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Employment Act will prompt organisations to put staff firstOn 1 Apr 2003 in Personnel Today Comments are closed. Employment Relations Minister Alan Johnson (pictured right) talksexclusively to Personnel Today about the impact of the Employment Act – thebiggest raft of workplace legislation ever introduced in one bill. He discussesthe new rights in detail and responds to criticism from the profession. EXCLUSIVE interview by Ben WillmottFlexible working Some employment law specialists believe the new right for parents to requestflexible working will not have as big an impact as the Government hopes,because it is too easy for employers to play the ‘business case’ card forrejecting requests. Q. Are you confident that employers will embrace the new right to helptheir working parents improve their work-life balance? A. The right has been designed to be straightforward, with theemphasis on dialogue and finding solutions in-house, rather than through the‘wagging finger’ of the law. It is based on existing best practice and aims tohelp employees and employers adopt solutions that suit them both. This is areal chance for employers to show that they can respond to such an approach. Consultation has been central to the development of the right, and we havelistened to the views of both employer and employee groups. There may well besome resistance, but I think the vast majority of employers will accept theregulations in the spirit in which they are intended. Q. Why is it in their interests to do so? A. Competition in the job market goes both ways. Employers look forthe right people, but employees are becoming increasingly selective over theirchoice of employer. This right offers employers a way of attracting andretaining the staff they need to succeed. Employers who offer flexible workingreport benefits such as reduced staff turnover and absenteeism, increasedskills retention, reduced recruitment and training costs and increased capacityto meet customer demand and to react to market changes. These benefits cannot be ignored. In the first quarter of last year the costof sick leave was more than two million working days each week alone – equivalentto 2 per cent of total scheduled working days. And last year, the CIPD reportedthat half of all employers had experienced problems with staff retention. Theyalso estimate that the typical recruitment cost for replacing an individual is£3,462. Q. Would the Government consider legislation to enforce flexible workinghours for parents if the voluntary approach doesn’t work? A. This legislation is not voluntary. The law places a duty onemployers to follow a procedure to ensure their employees are confident theirrequests are considered seriously. Employers who do not comply risk being takento an employment tribunal and ordered to reconsider the case and/or paycompensation of up to eight weeks’ pay. We believe this will be incentiveenough to encourage all but the most resistant employers to comply. We have also ensured a package of support is available to help employers.Accompanying the main guidance is a set of forms to help employers at eachstage of considering the application. We are committed to start reviewing the new right in three years time. Wehave just carried out two surveys to take a snapshot of current practice and wewill continue to monitor the impact. Paternity and parental leave The DTI recently came under fire from the CBI and the CIPD after it hintedit is considering extending paternity leave and parental leave rights before thenew legislation has had time to bed down. Q. What was the reason for providing such an early steer on extending thelegislation? A. Our Balancing work and family life report launched jointly by theTreasury and DTI on 14 January 2003, sets out the Government’s strategy tohelping working parents, and details the April 2003 changes. It also looksahead and invites views on future options once the April 2003 changes havebedded down. It states up-front the Government’s commitment to reviewing the duty toconsider requests for flexible working in three years time. Possible next steps in the report include allowing parents to use their fullparental leave as one block at the end of maternity, paternity or adoptionleave, whether to allow fathers time off to attend ante-natal care classes, andextending the period of paid paternity leave. The report makes it very clear that time will be needed to bed down rightseffective from this month before considering any further changes. Equal Pay Questionnaire Under the Employment Act, the questionnaires give employees the right torequest pay information on a comparable worker of the opposite sex. They arevoluntary, but employers that refuse requests are likely to be penalised iftaken to an employment tribunal. Q. How powerful a tool could the equal pay questionnaire be in helping totackle pay inequalities in the workplace? A. The lack of transparency on pay information has helped toperpetuate the gender pay gap. The questionnaire should help people – mainly women– to establish whether they are actually being paid less than their comparatorsand, if so, why. It will also provide a formal route to obtain informationabout relevant issues such as details of pay schemes and job grading systems,as well as how skills and experience are reflected in the company’s pay system.Establishing the key facts quickly should encourage the issues to be settledwithout resorting to tribunal, benefiting both employers and employees. Q. Although it is voluntary, employers that refuse to co-operate could bepenalised at employment tribunal. Could it effectively force more employers tocarry out pay audits? A. The questionnaire will not force employers to carry out payreviews. However, we would certainly encourage employers to carry out pay reviews andtackle any equal pay problems that emerge. It makes sense to sort out problemsin the workplace and avoid going down the tribunal case route whereverpossible. We are leading by example, and all Government departments and agenciesrepresenting more than half a million employees are committed to completing anequal pay review by this month. Q. The Engineering Employers’ Federation has called for clarificationfrom the DTI to help ensure employers do not breach data protection rules whenproviding information on employees pay under the questionnaire initiative. Isthis a legitimate concern? A. The questionnaire will not alter the common law duty of confidencethat all employers have towards their employees, nor their obligations underthe Data Protection Act 1998. Where information is confidential, an employerwould only be able to disclose the information if they had the consent of theperson in question, where there is a legal obligation to do so, or where thereis a strong public interest requirement. I accept that in some cases employers may not be prepared to provideinformation that they believe is confidential. But if the case then proceeds toa tribunal complaint, tribunals could order disclosure of relevant informationif they believed it was in the interests of justice to do so. Importantly, it is unlikely that a tribunal would consider that an employerhad acted unreasonably simply because they had erred on the side of caution. Statutory grievance procedures Under the Employment Act, organisations will have to ensure they haveminimum standards in grievance procedures, which they and their staff mustfollow before workplace disputes are taken to employment tribunals. Thissection of the Act is not due to come into force until April next year. It has been argued that the statutory grievance procedures could lead tosome employers downgrading comprehensive existing grievance procedures andadopting the new minimum standards. Q. Are you concerned that this might be a problem? A. Not at all. Good employers will always want to apply establishedgood practice over and above the statutory minimum. Standards haven’t beendriven down in other areas where we have legislated for decent minimumstandards, such as the National Minimum Wage, for example. There is a very important role here for Acas guidance. Its Code of Practiceon disciplinary and grievance procedures provides sensible guidance. It givespractical advice on how to follow the statutory procedures – for example, inensuring meetings are reasonably conducted. The guidance can also identifywhere other, additional procedural actions might be beneficial – such as howinformal discussions can be handled, or investigations conducted. Finally, itgives tailored advice to small organisations. Q. Is the DTI confident that this measure will contribute to a reductionin the number of employment tribunal applications? A. Yes. There has been a general upward trend in tribunal caseloadsacross the board for more than a decade, in long-established rights as well asnew ones. The way to tackle this trend is through improved communication in theworkplace. For example, in 64 per cent of tribunal cases the employer andemployee did not meet each other to attempt to resolve the dispute before theapplication was made, and in almost half of all tribunal cases, employers hadno written procedure for dealing with grievances. Making the workplace the primary place to solve disputes should clearlyreduce the number of employment tribunal applications over time. Learning representatives The Employment Act gives union learning representatives statutory rights topromote workplace learning. The Employers Forum on Statute and Practice (EFSP) has called for moreclarification on the remit of learning representatives – for example, whetherthey can commission training. The EFSP’s chief executive Robbie Gilbert believes that uncertainty overlearning representatives’ roles could lead to clashes with organisations’training departments. Q. Do you think more guidance is necessary to prevent confusion over therole of learning representatives? A. I do not believe there is any ambiguity in the Government’sproposals to give statutory backing to union learning representatives (ULRs).Section 43 of the Employment Act 2002 clearly sets out the functions which ULRsare allowed time off for. We intend to bring this into effect in spring this year, followingParliamentary approval of the revised Acas Code of Practice on Time Off forTrade Union Duties and Activities. This has recently been amended to includeguidance on time off and training for ULRs. The revised code gives clear guidance that ULRs should liaise with theiremployers to ensure their respective training activities complement one anotherand that the scope for duplication is minimised. It also points out thepositive advantages for employers and trade unions in establishing agreementson time off in ways that reflect their own situations. We are aware, however, that some employers are concerned that there is notenough general guidance on the role of ULRs. To meet this concern, next monththe Department for Education and Skills plans to issue a good practice guidefor employers that will provide further details on the roles andresponsibilities of ULRs. This will complement the revised Acas Code andprovide illustrative case studies of the positive benefits for employers inworking closely with ULRs. Weblinks Employment Bill – changes to maternity, paternity and adoption rights:A clear guide to the impact of the changes www.personneltoday.com/goto/13712Flexible working and the response to requests for it: What qualifiesan employee to make a request www.personneltoday.com/goto/11982Equal pay questionnaire guidance: Guidance for employers on how torespond to requests for the questionnaire www.personneltoday.com/goto/18148 Previous Article Next Article Related posts:No related photos.