Lively, Dramatic Year Ahead

Article excerpt

After a rocky year for the UK economy, with strikes, redundancies and workers' rights regularly hitting the headlines, North-East employment lawyer Dr John McMullen looks forward to an even more dramatic 2006.

At the end of every year employment lawyers take stock and agree it's been a busy time. Businesses, though, watch with alarm the amount of new regulation they have to cope with.

The year 2005 has been notable, with new laws on equality, including widened definitions of indirect discrimination and sexual harassment which came into force on October 1 via the Employment Equality (Sex Discrimination) Regulations 2005.

New statutory disciplinary dismissal and grievance procedures and revised employment tribunal procedure rules were introduced in October 2004.

Their aim is to reduce tribunal claims and drive dispute resolution into the workplace. If you exclude from the calculation some multiple cases being brought against local authorities in the North-East for equal pay, tribunal cases this year have fallen as a result.

But the new rules are being condemned by both sides of industry. Employees are, it is said, being deterred from exercising tribunal rights because of compulsory grievance procedures before submitting claims.

Employers are faced with new procedures to follow before dismissal that, if breached, result in automatic unfair dismissal and uplifted compensation. A CBI report has now also condemned the new regime on behalf of employers. This turbulent state of affairs will roll over into 2006, until the DTI undertakes a review that many now feel is urgent.

Finally, the 2005 Gate Gourmet dispute has provided us with an example of a classic industrial conflict redolent of the 1970s, escalating in multiple dismissals of strikers and sympathy industrial action. But if you thought this was a busy year, consider what is in store for 2006.

On the plus side for employers, new Transfer of Undertakings (TUPE) Regulations will apply from April 6. They will make it much clearer when TUPE applies to outsourcing, lessening the need for legal advice and reducing the incidence of expensive tribunal litigation.

And the Government has tried to make it easier for employers to harmonise terms and conditions of transferring employees ( although it remains to be seen how big an impact that change will have in practice.

The EC Commission is also seeking to limit new regulations in the workplace. The controversial Agency and Temporary Workers Directive has been shelved and is unlikely to re-surface in 2006.

But new expansive employment protection laws will arrive in plenty. One of the most significant is age discrimination law. The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 to be published in the spring of next year in final form, and to come into effect in October 2006, will prohibit direct and indirect age discrimination in the workplace.

Different treatment of workers on grounds of age will only be justifiable by reference to specific legitimate aims and only if the means employed are appropriate and necessary in the particular circumstances. This will affect decisions on recruitment, selection and promotion.

The retirement age will not be abolished ( there will be a default retirement age of 65 ( but older workers will have the right to request to stay on longer and an employer will have a specific duty to seriously consider this. …