Queen's speech: what do employers need to know?

The government is putting skills front and centre of its new legislative agenda, but made no mention of an anticipated unified employment bill

Yesterday’s Queen’s speech focused on the UK’s pandemic recovery, with the government’s commitment to “levelling up opportunities” across the country front and centre.

The speech – which outlined the government’s legislative agenda for the coming parliament – included promises to aid lifelong learning and skills development alongside commitments to create green jobs. But it also omitted key changes many employers were hoping for, including reforms to the apprenticeship levy and the introduction of a unified employment bill.

People Management takes a look at what was and wasn’t covered, and the ramifications for employers.

A skills promise...

The government signalled its commitment to lifelong learning, announcing the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill that will be introduced to parliament on 18 May. The bill promises to “support a lifetime skills guarantee” that will create a new training system for those over the age of 16 that will provide opportunities to gain the necessary skills for “well-paid jobs”.

The legislation will transform the current student loans system into a new financial system that vows to “give every adult access to a flexible loan for higher-level education and training at university or college, usable at any point in their lives”. It will also give the government more powers to intervene if it deems colleges to not be meeting required standards.

The announcement has been welcomed by many, including Agata Nowakowska, area vice president for EMEA at Skillsoft. “For many, investment in skills support will be key to addressing both the disruption in the UK labour market [caused by the pandemic] and the growing digital skills gap,” she said.

“This is a vital step in growing the skills of tomorrow as well as supporting the UK economy to build back up after a year of turmoil.”

...but no apprenticeship levy reform

However, despite the emphasis on skills, conspicuous by its absence was any mention of reform to the apprenticeship levy, despite longstanding calls from many employers for change. Research released yesterday by the CIPD found that employers had missed out on nearly £2bn worth of apprenticeship levy funds over the last two years.

The research also showed that businesses doubled the amount they were spending on generic management apprenticeships in an attempt to utilise as much of the fund as possible, while the number of apprenticeships going to those under the age of 19 fell by 8 per cent.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, warned: “Without a fundamental rethink of the apprenticeship levy, plans to boost employer engagement with local education and training providers are likely to be fatally undermined.”

Green jobs

The speech introduced legislation to build on the industrial decarbonisation strategy, introduced in March, which set out the government’s vision for the world’s first low-carbon industrial sector, promising to create 80,000 jobs over the next 30 years while lowering emissions by two-thirds in the next 15 years.

National insurance relief for ‘freeports’

To help the creation of eight new ‘freeports’ – tariff-free ports where tax is only paid on goods if they are moved elsewhere in the UK, introduced in the March budget – the government announced the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which will provide employers at freeports relief from national insurance contributions. The bill will also provide relief to employers of veterans.

According to the government, the freeports will generate new jobs and promote regeneration in the nearby areas.

Sewell report controversy

Following the controversial findings of the Sewell report on race and ethnic disparities in the UK, many groups were expecting an announcement in the Queen’s speech; however, there was only a passing mention that “measures will be brought forward to address racial and ethnic disparities”.

Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, said: “It was good to hear that the government plans to work on reducing ethnic disparities in the economy.

“We hope this will include bringing forward plans to require ethnicity pay gap reporting as a way to drive better diversity and inclusion in the workplace.”

No unified employment bill

Many commentators expressed surprise and frustration at the omission of a unified employment bill. Tony Wilson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies, said: “Far from ‘levelling up’, this Queen’s speech risks levelling down on jobs.”

Willmott described the announcement as a “missed opportunity” to address key issues – including improving labour market enforcement and flexible working, and providing better leave for carers – as the UK looks to “build back better” after the pandemic.

“The labour market enforcement system in particular is broken and requires urgent attention to boost state-based enforcement and address the weaknesses in the employment tribunal system,” Willmott said.

“It’s crucial that the government moves quickly to tackle these issues as the pandemic and its aftermath will create employment relations challenges for employers and increase the risks that workers’ rights could be undermined.”