Pre-election purdah is upon us and election fever is sweeping the country with no doubt many of us looking forward to the excitement of the BBC’s traditional ‘swingometer’.
Some commentators believe this will be one of the most unpredictable general elections with voters turning their backs on the established parties.
Certainly UKIP’s rise has made the outcome of the election, and the results in dozens of seats across the country, more unpredictable than in past elections. The latest YouGov poll (20th April) puts the Conservatives at 34%,Labour 35%, Liberal Democrats at 7% and UKIP at 13%.
Whilst the key areas of education, health and the economy understandably take centre stage, employment reform is still very much on the agenda. Below is a summary of the key employment reforms put forward by each of the main parties.
Zero hours contracts
It is the topic of zero hours contracts where we see the most overlap, consistency and ultimately agreement in approaches between the parties. In the recent debate the Conservatives praised the flexibility of zero hours particularly for students but expressed the need for protection. The government’s consultation on this topic has focused on banning the use of exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts via the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill. Additional measures have also been announced to tackle avoidance of the forthcoming ban on exclusivity clauses with the introduction of a new protection from detriment for workers who take jobs under other contracts (see our recent blog).
Last year the Conservative Party set out some proposals to modernise industrial relations. These included:
• Introducing a minimum of 50% turnout minimum threshold.
• Illegal picketing being made a criminal offence.
• Making the code of practice on picketing legally binding.
• Introducing new time limits.
The proposals have attracted widespread discussion and debate, and unsurprisingly have been heavily criticised by the other political parties as measures which make industrial action more prescriptive, resulting in workers having less power. However, following the London underground strikes the Conservatives have again pledged to include tougher strike laws in their 2015 manifesto.
Other manifesto policies we may see include:
• A British bill of rights? Something to replace the current Human Rights Act 1998.
• The funding of 3 million apprenticeships. These funds will come from the savings made by stricter conditions on youth benefits.
• A benefit freeze on benefits such as Working Tax Credits and Jobseeker’s allowance. This would not affect disability and maternity benefits.
• Changes in the tax rates. This would see the level at which employees pay the top rate of tax and the free personal allowance both being increased.
Zero hours contracts
Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, has pledged to ban exploitative zero hours contracts in order to improve job security.
Employment tribunal system
There has also been much speculation over what, if elected, Labour would do to reform the employment tribunal system. The Shadow Business Secretary has indicated that the system of tribunal fees introduced by the current government limits access to justice and is both “unfair” and “unsustainable” – the Conservatives have stated the fee system will stay if they are elected.
National minimum wage
A key proposal by Labour is to increase the National Minimum Wage (NMW) to £8 an hour by 2020.
Gender pay differences
Labour has committed to put equal pay for men and women at the heart of its manifesto, seeing it as a key dividing line between the parties. In order to help tackle the problem new legislation would be introduced which would require companies with more than 250 employees to publish average pay of men and women at each pay grade.
Equal rights for the self-employed
The announcement of equal rights for the self-employed at the Labour Party conference led to more questions than answers. No further explanation was given as to how this could work in practice.
For more information on Labour proposals see ‘A Better Plan for Britain’s Workplaces’
National minimum wage
Continuing Labour’s theme of increasing the NMW, the Liberal Democrats propose a recommendation to the Low Pay Commission to increase the NMW for apprentices in the first year of their apprenticeship by over £1.
Other proposals include instructing the Low Pay Commission to consider ways of increasing the NMW and improving enforcement action; and establishing an independent review to consult on setting a fair Living Wage, which would be paid by all central government departments and executive agencies from April 2016.
A new Workers’ Rights Agency
The creation of a new Workers’ Rights Agency with the aim of streamlining the work of the NMW enforcement section at HM Revenue and Customs, the Working Time Directive section at the Health and Safety Executive, the Employment Agency Standards inspectorate, and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. The objective of the agency would be to enforce employment law rights and tackle the exploitation of workers.
Additional paternity leave
The introduction of an additional four weeks ‘use it-or-lose-it’ paternity leave (in addition to the current two weeks leave) to encourage fathers to take time off with young children.
Anonymizing public sector recruitment
Party members have backed a ‘name-blank’ application form in the public sector, in an attempt to cut discrimination and reduce bias.
Gender pay differences
In a similar vein to Labour, the Liberal Democrats propose requiring companies which employ more than 250 people to publish the average pay of their male and female workers.
Vince Cable has also announced a ‘wide ranging’ review into employment status by the current government in an attempt to clarify and strengthen the employment status of workers. Cable stated “Workers should not be finding out that they are not protected by law once they get to the employment tribunal. We need a system that is fair, simple and transparent – an environment where businesses feel more confident knowing what type of contracts to hire staff on and where individuals know their rights and have the security they deserve.”
The plan is for recommendations to be submitted to ministers for next steps by March 2015.
Zero hours contracts
UKIP has categorically hit out at zero hours and is proposing that ‘large employers’ be subject to a Code of Conduct requiring qualifying zero hours workers to be offered contractual fixed hours. No explanation has been proffered as to what constitutes a large employer or how the ‘Code’ would be enforced, save that there would be a threat of (unidentified) legislative action.
The Agency Workers Regulations will be repealed as part of a wider review into all law of EU origin. Laws that act as an obstacle to British prosperity and competitiveness will be abolished. Quite the extent to which the rule book would be torn up remains in question but it’s safe to say that the Tribunal landscape could change dramatically.
UKIP’s calling card is the pledge to ‘put British workers first’. UKIP will apparently guarantee employers that they cannot be sued for discrimination if they decide to favour a young, unemployed British person for a job ahead of a better qualified or more experienced foreign applicant. ‘Young’ for these purposes, rather distressingly for the vain amongst us, is decreed as being below 25.
From only a brief analysis of this policy, numerous holes can be picked. For one, it seems impossible to guarantee employers that they will be protected from discrimination claims. What about the employer who purposely holds a job open hoping a young Brit comes forward when at present they have a perfectly qualified foreign applicant before them? If this pledge ever came into force, there would be a whole host of satellite issues. What constitutes ‘British’ for the purposes of determining whether you should be first in line for a job or not? Would formal citizenship be required? If so, how long would you have to have held it? Must your family have lived and worked in this country before you?
And really, does this not miss the main motivation of most employers: to recruit the best person for the role, irrespective of colour, creed, class, age?
An aspect of labour that UKIP is clear on is that they intend to adopt for all EU citizens the existing points-based system for time-limited work permits. Those coming to work to the UK must have a job to go to, must speak English, must have accommodation agreed prior to their arrival, and must have NHS-approved health insurance. In addition, an Australian-style points policy will be used to select migrants with the skills and attributes for work that are considered to be lacking in the UK.
The general election has been set for 7 May 2015. Watch this space …