Employment Law Seminar

“Employment law can be a minefield – but preventative action can ensure that problems are avoided.”
That was the message from solicitor Michael Foster at a recent seminar for charities and voluntary groups hosted by Hastings Voluntary Action on behalf of Transforming Infrastructure East Sussex. Michael served as MP for Hastings and Rye and the Governments Equalities Minster until 2010 but has now returned to his original profession of employment law. He has extensive experience of Employment Appeal Tribunals and specialises in interpersonal mediation and is known for his long standing support of the charitable and voluntary sector in Hastings and Rother.

Hastings Voluntary Action are partnering with Michael Foster Law to offer both the awareness raising seminar and a discounted fee structure to HVA members. In his introduction to the employment law seminar HVA Director Steve Manwaring said:-

“During these economic times when funding is so tight local groups need to make every penny count. This is why we are delighted to be partnering with local practitioners (of whom Michael Foster is the first) to offer high quality technical expertise at reduced rates for community organisations.”

The seminar was well attended with representatives from organisations including Association of Carers, Oasis and Hastings & Rother Credit Union being introduced to the basics of employment law with particular reference to the position of volunteers.
High profile cases involving Newham Citizens Advice Bureau and Migrant Advisory Service have shown that charities and voluntary groups are not immune from legal challenges, and that these can be costly.
One major concern was whether expenses paid to volunteers could be construed as “wages” by an Employment Tribunal and lead to a volunteer being given the legal status of an employee (as in a recent case involving the Migrant Advisory Service). Michael explained that such payments were acceptable as long as they truly reflected travelling and subsistence costs. He emphasised that volunteers should always be allowed flexibility and permitted to refuse duties or hours that did not suit them, and that any written agreement should avoid legal terminology. Any training courses offered should be small scale and necessary for the tasks they are being asked to fulfil, so that they do not derive any direct benefit from them.

An increasing number of local government services are “contracted out” to charitable and voluntary organisations and this also might involve legal obligations. “In the commercial sector when a business is sold, the employees are effectively transferred with the business to the new owners and that applies now to the voluntary sector too. In the original legislation charities were exempt, but no more. That means you must offer transferred employees the same terms and conditions. This can sometimes lead to difficulties with equal pay affecting existing staff at the enterprise that has taken over the new contract.” Michael advised those bidding for local government contracts to include provision for meeting these obligations, including redundancy payments in their funding calculations.
Michael emphasised the importance of good paperwork and frequent communication with employees and volunteers.

“If things do go wrong, so long as advice is taken immediately and action taken, problems can often be resolved. Mediation can prove helpful and as a professional mediator I have seen how agreements can be reached that initially seemed impossible. But if the worst comes to the worst and a legal challenge is made, remember that tribunals only ever require employers to have acted reasonably. That’s why good practice is so important.”

As part of his commitment to the voluntary sector Michael is now offering special rates for legal advice to members of Hastings Voluntary Action, including one hour of advice for a fixed fee of £75. He also offers his “On Call” service for a negotiated rate depending on the number of employees; this is a monthly subscription scheme which provides access to legal advice and a “health check” of employment contracts and policies. For more information on the scheme, contact his office on 01424 203040 or by email at mail@michaelfosterlaw.co.uk