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A bit of this and a bit of that is the future of employment relations

Stephen Overell

08 April 2011

It’s a coalition, after all, so perhaps ideological clarity is a luxury government ministers can ill afford. Nevertheless, Ed Davey, the employment relations minister, left a few people puzzling over the direction of travel at a Work Foundation event on the future of employment relations this week.

He was emphatic that the delay on introducing the right to request flexible working to parents of children up to 18, announced in the Budget, was just that: an administrative delay. The government was fully committed to the principle of flexible working rights being extended to everybody, as per the Coalition agreement. There was “no losing heart on work-life balance”, he said.

But asked if the three-year moratorium on new employment rights for small firms, also introduced in the Budget, might turn into something more permanent, implying further moves towards “two tier” labour law, he seemed somewhat equivocal. “There are discussions about an extension or otherwise. Some in the Treasury and elsewhere are talking”.  

Mr Davey said the UK was a “lightly regulated” economy with a flexible labour market that ought to be seen as a “success story”. Still, he also spoke of the need to “build business confidence to hire” through doubling the qualification period for unfair dismissal rights (thus reducing rights enforcement) and helping rid the system of “vexatious claimants.”

Mr Davey is a warm and articulate performer. In particular he spoke with passion in favour of mediation and for pre-claim conciliation before going on to make a convincing case that a tribunal needs to be seen as “the ultimate failure of employment relations”.

Yet when things go wrong, people also need to be able to enforce their rights. He was “not in the business of limiting access to justice”, he said.

But if so, why introduce fees to bring a tribunal claim – a current government proposal that is being widely interpreted as a pretty basic attempt to deter claims?

Mr Davey’s answer was that fees were common in other branches of the legal system and employment tribunals should be no different. This is a departure from the conventional view of tribunals which holds them to be somewhat removed from normal contract law because of the imbalance of power in the employment relationship. But in any case, he said, fees were something that Mr Davey’s colleagues in the Ministry of Justice would consult on in time rather than his own department of business.

And the vision underlying the reforms? Why, that would be g-force. The unprecedented economic problems the coalition is determined to tackle mean growth is everything. Enterprise needs nurturing and business needs encouraging. Employment relations ought to be seen in that light.