While New Labour’s erstwhile tenure on the government benches produced a shamefully modest amount of initiatives aimed at redressing the legislative imbalance it inherited from the Thatcher/Major years in industrial relations law, one lasting change was the creation of a statutory right for workers to be accompanied at disciplinary and grievance hearings by a trade union representative.
The right is contained at s.10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999. It applies to all workers. Where breached, the worker will be entitled to claim compensation of up to two weeks wages. The right goes further than mere accompaniment: s.10(2B) provides that the worker’s chosen companion must be permitted by the employer to put the worker’s case to witnesses, sum up the case and respond to anything said at a meeting on behalf of the worker.
The worker’s choice of companion is absolute; the right will be breached even where the employer refuses the request on grounds which seem ostensibly reasonable. In the case of Toal v GB Oils Ltd, for example, a worker had requested that he be accompanied to a grievance hearing by a workplace trade union representative. The employer refused the worker’s choice of companion on the ground that he was currently suspended from work following a slight ruckus he had found himself involved in with a fellow colleague. The Employment Appeal Tribunal held that the refusal was a breach of the worker’s s.10 right irrespective of the reasons.
The right to be accompanied is now an important part of industrial relations. It gives a degree of substance to the procedural steps set out in the ACAS Codes of Practice.