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Friday, 20 July, 2001, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Ministers risk new union battle
TUC general secretary John Monks
Mr Monks warns the changes could inflame relations
The government is risking another battle with unions and its own backbenchers after announcing plans to charge workers for taking cases to employment tribunals.

The fee - which ministers say will be a "modest amount" and not the 100 quoted in some reports - is part of a package of measures aimed at widening the use of arbitration and speeding up the tribunals system.

It's a very bad suggestion

TUC head John Monks
But there are fears the charge will "ration justice" and discriminate against the less well-off.

And the government has been warned the measures could worsen relations with its supporters just as battle is being joined over ministers' plans to widen private sector involvement in the public services.

The same desire for reform and modernisation is driving the shake-up of the employment tribunals system.

It is under severe strain, with 130,000 tribunal applications in England and Wales last year, of which three out of four were settled out of court.

Employer backing

Employers, who can face large costs dealing with actions launched against them, have broadly backed the government's proposals, launched for consultation on Friday.

TUC leader John Monks told BBC News his organisation supported the government's aim to get more disputes settled before the court process began.

But of the plan to charge a tribunal fee he said: "It's a very bad suggestion. It's one that we regard as against the basic human rights of people."

New proposals include:
Complainant fees
In-house dispute resolution procedures
Increasing awards where procedures not in place
Fast-track system for some cases
Fixed period of conciliation
And he had a wider warning for ministers: "I think it'll inflame things and make it more difficult to settle some of the very big issues we've got on the role of the private sector in relation to public services.

"It doesn't do anything for the government's standing to be somehow seen as anti-worker in these kind of very human and rather difficult situations."

His view of the charging proposal was echoed by John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB union, who said: "Access to industrial justice should be based on need rather than ability to pay."

The Industrial Society was also critical, calling for increased funding of the conciliation service Acas instead.

'Constructive proposals'

But Employment Relations Minister Alan Johnson defended the plan.

The aim, he said, was to improve dispute resolution in the workplace while providing increased funding for the tribunals service to make it faster and more efficient.

"I think in any debate on that we have to look very carefully at issues that perhaps have been thought too difficult in the past but we think are very constructive proposals.

"But in no way can this be considered anti-worker."

Alan Johnson
Alan Johnson: Tribunals are expensive for businesses
It was a small charge, as in the civil courts, which 25% of people would not pay because those on benefits or in genuine need will be exempt.

Funds raised would be ploughed back into the employment service while those who won their cases would get a full refund, Mr Johnson said.

The government is also concerned about the costs to business of defending tribunal actions, often exceeding 5,000 plus associated management costs as well as the damage to workplace relations.

The new proposals include the introduction of in-house dispute resolution procedures, and increasing tribunal awards where procedures are not used by an employer.

The British Chambers of Commerce welcomed the review of the current tribunal system, which it described as "ridiculous and costly".

Director General David Lennan said: "We will be consulting employers over the next couple of months to work on the detailed proposals, but feel that the government is moving in the right direction."

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