New Year, new enforcement body?

So, Boris Johnson held and won the general election that, back in August, I predicted he might well hold and win on the back of a ‘deal’ with the EU27 that, at that time, most commentators thought less likely than a disastrous ‘no deal’ exit on 31 October. Sadly, the People’s Vote campaign is dead and buried alongside the political careers of some of its leading advocates. And the second Queen’s Speech in as many months is not simply more substantive than the first, but is brimming with Bills good, bad and ugly.

In short, life goes on – for policy wonks at least. And chief among the Queen’s Speech bills, for this policy wonk, is an Employment Bill that, according to the Government’s somewhat sketchy background briefing notes, promises:

●  Creating a new, single enforcement body, offering greater protections for workers.

●  Ensuring that tips left for workers go to them in full.

●  Introducing a new right for all workers to request a more predictable contract.

●  Extending redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

●  Allowing parents to take extended leave for neonatal care; and introducing an entitlement to one week’s leave for unpaid carers.

●  Subject to consultation, the Bill will make flexible working the default unless employers have good reason not to.

As noted previously on this blog, the proposal to create a new, single enforcement body not only has a long history featuring yours truly, but also appeared in the election manifestos of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Whether these near-identical (albeit somewhat vague) manifesto commitments will translate into cross-party parliamentary support for this element of the Bill remains to be seen, not least as the TUC and major trade unions such as Unite remain (unreasonably) hostile to the idea.

However, with organisations such as Acas and the Law Society welcoming the proposal in their responses to the BEIS consultation that closed in October, it may well be that a Fair Employment Agency is now a real possibility. Which is (probably) good news. For, as Acas notes in its response to the consultation, the potential benefits of such a single enforcement body include

“raising the visibility of enforcement options overall, as well as bringing greater clarity for both workers and employers. Having a single agency instead of three could make it more straightforward to signpost both workers and employers and raise their awareness of where to seek help and advice. This is particularly important for reaching high risk sectors and the more vulnerable workers in society, many of whom are likely to have limited understanding of their employment rights and possibly poor English, and are thus likely to need special help. As the [BEIS] consultation document makes clear, a single agency would also allow for more coordination across the different employment rights covered by the existing bodies and provide users with a more integrated service.”

That said, such a proposal is arguably at odds with suggestions of a post-Brexit erosion (or “bonfire”) of EU-derived (and even other) employment rights, and with the Johnson government’s somewhat less than concrete commitment to a ‘level playing field’ with the EU on such matters. For the whole point of a new, single enforcement body would be to protect and strengthen that level playing field, to the benefit of both workers and employers.

Other elements of the Bill, such as making flexible working the default and the proposed neonatal leave and pay – the latter a deserved policy win for the campaign group Bliss – may well receive cross-party support, while ministers are likely to face pressure from Labour to go further than planned on redunduncy protection, and adopt the so-called German model advocated by Maternity Action and others, which was pledged in Labour’s general election manifesto. And the inclusion of such measures in the Bill might even facilitate a much-needed debate about replacing the deeply flawed and chronically unsuccessful system of Shared Parental Leave.

So, many details yet to be seen, and many important questions still to be answered. But, after three years of brain-dissolving Brexit madness and policy-making constipation, (policy) life seems set to move on. Maybe.

Happy New Year.

About wonkypolicywonk

Wonkypolicywonk is a policy minion who has in the past been lucky enough to work for one of the very best MPs in the House of Commons, and before that at Maternity Action, Working Families, Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK. He's now back with the fab feminists at Maternity Action.
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