On 23 January the Employment Relations Minister, Edward Davey, announced a pilot scheme for regional mediation networks for SMEs.
This has resulted from the government’s Resolving Workplace Disputes consultation which opened with the consultation document in January 2011 and closed with the government’s response in November 2011.
Located in Cambridge and Manchester, BIS will fund mediation training for employees from a group of 24 SMEs in each of the pilot areas. A network of trained mediators will be available to provide mediation to other organisations with a view to resolving workplace disputes without the need for employment tribunal proceedings.
The pilots will run for 12 months and, if successful, the plan is for them to be extended nationwide. It will be interesting to see how the networks co-exist with the services provided by ACAS since, on the face of it, there appears to be potential for a considerable overlap.
According to the minister:
"We have always said that employment tribunals should be a last resort for resolving workplace disputes. That is why last year we announced a series of measures which offer alternatives when dealing with such problems.
"Mediation offers an informal method of dispute resolution and can be used at the point when problems first arise in the workplace. For both employers and employees it can mean avoiding the need for formal discipline and grievance procedures. And it can also mean avoiding the time-consuming, complex and often stressful employment tribunal process.
"We want to help employers and employees to help themselves. In particular our consultations showed SMEs are often not aware of the benefits that mediation can bring for both parties. This pilot will directly target this group, help to raise awareness of the benefits and reduce the burden on the tribunal system."
It is also intriguing to note the minister’s suggestion that "formal discipline and grievance procedures" can be avoided. What happens if the mediation is unsuccessful? Current case law suggests that disciplinary and grievance procedures should be applied from the outset and that employers should have regard to the relevant ACAS Code of Practice.
In his response to the government consultation ACAS chair Ed Sweeney stated:
"Acas Pre-Claim Conciliation is a highly effective way of resolving disputes before they reach an employment tribunal and offers substantial savings for employers, employees, and the taxpayer. It is quicker, cheaper, and less stressful, and if we can offer early conciliation in more cases we can multiply the benefits of this very successful service."
Mediation training contracts are yet to be awarded but unless the overlap with existing ACAS services is addressed, there is clearly a risk that owners of SMEs may end up more rather than less confused about the services available and what they should do with a view to avoiding tribunal proceedings.