If we took a holiday it would be so nice

Conservative Prime Ministerial hopeful Jeremy Hunt caused a stir this week when he announced that, if elected, he would cancel all Civil Service holidays in August in order to make sure that preparations for a No-Deal Brexit were fully implemented. But can an employer simply just cancel holidays, especially if they have already been authorised and staff may have paid out for a trip away?

It may surprise you, but legally the answer is yes. In fact, in certain sectors (e.g. the NHS or emergency services) it’s not that uncommon – think for example of nurses and doctors having leave cancelled because of a winter flu epidemic.

However, it’s not quite that straightforward. Firstly, there are minimum periods of notice which must be given to cancel someone’s holidays. Unless you have a different written agreement, this is the same length of time as the period of the holiday. So someone who’d booked a fortnight’s leave must be given two weeks’ notice of cancellation.  As the new Prime Minister is only expected to take office a week before the beginning of August, and unless the Civil Service has specific rules, Mr Hunt would not have time to stop someone taking two weeks off at the beginning of August.

Secondly, you need to have a clear and urgent business reason. Preparing for an imminent ‘disorderly’ departure from the EU in 12 weeks would probably fit this description, as might things like a high level of staff sickness, or a major and unexpected change in business. If you don’t have a valid reason, however, you might find yourself facing a claim for constructive dismissal.

Thirdly, cancelling someone’s holiday is not likely to motivate or endear them to your business. So you need to balance the short-term issue against the longer-term impacts.

This post doesn’t cover the issue of whether you are liable to compensate people for losses caused by a cancellation. Most travel insurance policies wouldn’t cover cancellation by the employer, potentially leaving your staff significantly out of pocket. Not being a lawyer, I can’t say whether individuals would have grounds to make a civil claim for their loss (if you are a lawyer reading this please feel free to comment) but if they can you might find yourself exposed to significant liabilities.

So, overall, cancelling holidays is something that can be done, but it is an extreme decision to take and would require extreme circumstances, and a proper evaluation of the pros and cons, before I would suggest you do it. As with so much of employment law, the rule is

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should”

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