Legal verdict 'may change face of industrial relations'

Scholar claims ICE ruling marks a watershed in higher education. Melanie Newman reports

June 25, 2009

An academic has won a ruling against his university under little-known regulations that he says could change the face of industrial relations in higher education.

Geoffrey Darnton, head of knowledge transfer at Bournemouth University's Business School, accused the institution of breaching a law that requires organisations to give staff access to financial information and consult them over decisions that are likely to affect their employment.

Under the Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) regulations, which came into force in 2005, staff can force their university to inform and consult them about key decisions by making a formal request to negotiate an ICE agreement.

Mr Darnton filed such a request with the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) in October 2007 during a period of restructuring at Bournemouth. By August 2008, however, no agreement had been reached, triggering a requirement that the university arrange a ballot of employees to elect "information and consultation representatives". The university failed to do this, Mr Darnton said.

Bournemouth said it had established an ICE forum, and that most of its members had agreed to extend the negotiating timetable. However, in a recent judgment the CAC upheld Mr Darnton's complaint and ordered the university to arrange the ballot.

Mr Darnton said the university could be liable for a fine of up to £75,000 as a result.

"It is my position that the whole higher education sector would benefit by all institutions ... applying the regulations," he said.

He added that doing so would give employees advance warning of potential decisions likely to affect the organisation of their universities, such as potential redundancies.

Mr Darnton said: "Under the current regime, employees usually find out about reductions in staffing levels only once a decision has been made. This could change the whole landscape of industrial relations in universities."

He predicted that it would take up to ten years before staff fully understood the implications of the law, adding that unions were often hostile to the legislation because "they like a monopoly on negotiating arrangements".

"Here in Bournemouth, I think staff are slowly realising that the ICE regulations can be a very powerful tool for obtaining advance warning of plans," he said.

A university spokesman said: "The ICE regulations are a comparatively new piece of employment legislation. With little case law, we and our advisers interpreted the regulations as best we can."

He said the university was considering whether to appeal against the CAC decision.

John McMullen, employment lawyer at law firm Short Richardson and Forth, said he thought it unlikely that Mr Darnton's victory marked a watershed moment.

He said that the European law that underpinned ICE - the National Works Council Directive - had been "hugely watered down" when implemented in Britain, so that employees had no automatic right to consultation.

"To trigger these rights, you need a request signed by 10 per cent of the workforce. Relatively few requests have been made," he added.

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