Year on year I see it dawn on the faces of the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed recruits to the teaching profession that at some point during their career a kid might make a false accusation against them and they are going to have to deal with the fallout. Inevitably the Q&A for this particular session lasts a while as urban myths and true horror stories are explored side by side – What do you do? Who do you call? Will you get fired/suspended/struck off/hung, drawn and quartered on the front page of the Daily Mail?
It is my job to reassure these rookies that the teaching profession is generally well equipped to support them. High union membership (over 90 per cent), teams of suitability qualified reps and Labour’s Employment Relations Act 1999 all mean that not only will they have someone to turn to but that someone will be by their side every step of the way. This, in my view, is how it should be.
But what if you are pulled into formal disciplinary proceedings and are one of the 74 per cent of workers that is not in a trade union, and worse, employed in a sector without strong trade union membership?
The current law and guidance does provide a little for you too. While the Employment Relations Act 1999 only leaves you with one option – find a brave co-worker and see if they will stick their head above the parapet – the current ACAS guidance does allow you to make a ‘reasonable request’ for support from someone of your choosing; this would include a friend, family member or any other suitability qualified individual you choose.
All was well (mostly) until a recent court ruling, concerning the refusal of GB Oils to allow an employee to be to be accompanied at a grievance hearing by a companion of their choice, that suggested that the ACAS guidance did not accurately reflect the law. As a result a recent ACAS consultation has proposed the removal of the provision to make a reasonable request for a companion of your choice and restrict the request to a trade union rep or colleague.
If implemented, unless a non-unionised individual can find a colleague who is willing to support them (made more difficult by the fact that any companion must not prejudice the hearing), up to three-quarters of the working population will not be entitled to any accompaniment or support during disciplinary meetings. They will be forced to go solo against an increasingly professional and skilled HR workforce.
My advice to the 74 per cent, just like my advice to my new recruits, is to join a union pronto. However, for me, our values do not stop at the online registration page. As a party, trade unions and wider Labour movement we have a responsibility to ensure that all workers’ rights are protected – members or not. At the very least removing rights of workers through the back door in this way is unacceptable and deserves a proper debate and scrutiny. If we are serious about our Labour movement we should be leading the charge – Vince Cable and his department would be a good place to start and I am sure that our colleagues on the ACAS council would be right behind us.
Matthew Hood is a member of Progress. He tweets @MatthewHood
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