DfE warned over potential unfair dismissals claims
The Department for Education has been warned it could face hundreds of unfair dismissal claims if it pushes ahead with plans in England to axe about 1,000 jobs and cut its costs by 50%.
Lawyers acting for civil service union the PCS wrote to Michael Gove reminding him of his duty to follow agreed redundancy procedures.
The union says the department plans to decide job cuts on capability grounds.
The DfE says it wants to create a department that delivers excellence.
The warning came as civil servants at the DfE began a rolling programme of industrial action over the cuts announced in the Department for Education Review last November. A short walk-out is due to take place next Thursday.
It called for a 50% cut in the department's operating costs between 2010 and 2015, a reduction in the number of offices it has around England from 12 to six and the likely loss of 1,000 jobs. But since then there has been little detail of where the job cuts will fall.
However, it is thought that the reductions will be spread fairly evenly across the DfE's range of activities, but the union also fears that child protection will suffer as the department prioritises its free schools and academies programme.
The letter to the DfE's most senior civil servant Chris Wormald says: "We understand from the PCS that the department denies that this amounts to a potential redundancy situation. We must confess to being totally mystified by that denial.
"A reduction in costs of 50%, a potential reduction in staff of 25% and the closure of six offices clearly gives rise to a potential redundancy situation. The department's assertion to the contrary is, with respect, completely unsustainable."
It stresses that the redundancy agreement , which is a collective agreement between the department and recognised trade unions, should therefore be applied.
Among other things, this requires the employer to give full notice of the proposals to those likely to be affected, to trade unions and to ensure that the rules are applied fairly.
The letter adds: "We note that instead of following the clear and agreed procedure, the department is intending to run a 'selection process' which will effectively determine who is to be dismissed, if they cannot be deployed."
It continues: "As a result of the department's failure to follow the redundancy procedure, it is leaving itself open to hundreds of unfair dismissal claims. If the reason for dismissal in such claims is found to be capability, the process adopted will clearly be unfair.
"If the reason for dismissal is found to be redundancy, then again the failure to follow the agreed procedures will render these dismissals unfair."
It concludes that the "risk of the department facing hundreds of unfair dismissal claims" can be avoided if the procedures are properly followed.
The PCS believes the DfE has been given the green light to pilot a new way of dealing with civil service change.
The review talks of "focusing ruthlessly on ministerial priorities" and "greater flexible deployment" based on more "adaptable, confident" staff.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the public servants who work within the education department do so because they recognise the essential role it plays in society.
"This being systematically undermined by Mr Gove and his advisers who we believe are running a dangerous political experiment to test a model of public service stripped of many of its functions and responsibilities, as well as its accountability to the public."
A Department for Education spokesperson said the industrial action, which began on Thursday, was "completely out of step with the vast majority of professional civil servants at the DfE who are working hard to reform our education and childcare systems to ensure children receive the best possible start in life".
He added: "We want this country to have the best education system and the best children's services. To achieve this we must create a department that delivers an excellent service to the public, while ensuring value for money for the taxpayer.
"We have made it clear that we want to avoid compulsory redundancies wherever possible and have held extensive discussions with the PCS and we are consulting with staff on the proposed changes."