Mon 23 Dec 2019

What does a conservative majority mean for employment law?

Brexit, manifesto pledges and a review of IR35 are all in the mix.

Irrespective of your views on Brexit, as of the early hours of Friday the 13th of December, it seems inevitable that it will now happen.  According to the Conservative party manifesto the post Brexit relationship will allow the UK Government to "raise standards in the area of workers' rights". 

Exactly what those raised standards are going to look like isn't terribly clear - after all manifestos set out what a prospective government wants to achieve, not the detail of how that will happen.  As would be expected from an incumbent party, the Conservative manifesto includes many references to what has already been done - the introduction of the National Living Wage, the continued increase in both the National Living Wage and the National Minimum Wage, and references to actions already promised via the Good Work Plan. These include the creation of a single enforcement body for employment law and the introduction of greater redundancy protection for women and new parents.   The right to request more predictable contracts is also mentioned along with "other reasonable protections" and the intention to take a harder line when employers do not abide by existing employment legislation.

Looking forward, a review is to be launched looking at how the self-employed can be better supported, a National Skills Fund worth £3bn over the next Parliament is to be created and the working of the Apprenticeship Levy is to be reviewed.  There is also a proposal to require a significant numbers of new UK apprentices for all big new infrastructure projects.  At the other end of the job hierarchy, promises have also been made to improve incentives to attack the problem of excessive executive pay and rewards for failure and to ensure redundancy payments can be clawed back when highly paid public servants move between roles.

Family friendly rights are also on the agenda with promises to legislate to allow parents to take extended leave for neonatal care, and to look at ways to make it easier to take paternity leave.  Perhaps one of the most significant pledges in the manifesto is to consult on making flexible working the default position unless employers have good reasons not to - that has the potential to be a game changer.  If it results in the general working population working more flexibly and not just working parents it could impact on the gender pay gap (in so much as flexible working and career progression have not always gone hand in hand), removing any negative stigma attached to it as well as impacting positively on the work life balance for many.  The "entitlement to leave for unpaid carers" is to be extended to a week - it is assumed this refers to the carers leave mentioned in the Gender Equality Roadmap earlier this year.

Equality and diversity is addressed via pledges to reduce the disability employment gap and publishing a National Strategy for Disabled People by the end of 2020.  The National Strategy will look at ways to improve access to opportunities for disabled people in terms of jobs.  Protection from physical attack or harassment whether due to sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or disability whether in the workplace or elsewhere is also referred to.  

One very clear statement from the manifesto is that Brexit will mean the end of the role of the European Court of Justice in UK law.  This freedom is described as leaving the UK "free to craft legislation and regulations that maintain high standards but which work best for the UK".  Depending on your view point that statement could make you nervous about workers rights or relieved to be freed from the shackles of EU law.  Quite what it will mean in practice has not been spelt out in any detail. 

During the course of the election campaign IR35 has come under fire from all of the political parties and while not mentioned in the manifesto, Sajid Javid confirmed that the Conservative party would review the changes to the IR35 rules ahead of their introduction to the private sector next year.  Given how imminent that introduction is - 6 April 2020 - if this pledge is going to be met we should be seeing some action on it early in the new year or its implementation may be delayed. 

What appears not to have made it into the manifesto are the promises reportedly made to some Labour MPs in the run up to the October Brexit vote.  The Prime Minister "agreed to make a number of commitments that ensure increased protection of workers".  At the time this was said to include a commitment to consult on improving unfair dismissal rights by way of reducing the qualifying period from two years to one year and addressing any anomalies in the TUPE Regulations to ensure they are working in the interests of workers.  It remains to be seen if either of these come to fruition.

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