28 October 2013

TUPE reform and the small workforce

Reform of TUPE consultation in the small business

Just occasionally, as your lawyer, I find myself having to advise you to do something really absurd, because an absurd law requires it. One of those is where I am helping you with the sale of your business with, say, just one employee. I have to tell you that in order to comply strictly with TUPE, you have to ask that single employee to elect a representative, for you to consult about the transfer of his employment. You are not allowed to consult the workforce directly, even if you can get all of them round a table in the pub. The collectivist approach is compulsory and elections have to be held, potentially delaying the sale transaction. In practice, most small employers have still carried out direct consultation, but it did not comply with the legislation.
Even in a one-man company, the sole director-employee should supposedly elect himself as representative before he informs and consults himself, in a scene reminiscent of Blackadder in the Dunny-on-the-Wold by-election.
Fortunately that particular absurdity is going, when the proposed reforms to TUPE are enacted. Businesses with ten or fewer than employees will be allowed to consult employees direct, without the rigmarole of elections, where there is no union and there are no existing representatives. However, this will apply only to “micro-businesses”, so the absurdity remains when a larger enterprise transfers a business with a small workforce.
The obligation to inform and consult on a TUPE transfer remains important. Employers have to provide the workforce (or their representatives) with information about the proposed transfer and, when “measures” are proposed in respect of the workforce, consult them. There are no fixed time limits, but the consultation must be a sufficient time before the transfer to enable the views of the employee representatives to be taken into account. Failure to comply with these obligations can result in a Tribunal award of up to 13 weeks’ pay to the affected employees.
The intended reforms to TUPE include a number of other (largely pro-employer) technical changes, but the general principles remain unchanged. The Government has abandoned proposals to abolish the “change of service provision” aspects of TUPE which are probably its most controversial aspect, requiring a new contract or to take on the old contractor’s workforce when a contract is re-tendered.
TUPE gets a bad press, but I am old enough – just – to remember how difficult it was to deal with business and assets sales before TUPE came into force in 1982. There was no means of forcing the workforce to transfer, so the transferring employer stood the risk of redundancy or unfair dismissal claims. On the day of completion, the new employer had to write to all staff offering them jobs on the same terms, which could be accepted by turning up for work on Monday morning. The whole thing was complicated and risky, so the legal process for automatic transfer made things a great deal easier for sellers and corporate lawyers, even if not for contractors and employment lawyers.

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