What progress has been made on the employment bill?

Despite its absence in the Queen’s speech, the government has said the legislation will be introduced ‘when the time is right’, says Sarah Ozanne

In the December 2019 Queen’s speech, the government made its proposals to introduce an employment bill, which would include changes already anticipated by the Good Work Plan. These changes included: a new right for all workers to request a more predictable contract; a single market enforcement agency to help workers enforce their rights and support business compliance; extended protection for pregnant employees; a week’s leave for unpaid carers; making flexible working the default where an employer does not have a good reason not to allow it; and measures to encourage employers to play their part in retaining disabled people. 

The following progress has been made on these issues:

  • The right for employees who work variable hours (including both those on zero-hours contracts and agency workers) to request a more predictable and stable contract remains a government commitment – but the timing of its introduction is uncertain. 
  • The government will need to push forward to avoid being trumped by the introduction of the EU Directive on Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions, which offers workers similar rights on an EU basis in August 2022.
  • The aim of the single market enforcement agency is to increase awareness and access to rights for vulnerable workers, including rights relating to anti-slavery, statutory sick pay and enforcing unpaid tribunal awards. While the government said the introduction of the single enforcement body would require a transitional period, there is no clear evidence of progress on its introduction.
  • A proposal to extend the period of redundancy protection from the point an employee informs her employer she is pregnant to six months after her return from maternity leave. The government's subsequent response to the Women and Equalities Committee report on the gendered economic impact of Covid-19 stated that it still intends to extend the redundancy protection period afforded to mothers on maternity leave.
  • The proposal for a week’s leave for unpaid carers was part of the Conservative party’s election manifesto and a consultation that closed in August 2020. Further progress on this issue is awaited.
  • Making flexible working the default was also part of the Conservative party’s election manifesto, and earlier this month the government stated that it will issue a consultation on the proposal in due course.
  • The Disability Unit in the Cabinet Office launched a public survey in January 2021 to gather views for a National Strategy of Disabled People, with the aim of publishing this in the spring. This is still awaited. 
  • Therefore, while some headway has been made on these initiatives, no new legislation has been introduced and the Queen’s speech on 17 May made no mention of them or the employment bill. The silence has resulted in the government being accused of rowing back on workers’ rights, particularly in the context of post-Brexit UK. The government has blamed the lack of progress on Covid and has said that it will introduce the bill “when the time is right”.

In the absence of any commitment to tangible progress on the employment bill, the Queen’s speech offered little news for employers to consider. There was mention (in the background briefing notes) of the employment tribunal process being aligned with the other tribunals in the unified tribunals structure. The aim of this is to address the backlog of claims at the employment tribunals, with some claims currently taking more than a year to get to a full hearing. 

The government also stated that it would bring forward measures to address racial and ethnic disparities. However, the exact nature of these measures remains unclear, with the government considering its response to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. There is currently no proposal to introduce mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting but the government has recommended detailed guidance for the many employers that are choosing to publish this voluntarily.

The evident lack of tangible progress and exclusion of the employment bill from the Queen’s speech is unfortunate, particularly given Brexit and the government’s previous commitment to workers’ rights. However, all the changes proposed as part of the bill are still alive and employers should have regard to further developments in the relevant areas and should bear these in mind when making internal policy changes.

Sarah Ozanne is an employment lawyer at CMS