Outgoing Acas chair: fees could hamper conciliation process

Acas chairman Ed Sweeney recently stepped down from his role after six years at the helm of the employment advisory service. HR magazine caught up with Sweeney to discuss tribunal fees and the future of Acas.

During his time at Acas, Sweeney presided over important issues regarding employment relations. One of these was the launch of a pre-claim conciliation service, which last year helped resolve more than 21,000 disputes between employers and employees. On the back of its success, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills asked Acas to provide Early Conciliation, set to be introduced in April.

This means anyone who wants to lodge an employment tribunal claim will have to notify Acas, which will attempt to resolve the dispute within a month. Sweeney said it coincides with the introduction of employment tribunal fees. “When we were devising this, there were noises about fees, but nothing concrete,” he said. 

“I’m delighted people will to come to us first, but my reservations are that once fees start to bite, it could result in employers saying, ‘Show us the colour of your money first’ or, conversely, an employee saying, ‘I’ve paid my money so I want my day in court.’”

Sweeney said since the fees have been introduced, there has been a drop in employment tribunal applications, but his main concern is the ability for Acas to carry out the process.

“What I don’t want in two or three years’ time, if this all falls apart, is for people to say Acas has failed,” he said.

Sweeney’s tenure at Acas spanned one of the most difficult economic times in recent history, but he said this hasn’t had an impact on workplace tensions.

“There will always be workplace tension, but discontent is not on the increase. While we have seen a recent spike in industrial action, explained largely by
significant public sector disputes, days lost to disputes are actually down,” he said.

“The year I joined Acas, one million days were lost to stoppages, in contrast to just under 250,000 in 2012.”

Sweeney recently stepped down from his role after six years at the helm of the employment advisory service. Sweeney, who received a CBE in this year’s New Year Honours, has been replaced at Acas by former TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.