Acas Early Conciliation – a free, new service
Saving time is saving money and that is one of the benefits of a new employment law coming into force on 6 April 2014. The legislation change will introduce the new Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) Early Conciliation service. Under this, anyone wanting to make an employment tribunal claim first has to contact the employment relations organisation to try to resolve the issue before an actual tribunal can take place. This service is offered free of charge.
With this change on the horizon, Chris Peat spoke to Director Operational Policy and Performance at Acas, Gill McCarthy, to find out what this means for operators
Quicker, easier and less stress
Gill explained that, when Acas receives notification that an employee is thinking about a tribunal claim, it will try to resolve the dispute quickly and cost effectively under the new scheme. She said tribunals can be costly and time consuming, not to mention stressful. The introduction of this legislation change is intended to reduce these difficulties by resolving issues before they even get to the tribunal stage. Gill believes it is always better for both employer and employee to resolve difficulties as soon as possible, prevention of a tribunal being better than the cure that may result from one taking place. The organisation’s free conciliation service is available for a range of workplace disputes, including: unfair dismissals, workplace discrimination, redundancy payments, deductions from payment, rights to time off or flexible working hours and equal pay.
Once Acas receives an Early Conciliation request, it will phone the person making it within a further working day. In that call it will gather the necessary information and will pass the case onto a conciliator who will aim to contact both parties within one working day. Gill said that, even though an employee gets in touch with them, Acas will not necessarily be on the side of the employee; it aims to maintain an impartial position to help both employer and employee.
The change is part of a bigger package, the tip of the iceberg resulting from the government’s Resolving Workplace Disputes consultation that came out in 2011. There has been a whole range of alterations to legislation following this report, including changes to the qualifying period for unfair dismissals. The decision to involve Acas in workplace disputes is not something new to employers. Even prior to Early Conciliation being introduced, the publically funded body already played a role in preventing tribunals, providing its Pre Claim Conciliation (PCC) service.
Acas recently commissioned independent studies into its PCC service and the use of Early Conciliation Support Officers (ECSOs), which suggested employers and employees are benefiting from early intervention into workplace disputes. The research found nearly 90% of employers who used PCC said that they would use it again. It showed two thirds of employees would advise a friend or relative to use PCC if they were involved in a similar dispute. Eight out of ten users said Acas was important in helping to resolve their dispute and service users reported that PCC was cheaper, easier or more convenient, less traumatic or stressful and resolved their issue more quickly than submitting an employment tribunal claim. It is the success of this PCC service that led the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to choose the organisation to provide Early Conciliation.
Another employment legislation change Acas is playing a part in is a new code for flexible working hours. Later this year, all employees who have worked for their employer for 26 weeks or more will have the right to ask if they can work flexibly. The organisation has published a draft code of practice to help operators in the run up to this law taking effect (visit www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/p/6/Handling-requests-to-work-flexibly-in-a-reasonable-manner-an-Acas-guide.pdf to access it). It includes advice on making a request to work flexibly, handling such requests fairly, avoiding discrimination and dealing with appeals. Gill said, ‘We are making employers aware of what’s reasonable for their employees to ask for in this document, preparing them for what it will mean for them.’
What is Acas?
Having been around for nearly 40 years, Acas’s wider services include providing best practice in the work place. Its national and regional advisers help companies and other organisations improve their employment practice, as well as solve disputes and other employment issues. It was previously a part of the government, but in 1974 was separated. Over the years, the independent body’s role has remained relatively similar, aiming to provide impartial advice and assistance. It provides mediation, training, business solutions and international services, aiding firms both small and large to get employment issues right.
Acas has a lot of experience working within the bus and coach industry. On a larger scale, it has dealt with a range of collective disputes with big trade unions. On a more individual scale, employer/employee disputes in the PCV sector are similar to those in all other workplaces. Some of the most common situations it deals with concern disciplinaries and dismissals. Grievances, such as employees unhappy about their workplace are another frequent aspect it deals with.
Even though the introduction of Early Conciliation should make resolving most employment disagreements easier, it is still something to be avoided in the first place. Gill advises ensuring you are up to date with ‘what’s going on in terms of legal requirements’. One way of doing this is to sign up to the Acas newsletter (https://obs.acas.org.uk/subscription/), written to keep its readership as informed with new workplace legislation and other relevant changes as possible.
Gill advises contacting Acas as soon as possible to access the correct advice if an employment issue ever arises. The organisation has a helpline, available on the phone (08457 47 47 47) and online (www.acas.org.uk/helplineonline), which takes nearly a million enquiries a year.
With the success the PCC scheme has had, Gill is confident Early Conciliation will work. She remains realistic, claiming it will not completely rule out employment tribunals, but will reduce them. Perhaps the most eye catching aspect of the upcoming conciliation service is the fact it is free, meaning any grievances or disputes with employees no longer necessarily signify high costs.
By Chris Peat