In the run-up to the Queen’s Speech, the suggested repeal of the Human Rights Act dominated the headlines. But now, it’s worth giving the government’s proposals for workers more time.
The coalition made great play of reducing the number of costly, time-consuming and unwarranted employment claims that businesses were forced to deal with. Now, as part of its “long-term economic plan”, the government has set about building on this and preserving a free employment market, rewarding “hard working people” and removing unnecessary burdens on businesses. Here’s a brief summary of what we can expect from the majority Conservative government as it shapes the future direction of employment rights.
The Trade Unions Bill will seek to place limits on the political power of unions, restricting circumstances in which their funds can be allocated to political causes and raising the threshold for strike action, requiring a minimum turnout of at least 50 per cent in strike ballots.
In “essential public services”, there will be further hurdles for unions to overcome. This may mean the threat of Tube strikes is significantly reduced (and the opportunity to work from home is averted), but it also means that strike action as we know it may be cast into the history books.
In order to show clear blue water between the new government and the coalition, the former has set out some eye-catching policies to show it means business for Britain.
In an attempt to cut down immigration, it will be unlawful for employment agencies to recruit from abroad without first advertising in Britain and in English. Wages paid to illegal workers can be seized and treated as proceeds of crime. Young adults will be encouraged to “earn or learn”, which should be assisted by the creation of 3m new apprenticeships across a growing range of sectors and specialisms.
ZERO INTEREST, ZERO PENALTY
The coalition’s Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act already renders unenforceable “exclusivity” clauses in zero hours contracts, allowing workers to provide their services and skills for other employers. However, anti-avoidance measures are yet to be detailed, suggesting that the Act was rushed through. It will also see large employers (those with more than 250 employees) report on any gender pay gap in the next 12 months.
The penalty for underpayment of the national minimum wage (currently £6.50 an hour for workers aged 21 and over) has risen to £20,000 per worker. If enforced, it should act as a significant deterrent to deviant employers who try to take advantage of low-paid employees.
SMALL BUSINESS BONUS
New business secretary Sajid Javid has pledged to assist small businesses, which he describes as “Britain’s engine room”. In order to ease often crippling cash-flow concerns, a small business conciliation service will be established to help settle payment disputes with larger firms. Further consideration of “no fault” dismissals has already been ruled out.
The Childcare Bill will grant working parents up to 30 hours of free childcare for three and four year-olds – twice the current allowance. No detail has yet been given as to how many hours parents must work to qualify, but following consultation and nationwide pilots, the policy is expected to be in force from 2016.
It is already apparent that this is going to be a period of significant change across employment legislation. And it will be more appealing to some than to others.
Kevin Poulter is legal director in the employment team at Bircham Dyson Bell.
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