The Queen's speech’s workers’ rights agenda contains gaping holes

While there is much to support in the new bill, including on flexible working and additional leave for unpaid carers, says Sue Tumelty, the plans are not wide-ranging enough

Shortly before Christmas the Queen gave her 66th Queen’s speech for her 14th prime minister, laying out the new government’s priorities for the coming legislative period.

Among more than 30 pieces of legislation announced in the speech was the employment bill (snappier title to follow). The stated purpose of the bill was ‘making Britain the best place in the world to work’ through strengthening rights and fairness alongside better support for working families.

Our initial impressions are that the bill appears to be a somewhat thin, stripped-back version of the Good Work Plan set by the government a year previously. At that time, The HR Dept said the plan’s aims were laudable but lacked a coherent timetable. Consultations are all very well, as are promises and intentions, but without action or real clarity of purpose a plan simply becomes a wishlist.

So while we always welcome aims to help workplaces work better for employers and employees, it is a concern that much of the lofty ambition on rights and reforms looks to be missing from this piece of legislation.

Among the features of the proposed bill are: 

  • The creation of a new single enforcement body to offer greater protections for workers. 
  • Giving workers the right to request a more predictable contract.
  • Ensuring flexible working by default unless employers have a good reason not to agree (this will be subject to consultation).
  • The right for workers to keep their tips in full.
  • Extending redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
  • Extending neonatal care leave.
  • Providing one week’s additional leave for unpaid carers.

These are all welcome measures, which look to improve workers’ rights and reflect the changing nature of the modern workplace. However, it is not nearly as comprehensive or wide-ranging an agenda as we would have expected following the Good Work Plan.

We are particularly concerned to see that, on the surface of the proposed bill at least, there appears to be no attempt to address one of the key issues identified in the Taylor review and the Good Work Plan: the issue of employment status. 

The HR Dept has long called for greater clarity on employment status, as well as better education and communication for businesses to help them avoid falling foul of the law. We propose the category of ‘worker’ be abolished, replaced by a clear binary ‘employed’ or ‘self employed’ status. The self-employed status would be reformed to grant greater freedom of choice through the removal of the criteria requiring the right to substitute. There should be greater protections for the vulnerable who are forced into sham self-employment by ensuring they are classified as employed.

In addition, there is a desperate need to align employment law and tax rules. For all of the talk during the election about reviewing IR35 (due to come into effect for the private sector in April) there is no mention of this in any of the bills set out in the Queen’s speech. 

However, despite the missing elements, we largely support the agenda to improve rights and work.

A single enforcement body is a good, common sense proposal as currently rogue employers can fall through Whitehall gaps. Where there is blatant disregard by a small minority of employers, there needs to be stronger and swifter action. But we strongly believe that the SME sector needs education and support to combat what is often widespread unawareness, rather than malintent. We would like to see this legislation introduce a widespread education campaign and support for businesses, and their advisers, to get it right. 

The right for flexible workers to request a more structured contract is a good start, but further guidelines or clarifications about how this would work in practice are crucial.

Indeed, some aspects of the Taylor review have been introduced by the government already and are set to start in April, such as the abolition of the ‘Swedish derogation’ loophole to give agency workers the right to a written record of their core terms of employment.

Greater support for working families is to be welcomed, but businesses will need time to prepare and, again, clear guidance and support on implementation. 

And no one with a heart is going to argue against workers being allowed to keep their tips in full, surely? 

All in all, there is much to support in this agenda. But there are gaping holes too, which we hope will be closed when the bill is published and as it makes its way through parliament.

Sue Tumelty is founder and executive director at The HR Dept