Personnel Today interviews: Ed Sweeney, chairman, Acas

 

The new Acas code of practice will not necessarily result in reduced employment tribunal claims.

With just two weeks to go until the new Acas code of practice launches, chairman Ed Sweeney’s mind – and diary – is firmly tied up with talks on what the new procedures will mean for employers and employees alike.

Introduced off the back of the Gibbons Review, the code will replace the much-loathed, three-step grievance and disciplinary procedure from 6 April 2009, and should make it easier for employers to resolve disputes at an early stage.

Sweeney has no sympathy for HR practitioners that claim not to have heard of the changes, however.

“This code has not come out of the blue, it’s been three years in the planning,” he said. I would be disappointed for HR teams, on a professional level, if they didn’t know about the code.”

Employers that claim the code was in draft form for too long are also talking rubbish, said Sweeney.

“So you don’t read drafts? That argument is difficult to comprehend. As a professional you would read the draft to find out what the changes will be.”

More flexibility

One of the key changes is to enable employers more flexibility in how they deal with workplace disputes. In the current economic climate, that can’t be a bad thing, Sweeney said. Not only will early conciliation most likely prevent cases from ending up at a tribunal, but the concept of ’employee relations’ will be re-born. A key reason Sweeney studied employee relations and ended up pursuing that career path was the opportunity it gave to help employers and employees rationalise their differences without needing to get judges involved.

“Employee relations is intellectually demanding, yet it struck me as a way of dealing with the world of work,” he said.

The latest data from Acas revealed that the number of tribunal claims had shot up to 151,249 in 2007-2008, compared to 105,177 the year before. Calls about redundancy to the conciliation service’s helpline have steadily increased over the past nine months, accounting for 19.4% of calls in May 2008 to 35.3% in February 2009.

The new code should help to reduce the number of employment tribunal claims. However, Sweeney, a former union boss at Amicus overseeing industrial action in a number of sectors, is realistic that “there will always be employment tribunals”. Despite Acas already allocating £26m of the potential £37m public funding available over the next three years to improve early intervention, Sweeney – perhaps surprisingly – does not think its right to measure the code’s success on the number of claims lodged.

“We’ve spent £47bn in the banks and we haven’t solved the recession there, so please don’t hit me with that sort of equation,” Sweeney said.

He insisted the money will be used wisely: to enhance its conciliation helpline – a key factor in intervening early to avoid litigation – and to step up more resources in individual and collective conciliation. Most of the 55 new recruits needed for the help­line have been brought in, bringing the total number of full-time advisers to 150.

Resources will be tight, however. “I think we’ll be stretched, make no mistake. But we’ll have to keep it under constant review. We may need additional resources, but that’s up to the politicians to decide.”

Genuine hopes

Sweeney was also confident that calls to the Acas helpline would be genuine.

“In a recession, if you are made redundant and can’t get a new job straight away you will sit and fester and think about whether you were treated fairly. But tribunals are immensely stressful for employees as well as employers. I don’t believe we’ll be swamped with vexatious cases.”

Nor will the UK witness a year of “discontent” in industrial relations. Disputes such as the row over the use of foreign workers at Lindsey Oil Refinery earlier this year, which Acas was heavily involved in, are fairly isolated, Sweeney said.

“We will be closely watching whether there is a rise in collective disputes. I don’t think we’ll see a mushrooming of the winter of discontent though – people don’t go into work every day to strike. We have a high degree of industrial peace in the UK.”

However, he admitted there were some “big complications” on the horizon, singling out Royal Mail as an “obvious one”. He refused to be drawn on whether part-privatisation of the postal services company was a good idea, but promised Acas would “pick up the pieces” after decisions were made.

Nor was it Acas’s job to comment on changes in employment law taking place in April, including the extension of the right to request flexible working to parents with children aged 16 or under.

“No matter how much you ask me I won’t get involved in [political] decisions about whether it’s right or wrong as that would damage Acas impartiality.”

Clear message

But Sweeney delivered one clear message – that delaying any forthcoming legislation because of the financial crisis was unnecessary.

“You can’t suddenly stop everything because of the recession. If there is a huge rise in claims because of any law changes we’ll have to deal with that; and if it damages our resources., we’ll deal with that.”

Sweeney’s clear-cut stance on the matter is perhaps evidence of his days served as general secretary Amicus. “I’m not a soft touch,” he said. He also claims to have a “natural instinct” in seeing both sides of the employer-employee coin – vital for his role as Acas chair.

Sweeney is set to stay in that role until October 2010, when his three-year contract, and possibly his “shelf-life”, is up.

“I came in with the impression I’d be here for three years. [In 2010] we’ll be testing all the things we’ve introduced this year, seeing if we’ve got it right. I want to see how the economy shapes up, and then see how we go from there.”

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