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Employment law in dire need of reform

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HR leaders, thinkers and CEOs from some of the UK’s most prominent organisations have joined forces with HR magazine to launch a campaign in a bid reduce complexity around employment law, with HR leaders at the heart of a taskforce to push for change.

As our December cover story reveals, employment law in the UK has reached unprecedented levels of complexity, with government consultations, a red tape challenge, political party pronouncements and EU regulation all confusing HRDs dealing with employment relations at the coal face.

James Wilders, employment partner at law firm Dickinson Dees, said: "In 1987, when I started practising, I spent 80% of my time on litigation and 20% on law. Now it's 100% on employment law."

If employment lawyers make careers out of translating complex legislation, what hope is there for an HR professional, whose time should be taken up with devising a people strategy for the business?

As one commentator, Guy Pink, charity Addaction's HRD, points out, government decision-makers have kept HR out of negotiations on employment law, choosing to hold talks with lawyers and business groups such as the CBI.

Nigel Sullivan, group HRD at Talk Talk, said: "The extent to which employment laws should be relaxed to encourage growth is rumoured to have caused tensions in the coalition.

"Steve Hilton, David Cameron's policy advisor, is believed to have instigated rumours 'senior figures' in Number 10 are displeased the chancellor [George Osborne] has not given backing to relaxing employment laws. Jeremy Heywood, Number 10 permanent secretary, has stepped into the furore over changes to employment law and is allegedly proposing only new micro-businesses would benefit from relaxed employment laws, such as no-fault dismissal compensation," said Sullivan.

"His proposals received a hostile response from unions, concerned it would create a two-tier workforce."

Such comments strengthen feelings this is an 'indecisive government' preferring conversations and consultations behind closed doors to speaking to HR directors in an up-front and honest conversation.

Having spoken to representatives from trade union Unite, HR can report the Government has not approached the unions either (as the previous administration did when consulting on the controversial Agency Workers Regulations) - and that it was only prepared to discuss public sector pension reform with them, after some three million public sector employees threatened to strike.

Commentators have suggested changes to TUPE law, the employment tribunal process, the unfair dismissal process, flexible working regulations and disciplinary and grievance procedures.

But Misty Reich, HRD at KFC, said: "What seems clear is that the approach today is to address employment law one topic at a time and in isolation. As with most things, decisions in isolation lead to isolated practices - and a system that has no synergies or shared purpose."

HR's campaign will call for evidence on complexity, gather HR leaders to discuss options, write to the employment minister to push for more open conversation between government, unions and lawyers to devise a roadmap for a solution to how employment legislation is administered.

Employers including LV=, Talk Talk, First Group, KFC, Lancaster University Business School, IG Group, General Mills, Addaction, Broadway Housing, Whitbread and Orient Express have already come forward to join the campaign.

HR, this month, also launches its own employment law service to help HRDs tackle the escalating cost of legal advice, in partnership with consultancy Employment Service Partnership. It will provide employers with legal advice from professional solicitors at a fixed cost, as well as an online resource of information and case studies.