Although yesterday’s king’s speech – Charles’s first as king and the first by a king in 70 years – laid out 21 new laws it has been described as being “pretty limp from a workforce perspective”.
The House of Lords-delivered speech had a large focus on domestic energy security, rail reform and criminal justice as well as housing and football governance regulation.
While there was a focus on post-16 skills and education, critics have noted the absence of a full employment bill, a mixed approach to skills development and no real headway made on pensions reform.
People Management takes a look at what was and was not covered, plus the ramifications for employers.
The employment bill is missing – again
Despite a unified employment bill being a Conservative manifesto pledge in 2019, this is the third year in a row that the bill will be missing from the government’s immediate legislative agenda.
While there has been headway on several constituent parts of the bill, including flexible working as a day one right, neonatal leave and pay, carer’s leave, protection against redundancy for pregnant employees and allocation of tips in full for hospitality workers, there are fears the lack of a comprehensive bill will create limbo for employers and employees.
For Bobby Ahmed, employment lawyer and managing director of Neathouse Partners, the bill’s absence “may cause uncertainty for employers and employees”, who will have to anticipate future change while continuing as they were – trying to tackle the fast-evolving problems of today’s work landscape without full guidance on key issues such as minimum wage, employment agency regulation and rights of workers.
“For HR professionals, this creates a challenge in strategic planning and policy development as HR must continue to navigate a complex and, in some aspects, outdated legal landscape without the benefit of the updated, consolidated guidance that the employment bill could have provided,” he says.
“The omission of employment legislation in the king's speech represents a missed chance to align UK employment law with contemporary work practices and societal expectations.”
A key part of the king's speech was Rishi Sunak’s plan to force young people to study mathematics until they are 18, to bring A-levels and T-levels together and to reduce the number of young people “studying poor-quality university degrees”, alongside plans to increase the number of high-quality apprenticeships.
Joe Marshall, chief executive of NCUB, says these announcements are a mixed bag. First, he is concerned degrees that currently “generate the skilled and versatile workforce businesses require” are under threat, a move that Marshall believes could hit social mobility – an increasingly central part of business talent management considerations.
“More worrying still is that the type of course selected for a cap is more likely to be one with a high proportion of students with disadvantaged backgrounds,” he adds.
Elsewhere, there were calls for a labour market insights body to inform future policy making around skills and education, and for a focus on short-term use of the flexible labour market until policy can take effect.
And, with a focus on energy, industry, rail, AI and trade, other commentators want to see a greater emphasis on skills development from the government.
Tania Bowers, global public policy director at the Association of Professional Staffing Companies, says trade deals need to include provision for recruitment: “The current Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is heavily focused on goods not skills, and a means of accommodating recruitment in such deals should be included in any discussions.”
Joseph Williams, CEO of Clu, adds that, with mention of future industrial and green policy in the government’s agenda, he hopes there is an adequate skills strategy to support this. “A holistic approach to upskilling that considers both existing and needed skills can contribute significantly to the success of the UK's industrial and net-zero plans, but we [employers and government] need to assist them in discovering innovative ways to apply and expand those skills within the green sector,” he says.
With recent Financial Times data analysis showing that the graduate salary premium has fallen everywhere outside of London over the last 25 years, Marshall does laud the government’s renewed focus on high-quality apprenticeships. “Diversifying pathways into education is vital if we are to meet future skills needs, and the need for action to address our chronic skills crisis in the short and medium term remains,” he says.
Workforce health and wellbeing
There was a focus on making future generations smoke free, but elsewhere mention of health was lacking. While there was also a provision to boost the NHS’s workforce – People Management covered the staffing crisis last year, with a focus on unfilled vacancies, patchy training and a lack of career support – business leaders and HR might be concerned that, as Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, described, “there is little in this king’s speech for the NHS and leaders will be exasperated that mental health reform has been kicked into the long grass”.
The concern comes as the number of workers taking sick leave has hit a 10-year high, with stress cited as one of the biggest factors and mental ill health named as the top cause of long-term absence. CIPD analysis also found that staff were absent from work for an average of 7.8 days in 2022, up from 5.8 days in 2019.
Absence of pensions bill
Although the government has already laid out plans for the reform of DC and DB pensions, pensions consolidation and pensions management quality, Nigel Peaple, director of policy and research at the PLSA, is “disappointed” that there was no major focus on pensions. However, he adds that changes can be driven forward by secondary legislation or guidance.
Peaple explains that, while initiatives such as increased support for savers at retirement will not be backed by immediate statutory requirements, he is optimistic that changes will be pushed through and that with more time any reforms will be well designed: “We do expect the government and regulators to continue to pursue these objectives through guidance and standard setting. Indeed, some of the recent speeches by the CEO of The Pensions Regulator on consolidation and value for money make this very clear.
“Moreover, following the government’s support for a private member’s bill in the last session, we expect the minister for pensions to shortly propose secondary legislation to increase automatic enrolment contributions by introducing saving from the first pound of earnings and from age 18.”
Better consideration of ex-offenders
With law and order front and centre in the king’s speech, Kelly Dolphin, people and culture director at SBFM, calls for this to be built on by focusing on delivering opportunities for prison leavers, a cohort that NFN research shows are more reliable, more motivated and perform better at work.
Although there was no extra provision for employment of ex-offenders, she adds: “While we welcome reform of the justice system it is important that UK businesses have faith in ex-offenders, who often possess valuable skills, to combat the negative stereotypes associated with these demographics.
“Steps are being taken to show prisoners that there is a light at the end of the tunnel upon their release, but collectively more can be done to help reduce overcrowding numbers.”