By Neil Carberry, Director for employment and skills
Reforming employment law is a favourite theme of politicians. And it should be, because getting the right balance between a strong floor of minimum rights for employees and avoiding red tape that restricts growth is an important debate.
Back in 2010, the government set out on an employment law review, designed to find that balance. Since then we have had a range of proposals, some of which have been introduced while others didn’t get far. The ubiquity of debate about the Beecroft report shows how heated discussion can get on this issue.
Yet it has always been clear what the number one priority for businesses is: getting our tribunal system to work effectively. As I travel around the country meeting businesses this is the thing I hear time and again. It’s a costly irritant to big firms, but for the smallest businesses the delays and costs involved in fighting a claim can be a threat to their very existence.
An improved system would benefit staff, too. An expensive, drawn-out process is a stressful and difficult experience — even more so for employees with a valid claim. Today, we also encourage the government to ensure that where employees win a claim, they receive their award in full.
The heart of the problem is the time tribunals take to process a case — months, sometimes years. Claim numbers have been dropping, but the government’s target for resolving claims hasn’t been met in six years and there is no reason to believe that this is about to change.
The quagmire of legal process that impedes the system must be dealt with — the complexities of the high court have no place in a tribunal system that was meant to be “easily accessible, informal, speedy and inexpensive”. We need to get back to that original vision.
Today, tribunals have become courts in all but name. They are legalistic, hearings take too long to arrange and are often cancelled at the last minute, and cases often overrun. The government has done excellent work trying to encourage earlier conciliation, but real change will only come when the culture of the system changes.
Businesses tell us that it costs them £10,000 just to get to the stage where they can get the weakest claim struck down. That is a lot of money when you haven’t done anything wrong.
So this week the CBI has proposed some ideas for how to get to a swifter, cheaper, more effective tribunal service. These include removing employment tribunals from the court system, expecting tribunal chairs to move quickly to dismiss weak evidence, performance assessment and league tables to show areas of under-performance, along with restrictions on a range of other processes that are tangential to the core purpose of the hearing: reaching a fair settlement.
It’s in all our interests to resolve disputes quickly and informally — it’s time to reclaim the original vision for what the tribunal should be.
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