Employment issues were quite prominent in the Conservative election manifesto, with Theresa May making the bold assertion that she was promising “the greatest expansion in workers’ rights by any Conservative government in history”. In the event, the political reality of minority government and the exigencies of legislating for Brexit have inevitably resulted in a rather more modest reform agenda.
Brexit was naturally centre stage in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech and clearly has potential implications for workplace rights, albeit in the longer term. The Speech has confirmed plans to enact a “Repeal Bill” – apparently no longer a “Great” Repeal Bill - to convert EU law into UK law at the point of departure. This will include all EU-derived rights and protections for workers, but any of these could subsequently be amended or repealed. There have not yet been any indications as to what employment reforms of this nature might be pursued post-Brexit.
The Queen’s Speech has confirmed the commitment in the Conservative manifesto to increase the National Living Wage (NLW), which is essentially a premium on top of the national minimum wage (NMW) for workers aged 25 or over. The NLW will be increased to 60% of median income by 2020 and then subsequently raised in line with median earnings. Notably, however, there is no mention of equivalent increases for the other rates of the NMW.
The Speech also stated that the Government “will seek to enhance rights and protections in the modern workplace”. This alludes to the review of employment practices that has been commissioned from Matthew Taylor, who is expected to publish his report shortly. The Conservative manifesto promised to “act to ensure that the interests of employees on traditional contracts, the self-employed and those people working in the ‘gig’ economy are all properly protected”.
The Queen’s Speech has signalled that there will be reform of mental health legislation. The background briefing notes contain the rather woolly commitment that this will include publishing recommendations on “where new policy could provide greater rights for those experiencing mental health problems so they can live lives free from discrimination”. It remains to be seen whether this will ultimately lead to any extension of disability discrimination protection under the Equality Act 2010.
The legislation that will probably have most practical significance for employers is the forthcoming Data Protection Bill. The main purpose of this will be to implement the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a new pan-European legal framework coming into force in May 2018. The Queen’s Speech has confirmed that this will fully apply in the UK, regardless of what might happen in relation to Brexit. The GDPR will, among other things radically change the data processing, recording and other compliance obligations of businesses and increase penalties for transgressions.
Before the election, the Conservatives appeared to indicate that they might extend the new gender pay gap reporting regime. In the event, while the Queen’s Speech said the Government “will make further progress to tackle the gender pay gap”, it does not appear that any changes to the regulations are planned. Similarly pre-election rumours that the Government might extend the law to mandatory race pay gap reporting seem very unlikely to transpire, although it remains possible this will be introduced on a voluntary basis.
There was no mention in the Queen’s Speech of two significant pledges in the Conservative manifesto on workplace family rights – a statutory entitlement to leave for carers and a right to child bereavement leave. A further commitment that also seems to have fallen by the wayside is extending the right to request unpaid time off for training to all employees (currently it applies only to employers with 250 or more staff).
Despite Theresa May’s well publicised pledge that employees should be represented on company boards, it appears that employee representation is not now a legislative priority. The Conservative manifesto had indicated that the law would be changed to require listed companies to nominate a director from the workforce, create a formal employee advisory council or assign responsibility for employee representation to a designated non-executive director.
Similarly, there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to indicate that the Government will be pressing ahead with reforms of boardroom remuneration – including, for example, promised legislation to make executive pay packages subject to strict annual votes by shareholders and requiring listed companies to publish the ratio of executive pay to broader workforce pay.
All in all, there were no real surprises in the Queen’s Speech for HR practitioners and employment lawyers. It largely reflected the reduced ambitions of an administration struggling to obtain a workable majority, and the necessity of pruning back legislative commitments across the board to make time for no fewer than eight major Bills paving the way for Brexit.