The Queen's Speech 2022
11 May 2022
The 2022 Queen’s speech was widely expected to be the moment when the government finally announced its intention to implement a number of significant employment law reforms, including the long-anticipated Employment Bill. Instead, there is no mention of the Bill and only two provisions that touch on employment rights at all. Does this signal the demise of all these changes, or are they simply delayed?
Remember December 2019? When there was no thought of a global pandemic or war in Europe, and all we had to worry about was Brexit and the intentions of a new Conservative government. The 2019 Queen’s speech announced that the government was planning a new Employment Bill. Overtaken by events, the next Queen’s speech in May 2021 did not mention the Bill at all, but the government later confirmed it would be introduced when Parliamentary time allowed. Fast-forward to May 2022, and none of these employment law changes have been included in the 38 Bills set out in the latest speech.
What was due to be in the Employment Bill?
The Employment Bill was due to cover the following reforms, which have all been under discussion since at least December 2019.
- Making flexible working the default. The government had already backtracked on this somewhat by proposing a more modest new right to request flexible working from day one, and consultation on this proposal closed in December 2021. This forms the backdrop to discussions about “new normal” working arrangements, so it would be surprising if there was no response to the consultation this year despite its omission from the Queen’s speech.
- Extending redundancy protection for pregnancy and maternity. The government has promised to extent priority for alternative employment opportunities on redundancy to all pregnant employees and for up to 6 months after return from maternity leave, with similar protections for parents returning from adoption or shared parental leave.
- Leave for neonatal care. The government has promised a new right to 12 weeks' paid neonatal leave for parents whose babies spend time in neonatal care units. Consultation on this proposal closed on 11 October 2019, and the government’s response to the consultation said they will go ahead with legislation, although this is not expected until 2023.
- Leave for unpaid carers. The government has proposed that working carers will be able to take up to 5 days’ carers leave each year to help them carry out their caring responsibilities, although this will be unpaid. The government published some detail on how this new right will operate in September 2021, but there has been no further progress since then.
- Tips to go to workers in full. The government’s proposed regulations governing how tips are to be distributed would require employers to pass on all tips and service charges to workers and ensure that tips are distributed on a fair and transparent basis, to be supported by a statutory Code of Practice.
- The right to request a more predictable contract. Based on the Good Work agenda, the government had been expected to introduce a new right for workers with variable hours to request a more stable and predictable contract after 26 weeks' service and, possibly, new rights to reasonable notice of working hours and compensation for short-notice shift cancellation. It is worth noting that the EU transparent and predictable working conditions directive will introduce similar rights on an EU-wide basis in August 2022.
- A single enforcement body. The Good Work Plan proposed a single labour market enforcement agency, with the intention to combine existing bodies, and expand this new body’s remit into the enforcement of statutory sick pay, holiday pay for vulnerable workers and the regulation of umbrella companies.
What about other expected reforms?
As well as the changes announced in 2019, there are a number of other employment law reforms that could have been either included in an Employment Bill or brought forward as separate legislation.
- Sexual harassment. The government has promised to introduce a new proactive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and to bring back laws making employers responsible if employees are harassed by customers or other third parties. This has not been mentioned in the speech.
- Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Legislation has also been promised on non-disclosure agreements since 2019, driven by concern about use of NDAs to silence victims of harassment. Again, this is not mentioned in the speech.
- Proposals for regulating non-compete clauses following the government’s 2020 consultation on this issue.
The one expected change that has been announced is a ban on “exclusivity clauses” in contracts for low-paid workers. On 9 May 2022 the government published a press release on widening the ban on exclusivity clauses for low-paid workers, which would apply to those whose guaranteed income is at or below the lower earnings limit of £123 per week. The government says that this will allow some 1.5 million workers to boost their income by working for multiple employers, and legislation will be laid before parliament “later this year” – although again there was no mention of this in the Queen’s speech.
Were any other new employment laws announced?
The Harbours (Seafarers’ Remuneration) Bill will empower ports to surcharge or refuse access to ferry services that do not pay an equivalent to the national minimum wage to seafarers while in UK waters. This is a specific response to the P&O ferries controversy. Although an important issue, this will not affect the vast majority of UK employees.
The Modern Slavery Bill will strengthen the requirements on companies with an annual turnover of over £36 million to publish an annual statement on the steps they are taking to prevent modern slavery. This is an expected expansion of the existing requirements, which will require reporting on specific areas on a government-run registry and introduce financial penalties for breaches.
Is the Employment Bill dead or simply delayed?
Various organisations have expressed dismay at the further delay to employment law reforms, particularly new laws aimed at protecting women and low paid vulnerable workers. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) and Recruitment & Employment Confederation had sent a joint letter to the labour markets minister urging the government to include the Employment Bill in the Queen’s speech. The TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has now said it appears the prime minister has “turned his back on working people, and “bad bosses up and down the country will be celebrating”.
It’s perhaps not surprising to see the Employment Bill omitted from the Queen’s speech given its track record of dropping off the legislative agenda. What is more surprising is that the government is choosing not to progress something that has broad cross party support – not least the focusing of protections on those who are often the first to feel the impact of economic uncertainty, such as pregnant women and carers. There will certainly be an ongoing expectation that these issues need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Reports of the death of the Employment Bill may be exaggerated. The next General Election is currently set for May 2024 so, although things may change, the current government could potentially implement the Bill next year. Nevertheless, it seems that nothing more will be happening this year. The government has a lot to do, or a lot it has promised to do, on employment law. For now, though, employers and employees are still playing a waiting game.