So, with the “new era” of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng having lasted all of seven weeks, Rish! Sunak is back in Downing Street. And, shortly before being clapped through the lobby of Number 10 by the waiting officials and advisers, the shiny new Prime Minister used his first address to the nation to claim as his own the electoral mandate secured by Boris Johnson in December 2019:
The mandate my party earned in 2019 is not the sole property of any one individual, it is a mandate that belongs to and unites all of us. And the heart of that mandate is our manifesto. I will deliver on its promise.
Which, to this employment policy wonk at least, begs the question: Will Rish! Sunak deliver on the outstanding 2019 manifesto promises on workers’ rights, perhaps through an Employment Bill?
And why not? Dominic Raab is back at the Ministry of Injustice, searching through the bins for a discarded copy of his almost palindromic Bill of Rights Bill. Suella Braverman is back at the Home Office, searching for the miraculous policy that will ‘reduce net migration to tens of thousands’. And Jacob Rees-Mogg is back on the backbenches, where he belongs. So, why can’t we have the repeatedly promised Employment Bill back?
When I posed this question on Twitter earlier today, Daz Newman was quick to point out that some of those 2019 manifesto promises on workers’ rights are currently “making their way through Parliament as Government-sponsored Private Members’ Bills”. And it is indeed the case that, days after the (third) shelving of the Employment Bill in May this year – and as anticipated on this blog – the Government whips worked hard to sell a number of Government hand-out bills to some of the MPs who had just ‘won’ a top slot in the annual Private Members’ Bill (PMB) ballot. As a result, on 15 June no fewer than six Government Bills masquerading as PMBs were introduced by Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP and Conservative backbench MPs.
Stuart McDonald’s Neonatal Care (Leave & Pay) Bill had its Second Reading on 15 July, and completed its Committee stage on 7 September. Dean Russell’s Employment (Allocation of Tips) Bill also had its Second Reading on 15 July, and completed its Committee Stage on 12 October (by which time Virginia Crosbie had taken over sponsorship of the PMB, due to Dean Russell having been made a BEIS minister by Liz Truss). Last week, on 21 October, Dan Jarvis’s Redundancy Protection (Pregnancy & Family Leave) Bill, Wendy Chamberlain’s Carer’s Leave Bill, and Wera Hobhouse’s Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill all had their Second Reading (an event the Radio 4 Today programme accurately described as “a five-hour group hug”). And Yasmin Qureshi’s Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill is scheduled to have its Second Reading this Friday.
The three-hour Second Reading debate of Dan Jarvis’s Redundancy Protection PMB was notable for the number of MPs who expressed support for the Bill while at the same time making it clear they much prefer the so-called German model of redundancy protection repeatedly proposed by Maternity Action, Maria Miller MP and many others since 2016, and which is the stated policy (and 2019 manifesto commitment) of Dan Jarvis’s own Labour Party. As Maternity Action noted in their briefing for MPs, Dan Jarvis’s PMB will “simply entrench a broken system that does not work and does not protect women”, while the so-called German model is – in the words of Bob Stewart MP – “flipping good”.
The Second Reading debate of Wendy Chamberlain’s Carer’s Leave PMB was somewhat shorter – under an hour – while that of Wera Hobhouse’s Worker Protection PMB was so short – a mere 20 minutes – that, apart from Ms Hobhouse, the shadow minister and the minister, only one MP got to speak. Welcome to Democracy 2022.
However, even if these Government Bills masquerading as PMBs make it as far as the Statute Book – and most stand a very good chance of doing so, now that a snap General Election seems to be out of the question – that still leaves the following 2019 manifesto promises outstanding:
- Create a single enforcement body to “crack down on any employer abusing employment law”. As previously noted on this blog, in June 2021 the Government confirmed this commitment “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.” This is arguably the most significant of all the 2019 manifesto commitments on workers’ rights. But then I would say that, as the creation of a single enforcement body was my idea.
- Establish a new right for workers to “request a more predictable contract and other reasonable protections”. Just this week, business minister Dean Russell confirmed to MPs that the Government “remains committed” to introducing such a right.
- Look at ways to make it easier for fathers to take paternity leave. As noted recently on this blog, almost three years on, there is no evidence of ministers having since done any such ‘looking’, and certainly no policy proposals have been forthcoming.
In addition, the 2019 manifesto promised a consultation on making flexible working the default and, while that consultation was undertaken in late 2021, we await the outcome and any progress towards the promised goal (Yasmin Qureshi’s Flexible Working PMB will simply make a number of welcome but relatively minor changes to the existing right to request flexible working). [Update: During the 90-minute Second Reading debate of Qureshi’s Flexible Working PMB on Friday, the Minister indicated that the Government will publish its response to the 2021 consultation “shortly” – which may or may not be more imminent than ‘in due course’. Significantly, perhaps, of the 11 MPs – other than Qureshi herself, the Minister and the shadow minister – who contributed to the debate, ten were Conservatives. It’s almost as if the PMB reaching the Statute Book matters more to the Conservatives than it does to Qureshi’s own Party.]
And then there’s the things that weren’t in the 2019 manifesto, but should (and indeed might) have been in the Employment Bill, such as reform of the chronically failing Shared Parental Leave scheme, and the extension of the Employment Tribunal time limit recommended by the Law Commission in April 2020.
So, yeah, come on Rish!, take us back to the future of December 2019!
[Update: On 28 October, during his first public outing as Prime Minister – a visit to Croydon University Hospital – Sunak the Sensible repeated his pledge to deliver “on the promise of the manifesto that we were elected on, with very strong support, in 2019”.]