From an employment perspective, the most notable feature of the 2021 Queen’s Speech was the absence of any mention of a new Employment Bill, despite the Prime Minister announcing this as a key priority in the last Queen’s Speech in December 2019. The delay was put down to the pandemic, with the government assuring the country that a Bill would be introduced “when the time is right”. Employers’ groups and trade unions have expressed concern over the delay, saying that the government has “rowed back” on its pledge to respond to concerns of workers’ rights being eroded, now that the UK has left the EU.

The Employment Bill was expected to set out a number of significant changes to UK employment law, including:

  • Establishing a single state enforcement body responsible for enforcing minimum wage requirements, anti-slavery law and holiday pay for vulnerable workers, as well as more regulation of employment agencies and the use of umbrella companies.
  • An extension of the right of those on maternity leave to be offered any suitable alternative employment that is available on redundancy to pregnant employees and those within six months of returning from maternity leave.
  • The introduction of a new right to paid neonatal leave of up to 12 weeks, to support parents whose babies need neonatal care.
  • A new right to a week’s unpaid leave for carers each year.
  • A new requirement for employers to pass on all tips and service charges to employees, and the creation of a statutory Code of Practice to regulate how tips should be distributed.
  • A new right for workers who work variable hours to request a stable contract after 26 weeks’ service. This was proposed as part of the government’s Good Work Plan to help give such workers the opportunity to plan with knowledge of their likely income.
  • The government also intended to use the Employment Bill to bring forward plans to “make flexible working the default” rather than the exception.

What was included in the speech?

Despite no mention of the Employment Bill, some important points for employers were touched upon in the speech:

  • The briefing notes mentioned that the employment tribunal process will be aligned with that of other tribunals in the “Unified Tribunals” structure, mainly to help with the backlog of claims after COVID. It is unclear how this will operate in practice, but will likely involve delegation of work to tribunal case workers and other structural changes.
  • Potentially the most interesting point for employers is the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which promises a “Lifetime Skill Guarantee” to enable flexible access to education for people throughout their lives. In effect, this would be a lifelong loan entitlement to help adults fund their studies. The government promised to give employers a central role in shaping these reforms.
  • The government announced it is bringing forward measures to address racial and ethnic disparities, but it is unclear what exactly such “measures” will entail. The briefing notes suggest that the focus will be on recent recommendations from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. The Commission’s report did not recommend the introduction of mandatory ethnicity pay reporting, but did provide guidance for the many employers who choose to publish this information on a voluntary basis.
  • A New Plan for Immigration was announced, which promised to deter illegal entry into the UK and make it easier to remove individuals.

Looking forward for employers

In recent weeks, there has been increasing pressure on the government to limit the ability of employers to use so-called “fire and rehire” tactics. This is where employers change the employment terms of their employees by terminating their existing contracts and re-engaging those employees on fresh contracts. This is being increasingly used as a way to cut costs as businesses struggle with the impact of the pandemic. While the issue was not specifically addressed in the proposed Employment Bill, it has increased concern about the delay in the Bill’s publication. During a debate in Parliament regarding the anticipated publication of an ACAS report on “fire and rehire” (this was later published on 8 June 2021), Paul Scully MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy gave assurance that publication of the Employment Bill would be brought forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.

The absence of an Employment Bill in this year’s Queen’s Speech is noteworthy, given the government’s repeated commitment to improve workers’ rights after Brexit. However, government statements about bringing forward the publication of a Bill, along with further responses to the ACAS report on “fire and re-hire” tactics, suggest that employers should still expect that there are some significant changes to employment law on the horizon.