The European Commission is consulting unions and employers' organisations on new proposals for information and consultation of employees at national level - and is stressing the need for effective measures to ensure that employers comply with the requirements.

The proposals follow in the wake of Renault's announcement of the closure of its plant in Vilvoorde, Belgium without any prior consultation. This led to judgments against the company in the French and Belgian courts and motivated the Commission to review the effectiveness of existing European Directives and propose new measures.

Announcing the initiative Commissioner Padraig Flynn emphasised that there must be "respect of the existence of a fundamental social right of employees to be consulted in advance of any decisions likely to affect them".

The Commissioner expanded on this at a conference on "Working Life" organised by the Institute of Employment Rights on 18 July 1997. He emphasised the obligation on employers to consult in advance and to seek suitable alternatives.

He recognised that the significant weakness of the current legislation lies in its penalties. He did not propose to re-open the existing Directives. But the new proposal on information and consultation in national undertakings will contain a requirement that no proposal for restructuring can be put in place until the terms of the Directive have been complied with and that any dismissals which contravened this would be null and void.

This is an extremely welcome development. The fundamental flaw of the current legislation in the UK is that employers who dismiss or transfer employees without proper information and consultation with unions face only limited financial penalties in the form of "protective awards" to individual employees affected. These are not sufficient to deter employers from ignoring the legislative requirements.

The Commission's new proposals will give real force to the judgments of the European Court which require that sanctions for breaches of european law must be "effective, proportionate and dissuasive".

Check-off checks chucked

On 8 July 1997 Margaret Beckett announced to Parliament that the Conservatives' punitive and bureaucratic laws on union subscriptions would be scrapped. The laws, introduced in 1993, required union members to supply written authorisations every three years if they wanted their union subscriptions deducted from their wages by their employers.

As anticipated in Issue 11 of LELR (see Things can only get better), the Government is using the procedures under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act to repeal the measure. Ms Beckett said that the Government will consult over the summer on "the scope and content of a deregulation order" and intends to "start the parliamentary stages in the autumn and complete the repeal next year".

The Deregulation Act proclaims the aim of removing "burdens on business" and the Confederation of British Industry supports Labour's move.

The Act requires the Government to conduct preliminary consultation with interested organisations and then lay a draft order before Parliament, plus details of the burden to be removed, cost savings and benefits, the consultations undertaken and representations received and any changes made as a result.

It is a requirement that "necessary protections" must not be removed. This requirement will be satisfied by retaining the right for employees to withdraw consent for deductions at source.

Once the draft order and information has been laid before Parliament there is a 60 day period for Parliamentary consideration, including a select committee, before the legislation can be adopted.