Employment Bill published

The Employment Bill, introduced in the UK parliament in early November 2001, includes provisions on extended parental leave rights and minimum standards for workplace dispute-resolution procedures. The Bill is expected to complete its passage through parliament in mid 2002.

On 8 November 2001, the government's Employment Bill was published and given a formal first reading in the House of Commons. The draft legislation seeks to implement a number of commitments made in the Labour Party's election manifesto (UK0105132F), as well as proposals which have been the subject of recent consultation exercises (UK0108141N and UK0108142N). The contents of the Bill are wide-ranging and include: extended parental leave rights from April 2003; minimum standards for workplace dispute-resolution procedures; changes in employment tribunal rules; statutory rights for trade union 'learning representatives'; and powers to make regulations to implement the 1999 EU Directive on fixed-term work (UK0108141N). The government also confirmed that, in response to concerns expressed by trade unions and others during consultation, it would not be proceeding with controversial proposals to charge applicants for bringing an employment tribunal case.

Key provisions in the Bill include:

  • the right to two weeks' paternity leave for working fathers, paid at GBP 100 per week or 90% of the employee's average weekly earnings, whichever is the lesser amount;
  • the right to 26 weeks' adoption leave, paid at the same rate, followed by 26 weeks unpaid additional adoption leave;
  • an extended right to maternity leave (26 weeks with statutory maternity pay followed by 26 weeks unpaid additional maternity leave);
  • a range of procedural reforms in employment tribunal cases, including introducing a fixed period of conciliation for tribunal claims and giving powers to the secretary of state to make regulations the extend the circumstances in which employment tribunals can award costs against a party for the way they handle a case;
  • requiring employers to have and use statutory minimum dispute-resolution procedures relating to disciplinary issues, dismissal and employee grievances;
  • enabling the secretary of state to make regulations to prevent tribunal claims being made or heard unless the issue has first been raised under the statutory procedures;
  • requiring tribunals to disregard procedural failures by employers, outside the new statutory procedures, where these would have had no effect on a decision to dismiss an employee;
  • requiring employers facing potential equal pay tribunal applications to provide certain information in response to a questionnaire;
  • giving union 'learning representatives' (workplace union representatives nominated by recognised trade unions to promote training issues) the right to paid time off for training and to carry out their duties; and
  • giving powers to the secretary of state to make regulations in relation to fixed-term work. The government will use these to implement the EU Directive (1999/70/EC) on fixed term work (EU9907181F), including establishing the right to equal treatment on pay and pensions issues.

The secretary of state for trade and industry, Patricia Hewitt, said in a statement: 'The government is committed to delivering for working families and to simplifying regulation for business ... Our changes on dispute resolution will encourage better dialogue between employees and employers and create better awareness of rights and responsibilities in the workplace.'

However, the draft legislation received a lukewarm reception from both employers and unions. The main employers' organisation, the CBI, welcomed the government's measures to limit the number of employment tribunal cases: 'The most crucial element of the package is the proposal that employees must raise grievances with their employer before going to a tribunal. The government must press ahead with this to ensure we resolve more disputes in the workplace and less by litigation.' The CBI was less enthusiastic about other aspects of the legislation. Its statement noted that the government 'had tried to strike a balance between extra support for working parents and the resulting burdens on business' but said that smaller firms might struggle to cope with the absence of key staff.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) welcomed the improvements in employees' parental leave rights, and also the requirement for companies to have grievance and disciplinary procedures, which it hoped would 'help resolve problems in workplaces rather than in tribunals'. However, the TUC expressed concern about certain other proposals, including allowing tribunals to disregard minor procedural mistakes on the part of employers, which the TUC said 'sends the wrong message to employers'.

The Employment Bill was given a second reading by the House of Commons on 27 November and will now undergo detailed scrutiny by a committee of MPs. It is expected to complete its passage through parliament in mid 2002. A future EIRO feature will provide a more detailed analysis of the Bill's provisions and their potential impact on UK industrial relations.

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