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Steven Eckett

Bishop & Sewell LLP

Senior Employment Lawyer

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Queen’s Speech: is the Government slowing down its employment law reform programme?

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This article was written by Steven Eckett, Head of Employment at Bishop & Sewell LLP.

This week’s Queen’s Speech appears at first sight to be thin on the ground in relation to the Government’s commitment to continuing employment law reform aimed at cutting excessive red tape and bureaucracy for business. Much of the media emphasis in the Government’s legislative programme has been on the toughening up of its stance in the sensitive arena of immigration.

This may well be an accurate assessment of a much reduced employment law reform programme this year in comparison to the Coalition Government’s previous legislative programmes. However if we take a closer look there were actually some important announcements which businesses and HR professionals need to be aware of.

One of the most significant announcements comes in the form of the National Insurance Contributions Bill which will introduce a new ‘Employer Allowance’ from April 2014 which will result in a £2000 annual reduction in the rate of Employer’s National Insurance contributions.

The Government’s intention is to help small businesses in particular to cope with the cost of employing staff and their estimate is that it will benefit in the region of 450,000 businesses across the United Kingdom. This means that employers will be able to employ annually up to four full-time workers on the national minimum wage before they become liable for any national insurance contributions. These provisions have been widely welcomed by the business community and a raft of business organisations as a step in the right direction.

Another important element of the Queen’s speech is the Deregulation Bill which is designed to reduce further the burden of excessive regulation on business and wider civil society. The proposals introduce measures to reduce burdens in particular on public bodies and the taxpayer. The details are somewhat sketchy and need fleshing out, however at this stage they will for example exempt self-employed people from health and safety legislation in such circumstances where their work actually poses no harm to others.

The bill also removes the power contained in the Equality Act 2010 for the employment tribunal to make wider recommendations to respondent businesses to adopt various measures should they lose discrimination cases. Although these recommendations are not binding many employers felt under an obligation to follow them through which no doubt was an additional costs burden on them.

More controversial measures in the Queen’s Speech are the proposals to increase the level of fines for any businesses employing illegal workers together with placing the onus on landlords to check out the immigration status of their tenants. The main aim of these proposals is to ‘ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute and deter those who will not’.

Whilst these provisions appear to make the Government’s position on immigration much more robust, many employers will believe that they being used by the Government as an extension of the UK Border Agency in doing its dirty work.

The Queen’s speech also embraces apprenticeships and traineeships particularly in the financial services and legal sectors. It is the Government’s aim to clarify the definition of apprenticeships and to make them more mainstream as a quality route into the world of work compared to the more traditional routes that historically have proved more costly and time-consuming. It is envisaged too that employers will also be instrumental in the design and development of apprenticeships to ensure that they deliver the relevant skills that industry requires. This it is hoped will make a real difference to business and help young people into the professions as a specific aim of their training as opposed to the traditional route of family and friend connections.

Remember too that there are also many employment law changes in the pipeline that were not mentioned in the Queen’s speech and which do not require any form of primary legislation.

The most significant of these include the imminent planned introduction of employment tribunal fees in July 2013, the implementation of the new employment tribunal rules and procedures which for example will combine Pre-Hearing Reviews and Case Management Discussions and re-label them as ‘Preliminary Hearings.’ Another big change on the horizon is the proposed changes to the TUPE Regulations with the proposed repeal of the provisions that currently operate to bring service provision change automatically within the scope of those regulations.

Taking all of these proposed changes into account it can strongly be argued that the Queen’s Speech isn’t too light on the subject matter of continuing employment law change and reform.

As with all of these proposals however the devil is in the detail and it remains to be seen whether some of the more controversial proposals, for example the increased immigration measures against businesses, will actually make it onto the statute book.

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Steven Eckett

Senior Employment Lawyer

Read more from Steven Eckett
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