Information and consultation: Do unions have the right to see more company information?

It is nearly a year since the government gave employees in larger organisations new rights to be informed and consulted about developments in the workplace. A ruling by the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) will raise concerns among HR managers about how these rules are being interpreted, according to employment law experts.

The case, brought by union Amicus against publishing firm Macmillan, could create a burden on employers to provide detailed information on staff numbers across their business and give trade unions further opportunities for recognition claims, said Philip Sack, director of policy for the European Study Group, an organisation specialising in legislation issues.

In August 2005, employees of Macmillan submitted an “employee request” designed to reach a negotiated information and consultation agreement under the regulations introduced in April 2005.

The union requested data on the “average number of employees employed within the undertaking in the UK over the past 12 months and to ascertain which sites, establishments or plants were considered to be part of the undertaking”.

Macmillan replied with the total number of full-time and part-time employees. In September, the union reiterated its request for a breakdown of employees by site. The employer’s response in December said the firm did not believe it needed to provide such a breakdown under the legislation.

Following a complaint by Amicus, the CAC ruled earlier this month that the union’s request for the data was well founded and the employer’s information was incomplete.

“Employers should be rather concerned about what the CAC has decided,” Sack said. “It could be rather burdensome if you have a lot of sites. For example, for companies in the retail or banking sector it could take a lot of time just to collect that information.”

James Richardson, Macmillan group personnel director, said he was disappointed with the decision but had complied with it and would not contest the issue further. “The irony is we have had a staff consultation committee for 25 years.”

Although for Macmillan collecting the information was a “nuisance”, for other organisations it could be more onerous, Richardson said. “If you have 40 or 50 sites it could be a nightmare.”

The ruling might also help unions attempting to achiever wider recognition within an organisation. “There are implications and I’m not sure that was the spirit of the legislation,” he added.

Stefan Martin, employment partner at law firm Allen & Overy, agreed the judgment might be useful to unions trying to extend their influence. “It could be used to fish for information so the union can get further recognition, which is nothing to do with legislation at all,” he said.

He advised employers to work with the CAC but also press unions to justify the need for information which may be spurious to the regulations. “There is little point in being obstructive for the sake of it, but this is not carte blanche for unions to get whatever information they want.”

But Tony Burke, Amicus assistant general secretary, said: “Amicus has won a breakthrough ruling that will give employees more rights to information at work. Employers will now have to co-operate fully with unions and employees who are seeking to trigger Information and Consultation [negotiations].”

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