Jun 2024 – What does the UK general election mean for employment law?

The Labour party has ambitious plans for reforming workers’ rights, so employment law will be a focus of the election campaign. As the manifestos are being finalised, here’s our summary of the key pledges and questions for employers.

It’s official – the UK general election is happening on 4 July 2024. Election manifestos are due soon but we already know the areas where Labour plans to legislate, and that workers’ rights will be a priority. Given its lead in the polls, Labour looks likely to be in government in just six weeks’ time – so employment law could start to change sooner than many people thought. There are still many unknowns and question marks over Labour’s plans, but employers also need to watch out for an election that could cause office conflict.

(a) Labour’s plans for employment law

The Labour party has promised to make its “New Deal for Working People” a core part of its plan for government if it wins the election. An Employment Bill is reported to be drafted and waiting on the election. Labour has said it will begin the legislative process in the first 100 days, which would mean by 12 October 2024, although that could just mean a white paper.

Sources such as the 2021 Green Paper, and more recently reports of discussions with the Trades Union Congress, indicate that Labour’s proposals will impact fundamental rights across the spectrum of employment law.

Key plans are likely to include the following:

  • More day 1 employment rights, including rights not to be unfairly dismissed (though employers will be able to operate probationary periods);
  • Ban on zero-hours contracts (unless requested) and new rights to regular hours based on hours worked in the last 12 weeks;
  • New rights for unions to access workplaces;
  • State enforcement of employment rights;
  • Strengthened statutory sick pay;
  • Restrictions on “fire and re-hire”;
  • Repeal of recent anti-strike laws;
  • Enhanced protection against sexual harassment;
  • Introduction of ethnicity and disability pay gap reporting;
  • Enhanced rights to flexible working;
  • A right to disconnect from work (or softer version of this);
  • Review of shared parental leave;
  • More regulation of AI;
  • Eventually replacing the UK’s three-part framework for employment rights with a simpler two-part framework with just workers and the self-employed.

Employers will have many questions about these plans.

In some cases, reforms will take years. But at the moment, at least, it seems that there is political appetite for major reform.

(b) Conservative plans for employment law

The Conservative party has said little about its plans for employment law but it is probably safe to assume from the recent emphasis on “smarter regulation to grow the economy” that the aim will be deregulatory.

A Conservative government would almost certainly re-introduce employment tribunal fees, and possibly also press ahead with capping the duration of non-compete clauses. Just last week, the government proposed minor reforms to TUPE and the abolition of European Works Councils in the UK (which have limped on after Brexit) – reforms which are now effectively shelved.

The government also recently backed a private members’ bill to provide enhanced paternity leave to fathers whose partner dies in childbirth. All bills currently in front of parliament will fall unless they can be rushed through by the end of Friday 24 May. This particular private members’ bill has gathered significant support and currently looks to be among the bills that might be saved, but time is very short.

It is unclear what will happen with the Workers (Predictable Terms and Conditions) Act 2023. This Act gives workers a right to request a more predictable contract and was due to come into force in Autumn 2024. It has already made it onto the statute book but needs further regulations to flesh out the details of the new right and bring it into force. Since the Labour party has more ambitious plans to give workers the right to a regular contract it seems most likely that this Act will be ignored in favour of new, tougher legislation. But the fate of this legislation remains uncertain.

Getting people with health conditions back to work is a priority for the current government, so backing up recent proposals regarding changes to disability benefits could feature among the Conservative party’s election pledges. The party could also promise to redefine “sex” in the Equality Act to mean “biological sex”. Given Labour’s lead in the polls, these pledges are unlikely to become law but they could become areas for debate in the election campaign.

(c) Managing the ongoing culture wars

As well as thinking about what the world of work may look like under a new government, employers would be wise to reflect on what impact the election process may have on workplace (dis)harmony. Now employees are comfortable with airing their views on social media, seeking out those who share their viewpoint and political preferences, it’s understandable that employers are already struggling to manage free speech at work.

Comments made by employees about the Israel/Hamas war or gender identity/expression have caused particular tension. Employers have found themselves having to remove posts from company chat channels, tighten up guidelines or even discipline employees. The election campaign has the potential to generate further conflict – especially if questions around gender identity become prominent- so employers will need to keep an eye on this, trying to manage situations proactively before they escalate and responding in a balanced and considered way if problems do arise.

(d) Next step – the manifestos

We’ll bring further insights when the manifestos are published and more details emerge. International employers can also sign up to our Managing an International Workforce Conference on 20 June 2024 where we’ll be discussing the impact of the UK elections along with those happening in the US and EU as one of our breakout sessions.

If you have any specific questions you would like advice on or if you would like information about what is discussed in this article, then please contact: Abi.Frederick@lewissilkin.com of Lewis Silkin LLP or koichiro_nakada@btinternet.com.