In a speech this afternoon to the Conservative Party Conference, George Osborne Chancellor of the Exchequer has confirmed that the qualifying period for standard unfair dismissal claims is to be increased from one year to two from 6 April 2012. This statement does not come as a great surprise since the issue was the subject of a Government consultation earlier this year. The Chancellor said that this proposed change is one of a raft of measures to help small businesses. It is notable that the proposed extension of the qualifying period is not confined to small employers but would appear to affect all employers, irrespective of size. The Government has expressed the hope that by increasing the limit, employers will be more encouraged to take on new staff. As this change in the law would represent an erosion of employee rights, it is controversial and the unions in particular have expressed their opposition. It will, however, be welcomed by employers since it will make it easier for them to dismiss employees with less than two years’ service.

Strong views will no doubt be expressed on both sides concerning the change, but will it make much difference in practice?

  • The Government hopes that the number of standard unfair dismissal claims will drop by about 2000 per year. A reduction may well occur as employees who have not acquired precisely one year and 50 weeks’ continuous employment will not be entitled to make a claim for unfair dismissal, so will be more vulnerable to dismissal without their employer following the appropriate procedure.
  • It is likely, however, that there will be an increase in the number of discrimination or whistleblowing unfair dismissal claims, some of which are likely to be spurious. There is no qualifying period of employment for such claims and, significantly, neither have an upper compensation limit (unlike standard unfair dismissal where the limit currently stands at £ 68,400). Employees may therefore be inclined to bring more claims of this nature but it is possible that the proposal to introduce fees for bringing a claim in the Employment Tribunal might act as a deterrent to some extent.
  • Employers might become less focussed on dismissing poor performers early on. Prudent employers will often make use of probationary periods and will have therefore terminated the employment of those employees with whom they are unhappy, well before the current one year qualifying period is up.   For them, having the extra year to dismiss may perhaps not make a great difference in the ordinary course. Other less diligent employers may be tempted to delay performance management problems for longer than at present.
  • In the difficult economic situation which businesses now face, employers may be tempted to select employees with less than two years’ service for redundancy rather than choosing longer service employees whose dismissals would be more costly (since they will trigger statutory redundancy pay). Employers should remember, however, that any employer proposing to dismiss 20 or more employees by reason of redundancy is required to observe the collective redundancy obligations of informing and consulting trade unions or employee representatives. Hence, even though employees with less than two years’ service might not have the right to redundancy pay, they will still be counted for the purposes of assessing whether collective redundancy obligations are triggered.

This isn’t the first time that there has been a qualifying period of two years. The limit prior to 1999 was also two years and was reduced by the Labour Government. Prior to this change in the law, there had been a legal challenge that the two year limit was itself indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of sex because women tended to have shorter service than men (R v Secretary of State exparte Seymour-smith and Perez (No.2) [2000] IRLR 263). The challenge was unsuccessful because although the House of Lords found that the limit did result in a disparate impact between men and women, it was objectively justified. However, the Government proceeded to change the law anyway since it had already committed to making the change in what was one of the first pieces of legislation of the incoming Labour Government. It is therefore conceivable that the increase could be subject to another such challenge since the question of whether the increase is objectively justifiable will turn on the statistical evidence presented to the Court at the relevant time.

Another possible challenge might come on the grounds of indirect age discrimination. It is not inconceivable that statistical evidence could be adduced to show that the change has a disparate adverse impact on younger workers because they are less likely to have two years’ qualifying period of employment. If such evidence could be found, the Government would have to show that it had a legitimate aim in increasing the limit and that as a means of achieving that aim, the increase in the qualifying period was proportionate.   If, for example, the Government argues that its aim is to encourage employers to recruit more staff, one would assume that for that to succeed, there would have to be statistical evidence linking the change in the law with job creation. Even if that were possible, one can foresee arguments about alternative options that might have had a lesser detrimental impact on younger employees such as a reduction in the upper limit of the compensatory award for unfair dismissal.   It may not be an easy case for the Government to prove!