Employment  law is influenced closely by the policies of the party in Government.  With the New Year heralding the start of the four main political parties’ election campaigns we examine how the working life of those who manage people issues will be affected by the outcome of May’s General Election. 

The parties are focusing on the following key employment issues:

Equal pay 

Although ONS figures confirm the gender pay gap is closing, Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ focus is on promoting equal pay.   

Women earn only 80p for every £1 earned by men. At the current rate of progress, Labour sponsored research, published last summer, confirmed that  it would take women more than 60 years to achieve financial equality with men – a century since the promise of equal pay was first made in Labour’s Equal Pay Act of 1970. 

A senior Labour figure has said equal pay is viewed within the party as “unfinished business” from its last term; promoting equal pay is a key employment policy.

The Liberal Democrats announced that they will include a commitment in their manifesto to require all businesses with more than 250 employees to measure and publish information on their gender pay gaps, an attempt to shame large firms into action.  This policy was included in the Equality Act 2010, passed by the Labour Government just before the last general election, but later shelved by the Coalition.  
Labour has, however, stolen some of the Liberal Democrats’ initiative.  On 16 December 2014, a private members bill sponsored by Sarah Champion, a Labour MP, to introduce the Equal Pay (Transparency) Bill had its first reading.  If enacted, the bill will introduce this change.   It is unlikely that the law will be changed in time before the General Election, it will be for the newly elected Government to continue with the progress of the bill.

Better rights for working parents 

The Liberal Democrats plan to increase paternity leave from two weeks to six weeks consistent with its focus on promoting the rights of fathers.  

The Conservatives are considering including a right for self-employed mothers to receive maternity pay.  If enacted this would apply to female freelancers and the increasing number of females working in “start-up” businesses;  the question is how will this be funded?

The Labour Party plan to support parents in the workplace and to encourage more parents to work by:

  • providing 25 hours of free childcare for all  three and four-year-olds;
  • requiring breakfast clubs and after-school clubs to be provided;
  • increasing opportunities for flexible working across the public sector

Changes to the use of zero hours contracts

All parties have responded to the negative publicity about the use of zero hours contracts and propose changes. 

UKIP and Labour plan to give those employed on zero hours arrangements a right to a fixed hours contract once they have been employed for a year.  UKIP’s proposal is that the obligation would only apply to “large employers” and would be enforced through a “code of conduct” with “legislative action” if not observed.  Labour proposes that employees can refuse to work outside their contracted hours and receive compensation if shifts are cancelled at short notice.
The Liberal Democrats suggest that employees employed on a zero hours contract should have the right to request a fixed hours contract building on the current right to request flexible working.  The Conservatives plan the end of the exclusive use of zero hours contracts; a move welcomed by the CBI.  

Changing the rules on strike action  

The Conservatives are the only party to propose changes to the rules on strike action which the TUC has strongly opposed. The proposals include:

  • a 40% support threshold on strikes in core services affecting health, education, transport and fire services.  This would make ¾ of strike ballots in past four years invalid;
  • a 50% minimum voting threshold for a strike to be lawful;
  • a new three-month time limit after a ballot for the strike action to take place;
  • a requirement for 14 days’ notice before unions take industrial action;
  • the criminalisation of certain types of picketing; and
  • the current code of practice on picketing to become legally binding.

Changes to the national minimum wage regime   

Labour has set a target of increasing the national minimum wage to £8 per hour by 2020.   The Liberal Democrats plan to increase the national minimum wage for apprentices by over £1; they have instructed the Low Pay Commission to review increasing the national minimum wage rate and also improving enforcement activity. 

Reforming the Tribunal system 

Labour will undertake major reforms of the employment tribunal system if elected in 2015. Labour plans to abolish the current system, reform the employment tribunals and put in place a new system, although no further details have been provided. It has been reported that Labour will not abolish tribunal fees altogether but will introduce better means testing. 

Introducing a British Bill of Rights  

Both the Conservatives and UKIP are planning on introducing a British Bill of Rights if elected in 2015.   The Bill of Rights will replace the Human Rights Act 1998.  UKIP plans to go further by not only introducing a British Bill of Rights but leaving the EU and withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. 

More protection for “British” workers 

UKIP plans to give businesses the right to discriminate in favour of young British workers. No more details have been announced.  The Labour party plans to tackle “rogue” employment agencies who recruit overseas workers exclusively.  This is one of a range of measures Labour plans to tackle exploitation of workers through employment agencies.

Although the outcome of the election is uncertain, what is clear is that whatever party or parties form the next Government, there will be further change for business and more work for those who manage people issues.  

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