With promises of significant reforms, from a referendum on whether we stay in Europe, to replacing the Human Rights Act – to name but two - the content of today’s Queen’s Speech has been particularly keenly awaited.
A last-minute change of heart over human rights and a proposed new British Bill of Rights was well-publicised overnight but it is confirmed today that it nonetheless remains an issue the government will pursue. However, many proposals which had been signposted in the Conservative manifesto are to be pursued (see briefing of 8/5/15, the election outcome).
So, other than revised income tax thresholds and other changes which employers and their payroll teams will need to get to grips with, what has the Queen’s speech revealed for employers in terms of the government’s legislative agenda for the forthcoming Parliament?
The prospect of a referendum on whether the UK is to remain within the European Union has absorbed the nation in the last few weeks. Today, as anticipated, the Queen’s Speech has confirmed the Government will produce legislation to bring that prospect to reality. (An Act of Parliament is needed for a referendum to proceed, just as was the case for the Scottish referendum, since there is no pre-existing legislative mechanism for this).
A Bill for the referendum is expected to be published imminently, possibly as early as tomorrow. The timeframe for a referendum is, as already reported, "by end of 2017". However, there is already speculation that a conclusion before 2017 is aimed for and would be desirable.
Despite being early days, speculation as to the potential impact upon employment law of a UK withdrawal from Europe is understandably occurring already. However, even were withdrawal to arise, which in itself is highly speculative, it is inconceivable that it would give rise to significant changes to current employment law in the short to medium term. Instead, one can anticipate a gradual divergence of laws as between UK and Europe through case law and future legislation. However, the fundamental protection mechanisms for both employer and employee would no doubt remain.
Amongst the most prominent employment law changes expected, the Queen’s Speech has affirmed proposals to change to strike and trade union laws. It is expected these will reflect proposals set out in the Conservative manifesto.
As a result, emerging legislation looks set to ensure strikes should only result from a ballot in which at least half the workforce has voted. In addition, it is likely to seek to introduce tougher thresholds in respect of strikes by workers in essential public services, such as health, education, fire and transport. In those sectors, proposed amendments to existing legislation would require the support of at least 40% of all those entitled to take part in the ballot, as well as a majority of those who actually turn out to vote.
Again, not specified in today’s speech but expected to fall within the broad changes referred to, restrictions upon the use of agency workers to provide essential cover during strikes are likely to be removed, a time limit upon the validity of a strike ballot to be introduced along with changes to trade union subscription processes.
Cutting red tape
The new Business Secretary, Sajid Javid has professed to be a supporter of business - small businesses in particular - and of reducing bureaucracy and "red-tape", wherever possible. This objective was reiterated in the Queen’s speech.
It seems likely that the vehicle to achieving this will be a new Enterprise Bill which will aim to reduce the cost of red tape by £10 billion through continuation of the former government’s "Red Tape Challenge" and "One in-Two out" rule. Where these changes will arise will become apparent in due course but we know that, previously, these projects have led to various employment law changes, most recent examples including the removal of third party harassment claims and of discrimination questionnaires.
The government has ambitious plans to achieve full employment, the creation of 2 million jobs and 3 million apprenticeships over the course of the Parliament.
Today, these ambitions were repeated in the Queen’s speech, along with a new duty upon ministers to report annually upon progress in each respect. There is no doubting that these goals will present significant challenges for employers as well as government. The government recognises that, in order for employers to achieve them, its reduction in red tape will need to be effective. In reality, however, the government’s various proposed reforms and incentives will need to work in combination if employers are to be in a position to recruit and offer sufficient training opportunities.
Further measures are promised to control immigration. An Immigration Bill is expected to include a new offence preventing business and recruitment agencies from recruiting abroad without advertising in the UK.
Other aspects of note
- City Devolution Bill –increasingly, it seems, more powers are to be devolved to English cities, commencing with Greater Manchester. Employers in those regions, particularly those involved in transport, planning and policing may start to encounter regional policy differences in policy and practice in due course.
- Public sector cuts –only scant reference was made to this during the Queen’s Speech, with further details "to follow". However, it seems likely we can expect further news upon curbing public-sector exit payments and upon the freedom of departing public sector workers to return to the public sector following paid exit.