Authors:Douglas Johnson
Last updated:2023-09-18
“The Queen’s speech was a massive blow to many workers but not one that is evenly spread across the workforce.”
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Discrimination
As employment advisers know well, those engaging in inappropriate behaviour at work-related parties often get into trouble. Mixing the social and the workplace, with the added complication of alcohol or other drugs, can lead to difficult and protracted disputes, in some cases with career-changing consequences.
Of course, in many such disputes, workers want to argue that they were not in an employment context and they should be given due respect for what they do in their private life. From a conventional employment rights perspective, it seems odd for those at Downing Street parties, which have dominated news headlines for months, to argue that they were at work and therefore complied with the law.
Many might also wonder why a penalty the equivalent of a parking fine is said to be a resigning matter – and such a topic of public conversation – when unlawfully proroguing parliament was not. Surely, such an unlawful action at the very highest level of interference with the country’s democratic constitution would be, you know, quite important? The beautifully-expressed and elegant language of the Supreme Court judgment in R (Miller) v Prime Minister [2019] UKSC 41 is very much worth a reread at any point to reflect on the fundamentals of the UK’s constitution.
Following this unlawful prorogation, the Queen’s speech was eventually delivered on 19 December 2019, after a general election in which the government obtained a large majority and therefore the power to push through the legislation it wanted. Despite the concern over the possible loss of employment rights due to Brexit, many were cheered at the government’s promise of new rights to more flexible working (by default) and entitlement to leave for unpaid carers. Specifically, the government promised a new, single enforcement body, new rights in respect of the zero-hours contract culture, extended leave for neonatal care, plus a £1bn fund for childcare.
Disappointingly, the promised Employment Bill did not materialise, despite the government identifying benefits for both businesses and workers from flexible working. More damning still was the government’s recognition of its aim of ‘protecting the majority of businesses who strive to do the right thing by their workers from being undercut by the small minority who seek to avoid their responsibilities’ (Queen’s speech December 2019: background briefing notes, 19 December 2019, page 43). This refers to the ‘new, single enforcement body’.
The government had, in fact, started consultation on the single enforcement body in July 2019. The response was published nearly two years later, in June 2021, and noted that only six per cent of respondents thought the current enforcement systems were effective. It also reminded us that primary legislation will be required to bring this body into force and that this will be ‘subject to the usual government approval process’ (page 10).
The lack of action in bringing forward any proposed legislation to match this commitment is inexplicable and suggests, perhaps, some sympathy for the small minority of businesses who seek to avoid their responsibilities.
Many business and employee groups noted this lack of action was cemented by the absolute omission of any reference to employment rights in this year’s Queen’s speech on 10 May 2022, indicating that the promised progress has been fully killed off. This is a massive blow to many workers but not one that is evenly spread across the workforce.
The rolling back of the promise to address abuses of zero-hours contracts has a disproportionate effect on those who suffer most from being in more precarious employment situations, where it may be their only source of income. The failure to bring forward promised legislation on time off for neonatal care clearly impacts on women, particularly those without enough flexibility in their workplace or an enlightened employer. Similarly, the lack of protection for unpaid carers will disproportionately affect women. When it comes to the lack of progress on the single enforcement body, those who will suffer are those without resources to enforce their own individual grievances through employment tribunals or workplace negotiations.
With no mention whatsoever of any new legislation on workers’ rights in this year’s Queen’s speech, who knows whether these proposals will ever be taken further or whether those already most disadvantaged in the labour market will remain there.