Prior to the election, all of the polls had predicted a hung parliament, with weeks of coalition negotiations taking place before it being clear which parties would govern the country. Had a coalition Government been produced, it would have been somewhat unclear exactly what policies would have been introduced, however, there is no ambiguity with a majority Government. The Conservatives have already announced some policies which directly touch on Employment Law and others can be found in their manifesto.
Reform to strike laws
The newly appointed Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, has announced that one of the first acts of the new Government will be to reform the current law around strikes. The two key reforms which it is intended will be made are as follows:
- Employees providing essential public services will only be able to take lawful industrial action if the vote has the backing of at least 40% of eligible trade union members, as opposed to just 50% of those who vote. Currently this allows strike action where there is a low turnout of members.
- Employers will be able to use agency staff to cover for striking employees. This will potentially make it less likely that employers will negotiate with trade unions during strike action, as the disruption caused can be mitigated through the use of agency staff.
Unsurprisingly, Trade Unions are unhappy with the proposed reforms with the Trade Union Congress' General Secretary, Frances O'Grady, saying "The Government's proposals on union ballots will make legal strikes close to impossible. Union negotiators will be left with no more power than Oliver Twist when he asked for more." However, Mr Javid has said that these reforms are fair and will ensure that strike action is only taken where it is "properly supported by members of the relevant union".
It is expected that further detail will be provided in the Queen's Speech on 27 May 2015.
For more information on the proposed changes, see - Major industrial action reforms announced.
Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 (SBEE Act
Immediately before the last Government dissolved, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 came into force. This Act contains a number of reforms to Employment Law. However, while the Act itself is now in force, further regulations are required to implement the changes.
One of the proposed changes is in relation to zero hour contracts. There has been much publicity and debate around zero hour contracts, with many claiming that they are exploitative, while others, argue that they provide needed flexibility to the labour market. Under the SBEE Act exclusivity clauses in zero hour contracts will be made unenforceable. This will mean that those who are on a zero hour contract cannot be prevented from working for other employers.
The previous Government also consulted on ways in which employers may seek to avoid this ban and published its response on 11 March 2015. The response included proposals to impose financial penalties on those employers who try to avoid the ban and an extension of the ban to low income workers, in addition to those on zero hour contracts. It is yet to be seen whether regulations effecting these proposals will be brought into force by the new Conservative Government.
Another reform potentially to be introduced under the SBEE Act is requiring employers with more than 250 employees to publish the difference in average wages between male and female employees. This reform was though largely supported by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, and, therefore, it will be interesting to see if the Conservative Government now bring it into force.
Other changes which were to be introduced under the SBEE Act and which are likely now to come into force were:
- A new system of financial penalties for employers who fail to pay an award ordered by an Employment Tribunal.
- An amendment to the Employment Tribunal rules of procedure to limit the number of postponements requested by either the respondent or claimant.
- Increased financial penalties for failure to pay the national minimum wage.
- "Prescribed persons" in terms of the whistleblowing legislation to produce annual reports on all whistleblowing disclosures made to them.
For further details of the changes under the SBEE Act, see Updated Employment Law Reform Timeline.
Employment Tribunal fees
The Conservative's manifesto mentions nothing about the Employment Tribunal fee system which was introduced in July 2013.
Prior to the last coalition Government dissolving, Vince Cable, had launched a review into the fee system and had concluded that the introduction of fees was "a very bad move and should be reversed". However, Vince Cable, one of the high profile Liberal Democrat MPs to lose their seat, had launched the review in circumstances where, despite previous promises, the Conservatives had failed to do so. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the Conservatives will change the fee system in the near future.
It is possible that under the new devolution plans for Scotland, Tribunals will become a devolved matter. The SNP Government has previously made comments which suggest that they would review and potentially eradicate or lower Tribunal fees. This could lead to a situation where there are Tribunal fees in England but not in Scotland.
Separately, UNISON has been granted leave to appeal both decisions of the High Court to reject their Judicial Review of the introduction of Tribunal fees. These appeals are expected to be heard together in mid-June. As such it is still possible that the courts will find the introduction of these fees to have been unlawful.
Other manifesto promises
National Minimum Wage and the Personal Allowance
To accept the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission to increase the National Minimum Wage rate to £6.70 per hour in October 2015, with a view to increasing it to over £8.00 by 2020. It will also encourage companies who can afford to pay the Living Wage, to do so.
To raise the tax-free personal allowance to £12,500. The Conservatives have also pledged to bring in legislation which means that the personal allowance will rise in line with the National Minimum Wage.
Family friendly rights
For working parents, to increase the entitlement to free childcare to 30 hours for all three and four year olds.
To bring an end to six-figure payoffs for the highest paid public sector workers. Also, there are provisions in the SBEE Act which will require public sector exit payments to be repaid in certain situations.
Apprenticeships and volunteers
To create an extra three million apprenticeships over the next five years.To provide for paid volunteering leave (for three days a year) for people working in large companies (those who employ more than 250 employees) and in the public sector.
To aim to reduce the disability employment gap by 50%. However, there is no clear information provided in their manifesto on how they intend to achieve this, apart from altering policy, practice and public attitudes.
To take action to eliminate the exploitation of migrant workers. Also, they will seek to deal with illegal working and exploitation by bringing in tougher regulation of the labour market.
Fitness for work
To help those who are suffering from long-term, treatable conditions back into work. In particular, they aim to help them get the correct medical treatment. However, if medical recommendations are not followed, the individual's benefits may be reduced.
To replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a British Bill of Rights and make the Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights issues in the UK. This proposed reform has received much publicity, with the leader of the Scottish Government, Nicola Sturgeon, saying that the Scottish Government would seek to block any such repeal.