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Review finds that Employment Relations Act is 'working well'

3 March 2003 - A DTI review of The Employment Relations Act (1999) indicates that it is succeeding in delivering better working standards and promoting a new climate of co-operation between workers and employers.

The Employment Relations Act 1999 introduced:

* A statutory procedure for trade unions to be recognised (or derecognised) for collective bargaining purposes in organizations employing more than 20 workers. The Act provides for recognition to be awarded by an independent public body (the Central Arbitration Committee) where:

(a) either a majority of the relevant workforce are union members (so-called "automatic recognition) ; or

(b) following a ballot where a majority of those voting and at least 40% of those entitled to vote support recognition.

* The right for a worker to be accompanied by a trade union official at disciplinary and grievance hearings

* New protections against dismissal for employees taking official, lawfully-organised industrial action, making it unfair to dismiss in the 8 weeks following the commencement of action and thereafter if the employer has not taken all reasonable procedural steps to resolve the dispute.

* Strengthened rights to belong to a union.

* Measures to promote family- friendly working.

* Reform of tribunal awards for unfair dismissal (for example, by raising the maximum limit of compensatory awards from £12,000 to £50,000).

Review of the Act

Key findings of the review include:

- Recognition procedure has operated smoothly with cases now decided in less than half the time. Inter-union disputes and legal challenges are rare

- The Act has encouraged voluntary settlement of recognition claims since 1998. Employers and unions have reached over 1,000 voluntary recognition agreements.

However, a number of changes are proposed to improve the efficiency and clarity of the law, including:

* Provision of earlier access rights to unions in recognition cases.

Clarification of the law on the 'right to be accompanied' so companions can contribute during disciplinary or grievance hearings.

Establishment of a new legal right for workers to access their union's services.

The DTI will also consider modifying aspects of trade union law, including the law on political fund ballots and union elections to lighten the administrative burdens on unions. But the review finds no evidence to support changing the central pillars of the Act, such as:

- the rules governing automatic recognition, where the majority are union members.

- the 40% threshold for statutory recognition ballots.

- the exclusion of workplaces with less than 21 employees from statutory recognition.

- the eight week period of protection for striking workers against dismissal - though the review suggests that days on which workers are locked out might be disregarded.

Employment Relations Minister, Alan Johnson, said:

"The evidence suggests that this law is working well. The fine-tuning proposed today will make it work even better. The number of strikes is at an all time low, while the number of people in work is at an all time high. With the success of this law, a new culture at work is emerging. Employers and unions are working together. And together, we are working well."

Consultation ends on 22 May 2003.

Commenting on the review of the Employment Relations Act, Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary Elect said:

"While there are some useful advances in this White Paper that will make a real difference to people at work, unions will find the Government’s rejection of many TUC proposals extremely disappointing. The government would be unwise to ignore the real anger in unions today. Our call for people at work to have a right to be represented by a union when a majority back it, irrespective of the size of the business, is a basic human right.

'Our call for an end to the rigged votes in recognition ballots where abstentions count the same as votes against is a simple matter of democracy. Our call to end the right of employers to sack staff after eight weeks on strike would enshrine the basic human right to withdraw your labour. Of course we welcome the measures that will help people at work and the technical improvements in employment law and union recognition procedures, but on balance the white paper has been too influenced by business lobbying.

'But this is a consultation document. It is not too late for the government to recognise the justice of our case. We will be pressing hard during the consultation period for progress on the small firms exemption, the recognition ballot threshold, protection for striking workers, full implementation of the requirements brought about by the Wilson Palmer case, and proper protection for union members from victimisation by companies resisting union recognition claims.'

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