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Employment legislation: Untangling the red tape. By Matt Henkes


The obvious roll of red tape

The crushing weight of current employment laws may be cause to complain, but they’re not going away any time soon. Matt Henkes looks at how you can keep up to date and where some companies are slipping up.

Long-serving HR professionals may grumble about the amount of employment regulations they face these days but, like it or not, keeping up to date has become part of every HR specialist’s job. Mistakes not only cost time and money, but could also potentially threaten the survival of your business.

Eagle-eyed employees willing to abuse the system might be eager to trip up an unsuspecting employer. On the other hand, less scrupulous firms may knowingly take advantage of the people they employ. That’s why, as well as keeping umpteen numbers of lawyers and consultants in a job, the double-edged sword of employment legislation aims to protect everyone.

Unfortunately, this comprehensive blade of truth can cause exasperation for the vast majority that would prefer to work, at least some of the time, using their common sense.

Catching the changes

Changes in the pipeline

  • Increased annual leave

  • On 1 October, statutory annual leave will increase from 20 to 24 days (4 to 4.8 weeks). Then on 1 April 2009 it will increase from 24 to 28 days.

  • Flexible working

  • Rights to request flexible working was extended to carers of adults in April this year, and is to be further extended to include foster carers and adoptive parents from 1 October.

  • National minimum wage

  • The minimum wage is to increase from 1 October. Workers over the age of 22 will be entitled to £5.52 per hour, while 18 to 21 year olds will command £4.60. In August, Teresa Aguda, the proprietor of a children’s nursery in Walthamstow, became the first person to be criminally prosecuted for breaking minimum wage laws. She was fined £2,500.

    You will have had to gaffer-tape your eyes and ears shut to miss this summer’s implementation of the smoking ban but for smaller firms, other legislation such as the increased rights to request flexible working for parents and carers may have slipped pass, leaving unvigilant organisations at risk of incurring hefty fines. So how can you keep up to date with the rapidly changing legal landscape?

    The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. The entire UK HR industry is currently fumbling to stay current and compliant with legislation, and one of the best ways to keep up to date, not only with the changes but also with best practice in dealing with them, is to network with your fellow professionals.

    Helen Crook, an associate at employment specialist PES, acknowledges the task may be harder for companies with smaller HR teams, but she adds there are many magazines and websites which offer a wealth of free information.

    Organisations like the EEF are also on hand to help, by providing training in dealing with legislation. LearnDirect also offers a number of courses aimed at dealing with specific areas of employment law that businesses can find confusing. And of course, if you’re unsure, you can always seek legal advice.

    “It depends how active you are really,” adds Crook. “There are a number of email updates you can sign up for, though it’s worth talking to people to find out which ones are any good.”

    Obligatory burden

    Simply finding out what your obligations are, however, is not sufficient. “The biggest thing most people complain about is the statutory disciplinary and dismissal procedures,” says Nicola Brown, an associate at employment law specialists Thomas Eggar LLP. “There are lots of technical areas where employers have found themselves having difficulties, where you’ve got to comply, otherwise it’s automatically unfair.”

    Following the news this month that grievance claims were up by 15 per cent, whether the government thinks the statutory procedures are too complicated can perhaps be ascertained from a consultation on repealing the current regulations, which closed earlier this summer. It looked at all aspects of the system, including the existing legal requirements, how employment tribunals work, and the scope for new initiatives to help resolve disputes at an earlier stage.

    Brown says the other laws that regularly cause difficulty are on retirement, again because of the rigid nature of the procedure which employers are obligated to follow. New legislation which came into force last year is currently the subject of a heated debate as well as a European High Court challenge involving the age concern group Heyday, which may result in the law being amended.

    “The retirement legislation is pretty easy to comply with,” says Brown, “but you’d be amazed how many employers slip up on it. It’s probably because it’s new.”

    “The retirement legislation is pretty easy to comply with, but you’d be amazed how many employers slip up on it. It’s probably because it’s new.”

    Nicola Brown, associate, Thomas Eggar LLP

    However, the burden of legislation may not be as bad as it seems. Gillian Dowling, employment technical consultant at law and compliance consultants Croner, believes firms can save themselves time and money just by getting the simple things right.

    “Too often, business owners think they have to implement time consuming and expensive processes to solve workplace issues or prepare for new legislation,” she says. “But by getting the basics right from the outset, such as having contracts of employment and company-wide health and safety rules, businesses can not only minimise the risk of employment tribunal claims or an accident, they can save money.”

    Contracts of employment are often seen as unnecessary paper work and many firms don’t take the time to get them right. The obligation to issue written statements of employment has been law since the 1960s and they can protect an employer in a number of different ways. For instance, specific clauses relevant to an employer’s business could prevent losses such as damage to property by making the employees liable for insurance excesses for lost laptops and damage to company vehicles.

    “To be honest, I don’t feel that the regulatory burdens are much greater than we had in the past, but it’s the popular perception that the changing laws have created a lot more red tape,” says Brown.

    Further information

    The government’s Businesslink website includes a tool that can help you create a legal statement of employment.

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