The three major political parties have all held their annual conferences within the past few months and each has proposed major changes to employment law if they are elected at the next general election, which is due to take place on 7 May 2015.
Conservative Party Reforms
The main employment-related reforms announced at the Conservative Party Conference were:
- The introduction of a British Bill of Rights, which appears likely to replace the Human Rights Act 1998. The proposal is to sever the formal link with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), so that the ECHR's judgments will no longer be binding on the UK law. The proposed reform has faced fierce criticism from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Human Rights groups.
- Further legislation to tackle the trafficking of workers, in the form of a Modern Slavery Bill.
- Scrapping employer exclusivity in zero hours contracts.
Changing the strike laws, including the introduction of a requirement for at least 50% of eligible union members to vote for strike action (currently a simple majority of those who vote is required). The changes also include:
- A 3 month time limit for strike action to take place following ballot.
- A requirement to give 14 days' notice before a union takes industrial action.
- A provision that illegal picketing would become a criminal offence.
- The current picketing code of practice would also become legally binding.
An attempt to re-negotiate Britain's membership of the EU, followed by an in-out referendum on membership.
Labour Party Reforms
The main employment-related reforms announced at the Labour Party Conference were:
- Increasing the national minimum wage to £8 an hour by 2020 and introducing tax breaks to employers who pay a living wage.
- Increasing free childcare for working parents to 25 hours' per week for 3-4 year olds.
- Companies with more than 250 employees would be required to publish details of average pay of men and women at each pay grade, to promote equality.
- Reform of the Employment Tribunal system, including changing the fees and remissions system in order to 'make justice affordable'.
- Introducing measures to ensure equal rights for the self-employed. Although at present it is not clear which rights will be extended to self-employed workers or who will be affected.
- A reform of zero hours contracts, including an employee right to request a minimum amount of hours after 6 months and the right to a fixed-hour contract after 12 months. Some practices associated with zero hours contracts will also be restricted (such as some on-call practices) or banned (such as employer exclusivity) and employers will be required to pay compensation to employees where shifts are terminated at late notice.
- Holding an enquiry into blacklisting of workers in the construction industry.
- A commitment to staying in the European Union.
Liberal Democrat Reforms
The main employment reforms announced at the Liberal Democrat party conference were:
- The creation of a new 'Workers' Rights Agency', so that a single agency deals with the enforcement of workers' rights. The proposed agency would carry out work currently undertaken by HM Revenue & Customs, the Health and Safety Executive, the Employment Agency Standards inspectorate and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.
- An increase to the national minimum wage for apprentices
- Requiring the removal of names of jobseekers during the recruitment process to reduce the risk of discrimination.
- The introduction of an additional 4 weeks' paternity leave.
- Reform of zero hours contracts. This is expected to include a ban on employer exclusivity and the right to request regular hours after a certain amount of time.
- A requirement on companies with over 250 employees to publish pay data to encourage fairness. This is likely to include publishing how many employees earn less than the living wage, details of gender pay differences and a comparison of median pay vs top level pay.
- A commitment to staying in the European Union.
The current focus on the increased cost of living outstripping wages has led all 3 parties to re-examine employment rights and protections for workers at the lower end of the pay scale. It is likely that wages and employment rights will form a key part of all 3 election manifestos next year.
All the main parties have committed to making changes to how zero hours contracts operate and are considering extending employment rights to a wider category of workers. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have also announced measures to improve pay transparency in an effort to drive equality in workplace pay.
A reform of the Employment Tribunal fees system also appears inevitable whoever is in power next year, given the significant drop-off in claims and the pending Judicial Review of Tribunal fees.
While we will have to wait for the parties to publish their full election manifestos to see if the announced changes are included, it is clear that as has become the norm, all 3 parties plan to make employment law a central part of their campaigns.