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Queen’s Speech; employment law reform

The following employment–related Bills were unveiled in the Queen’s Speech on 27 May 2015 as part of the State Opening of the new Parliament:

• European Union Referendum Bill – this will enable a referendum to allow the electorate to have an in-out vote on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The referendum will be held before the end of 2017 at the latest and there is speculation it could be held as early as autumn 2016. This will have significant implications for employment law if there is a ‘yes’ vote in favour of the UK leaving the EU, given the impact of mandatory EU labour laws on employment rights in the UK. What would be likely to happen though were the UK to withdraw from the EU is a gradual divergence of laws as between the UK and the EU through future legislation and case-law, rather than immediate significant changes to current employment law.

• Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill – the Government’s ambitious commitment is to achieve full employment by the creation of two million new jobs and three million new apprenticeships over the course of the Parliament. Ministers will be under a duty to report annually to Parliament on their progress on job creation and the apprenticeships target.

• Enterprise Bill – this bill will include measures to reduce regulation on small businesses. It will seek to cut red tape by at least £10 billion over the course of the Parliament and this will be extended to cover the activities of more regulators to enable them to contribute to the deregulation target. In addition, it proposes to create a Small Business Conciliation Service, to help resolve business-to-business disputes without the need for court action, tackling, in particular, late payment issues. It also proposes to introduce a cap on public sector redundancy payments of less than six figures for the highest paid public sector workers, but will consult on details such as the exact amount and the public sector employers which will be affected.
• Immigration Bill – this far-reaching bill will control immigration and clamp down on illegal immigration. It will include a new criminal offence of illegal working, with the police to be given the power to seize the wages paid to illegal workers as the proceeds of crime. The new criminal offence of illegal working will apply to migrants who have entered the UK illegally and also those who came legally but are in breach of their conditions or have overstayed their leave. It will deprive them of their wages which will make it harder for them to stay in the UK. It will also become an offence for businesses and employment agencies to recruit solely from abroad without first advertising those jobs in Britain and in English and a new enforcement agency will be created to tackle the worst cases of exploitation by unscrupulous employers. In addition, a consultation will be carried out on funding apprenticeship schemes for British and EU workers by implementing a new visa levy on businesses that use foreign labour.

• Scotland Bill – the Government will press ahead with further Scottish devolution to deliver in full the Smith Commission Agreement, which includes the transfer of the administration and management of employment tribunals.

• Extremism Bill – this bill will include measures to tackle all forms of extremism by strengthening law enforcement powers in a number of areas, but it will also enable employers to check whether an individual is an extremist and bar them from working with children.

• Trade Unions Bill – the main elements of this bill are: (a) the introduction of a 50% voting threshold for industrial action ballot turnouts (and retaining the requirement for there to be a simple majority of votes in favour), (b) an additional requirement that 40% of those entitled to vote must vote in favour of industrial action in certain essential public services (i.e. health, fire, transport and education), (c) tackling the intimidation of non-striking workers during a strike, (d) the introduction of a transparent opt-in process for the political fund element of trade unions subscriptions, (e) the introduction of time limits on a mandate following a ballot for industrial action, and (f) making changes to the role of the Certification Officer.

The proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and instead introduce a UK Bill of Rights (to make the Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK) was not included in the Queen’s Speech and has been delayed amid opposition from some senior Conservatives. However, it nonetheless remains an issue that the Government will pursue in future legislation.

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