Employment Adviser Alert: Collective consultation
In this case the ECJ considered collective consultation obligations in the context of redundancy.
Published 1 November 2015
In this briefing we look at the various issues which you may encounter (whether as a commissioner or provider) when services are outsourced, tendered or re-tendered and which may involve a transfer of employees under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE).
The costs of staff are often a very significant factor in services contracts. In order to price their bids appropriately, bidders will need to have access to the relevant TUPE information. If this information is not available then the risk is that they won't price their bids appropriately potentially resulting in a number of undesirable outcomes - a flawed selection process (i.e. the wrong bidder going through) and/or increased procurement risks for the commissioner (by increasing the contract price post-tender to include TUPE costs which were not originally foreseen) and/or the preferred bidder taking the risk of TUPE applying.
This much may be well understood but it also ought to beg some pertinent questions: What if the relevant TUPE information hasn't been provided in sufficient time to include in the invitation to tender? What if the services have been reconfigured by the commissioner so that TUPE no longer applies and the incumbent is left with the resulting liabilities? What if the current services have been reconfigured by the incumbent (possibly for the very best of intentions) not realising that TUPE will now no longer apply and it is now left with the resulting liabilities? What if the procurement documentation stated that TUPE would not apply and it turns out it does? If you are a participant in this kind of procurement (or re-procurement) exercise, where does this leave you?!
Other than in an outsourcing situation, the commissioner is not itself a party to the TUPE transfer, which will be between the incumbent and the new provider. In the absence of anything contrary in the contracts, the commissioner will have no legal responsibility for the employment rights of the employees who are providing it. On the face of it, TUPE should not be the commissioner's concern.
However, two significant problems frequently arise:
The key for commissioners is to look ahead and build provisions into their contracts with providers which cover the 'exit' from the contract. The strength of a commissioner's position when approaching a tender will depend on what exit provisions it already has in place with the incumbent provider. If it has no exit provisions, then it has no legal means to force the incumbent to meaningfully engage.
If a contract includes sensibly drafted exit provisions, then the commissioner should be able to ensure a smooth tender and transfer or hold the incumbent accountable if not. The incumbent can be required to provide detailed (but anonymised) information for the purposes of the tender process as well as fuller and earlier information on transfer to the new provider. Don't forget to also include a warranty from the incumbent provider as to the accuracy of this information. The incumbent can also be required to collaborate on staff consultation and not to make changes to the workforce pre-transfer.
Sensibly drafted exit provisions should also require some indemnities from the incumbent in relation to the staff transferring when the contract ends. Then, if the new providers demand indemnities from the commissioner to take on the staff, the commissioner can effectively pass on the benefits of the indemnities it has from the incumbent. The net effect of properly backed-off contracts should be that the commissioner itself retains no risk in relation to the staff.
The best time at which exit provisions should be agreed will almost always be at the start of the contract, alongside any provisions relating to the current proposed transfer ('entry provisions'). That is when the commissioner will have the best negotiating position. Entry and exit TUPE provisions will often mirror each other, although that is a matter of negotiation.
If you are a commissioner with existing contracts, it may be worth auditing what exit provisions you already have in place. If there are contracts where there are no protections, considering negotiating them now: whilst it will never be comfortable getting agreement from the provider to manage their own exit, the bargaining position is likely to be stronger now while there is an existing relationship than when the writing is on the wall. Contract extensions are also a good opportunity to introduce or strengthen exit provisions.
If you are the incumbent provider and are likely to lose the services to a new provider, one of your likely concerns may be that TUPE won't apply, leaving you with a load of stranded costs. This could particularly be the case where (i) the commissioner has decided to reconfigure the services to such a degree that the application of TUPE is called into question, or (ii) (even worse), you have reconfigured the services yourself!
TUPE will only apply to an employee if:
That is to say, if your staff are providing services which, under the new procurement, are now going to be split between different providers under new contracts and you are not able to identify a team for each of these services (i.e. staff are working flexibly across all services), TUPE may not apply.
As incumbent, you cannot control how the service will be provided post-transfer (i.e. whether it's fundamentally the same or has been fragmented). However, you are likely to have a good degree of control over how the service is managed pre-transfer and that gives you scope to improve the chances TUPE will apply. Incumbents who wish staff to transfer at the end of the contract would be well-advised to manage the employees wherever possible into organised groupings dedicated to each contract. Case law in recent years has made clear that this is primarily judged by how the employees are internally managed by the incumbent (and so is largely within the incumbent's own control): if a group of staff are said to be primarily focussed on serving a particular service, that will likely be sufficient. It does not mean the staff cannot work on other contracts. Clearly there will be cases where this type of internal organisation is not possible, but many more where it is.
As the incumbent provider, you may also be subject to exit provisions imposing restrictions and obligations. You should always check your contract with the commissioner to assess what liabilities you have.
In the absence of any provisions, you have a relatively free hand. In such circumstances, you would not ordinarily want to enter into any contract with the commissioner, or new provider governing the transfer (any indemnities you are offered are likely to be of lesser value than the indemnities/obligations you'll be asked for) – or if you do, they can be on your terms.
The duty to consult staff falls on the incumbent provider. Consultation must take place 'in good time' before the transfer. In practice, you will need to have received the 'measures letter' (which sets out what measures are intended for the staff post-transfer) from the new provider before you can meaningfully consult. Although the new provider is legally obliged to provide this measures letter within good time, if they don't and meaningful consultation does not take place, both incumbent and new providers are jointly liable, so you could end up liable for another's failing. This risk can be avoided or mitigated by indemnities in your services contract.
As a new provider, you could be in the most precarious position of all as you will need to assess what your risks and liabilities will be so as to (a) assess whether it is even worth bidding for the contract(s), and (b) how to price your bid accordingly. Of course, you will always factor in some element of risk contingency, but this becomes a really serious problem if you haven't been given anywhere near sufficient or accurate information to make any kind of sensible assessment.
Bidding on the basis of an unknown level of risks and liabilities will inevitably result in an increase to your pricing but the downside of doing that may be that you severely limit your chance of winning the contract(s).
Ideally you will want indemnities from the commissioner covering any hidden employment liabilities. That may or may not be realistic commercially. If the commissioner is not able to get the incumbent provider to engage with providing information, they may not have any exit provisions and may have no indemnities from the incumbent. Is the commissioner going to give you indemnities which it cannot pass on to the incumbent? This will always be a commercial point but should always be pursued where bargaining position allows.
If indemnities are not possible and no information is provided, unfortunately there is not much you can do in relation to TUPE other than relying on your own experience of the type of deal on offer and guessing as to the incumbent's most likely staffing profile and operating model plus associated costs and liabilities when bidding for the contract(s).
The commissioner may seek to impose exit provisions on you governing how staff are managed at the end of the contract. The obvious quid pro quo would be to request similar indemnities from the commissioner/incumbent governing the staff you are inheriting now. Standard indemnities (if you can get them!) would generally split liabilities to those arising pre-transfer (not the new provider's) and those arising afterwards (the new provider's) – but they are always a matter of negotiation.
As the new provider, bear in mind that you will become responsible for almost all employment liabilities related to the staff, including claims they might have against the outgoing incumbent, even if they are no fault of yours.