Is the Government determined to ride roughshod over workers’ rights, or just plain stupid?

Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors

If the Department of Work and Pensions can’t get it right when shedding staff, then no wonder the government is making it easier to sack workers. It claims that employment laws are a burden on business and that employers are scared to take people on for fear of facing an employment tribunal should they later want to get rid. But the case of the Public and Commercial Service union members who last week won their right to redundancy payments should tell ministers, both as policy makers and employers, that simply applying plain common sense should keep them out of the courts.

 

Employment legislation exists to protect employers as well as employees. Regulations are not, on the whole, difficult to understand. Get it right, or just admit when you’ve got it wrong, and you won’t have to pay significant lawyers’ costs for the pleasure of having an employment tribunal judge explaining why you got it wrong.

 

The DWP’s refusal to pay redundancy payments to Jobcentre Plus workers whose fixed term contracts had ended was always difficult to fathom. Its lawyers argued throughout that the JCP workers were dismissed because their fixed term contracts had not been renewed, not because it was a redundancy situation. Yet the law is clear: if an employer decides it needs fewer employees of a particular kind to carry out work, the reason for the dismissal is redundancy.

 

As the employment tribunal judge concluded, there were “no distinguishing factors” to disapply the decision of the Court of Appeal in a similar case involving a lecturer whose fixed term contract was not renewed.

 

In that case (known as Lee), the appeal court ruled that the decision of the college not to renew the claimant’s contract because it had less need for lecturers was a redundancy situation.  Just because it was known that the contract would not be renewed did not alter that.

 

And so the same was always, in our view, going to apply in the JCP cases. In 2010, as a direct result of coalition cuts, there was a freeze on civil service recruitment and no extension of fixed term contracts without ministerial permission. Some limited extensions were granted over the following months, but the need to reduce headcount remained and both the lead claimants in the case – Ms Fanis and Ms Ricciardi -  were eventually dismissed when their contracts were not renewed.

 

Thousands of other fixed term employees suffered the same fate in order that the DWP could meet head count reduction targets set by ministers. To argue that this was not a redundancy situation showed either a determination to ride roughshod over fixed term workers’ rights, or was just plain stupid.

 

Read more about the PCS fixed term contract case in LELR weekly

Click on the image to access the full Thompsons Labour and European Law Review

 

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