it’s a good tool in the kit and we’re not giving up on it. It’s a slow
burner," she says.

An increase in the number of industrial disputes over the last year has
placed the arbitration body’s conciliation skills back in the headlines.

In the past 12 months there have been strikes in local and central
government staff, on the rail and tube networks and in further education.

Acas is currently playing a central role in trying to resolve the
firefighters pay dispute.

Donaghy thinks the prospect of another ‘winter of discontent’ on the scale
of the late 1970s and early ’80s is unlikely, despite growing pressure over pay
settlements in both the private and public sectors.

The Acas head believes the relationship between management and unions has
changed fundamentally over the past 20 years as both sides now realise an
adversarial relationship is in no-one’s interest.

"Good employment relations are now linked to successful and productive
companies and that’s recognised politically," she explained.

Donaghy feels some disputes arise because HR is not experienced enough in
industrial relations as a result of the last 20 years of relative calm.

She said many HR professionals are more used to negotiating partnership
agreements, than negotiating to stop a strike.

"There’s a generation gap because they (HR) haven’t had to deal with
it. The profession uses similar skills and techniques day-to-day but they
haven’t been applied to industrial relations," she said.

"HR should do a self examination of its skills, but I think the fear
factor surrounding the whole concept is the biggest issue."

Donaghy blamed employers for not placing enough emphasis on HR as one of the
reasons for the lack of expertise in industrial relations.

"Unfortunately, HR isn’t that highly rated in this country. It
contributes to the overall health of the organisation as a whole, but employers
often see it as an add-on and this feeds into the problem.

"Too often, HR people are overwhelmed with processing work," she

Despite the recent increase in public sector strikes Donaghy does not
support The Work Foundation’s belief that disputes involving essential public
services should automatically be referred to Acas for compulsory arbitration.

"If you pass legislation saying that employers must go to arbitration
any time there’s a dispute it takes all control away from the employers. If the
arbitrator then awards a settlement the organisation can’t afford you’re on very
dangerous ground." she said.

She said the key to successful arbitration is a "genuine commitment and
the teeth to get a solution."

By Ross Wigham

The demands on Acas

Acas gets around 750,000 calls a year plus 21,000 hits on its website per
month. The most popular topics for advice are:

– Discipline and dismissal

– Notice rights

– Rights to holiday and holiday pay

– Family-friendly policies

– Redundancy consultation

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