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Election 2017: What do the parties say about employment rights and workplace regulation?

Thu 01 Jun 2017

As the election draws close and the main parties have finalised their manifesto proposals, now seems like a good time to take a look at what's on offer and what the future holds for the UK's employment regime, whoever wins on 8 June.

Forward, Together?

Theresa May announced an 11-point plan for reforming employment regulations which, she claimed, would constitute the "greatest expansion of worker's rights" by any Conservative Government in history.  These proposals include a range of new rights to time off work (presumably unpaid), for example following the loss of a child, to care for a sick relative or to undertake training.

The Conservative pledges also follow a theme of enhancing employee engagement with the business – perhaps continuing the Coalition's theme of building a 'John Lewis economy'.  For example, Mrs May proposes imposing a worker representative on company boards (although this appears only to be a director with responsibility for workers on boards) and ensuring that employees are given the same information about the Company's future as shareholders.  Additionally, there will be new rules put in place to protect pensions from irresponsible management – undoubtedly inspired by the BHS debacle.

It is less clear, however, how some of the Conservative proposals will make a substantial impact.  For example, it remains to be seen how they will "extend the Equalities Act for those with mental health conditions" in a meaningful way – especially when the Equality Act 2010 (presumably the statute being referred to) already covers many mental health conditions under the protected characteristic of disability.  Similarly, the stated Conservative intention to provide the "greatest expansion of worker's rights" has come under significant criticism for failing to address the significant impact on access to justice caused by the introduction of Tribunal fees – which have seen cases fall by over 70%.  Arguably, such rights will only be effective if individual employees and workers can enforce them when they are breached.

For the Workers, Not the Bosses

Unquestionably the most radical of the two main parties' positions on workers' rights is the Labour Party.  Jeremy Corbyn has placed new employment regulation front and centre, with a raft of dramatic policy initiatives.  These include ensuring equal rights for all workers from day one (presumably meaning that unfair dismissal protection will be a right from the start of employment, not just after two years), rolling back a raft of limitations on the rights of trade unions and imposing sectoral collective bargaining, doubling paid paternity leave to four weeks, and abolishing employment tribunal fees.

Labour also has the most radical view of how to tackle the gig economy, and the thorny issue of employment status.  Whilst the Conservatives have pledged to implement the Taylor review and consult on issues such as maternity leave, Labour has said that it will implement a presumption in favour of employment status, and require employers to disprove this, in the event of any dispute.  There can be little argument that this approach tackles the issue head on and may be very effective.  But it is a blunt tool for dealing with a highly complex issue, and is likely to be unpopular with both business and some individuals who might be unwilling to have their self-employed tax status challenged. 

Whilst many of Labour's proposals are likely to excite workers and trade unionists, there is no doubt that they will be poorly received by many businesses.  For example, Terry Scuoler, the CEO of the EEF, the manufacturer's organisation, described the manifesto as containing "policies that are from a bygone age and an overly interventionist approach".

What future for European rights?

One thing all of the main parties agree on, at least in their manifesto proposals, is that they will guarantee EU-based employment rights going forward.  It seems, therefore, that concerns about a possible 'bonfire of rights' in an unregulated, post-Brexit workplace, were misplaced.  However, the devil is, as ever, in the detail: Until we know how EU employment regulations are to be transposed into UK law, it is not clear what, if any changes, we will see in reality. 

For more information on this article please contact the Employment Team.      

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