Controversy over proposed employment tribunal charges

Plans to charge workers for pursuing employment tribunal cases, included in UK government proposals for reforming dispute resolution procedures issued for consultation in July 2001, received an angry reaction from trade unions but were welcomed by employers' organisations.

On 20 July 2001, employment relations minister Alan Johnson published a consultation document outlining a range of proposals for reforming procedures for resolving employment disputes. The move follows the government's announcement in June that it would be looking at new measures to stem the rising number of employment tribunal applications (UK0107137N), in addition to changes to tribunal procedures which came into effect as recently as 16 July 2001 (UK0012102N).

Key proposals on which the government is seeking views include:

  • introducing charging for applications to employment tribunals;
  • increasing the use and size of awards of costs in certain circumstances;
  • introducing a fast-track procedure for some jurisdictions;
  • speeding up conciliation following tribunal applications and widening the range of conciliation providers beyond the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service;
  • allowing applications to tribunals only once workplace disciplinary or grievance procedures have been completed;
  • increasing or reducing awards where the employer or the employee has unreasonably failed to take certain minimum procedural steps in respect of a disciplinary issue or grievance; and
  • requiring all employers to give employees written details of disciplinary or grievance procedures (those with fewer than 20 employees are currently exempt).

The government says that its proposals are "designed to promote conciliation in the workplace rather than litigation and reduce the strain on the employment tribunal system and its users". Tribunal applications have trebled since 1990 and in 2000-1 totaled over 130,000 - the highest ever annual figure. The government "is convinced that many disagreements can be successfully resolved through better procedures in the workplace ... but equally a tribunal system designed to cope with increasing caseloads is essential".

John Monks, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), described the proposal to introduce charges for applications to employment tribunals as "a major cause for alarm" and "clearly against the principles of the Human Rights Act". He said in a statement: "If the government want to reduce tribunal cases they should encourage fair employment practices, not try to deter people with genuine grievances from bringing a case." In the TUC's view, 130,000 tribunal applications from a working population of 23 million does not represent a "deluge", considering the extent of "poor employment practice" on the part of employers. However, the TUC welcomed the government's intention to promote effective workplace disciplinary and grievance procedures and encourage conciliation.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) applauded the government for putting forward "radical proposals" that would "help curb the compensation culture". CBI deputy director-general John Cridland said: "These are sensible ideas which should reduce the continual spiral of claims to employment tribunals without threatening anyone's right to justice."

Ministers have also been criticised for publishing the proposals on the last day before the House of Commons' long summer recess - seen as an attempt to stifle opposition from back-bench Labour Party MP s. However, the proposed fees for tribunal applications can be expected to encounter strong criticism at the TUC's annual conference in September 2001.

The deadline for responses to the consultation document is 8 October 2001. The new measures on employment tribunals will be included in the government's planned Employment Bill, expected to be published later in the year.

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