A week in HR: Discrimination, data and Women's Dayby
This week, Neil Davey reports on the mixed feelings surrounding the European Court of Justice's ruling on forced retirement, the rising number of unfair dismissal claims and a disturbing case of data misuse.
Age discrimination was the top story last week. First of all it was revealed that the number of unfair dismissal claims is soaring, with tribunal cases involving age discrimination showing particularly worrying growth - rising by over a quarter in the past year, according to figures from the Tribunal Service.
Overall, the number of claims is already up by more than 4% year on year, and employment law experts such as Eversheds warn numbers could reach 51,000 by year end – 10,000 more than in 2008.
In other news relating to age discrimination, there was mixed feelings as The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that employees aged 65 or over can legally be forced into retirement. The ECJ’s judgment in the case of Age Concern England (known as Heyday) v Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, ruled that national retirement ages do not breach EU law.
The Times concluded that both the government and companies across Britain would be breathing a temporary sigh of relief with the ruling.
And Kathleen Healy, employment parter at Freshfields, was also optimistic about the ruling. "[The] outcome derails a huge number of potential claims against employers who now retain their legal right to enforce retirement at 65, providing they follow the correct procedure," said Healy. "Employers can now continue with their current financial and succession plans – two of the main areas which prompt them to forcibly retire older employees."
But The Telegraph stressed that the decision must not obviate some serious thinking by the government about how it can be made easier for people to work beyond the "default" retirement age.
Owen Warnock, partner and age discrimination specialist at Eversheds international law firm, also believed there would be further confusion. “Today’s ruling by the ECJ moves the goalposts for employers at a time when they can least afford further confusion on this complicated issue," he said. "While the judgment confirms that Britain's compulsory retirement age may well be lawful as long as it has a "legitimate aim" linked to social or employment policy, its controversial ruling on the circumstances in which direct discrimination can be justified could curtail, or even remove completely, the ability of employers to justify age-based rules, even where there is a perfectly sound reason for them."
In other government news, it has committed itself to a variety of measures including piloting a one stop shop for advice on health & safety and employment legislation, in response to an independent review recommending it improve the quality of guidance it gives to business.
It has pledged to undertake a number of initiatives including piloting a telephone advice service, which provides tailored and "insured advice" to help businesses comply with employment and health and safety law; removing disclaimers which bring the accuracy of guidance into question and encouraging inspectors to avoid prosecution of "reasonable" businesses; and setting out when it will update the most frequently used guidance to comply with the Code of Practice on Guidance.
Almost half of all businesses use external advice about how to follow regulation, spending at least £1.4 billion per year on such services. The actions are designed to increase compliance with the law, boost business confidence in government advice and cut costs for small businesses.
Meanwhile, the issue of data protection has come to the fore once more following the decision by the Information Commissioner's Office to prosecute a company for selling sensitive personal data, including union activities.
The Consulting Association in Droitwich was deemed to have committed a "serious breach" of the Data Protection Act, after a raid on its office's reportedly revealed notes designed to highlight potential troublemakers. Some of the notes uncovered included descriptions such as "ex-shop steward, definite problems", "Irish ex-Army, bad egg".
Up to 40 other construction companies suspected of buying the data in breach of the law are now also being investigated.
The CIPD has subsequently urged employers to get to grips with data protection responsibilities. "This case illustrates why it is so important that employers understand their responsibilities and potential liabilities under data protection law," said Ben Willmott, CIPD senior public policy adviser. "The processing of sensitive personal information, including details of union membership, is unlawful except in a limited number of circumstances, where for example the individual involved has given their consent."
The winners of the 'Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For' were announced at an awards ceremony on 26 February and KPMG topped the 'Best Big Companies to Work For' list for the third year running. Beaverbrooks the Jewellers came first in the 'Best Mid Companies to Work For' list and charity Christians Against Poverty led the 'Best Small Companies to Work For' list.
HR consultancy Penna made it to number six in the 'Best Mid Companies to Work For', climbing 23 places since last year. Chief executive Gary Browning said: "As an HR consultancy we definitely take our own medicine in encouraging employee engagement. Not only does this create a pleasant and supportive work environment where people are happy to be, it also affects the bottom line."
This year saw a 14.4% increase on the number of organisations that entered the awards on the previous year. If you would like to enter your organisation in 2010, go to www.bestcompanies.co.uk.
Finally, to coincide with International Women's Day on 8 March, The European Commission launched an EU-wide campaign to help tackle the gender pay gap. Across the EU economy, women earn on average 17.4% less than men. The new campaign is designed to raise awareness of the pay gap, its causes, and how to tackle it.