9 July 2019

Workplace disputes cost the average UK council nearly £200,000 over the past three years

FOI requests submitted by Ciphr also find more than half of EC1 notices submitted by councils to Acas between 2016 and 2018 progressed to employment tribunal


Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery is head of content and community at Ciphr. She was previously deputy editor at People Management magazine. You can find her on Twitter @c_newbery.


Ciphr news Employment law


FOI requests submitted by Ciphr also find more than half of EC1 notices submitted by councils to Acas between 2016 and 2018 progressed to employment tribunal

The average UK council has paid out £197,423.85 in relation to workplace disputes between 2016 and 2018, according to data obtained by HR systems provider Ciphr through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Based on that average figure, Ciphr estimates that UK councils have collectively paid out more than £22 million for disputes that were settled before, during or at employment tribunal over the same period.

The 10 councils with the highest payouts who responded to the FOI requests collectively paid out £5,256,847.02 between 2106 and 2018. Hackney Borough Council topped the list, with a total three-year payout sum of £1,482,188.58. The total paid out by the 40 councils who responded to Ciphr’s FOI requests during the same period was £7,896,954.08.

Claire Williams, director of people and services at Ciphr, commented: “This estimated total council spend on workplace disputes – of more than £22 million over the past three years – is certainly cause for concern and warrants further investigation. Why are some councils facing such high payouts? What can be done to improve their HR software, processes, policies and procedures so that employees are better supported and managed and, therefore, the cost of workplace disputes is reduced at a time when we know local government budgets are tightening?”

Nina Robinson, director and solicitor at ESP Law, said: “Payout figures are not the whole story; sometimes agreeing a payout is the wisest and most cost-effective course of action. In all cases, an employer should analyse the risk and may decide that paying out early might result in a significant saving compared to the legal fees associated with defending tribunal claims. There are so many other costs associated with employee litigation that this FOI request – which concerns payouts and settlements only – doesn’t include: for example, legal fees, internal management time and reputational cost.”

Ciphr’s FOI request also revealed that more than half (54%) of all EC1 (early conciliation) notices raised with Acas by councils between 2016 and 2018 progressed to employment tribunal – well above the UK national average of 28%. All EC1 notices raised against the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Brighton and Hove City Council, and Newport City Council progressed to employment tribunal in that period. In contrast, five councils resolved all EC1 notices without progressing to tribunal: Ealing Borough Council, Salford City Council, Chelmsford City Council, Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council and Preston City Council.

Robinson added: “UK employers as a whole are receiving more Acas conciliation requests, and more tribunal claims, as a result of the abolition of tribunal fees in mid-2017. What any employer should want to avoid is incurring high costs fighting a claim that is likely to lose at tribunal – the double-whammy. When faced with a dispute, it’s vital that the employer makes a carefully considered decision about whether to attempt to settle a claim, or to defend it.”

Williams added: “This data is a good starting point for further investigation into the causes of workplace disputes in the public sector. We submitted a second FOI request to each of the 114 councils we initially approached, asking for information about the reasons for payouts, but most declined to answer citing data protection reasons. Others stated that they do not keep a record of the type of dispute that culminated in a settlement agreement for each individual case, which could indicate poor record keeping and a lack of appetite to solve systemic, persistent, issues.”


Top 10: councils that paid out the highest amounts between 2016 and 2018 in relation to workplace disputes

Council Workplace dispute payout total for 2016-2018
Hackney Borough Council £1,482,188.58
Derby City Council £571,212.00
Merton Borough Council £531,654.40
Harrow Borough Council £518,207.97
Coventry City Council £474,983.67
Suffolk County Council £399,674.20
Warwickshire County Council £387,709.79
Ealing Borough Council £383,154.89
Dundee City Council £256,153.00
Newham Borough Council £251,908.52
Top 10 total £5,256,847.02


Proportion of EC1 notices per 1,000 employees

  2016 2017 2018
Number of employees at councils who responded to FOI request 160,542 157,731 155,545
Number of EC1 notices submitted to ACAS 174 183 240
Number of EC1s per 1,000 employees 1.084 1.160 1.543


Top 10: proportion of EC1 notices that progressed to tribunal, 2016-2018

Council Total EC1 notices,
Total EC1 notices progressing to employment tribunal, 2016-2018 Percentage of EC1 notices that progressed to employment tribunal, 2016-2018
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea 7 8 114.3%*
Brighton and Hove City council 16 16 100%
Newport City Council 4 4 100%
Bromley City Council 12 10 83.3%
Bristol City Council 58 47 81.0%
Harrow Borough Council 18 12 66.7%
Winchester City Council 3 2 66.7%
Surrey County Council 35 23 65.7%
Coventry City Council 16 10 62.5%
Hull City Council 24 15 62.5%
National average 22 11 45.1%

*Unexplained anomaly