Social partners respond to Fairness at work white paper

By mid-August 1998, all main social partner groups in the UK had produced their responses to the Government's Fairness at work white paper, covering trade union recognition and other employment law issues. While there are a few areas where all parties agree, for the most part differences of opinion continue to be the order of the day.

On 21 May 1998, the Government published a white paper entitled Fairness at work setting out its legislative agenda in the area of industrial relations (UK9806129F). As well as giving details of the Government's proposed statutory trade union recognition procedure, the white paper outlines a range of other employment law reforms in areas such as protection against unfair dismissal, dismissals during disputes, representation during grievance and disciplinary procedures, maternity rights, and parental and family leave.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) commented that the Fairness at work proposals will restore some "much-needed balance" in employment legislation - but this was not a sentiment echoed by all social partner organisations. The Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) largely agreed, stating that it supports government proposals to promote employment security and guard against the exploitation of vulnerable employees. However, it opposes many of the white paper's measures, along with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF). Adair Turner, director general of the CBI, argued that "this white paper, taken with other new regulations such as those on working time [UK9805123F] and the National Minimum Wage [UK9807135F], will add new burdens on business."

Social partner opinions on some of the key points of the white paper are as follows.

  • While the TUC argues that the average compensation award for unfair dismissal, which in 1995/6 was only GBP 2,499, "is generally wholly inadequate as a form of compensation and no longer any use as a deterrent to bad employers", the CBI, EEF and IPD oppose removing the compensation limit on unfair dismissal awards. Instead they propose that the cap be raised from GBP 12,000 to around GBP 40,000.
  • The TUC welcomed the automatic right to trade union recognition where there is majority membership. The employers' bodies, however, do not accept that automatic recognition should be granted. The CBI says that, at the very least, employers should be able to call for a ballot where there is doubt about the support for recognition, and only single-union claims should be able to avoid a ballot.
  • The TUC says that "it is anomalous that the current law gives people the right to join a union but no right to call on the services of their union when they have a problem at work." Employers, on the other hand, say that whilst the business community can accept a legal right for an employee to be accompanied in disciplinary procedures, it is not acceptable for this right to extend to a wider category of grievance procedures. They argue instead that the white paper should give statutory force to the existing Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) disciplinary code.

There are, however, some areas where all parties agree. Particularly welcomed is the emphasis on partnership and the proposals to make funds available for training aimed at spreading good practice. There is also broad support for extending maternity leave to 18 weeks

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