Rocky road ahead for ACAS early bird intervention

One of the founding fathers of ACAS predicts a rocky transition to the compulsory early-bird intervention required before parties can proceed to a full-blown employment tribunal.

Colin McGrath, an employment tribunal member in Manchester for over 30 years, who lives in the Scottish Borders, says there are likely to be hold-ups because ACAS is not fully prepared for what could well be an influx of employment claims.

Speaking at a session organised by United Employment Lawyers and law firm Bannerman Burke in Melrose, Mr McGrath explained that since July 2013 the introduction of charges has resulted in an unexpected 79% drop in tribunal claims across the UK.

“Because of this drop, ACAS have not recruited any more people to deal with early intervention because they are not anticipating an increase in tribunal numbers.”

Mr McGrath feels this could lead to future problems and hold-ups in the system, which begins on 6 May 2014.

“This is short-termism by ACAS because there might well be a revival in employment claims. The introduction of charges has cut the numbers but this is likely to lead to an increase in trade union membership in the private sector for protection against employers. Trade union membership has declined in the private sector but the cost of making a claim might well encourage people to join again. Employers have to be very careful.”

Any party wanting to go to an employment tribunal must first register with ACAS to see if an early resolution can settle the dispute. Mr McGrath said there are 23 questions on the application which the ACAS conciliator inquiry officer has to fill out over the phone.

“There will be no advice on the level for settlement. ACAS will not say to either side if they will win or not. Yet if you think you are likely to win, then you are not really going to make an offer. The system was all supposed to be organised for early April but it has been deferred. This was meant to be a transition period.”

Mr McGrath, who was the personnel director and Head of Personnel and Training of major UK companies including Stakis and De Vere hotels, was involved in the discussions on the setting up of ACAS, the arbitration and conciliation service, in 1975.

“For ACAS, things have changed dramatically since I was involved at its inception. Its role has changed significantly.”

He has been an employment tribunal member in Manchester since 1981.

“In Manchester, we were the first pilot scheme brought in about two years ago to consider early conciliation which has now evolved into the new arrangements that have come in.”

He says the UK government’s objective was to keep people out of employment tribunals to save money.

“If there weren’t any tribunals, it means that the working world is operating properly but we know that this doesn’t work realistically.”

While the world of work is changing, many issues remain the same in terms of fairness and justice at work.

“The concept of casuals, part-timers and zero hour contracts might be in the news but I’ve been involved with them since the 1970s. There is nothing new about this for the hospitality industry. It is about how you set up the agreements that matter.”