Beware of Douceurs

On the 30th July, the Unison website carried news of a successful tribunal claim against Bromley Council under the headline

“Tribunal orders council to compensate workers offered cash to sign away rights”.  

This got my interest.  I read on.

“Bromley Council has been ordered to pay more than £64,000 in compensation to 18 of its staff after an employment tribunal had offered cash incentives to sign new contracts that took them out of existing collective bargaining agreements.”

A frisson of deja vu.  Were these not the exact same facts as in Wilson & Palmer & others v Associated Newspapers & Associated British Ports, a case with which I was very familiar.  This had led to the European Court of Human Rights case of Wilson and Palmer and others v UK [2002] IRLR 568.  That in turn had led the then Labour government to pass a series of amendments to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 including section 145B which provides;-

Inducements relating to collective bargaining

(1) A worker who is a member of an independent trade union which is recognised, or seeking to be recognised, by his employer has the right not to have an offer made to him by his employer if—

(a) acceptance of the offer, together with other workers’ acceptance of offers which the employer also makes to them, would have the prohibited result, and

(b) the employer’s sole or main purpose in making the offers is to achieve that result…

Unison kindly put a link to the decision at the end of the report. It is here:-

It makes very interesting reading.  Bromley made a series of concessions so the only issue for the tribunal was whether their sole or main purpose in making the offers was to achieve the prohibited result.  The prohibited result is defined thus:-

(2) The prohibited result is that the workers’ terms of employment, or any of those terms, will not (or will no longer) be determined by collective agreement negotiated by or on behalf of the union…

The tribunal had little difficulty in finding that Bromley’s purpose was prohibited as their own documentation and witness evidence confirmed that they intended to do away with the existing collective bargaining of terms of employment and to achieve this workers had to be induced to sign new contracts of employment where pay was not determined by collective bargaining.

Paragraph 54 of the decision is very revealing.

The Tribunal was surprised that neither the officers of the London Borough of Bromley, nor the officers of the unions involved, were aware of the provisions of section 145B of the Act during the course of the events described above.  Both parties may well have conducted themselves very differently had they been aware of these provisions…”

There is still a debate to be had as to the width of the term “purpose” in Section 145B.  On 7th March Eversheds published a briefing about Section 145B of the 1992 Act and a tribunal case in which they successfully acted called Wyer v Pembrokeshire County Council.    It is referred to in the Unison case.

They boast that the Council was able to adduce detailed witness and documentary evidence to persuade a tribunal to take a broader view of the Council’s “purpose” in seeking to implement a new pay and grading structure outside the collective bargaining process.  However they caution that on similar facts another tribunal  in a case called Whitaker v Buckinghamshire County Council, accepted the trade union submission that you take a narrow view of the “purpose” and once the employer seeks individual worker’s agreement to changes to terms and conditions outwith the collective agreement, then Section 145B engages.

In Unison case, Bromley had the additional hurdle of offering to workers a financial incentive (or “Douceur” as the Court of Appeal referred to them in the Wilson & Palmer case) to sign the new contract giving up the right to have their terms of employment determined by collective bargaining.

With the Government encouraging the breakup of national collective bargaining arrangements and the recent changes to TUPE referred to in a previous article on Hard Labour by Jim Wright

we can expect a lot more discussion about the intricacies of section 145B and the other provisions introduced following the ECtHR decision in Wilson & Palmer.