Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Queen's Speech

Today in Parliament the Queen unveiled a new shocking pink mohawk. Not really, I was just checking you were paying attention. No new hairdo, but she did treat us to a few details on the Bills her MPs and Lords will be occupying themselves with in the coming months.

The key one I will be keeping an eye on is The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill*, which falls under the responsibility of Vince Cable's Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS.)

There are a couple of doozys hidden in the headlines of the Bill, namely the promises to 'overhaul the employment tribunal system, and transform the dispute resolution landscape' and 'repeal unnecessary legislation, cutting the burden on business and citizens.' 

Quite aside from what transforming the dispute resolution landscape really involves (there have been noises about tribunal changes and the opposition to them for some time) what could practically be done to reduce tribunal claims?

I've made no bones about being in favour of introducing mediation for warring parties before any claim can be accepted, an idea that goes back to 2006 and seems to be resurrected every two to three years, resurfacing in 2008. A 2010 study found that mediation 'failed to achieve the anticipated time and cost savings over unmediated cases' - but then it did involve judges, and when you're trying to remove layers and simplify matters, I just don't feel that was the best idea.

In 2011, the then Employment Relations Minister, Ed Davey, announced a pilot scheme for two mediation networks to be set up for SMEs in Cambridge and Manchester. Under the  scheme the BIS has funded mediation training for employees from 24 SMEs in each pilot area,  aiming to resolve workplace disputes early without the need for an employment tribunal claim. The jury is still out, but I am hopeful that training SME staff will be more effective than the 2010 study.

The other interesting point here is the concept of 'binding votes' which will enable shareholders to veto pay awards to top executives, rather like the 'Two Strikes' law Australia introduced in 2011 and which has proven successful in as far as 70 businesses have found themselves being told to rein in their top peoples' pay packages for the first time. If they are told to do so again, all Board members will be forced to stand for re-election to their posts by shareholders. (This works fine so long as a business hasn't purposely sought out majority 'tame' shareholders who wave things through and have no real engagement with the Company.) With Aviva's recent woes and with William Hill shareholders also dissenting, this is an area worth watching. Will this prove to have teeth?

I confess to feeling uncomfortable with the vagueness of exactly what legislation they refer to that is 'unnecessary.' I know the likes of the Daily Mail and Richard Littlejohn will start blustering on about 'elf 'n' safety', but the problem isn't generally with the legislation, but the interpretation and application of it. The UK has some of the world's least restrictive employment laws, and I do feel heartily sick at times when my profession is accused of 'sticking barriers in the way of progress' or being 'the department that tells you what you can't do.'

Nope. That's not how I see it. But then I wouldn't. I love my job. I'm a problem solver, not a problem finder.

So what this last actually involves remains to be seen; no more information has really been made public. I assume they're still pondering the detail. But if 'cutting red tape' means risks to employment rights you can bet there will be plenty more to be said on this subject.


*According to the BIS website the Bill will:
  • Overhaul the employment tribunal system, and transform the dispute resolution landscape.
  • Improve the effectiveness and efficiency of competition enforcement and the competitiveness of markets, by strengthening the regime and improving the speed and predictability for business.
  • Set the purpose of the UK Green Investment Bank and ensure its independence.
  • Strengthen the framework for setting directors’ pay by introducing binding votes.
  • Extend the Primary Authority scheme, reduce inspection burdens on business and strengthen the legal framework for sunset clauses on regulation.
  • Repeal unnecessary legislation, cutting the burden on business and citizens.

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