With the Information and Consultation (ICE) regulations introduced ten years ago this month, now is a good time to reflect on the impact of the regulations, and consider whether there is scope for them to be better used.

I was heavily involved in the substantial trade union campaign to get the Labour Government to sign up to the Directive, working as I was as Tony Blair’s trade union liaison secretary in No 10, and I remember clearly the high hopes that many in the movement, among them the then TUC General Secretary John Monks, had for the transformative potential of the Directive.  They – and I –believed that institutionalising a requirement for employers to listen to employees’ voices would help UK industrial relations move further away from a confrontational model to something approaching the continental model of social dialogue and partnership.  At the very least we hoped that ensuring that employees voices would be heard would lead to better decision-making in companies, and to consequent improvements in working lives.

It is apparent that these high hopes remain to be fulfilled. And it is equally clear that listening to employee voice remains a vital issue for both organisational success and for effective employee engagement and wellbeing, with growing evidence that the UK continues to perform poorly when it comes to listening to employees – about their job, about their organisation, and about the effectiveness or otherwise of the cultures within which they work.

It is undeniable that the regulations have been, to put it politely, a bit of a damp squib, with a limited impact, as the work of Purcell and Hall has illustrated. Factors that explain the limited impact include:

  • Hostility from employers towards the regulations
  • Luke-warm response from trade unions, with some being suspicious of the regulations for promoting non-union voice or potentially being a ‘Trojan horse’ for de-recognition
  • The 10% trigger making it difficult for employees to use the regulations
  • Lack of awareness among employees of the regulations

Some have interpreted the low take up as evidence of a lack of demand from employees for more voice – but all the evidence is that when presented with opportunities for dialogue with employers which they believe will have an impact, such as town hall meetings, team briefs and surveys, employees are only too willing to take part.

In my view this points to the key weakness – not so much with the directive, but with the historic lack of recognition of the importance of listening to employees, among far too many organisations.  For the past century, the predominant workplace culture in the UK has treated employees as units of production, essentially as disposable widgets, as costs on the balance sheet.  As a consequence the huge value that individual employees can contribute, when they are engaged and their ideas listened to has never been acknowledged.

Yet we have seen the disastrous consequences of a failure to listen to employees, from so many public enquiries into organisational disasters – among them Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Francis report into Mid Staffs Hospital, to name just two.  Had employers really heard what employees were saying, had the culture encouraged speaking out, rather than intimidated people into silence, the catastrophic consequences would have been avoided and organisational reputations would not have been shredded.

The regulations have had differing impacts in other member states. This is due both to the directive being transposed in different ways, and the significantly different workplace climate where employers did not automatically react to the idea of engaging with employees views by bringing out the smelling salts. In my view it is not a choice between an effective regulatory floor and moving to an engaging and listening culture – you need both as experience with health and safety over the years has demonstrated.  The one strengthens the other.

That is why in the coming period I look forward to UK trade unions playing an active part in the employee engagement movement as well as championing the regulations – and why I hope enlightened employers too will continue to see the value of both. And there is a role for government too in encouraging employers to understand the value of employee voice, and in ensuring that the regulatory framework is effective.

The IPA, working with the Friedrich Ebuft Stiftung and other stakeholders, is today launching a major research project on the ICE regulations. We are looking back at the experience of the last ten years, on the impact (or lack thereof) that the regulations have had on the UK labour market, and on how the regulations have been used in other member states. We are also looking forward to see whether the regulations might be better used in the future to promote employee voice in the UK. To find out more about the project please contact Joe Dromey ([email protected]).