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“Politics Is Not The Art Of The Possible. It Consists In Choosing Between The Disastrous And The Unpalatable”. Main Parties’ Employment Manifestos Reviewed

General Elections. Don’t they seem to come round more frequently than they used to? A tough call for voters, this particular one, not just because of economist JK Galbraith’s wise words above but also because the outcome won’t make the slightest difference to the biggest issue of the day, the terms on which we are allowed by the rest of the EU to come out of Europe.

So what does the committed voter get to choose between? From the high-level employment perspective, all the main manifesto documents look broadly the same – more rights and protections for workers and the equally laudable, but obviously entirely incompatible, less red tape for businesses. They agree, sometimes violently, in relation to the importance of filling skills gaps, increasing apprenticeships, payment of at least the minimum living wage, preservation of existing EU-derived employment laws and curbs on zero hours contracts. But as we know, election manifestos are much like new Thameslink timetables – launched with great fanfare but no real expectation on users’ part that any of it will actually be true. So before the nation pulls the duvet over its collective head on 8 June, let us take a brief look at the main parties’ employment manifestos to see if we can separate the disingenuous from the delusional from the outright dishonest.

Conservatives

Theresa May calls the Tory proposals the “biggest expansion of worker rights by any Conservative Government“, though that is hardly an ambitious benchmark. She promises to boost worker representation on PLC advisory boards, and to take steps to protect pensions.  In addition:

  • a proposed statutory right to a year’s unpaid leave from work to care for a sick relative. The presumption must be that the rights around this would look something like the maternity/adoption regime. However, it seems to overlook the practicalities of caring to some extent, in that it is rarely limited to a year in duration and usually requires frequent small absences rather than one extended lump. How many carers would be able to afford such an absence must also be open to question. It is therefore possible to say that this is really just an attempt to get the public to do for nothing something which the state would otherwise have to pay for;

  • two weeks’ statutory leave for parents whose child has died. This must be in response to a large number of employers refusing their staff leave in those particularly tragic circumstances. What, really? Even the new people-friendly Conservatives do not suggest that employers actually ever do that. This seems to be naked electioneering through a measure which is high on instant emotional appeal but actually of no practical necessity;

  • new protections for workers in the “gig economy”, though these remain unspecified at present; and

  • and despite reams of evidence that they positively deter access to justice, no abolition of Employment Tribunal fees. This ensures that those who most need these new protections will remain largely unable to afford to enforce them.

Labour

Highlights include:

  • giving all workers equal rights from Day One, including unfair dismissal, and scrubbing ET fees to encourage enforcement of them;

  • adding new public holidays to mark our four national patron saints days “so that workers in Britain get the same proper breaks as in other countries“, seemingly ignoring the fact that the UK’s Working Time Regulations have already added an entirely gratuitous 1.6 weeks’ paid leave onto the EU’s four week minimum;

  • introducing maximum pay ratios of 20:1 in the public sector and companies bidding for public contracts. It is tempting to think that this is more likely to lead to senior executives supplying themselves via service companies to side-step this than to an increase in the number of fantastically well-paid trainees and cleaners;

  • banning unpaid internships, so denying useful sources of essential work experience to those who may have been quite happy to work on that basis;

  • strengthening protections for women against unfair redundancy “because no one should be penalised for having children“. It is not clear what this would mean in practice since the law already provides many such protections, unless it is to adopt the practice of some European countries which flatly prohibit the redundancy of women on maternity leave unless the whole business is closing. Coupled to this is an proposed extension of time limits from three months to six for maternity discrimination claims;

  • reinstating the rights against third party harassment originally contained in the Equality Act but rightly scrapped even before they came into force as totally unworkable in practice;

  • overlapping with the Conservatives, some provision for statutory bereavement leave and a similar assault on the “gig economy” self-employment model;

  • making it more difficult and expensive to make redundancies in the hope that this will encourage multi-nationals engaged in cost-cutting not to look to their UK staff first. Of course, especially post-Brexit, this may instead encourage them not to come to the UK in the first place, but never mind; and

  • a significant extension of union rights and the creation of equality representatives with statutory protections akin to union officials “so they have time to protect workers from discrimination“. If you have ever fancied yourself as a whistle-blower, that would clearly be the role to go for.

Liberal Democrats

  • the introduction of a “good employer” kite mark based on factors including paying a living wage, avoiding unpaid internships (but not banning them) and using name-blind recruitment;

  • modernising employment rights to make them fit for the age of the gig economy“, though it is not clear whether this will be to reflect and accommodate the gig economy as a reality of our times or (like Labour and the Tories) an attempt to crush it;

  • like Labour, scrapping Employment Tribunal fees;

  • measures to increase employee share ownership and representation on remuneration committees and PLC advisory boards;

  • revisions to directors’ fiduciary duties to include express obligations towards employees, the local community and the environment;

  • amending the gender pay gap reporting obligations to include the ratio between top and median pay;

  • giving those on zero hours or limited hours contracts the right to require the employer to make regular patterns of work a contractual entitlement after a set period of time (not specified); and

  • an additional month’s paid paternity leave.

UKIP

It is hard to discern anything about UKIP’s employment proposals in what it has said so far, but it seems unlikely to add much to 2015’s manifesto commitment to “allow British business to choose to employ British workers first“. Of course, that would only be an issue now where a national of another country expected to get the job merely by dint of his being best qualified for it.

Green Party

If I read the Green Guarantee: Ten Key Pledges document correctly, the principal plank in the Greens’ employment agenda is the phasing in of a four day week and, by implication, the corresponding phasing-out of the UK’s standing among serious global business-friendly jurisdictions.

© Copyright 2017 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP

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About this Author

David Whincup, Employment Attorney, Squires Patton Boggs Law Firm
Partner

Following ten years at a Magic Circle firm, David has been Head of our London Employment practice since 1994. His expertise gained from twenty-five years as a specialist Employment Law practitioner covers a wide variety of employment-related issues, including in particular individual and team recruitment issues, policy and contract drafting, disciplinary and grievance procedures, individual and collective redundancies, the defence of employee discrimination and dismissal claims and other litigation, whistleblowing, employee health, data protection and matters surrounding...

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