28 Nov 2019

With the general election less than two weeks away, we look at the manifestos published by the three main political parties and what they mean for employment law.

Conservative Party

The Conservative Party manifesto concentrates more on what the party has done in Government than on what it intends to do if re-elected and is short on detail; for example, it states that they will "raise standards in workers' rights" without saying what this means.

The manifesto deals with the enforcement of employment rights: it promises that a single enforcement body will be created for labour standards and there will be a crackdown on employers abusing employment law.

A number of promises that will benefit carers appear in the document. The Conservatives will: extend the entitlement to leave for unpaid carers to a week; continue the changes to neo-natal leave; extend redundancy protection for women who have recently had a child; make it easier for fathers to take paternity leave; provide more time off for those with families and caring responsibilities; fund more childcare before and after school and during school holidays; and encourage flexible working.

Other miscellaneous proposals include ensuring workers have the right to request a more predictable contract, launching a review on how to better support the self-employed, and reducing the disability employment gap. Larger businesses will be pleased to hear that there will be more flexibility in using the apprenticeship levy.

Lastly, there is an indication that one of the proposed reforms to termination payments in the public sector will finally take place, as there is a commitment to claw back redundancy payments when high-paid civil servants move between jobs.

Labour Party

The Labour Party manifesto provides an extremely long shopping list of measures that will improve workers' rights and strengthen the power of trade unions. 

There are too many promises to list in full but here are some of the headline points:

  • A living wage of £10 per hour for all workers aged 16+
  • Average working hours to be reduced to 32 hours per week within 10 years with no loss of pay
  • Large companies to give employees 10% ownership of the company
  • One third of boards to be elected worker-directors
  • A new Ministry for Employment Rights, which will roll out compulsory sectoral collective bargaining on pay and working hours, with the aim of increasing pay
  • Full employment rights for everyone from day one
  • The end of bogus self-employment and a new single status of worker
  • Zero hours contracts and unpaid internships to be banned
  • Four new bank holidays
  • Repeal of the Trade Union Act 2016, unions to be able to use electronic balloting and to have more rights of access to workplaces
  • Breaks during shifts and cancelled shifts to be paid
  • The opt-out from the Working Time Regulations to be abolished
  • An extension of family-friendly rights, with higher pay

It is hard to see how employers will fund these manifesto promises without cutting jobs, or how they can result in anything other than a decrease in productivity.

Liberal Democrats

By contrast, the manifesto published by the Liberal Democrats has a shorter list of proposals, aimed at modernising employment rights. In terms of enforcement, they will establish a Worker Protection Enforcement Agency to protect people in precarious work, and will strengthen the ability of unions to represent workers effectively (including a right to access workplaces). They will set up an independent review on setting a genuine living wage across all sectors and will make flexible working available to everyone from day one.

Large companies will have to monitor and publish data on gender, BAME and LGBT+ employment levels and pay gaps. Staff in listed companies with more than 250 employees will have the right to request shares, and large companies will have at least one employee representative on the board; there will also be staff representation on remuneration committees. Employers who invest in employees' mental wellbeing will pay reduced business rates.

Lastly, the manifesto contains a number of promises around the gig economy, including establishing a new "dependent contractor" status between employment and self-employment (as recommended by the Taylor Review), and reviewing the tax and NIC status of all types of workers to ensure fair treatment.

Conclusion

All of the manifestos contain proposals that will lead to changes in employment law, and give us a flavour of the direction in which employment law will travel, depending on who wins the election.

However, manifesto documents are not legally binding and cannot be enforced so there is no guarantee that what you see is what you will get. There is a great deal of public cynicism around manifesto promises (leading to Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage launching a "contract with the British people" rather than a manifesto), which is symptomatic of our current lack of trust in politicians. If the Government breaks a manifesto pledge, our remedy is at the ballot box in the next election rather than in the courts.

Bernard Baruch appears to have been ahead of his time when he said in 1960 "vote for the man who promises least; he'll be the least disappointing".