Just over two years ago, in October 2019, I wrote on this blog about the long and difficult gestation of the Government’s proposed Single Enforcement Body for employment rights, to “tackle the deeply fragmented enforcement landscape”. And it is now more than 20 years since yours truly, then a lowly employment policy wonk at Citizens Advice, first proposed a consolidation of the three main enforcement bodies – the HMRC minimum wage enforcement team, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, and the then Gangmasters Licensing Authority (now the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority) – into “a single Fair Employment Agency fit for the 21st century, with the legal powers and resources to ‘root out the rogues’ without imposing unnecessary regulatory burden on the great majority of compliant employers”.
Back in October 2019, we were just weeks away from a General Election campaign in which the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would all pledge to establish such a single enforcement body, should they form the next government. You wait 18 years for a manifesto pledge to implement your great policy idea, and then three come along at once. But on 14 December 2019, it was Boris Johnson who triumphantly returned to Downing Street with a manifesto commitment to “get a single enforcement body done”. Or something.
They say every cloud has a silver lining and, as far as this policy wonk is concerned, they are right. Because, later that month, a Brexit-focused Queen’s Speech promised an Employment Bill that will “strengthen workers’ ability to get redress for poor treatment by creating a new, single enforcement body”, as well as “offer greater protections for workers by prioritising fairness in the workplace, and introducing better support for working families”. That is definitely my kind of silver lining.
Needless to say, the promised Bill did not materialise in 2020, and was then surprisingly omitted from the Government’s second Queen’s Speech, in May 2021.
Worse still, in January 2021 a somewhat disgruntled Matthew Taylor – Interim Director of Labour Market Enforcement and a committed and persuasive advocate of a Single Enforcement Body since his July 2017 Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices – had come to the end of his contract, and had exited muttering under his breath that the Johnson-led Government has not “fully grasped the scale of the opportunity provided by the [single enforcement body]” (an opinion reported as early as February 2021, and confirmed earlier this month by the much delayed publication of Taylor’s Labour Market Enforcement Strategy 2021 to 2022).
However … in June 2021 the Government published its response to the high level consultation it had conducted between July and October 2019, and this confirmed the Government’s commitment “to create [a single enforcement body], as set out in the Government’s manifesto. The new body will not just bring together three existing bodies into a single, recognisable organisation, it will deliver a significantly expanded remit. As a result, more vulnerable workers across the country will receive money that is owed to them.” And the response suggested, in words I could have written myself anytime between 2001 and 2013, that as well as the benefit to workers:
Employers – large and small – will benefit from the creation of a more level playing field, with less risk of being unfairly undercut by an unscrupulous or criminally exploitative competitor, and from the availability of more practical, and better co-ordinated, business support services.
Actually, no, those are words I did write myself, in a 2004 Citizens Advice pamphlet setting out the case for a single enforcement body. What the Government’s June 2021 response said is:
This body will not just protect workers, it will also help to provide a level playing field for the majority of employers who respect the law, and who also lose out when unscrupulous businesses cut corners and exploit workers. In these challenging economic times, it is more important than ever that we take action against such behaviour and support responsible businesses to flourish and level-up all areas of the country. The body will also provide more support for businesses to understand their obligations and get things right, in part by bringing three separate organisations together into a single body.
It’s fair to say that, since then, not a lot seems to have happened (other than that, in September, the Labour Party reiterated that it would also “establish and properly fund a single enforcement body to enforce workers’ rights”). And, for sure, there is still no sign of the promised Employment Bill. Hopefully, the Government is quietly getting on with “developing more detailed plans for the body in partnership with the existing enforcement bodies” – one of the key ‘next steps’ set out in June. Whatever, just yesterday, a BEIS spokesperson reiterated that:
Protecting and enhancing workers’ rights is an absolute priority for the Government, which is why we have committed to establishing a single enforcement body to protect vulnerable workers across the UK.
I guess the Government has absolute priorities, and absolute priorities. However, despite its omission from the Queen’s Speech in May, there is nothing to stop ministers bringing forward the Employment Bill in the current parliamentary session (i.e. before the Government’s third Queen’s Speech, expected in May 2022), and with a General Election in May 2023 looking increasingly likely they do need to get a wiggle on if they are to progress what is set to be a mahoosive and complex Bill onto the Statute Book by then.
So, sorry kids, we are not nearly there yet. But we are over half way!