Cable’s employment reforms ‘provide cover for workplace bullying’

By Ian Dunt

Vince Cable's tentative plans to reform employment law could provide the perfect cover for bosses to bully their staff, unions have warned.

Workers' groups are particularly concerned about the business secretary's consultation on 'protected conversations', which would allow employers to have frank discussions with staff about underperformance without worrying that the conversation could later be used in evidence at a tribunal.

"This could simply provide the perfect cover for rogue bosses to bully at whim without fear of ever being found out," said TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.

"Allowing conversations that happen at work over difficult issues like retirement or poor performance to take place but not permitting their record to be referred to in the future, should a case ever go to tribunal, is hugely worrying."

Dan Watkins, director of Contact Law, commented: "The introduction of 'protected conversations' will offer employers the chance to have frank conversations with staff about their performances without fear of their every word being scrutinised and potentially used against them in a tribunal.

"But the whiff of off the record, extra-judicial chats will be a hard sell to both the trade unions and employees."

Campaigners are worried that employers could intimidate staff or even brandish their prejudices, safe in the knowledge the conversation could not be referred to at tribunal.

Mr Cable will set out the full range of his recommendations in a speech to the Engineering Employers Federation later, as he seeks to find a balance between the pressure for looser employment laws from his Tory colleagues and the wary response of the Lib Dem rank-and-file to what will be seen as a right-wing initiative supported by the business community.

The business secretary will set up a 'call for evidence' on plans to reduce the consultation period on planned redundancies from 90 days to 30.

There are also proposals for all claims to go to conciliation service Acas before reaching employment tribunals and a 'rapid resolution scheme' for simple cases to be settled within three months.

Opponents argue that the policies run against the available evidence. Germany, for instance, has some of the most protected workers in the world but it easily outperforms all other European economies.

But Mr Cable's measures are themselves a compromise with some of the more radical proposals being suggested in government.

Tory donor Adrian Beecroft recently provided the government with a paper arguing unproductive workers should lose their right to unfair dismissal claims. Lib Dems managed to kill the proposal.

"Watering down people's rights at work by doubling the service requirement to claim for unfair dismissal from one to two years is not a substitute for a credible plan for growth," shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said.

"There is no empirical evidence to suggest such a move will boost job creation and it is highly likely that this change will lead to more people bringing discrimination claims instead which have no service requirement."

"Instead of seeking to make it easier to fire people the government should be looking to make it easier to hire people."

RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: "Not content with opening up the widest gap between rich and poor since Victorian times, Vince Cable and the ConDems now want to drag us back to the days of hire and fire where workers have to grovel to the boss for the right to earn a days’ pay."

Adam Marshall, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), backed the proposals.

"Mandatory Acas involvement and new claimant fees will make the system fairer by ensuring that baseless claims are weeded out, and the pressure to settle is reduced," he said.

"The proposal to investigate a fast-track scheme for simple claims could also help.

"Once these reforms are in place, firms won't have to waste time and money and can focus on running their business and delivering growth instead. It will also mean that genuine grievances get a better hearing."