CBI minions of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your credibility!

If a week was once a long time in politics, it’s now no time at all when it comes to thinking up new legislation. For a week was all it took for renowned Star Trek fan Sajid Javid, newly promoted from culture to business secretary, to master his brief and decide that what Britain really needs right now is another small business and enterprise Bill. Not just any old small business and enterprise Bill, mind, but an “ambitious” small business and enterprise Bill. And this less than two months after the last small business and enterprise Bill – which clearly wasn’t anywhere near ambitious enough – reached the Statute Book.

According to Tuesday’s BIS press release, the Starship Enterprise Bill will:

“Help make Britain the best place in Europe to start and grow a business, and help create two million jobs over the next five years, so that more people have the security of a regular pay-packet. Unless, of course, they are employed on a zero-hours contract. Ha ha ha, beam me up Scottie.”

Yes, I made that last bit up. But the Bill really will “cut red tape for business by at least £10 billion over the next five years” and “create a Small Business Conciliation Service to help resolve disputes [especially over late payment]” – these being pledges in the Conservative Party Manifesto 2015.

Fortunately for Mr Javid, he didn’t have to spend any of his first week in 1 Victoria Street working out exactly how the Bill will cut £10bn worth of red tape for business. No, that’s not how policy-making works these days. Mr Javid left it to junior BIS minister Anna Soubry to explain:

“This will be a no nonsense Bill [unlike the last one!] to back small businesses and help create jobs, giving financial security and economic peace of mind to hard-working people across the country. We will be asking businesses for evidence in the coming weeks and months. We want them to be our partners in identifying and scrapping needless burdens at home and in Europe.”

Yes, that’s how evidence-based policy-making works these days. You – the one-week-old cabinet minister – decide to have a Bill, then you hunt around for evidence to justify said Bill. They didn’t tell us this on my MSc in Public Policy, but hey.

To be fair to Mr Javid and his colleagues, a Small Business Conciliation Service doesn’t sound such a bad idea. I just wonder whether there will be fees for small businesses to use the Service. And whether those fees will be anywhere near £1,200. That would only be right and proper, after all. Why should hard-working taxpayers have to bear all of the cost?

As for how to cut that £10bn of red tape, I imagine Ms Soubry’s inbox is already filling up with lengthy emails from Sir Michael Rake and his numerous minions at the CBI. Because, on Wednesday, while being skewered by Sarah Montague on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (start at 2:34:55), Sir Michael blustered that we desperately need to cut Red Tape because “where [employment] rights are so extensive it leads to employers not being willing to employ people, that is not helpful to anyone”. And who could argue with that?

Later that morning, I tweeted the CBI to ask them which employment rights, exactly, are currently “leading to employers not being willing to employ people”. And also to ask them to explain what it is that causes the “inflexibility in being able to adjust your workforce to changing circumstances quickly enough” that, apparently, so concerns Sir Michael. Needless to say, I didn’t get any response, but it seems reasonable to assume that it’s not the statutory right to four weeks’ paid holiday that Sir Michael has in mind. Could it be the legal right not to be subject to unfair dismissal?

Well, I guess it could be. But, if you are an employer, and minded to employ one or more extra members of staff, you will know (unless you are a complete idiot, in which case you probably shouldn’t be an employer) that you have no less than two years to decide whether you’ve made the right decision, before those employees qualify for legal protection against unfair dismissal. That is, you can get rid of them as quickly and as unfairly as you like, as long as you do it within two years of hiring them. And, even if you decide that you made the right decision in hiring them, but circumstances somehow change for the worse after two years, you can still dismiss them (or make them redundant). You just can’t do so without following a fair procedure. And how hard can that be for titans of industry with their gene-based, wealth-creator superbrains?

Even if you’re a regular, non-superbrained oik who somehow made it to being CEO of a wealth-creating company, it wouldn’t take you (or your unpaid intern) long to discover that, these days, the risk of facing an employment tribunal claim for unfair dismissal, however badly you treat your human capital units, is … well, negligible. Since the introduction of upfront tribunal fees of £1,200 in July 2013, and the introduction of Acas early conciliation in April 2014, the number of unfair dismissal claims has fallen by two-thirds, to fewer than 13,000 per year.

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Yep, that’s fewer than 13,000 unfair dismissal claims per year, from a workforce of some 26 million. Put another way, each of the UK’s 1.2 million employers now faces an unfair dismissal claim – maybe well-founded, maybe not – about once every century, on average. But, according to the superbrained, wealth-creating Sir Michael Rake, that is still far too often for our entrepreneurial classes to cope with. So we must cut Red Tape now! Over to you, Sajid.

Copyright Steve Bell 2015/All Rights Reserved e.mail: belltoons@ntlworld.com tel: 00 44 (0)1273 500664

Copyright Steve Bell 2015/All Rights Reserved e.mail: belltoons@ntlworld.com tel: 00 44 (0)1273 500664

[Many thanks to the great Steve Bell for granting me permission to use this image.]

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Will the next government put the ‘fair’ back into unfair dismissal law?

Last week, for some reason, my mind kept wandering back to 2011, the year in which every stakeholder meeting with BIS officials was dominated by a shouty policy wonk from the British Chambers of Commerce. The year in which BIS spent taxpayers’ money compiling a consultation response that – without so much as a ‘winking’ emoticon to let you in on the joke – stated:

In a survey of 1,100 of their nuttiest members, the Institute of Directors told us that large numbers of businesses had expressed concerns about dismissal and the risk of tribunal claims in relation to recruitment plans. Fifty-one per cent of respondents to the survey said that the one-year qualifying period for unfair dismissal was a ‘significant’ or ‘very significant’ factor in considering whether to take on an additional employee.

Yes, OK, I added ‘nuttiest’. But I don’t think it makes any difference. For the fact is business secretary Vince Cable opted to extend the unfair dismissal qualifying period to two years, on the basis that 561 (two per cent) of the 34,000 members of a Pall Mall-based organisation that’s had only two female heads in its 112-year history thought they could get a bit more deregulation of the labour market by ticking a box in a survey questionnaire. Perhaps, being a Liberal Democrat, Dr Cable just felt a natural affinity with the largely woman-free Institute.

To be fair to Dr Cable, the somewhat less nutty CBI did say that extending the unfair dismissal qualifying period would “have a positive impact on marginal hiring decisions, particularly in smaller firms.” But then that sort of depends on how you define ‘marginal’. Because what the November 2011 BIS consultation response failed to note is that, at that time, the UK’s 1.2 million employers faced an unfair dismissal claim just once every 27.5 years, on average. So, if business leaders really were hamstrung by anxiety over whether their next hiring decision would result in an unfair dismissal ET claim, then we know who to blame for the UK economy lagging behind so many of its competitors.

The BIS consultation response also overlooked the fact that, as shown by the following chart, the number of unfair dismissal claims had been declining steadily since early 2009 (when, of course, the economy was not exactly in best form). Faced with such statistical evidence, as distinct from the views of a self-selecting sliver of the membership of an exclusive Pall Mall club, most time-pressed ministers would probably have opted not to try and fix something not obviously broken. But poor Dr Cable had the abominable Adrian Beecroft and his pals in 10 and 11 Downing Street to deal with. So, with the economy struggling to get out of first gear, Dr Cable thought it best to make workers (aka consumers) a little bit more insecure, but not quite as insecure as Beecroft would have made them.

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And so it was that, in April 2012, the Unfair Dismissal and Statement of Reasons for Dismissal (Variation of Qualifying Period) Order 2012 extended the unfair dismissal qualifying period from 12 months to two years, and what we might call the Blair-Brown era of unfair dismissal claims (the red columns in the chart) came to an end. Then, somewhat ironically, given that the BIS consultation response had predicted the extension would result in a 3.3 per cent fall in the number of unfair dismissal claims, the dawn of the Beecroft-Cable era (the blue columns in the chart) saw a not insignificant increase in the number of such claims. (That 3.3 per cent, incidentally, is what we policy nerds call ‘spurious precision’. BIS had absolutely no idea how much claim numbers would fall by, if at all, but cunningly concealed that fact by suggesting it had calculated the drop to a tenth of one per cent. MPs and especially journalists fall for this every day of the week.)

Yes, there might have been an even bigger rise, had Dr Cable not acted as indecisively as he did. There’s simply no way of knowing. Whatever, by early 2013, the number of unfair dismissal claims had slipped back pretty much to where it had been in late 2010. And then, of course, we entered the Grayling-Swinson era (the orange columns in the chart), during which the number of unfair dismissal claims has fallen to levels not seen since the Institute of Directors last had a female head, in 1926. With the result that UK employers now face an unfair dismissal ET claim just once every 87 years, on average.

In short, this was evidence-free policy making, based on nothing more than an ideological hunch that eroding legal protection against unfair dismissal would somehow boost job creation. Yet, amid ever greater casualisation of the labour market, the move has unquestionably shifted the imbalance of power between workers and employers a little bit more in favour of the latter. So, with the economy now doing somewhat better than it was in late 2011, there’s a good case for putting the qualifying period back to one year (or even lowering it all the way to six months).

Good employers would have nothing to fear from such a move, as the law on unfair dismissal does not prevent an employer from dismissing a qualifying employee for incompetence or even just for not working hard enough – it simply requires the employer to follow a fair process when doing so. And, as Simon Jones notes in this blog post, that isn’t hard to do. But a shorter qualifying period would create a bit more security in what is an increasingly insecure labour market.

It seems safe to assume this is not a direction of travel in which Conservative ministers would go after 7 May, and the Liberal Democrats’ pre-manifesto, published last September, is entirely silent on the matter. The July 2014 report of Labour’s National Policy Forum, which is supposed to form the basis of the party’s general election manifesto, does include the extension of the qualifying period among a list of Coalition policies that have “fundamentally undermined employment rights”, but there’s no clear commitment to reverse the extension. Similarly, Labour’s better economic plan for prosperity, published yesterday, states:

The [Coalition] Government has actively encouraged a race to the bottom [in wages and skills] by weakening the UK’s enforcement regime and promoting a hire-and-fire culture: doubling the qualification period for unfair dismissal; introducing fees for employment tribunals; and setting up a controversial scheme whereby employees trade their employment rights in return for a share in the company.

Despite this highlighting of the issue, there’s still no place in the plan for a pledge to reverse the doubling of the qualifying period for unfair dismissal (or, indeed, to do anything at all about the equally controversial employment tribunal fees). But then there was no mention in the National Policy Forum report of increasing paternity leave and pay, and that omission – together with a price tag of some £150m per year – hasn’t prevented Ed Miliband from pledging to do exactly that if Labour win in May.

If they genuinely believe in supporting businesses to win the race to the top, not get dragged into a race to the bottom, senior figures in both Labour and the Liberal Democrats should ensure their election manifesto includes a commitment to promptly lower the unfair dismissal qualifying period to 12 months. British bosses should not need more than 12 months to decide whether or not they’ve hired the right person. And the Institute of Directors should be told to go fish.

Saving Private’s Jobs

Back when I was working at FRU, one of the potential volunteers asked me about whether FRU did Reserve Forces cases. I kind of muddled through because unfortunately at the time, I didn’t really know about them. For those few occasions when you’ve felt that an employee’s been treated so badly it ought to be criminal, you might have Parliament on your side. Unusually dismissing a reservist because he has been or might be called up is a criminal offence.

Reservists generally have the same employment rights as any other employee, and the THE has an excellent summary of some of the rights and obligations for employers of reservists. The Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985 is considered in that summary, but the act gives them some more and is almost certainly one of the least used pieces of employment protection legislation. In a recent Freedom of Information request, the MoJ confirmed that in the financial years from 2008-09 to 2012-13, there were 12 applications from reservists for reinstatement or compensation under the act and only 5 hearings were held.

The 1985 Act creates reinstatement committees and sets up statutory appeals from these committees to an umpire, apparently on law and fact. In practise the umpire will be the president of the EAT ex officio. Reinstatement committees can order employers to reinstate army restate reservists and/or pay compensation when the right to reinstatement conferred by the act has not been complied with. Failing to comply with an order of the reinstatement committee is also a criminal offence.

In summary, the rights conferred are:

  • The right to at least 26 weeks reinstatement to an occupation not less favourable to the reservist on terms not less favourable than they were originally employed on;
  • If for any reason it is not (or ceases to be) “reasonable and practicable” to continue a reservist’s employment, they are entitled to the “most favourable occupation” on “the most favourable terms and conditions” which are reasonable and practicable. In effect if there is other work they can do, they should be allowed to do it;

An employer can defeat these rights if more than 6 months pass from the end of a call up before they present themselves for work again. It can also be done if the reservist refuses to take up the job without reasonable cause, or if the reservist fails to notify the employer what they rely on as reasonable cause in writing (s1 (4)). There’s also some unusual limitation periods to bring claims. In practice most claims are likely to need to be brought within 13 weeks of an application (or renewal of an application) to be reinstated, although the somewhat different wording to most employment statutes causes some confusion if it is 13 weeks or the usual 13 weeks less one day.

There’s very little case law on the act. Since it came into force in 1985, I have been able to find only two appeals to Umpires from the reinstatement committees. Ironically, in both Slaven v Thermo Engineers Ltd UKEAT/0568/91  and James v Meterological Office UKEAT/1350/00 the president of the EAT thought the case before them was the first one brought to the umpire. James only really helps with the somewhat onerous requirement to renew applications to be reinstated in writing every 13 weeks in order to have the right to complain to the reinstatement committee. This leaves only a single case on the substantive law in Slaven which is somewhat limited in scope to not offering alternatives after a redundancy, although certainly helpful in setting out burdens of proof for the different stages in cases.

Presumably, an employer could show that it would be not reasonable and practicable to take a reservist back if they were dismissed for gross misconduct, it is as yet apparently untested whether the reinstatement committee would require actual proof or adopt the “honest and reasonable belief” test from unfair dismissal. My gut feeling tends towards the latter as it probably isn’t reasonable and practicable to take back an employee who the employer has justifiably lost all trust and confidence in.

It would require an employer with a somewhat unhealthy appetite for litigation to take a chance on any of the other traditional reasons for dismissal though given the lack of case law, especially with the priority given to reservists for other jobs even where a dismissal was not for redundancy. The phrase “reasonable and practicable” has an attractive sound to employment professionals used to dealing with ET claims out of time, but the “and” in the act as well as the judgment in Slaven suggests a disjunctive tests with an employer needing to get over both hurdles to win rather than a composite question of “reasonable practicability”.

You might not come across many reserve forces employees in your time advising clients, but if you do, this stuff is worth knowing. The additional protections available to them, along with the more severe penalties for employers who get it wrong in some situations are probably likely to help with settlements for claimant lawyers. For respondent advice, the lack of case law and there being no power to award costs is probably likely to make any reinstatement committee defence something of a nightmare, but hopefully forearmed is forewarned.