Why the Prime Min­is­ter’s ideas merit de­bate in NI

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Analysis & Company Report - with John Simp­son @bel­tel_busi­ness

Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May an­nounced three ma­jor pol­icy steps dur­ing her con­fer­ence speech last week. They merit ex­am­i­na­tion, even if their de­liv­ery was marred by her cough and a prank.

Each pol­icy step in­volved de­volved top­ics but, nev­er­the­less, call for some North­ern Ire­land re­think­ing.

In Great Bri­tain, state­ments are ex­pected on putting a cap on elec­tric­ity prices, al­lo­ca­tion of an in­creased bud­get for af­ford­able and so­cial house build­ing and re­con­sid­er­ing fi­nance for stu­dents in uni­ver­si­ties.

Each pol­icy area will at­tract lo­cal in­ter­est and test the need for sep­a­rate but par­al­lel de­ci­sion mak­ing at Stor­mont.

Elec­tric­ity prices: In NI we have de­volved re­spon­si­bil­ity for en­ergy pol­icy, tak­ing into ac­count the all-is­land whole­sale elec­tric­ity mar­ket. The all-is­land mar­ket pro­vides for gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity and other fea­tures, in­clud­ing on-shore wind sup­plies of elec­tric­ity, which can be brought to­gether in an all-is­land mar­ket­ing ar­range­ment. Dif­fer­ing ar­range­ments for the re­tail (or sup­ply) mar­ket to fi­nal cus­tomers can be added north and south.

House­holds in NI en­joy prices in­flu­enced by reg­u­la­tory pro­cesses that show a sat­is­fac­tory, even slightly favourable, pric­ing regime. For ma­jor in­dus­trial users the out­come is less sat­is­fac­tory. The reg­u­la­tory sys­tem in NI con­cen­trates on the im­pact on do­mes­tic con­sumers which takes lit­tle ac­count of the prob­lems for large in­dus­trial users.

The emerg­ing pro­pos­als in GB have mainly do­mes­tic con­sumers as a tar­get. The is­sue for NI is whether a re­con­sid­er­a­tion of elec­tric­ity prices should re­turn to the ma­jor lo­cal dif­fi­culty of large in­dus­trial users.

House­build­ing: An ex­tra £2bn to add to an ex­ist­ing £7bn bud­get to in­cen­tivise the build­ing of more af­ford­able houses should have a strong ap­peal in Scot­land and NI. By im­pli­ca­tion the Bar­nett for­mula should add ex­tra cap­i­tal funds, pos­si­bly an ex­tra £100m for NI.

Just as there is a need to in­crease the sup­ply of new hous­ing in Eng­land there is a par­al­lel merit for NI. How­ever, whilst ac­knowl­edg­ing a per­sonal non-profit mak­ing in­ter­est in part of this de­bate, across NI the scale and fi­nanc­ing of ad­di­tional house build­ing is cur­rently in­ad­e­quate.

The Hous­ing Ex­ec­u­tive no longer con­tracts to build new hous­ing units. It ex­ists with an in­her­ited bud­get and a need to re­pay older bor­rowed funds at rates which now mean that its op­er­a­tions must be an­nu­ally grant-aided on a dis­pro­por­tion­ate scale. There­fore there is re­liance on hous­ing as­so­ci­a­tions for so­cial hous­ing. The scale of so­cial hous­ing is well be­low what would be de­sir­able par­tic­u­larly be­cause of the need to re­place older hous­ing.

The mes­sage to Stor­mont is that NI is not do­ing enough to main­tain, never mind im­prove, our hous­ing as­sets.

Stu­dent fi­nanc­ing: North­ern Ire­land stu­dents who study here pay fees at about half of the English level. If, as many do, they go to GB, then they in­cur higher fees in Eng­land and Scot­land. Which­ever en­rol­ment route is cho­sen, the mer­its of an eas­ing of the weight of the present fee bur­dens ap­plies here.

Lo­cal stu­dents, and the two lo­cal uni­ver­si­ties, all can claim that some al­le­vi­a­tion of the im­pact of the present fi­nan­cial meth­ods is well mer­ited and the time has come for Stor­mont to re­think its poli­cies.

A re­form of elec­tric­ity prices might be ac­com­plished through a re­dis­tri­bu­tion of the im­pact of reg­u­la­tory re­form but changes in hous­ing poli­cies and stu­dent fi­nanc­ing will both fall on the Stor­mont bud­get. Ex­tra sup­port from the Trea­sury may not be eas­ily won. The mes­sage to the in­com­ing Ex­ec­u­tive, if it ar­rives, is to be pre­pared jointly to solve prob­lems.

Al­most every­body in mod­ern so­ci­ety has a mo­bile tele­phone; that so­phis­ti­cated piece of tech­nol­ogy which en­sures we are al­ways con­tactable.

How­ever, with the preva­lence of smart­phones, covert record­ings are be­com­ing com­mon in the work­place as it be­comes in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to de­tect.

A main con­cern for an em­ployer in such cir­cum­stances will likely be whether a covert record­ing can be used against them; par­tic­u­larly in re­spect of le­gal pro­ceed­ings, in the event re­la­tions with an em­ployee turn sour and an em­ploy­ment claim re­sults. This is­sue has been con­sid­ered in a num­ber of cases, both in North­ern Ire­land and in Great Bri­tain, and it has been held that tri­bunals have a wide dis­cre­tion to de­ter­mine whether ev­i­dence is ad­mis­si­ble.

In the NI case of Richard Vance v Charles Hurst Ltd (2011) NIIT/01501/10, where the tri­bunal awarded Mr Vance £65,300 af­ter de­ter­min­ing that he was un­fairly dis­missed, the tri­bunal placed par­tic­u­lar em­pha­sis on state­ments made to­wards the claimant, which were col­lected by means of a covert record­ing made by the claimant dur­ing a con­sul­ta­tion meet­ing with Charles Hurst’s fran­chise man­ager.

In the English case of Vaughan v Lon­don Bor­ough of Lewisham & Ors (2013) UKEAT/0534/12/ SM, the Em­ploy­ment Ap­peals Tri­bunal held that while se­cret record­ings may be “very distasteful”, they are not in­ad­mis­si­ble sim­ply be­cause the way that they were col­lected may be deemed to be dis­cred­itable.

How­ever, the tri­bunals have drawn a distinc­tion be­tween in­ter­nal meet­ings, where the em­ployee is present, and meet­ings where the par­tic­i­pants or panel with­draw to con­sider their de­ci­sion in pri­vate.

Tri­bunals are typ­i­cally more will­ing to per­mit the sub­mis­sion of record­ings of the for­mer.

How­ever, em­ploy­ers should be aware that where pri­vate de­lib­er­a­tions con­tain ev­i­dence of dis­crim­i­na­tion or un­law­ful con­duct, an em­ploy­ment tri­bunal still has dis­cre­tion to per­mit the covert record­ing.

This was the case in Pun­jab Na­tional Bank (In­ter­na­tional) Lim­ited and oth­ers v Gosain (2014) UKEAT/0003/14.

The claimant left a record­ing de­vice in a room dur­ing breaks dur­ing her dis­ci­plinary and griev­ance hear­ings.

Through­out these breaks, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor was in­structed to dis­miss her and the griev­ance hear­ing man­ager made a sex­ual re­mark about Ms Gosain.

The tri­bunal de­cided that the rel­e­vant ev­i­dence should be bal­anced against the need to en­sure the con­fi­den­tial­ity of the em­ployer’s pri­vate de­lib­er­a­tions.

If a claimant wishes to rely on a covert record­ing, it is likely that the tri­bunal will re­quire the claimant to pre­pare a tran­script of the record­ing and make both this and the record­ing avail­able to the em­ployer and the tri­bunal be­fore any ap­pli­ca­tion to sub­mit same as ev­i­dence.

From a prac­ti­cal point of view, em­ploy­ers should en­sure its em­ploy­ees are aware that covert record­ings are not per­mit­ted in the work­place and do­ing so may at­tract a dis­ci­plinary penalty.

Whilst this will not com­pletely pre­vent the con­duct, it should act as a de­ter­rent.

Man­age­ment should also be made aware of the risk that they may be recorded with­out prior per­mis­sion and en­cour­aged to avoid ‘ let­ting off steam’ dur­ing in­ter­nal meet­ings; both when the em­ployee is present and when he/ she is not.

Em­ploy­ers should al­ways seek le­gal ad­vice as to the ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion in the event it be­comes aware that a covert record­ing has been made by an em­ployee.

Theresa May’s pol­icy ideas merit dis­cus­sion even if their de­liv­ery was trou­bled

Mak­ing covert record­ings of meet­ings on smart­phones is some­thing of a grey area

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