The new year began with a new government, a degree of certainty over Brexit and a number of employment law developments already on the horizon. We are now in the transition period until 31 December 2020, during which EEA nationals will still be able to come and work in the UK. Employers will need to prepare for a new immigration system that will be in place after the transition period and carry out an audit of their workforce looking for potential skills gaps while considering whether they will need to obtain a sponsor licence to recruit the staff they need from abroad. At the same time, organisations will have to comply with national minimum wage and other statutory rate increases with the added challenge set by the government having pledged that the national living wage rate will reach two-thirds of median earnings within five years. On current projections, this would be around £10.50 in 2024. The proposed rate for statutory maternity, adoption, paternity and shared parental pay is £151.20, up from £148.68.

Arguably, the most striking addition to worker rights is a policy amendment to include parental bereavement leave and pay. This right will allow parents of a child under the age of 18 who has died to take two weeks' leave. It will be available to the birth parents or those with parental responsibility for the child and can be taken within 56 weeks of the child's death, in a block of two weeks, or two blocks of one week. Employees will be entitled to parental bereavement leave from day one of their employment, but there will be a qualifying period of 26 weeks for entitlement to parental bereavement pay. Although the government has not yet published the regulations that will finalise the details for the introduction of parental bereavement leave and pay, this is a significant statement.

Reaction to the proposal has followed ideological lines to some extent. HR professionals have generally welcomed the legislation as a potential positive step in avoiding a common employee relations tension point. Representatives have reacted with suspicion with views ranging from a perspective that it does not go far enough to the benefit being a confidence trick to lure workers into a false sense of security over the government’s future intentions towards worker rights generally.

A degree of suspicion is understandable but the overall picture forming of legislation passed already and scheduled later seems generally positive. For example, legislation requiring employers to report on the pay ratio between their CEO and their employees came into effect on 1 January 2019. The first reports, covering information for the 2019/2020 financial year, are due to be published in 2020. Companies covered by the legislation (UK-listed businesses with more than 250 employees) must include a table in their directors' remuneration report setting out the ratio between their CEO's total remuneration and the pay and benefits of employees on the 25th percentile, the 50th percentile (median) and the 75th percentile.

Furthermore, the reference period for calculating holiday pay for workers who do not work regular hours will increase from 12 to 52 weeks on 6 April 2020. This change is being introduced as part of the government's Good Work Plan and should prevent workers missing out on holiday pay if they take their annual leave in the 12 weeks after a quiet period. Employers will need to pay workers without normal hours their average weekly pay, calculated over the previous year, rather than the previous 12 weeks.

In the Queen's speech on 19 December 2019, the government announced that there will be an Employment Bill, the key elements of which would be:

  • creating a new, single enforcement body, offering greater protections for workers
  • ensuring that tips left for workers go to them in full
  • introducing a new right for all workers to request a more predictable contract
  • extending redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination
  • allowing parents to take extended leave for neonatal care; and introducing an entitlement to one week's leave for unpaid carers
  • subject to consultation, making flexible working the default unless employers have good reason not to

Brexit may well present organisations with the challenge of dealing with unprecedented change over the next few years. Alongside this, organisations and their representatives will need to have serious discussions about artificial intelligence, robotics, climate change and inclusivity. At the very least, these legislative changes should provide some cautious optimism that worker rights will not be diminished by the government while these critical discussions are taking place.

Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA

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