University forced to consult staff

Employees use law to compel Bournemouth to reveal financial details. Melanie Newman reports

February 21, 2008

Bournemouth University is the UK's first higher education institution to become subject to a law requiring businesses to give their staff greater access to financial information and to consult them over decisions.

Under the Information and Consultation of Employees regulations, which came into force in 2005, staff have a right to be informed and consulted about key decisions likely to affect their employment. The law also entitles employees to information about their employer's economic situation.

Universities are not automatically required to inform and consult; the duty is triggered only by a formal request from employees to negotiate an ICE agreement or by the employer choosing to start the process.

Geoffrey Darnton, head of knowledge transfer in Bournemouth's Business School, filed a request with the Central Arbitration Committee in October 2007 amid concerns about restructuring and redundancies at the university.

To be valid, the ICE request has to be backed by at least 10 per cent of the university's employees. The university advised Mr Darnton that it had between 1,615 and 2,416 employees, before it supplied the CAC with a list of 2,416 names.

As Mr Darnton's request had only 208 signatories, it was initially turned down. But the university conceded a month later that it had only 1,830 staff and that it would therefore be subject to ICE regulations with respect to Mr Darnton's request.

Mr Darnton has since complained to the CAC about the university's initial failure to provide correct numbers.

A university spokesman described the situation as "complex".

"We made it clear it would take time to examine the records of several hundred temporary and casual staff to ensure that they met the ICE definition of 'employee'," he said.

Negotiations on setting up the ICE agreement are due to begin next month.

In cases when a business is not subject to ICE regulations, the only legislation requiring it to consult staff is the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. This requires the employer to provide very limited information, primarily in redundancy situations, to union representatives. In contrast, when ICE regulations have been successfully requested and implemented, non-union employees have the right to information, and the penalty for withholding that information is a fine of up to £75,000.

Mr Darnton said: "All the turmoil at Bournemouth caused by the sudden proposed dramatic redundancies suggested that it was time for significantly improved corporate governance. The best statutory mechanism to achieve that is the ICE regulations."

A website set up by Bournemouth staff members, buiceagreement.org, claims that essential information, including strategic plans, was withheld by managers during recent consultations on redundancies.

The university said that it had published its strategic plan in full on the intranet and had held meetings and briefings for staff.

The Bournemouth branch of the University and College Union said it welcomed the ICE forum. "We welcome working with non-union representatives and Unison in revitalising consultation in the university," a spokesman said.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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