A right to training

A right to training

A new Assembly law aims to make training for employees easier but plans are on hold until the economic pressure on business eases.

Northern Ireland’s employees will have the right to ask for time off for training or study, when the economy improves. The proposal is contained in the technically- named Employment (No.2) Bill, which was introduced to the Assembly on 7 June and passed its second stage on 21 June.

The Bill’s main thrust is to update the law on workplace disputes and speed up how they are resolved.

On training and study, the overall aim is to make employees more aware, and have higher aspirations, about their skills and to encourage more employers to invest in employees’ talents. Improved business performance and competitiveness should result.

A consultation on that proposed right was carried out between July and October last year, and broad support was found. Reg Empey decided to put that into law with employers being required to give requests “serious consideration”.

These could be turned down for “business reasons” e.g. little or no benefit to the business, an extra cost burden, or problems with re-organising work or recruiting staff while the employee is off.

The requested study or training must be intended to improve an employee’s effectiveness at work and the performance of the employer’s business.

An employee must also tell his or her employer about any subsequent changes in the course.

Extra regulations will specify how long an employee must be employed before they ask for time off. The Bill states that it will not apply to employees at the compulsory school age (currently up to 16), agency workers or young people who already have similar rights to paid time off.

A broad variety of settings for study or training are allowed, including at work or elsewhere (including at home), alongside or separate from the duties of work, and provided with or without supervision. It could also be done outside the UK i.e. allowing for courses in the Republic, and does not have to lead up to a qualification.

Any request must state how the training would make the employee more effective and improve the performance of the business. As a rule, only one application could be made in a 12-month period.

The right will not be introduced immediately due to the economy’s state but the Employment Minister is free to do this when he wishes.

During the debate at Stormont, Empey said he was “acutely aware” that the business community was concerned about the right being introduced “at this time of economic hardship”. Introduction will therefore happen when conditions are “sufficiently favourable”. Unemployment and economic growth rates will be used to make this decision.

The training right will firstly be available to firms employing 50 or more people, before being extended to all employees in the following year.

Employment Committee Chair Dolores Kelly said the new right would especially benefit women, who are more likely to be carers, lone parents and older people.

A right to training has already been laid down in Great Britain, through the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, and “doing nothing”, officials say, would put local employees at a disadvantage.

Successful requests for training will cost the Executive an estimated £6.7 million per year in extra tuition fees at level 2 and level 3. “Any costs that add to our difficult financial circumstances are best avoided at this stage,” Empey told the chamber but, in the long term, it is clear that this will be seen as money well spent.

The Employment and Learning Committee will scrutinise the Bill when the Assembly returns in the autumn. Its deadline is 4 October and the Minister hopes that the law will pass by the end of the year.

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