So what does the Agreement mean for businesses in the
context of employment relations? With Stormont now finally restored, businesses
will recall that employment law is a devolved matter. That means, that Stormont
controls the policy direction for employment relations. This Deal provides an
insight into what their priorities will be in the next 3 months, 12 months
and longer term.
Politics is, of course, all about policy which is
often driven by the personality in charge. Diane Dodds, DUP (Nigel Dodd’s wife)
has been appointed as the Minister for Economy which includes employment
relations. The DUP are considered more business orientated than the other
parties and it will be interesting to see how she leads the direction for
employment relations in Northern Ireland.
The structure of the document itself
is unwieldy. It is first divided into two Parts:
Part 1: set out the priorities of the restored executive
that will be considered by the assembly before the summer recess.
Part 2: sets out the Northern Ireland Executive
formation agreement and then has a further six Annexes (A – E). The
most exciting from the employment relations point of view is Annex D: Program for Government. Annex E is also
of relevance as it sets out the section of rights, language and identity.
There are also two Appendixes.
Appendix 1 set out the program for government for its first
Appendix 2 sets out the program for government in the
Finally, there are a further two Annexes being the UK Government’s commitment
to Northern Ireland and then the Irish Government’s commitments.
So here are some of my thoughts on the Deal.
Under Part 1 the
Executive sets out its immediate priorities for the Executive. Unsurprisingly
(and welcomed) is that the first priority is to ensure the best possible
outcome in relation to the imminent and significant challenge presented by
Brexit. To that end, as a minimum, the Executive has committed to establishing
a Brexit Sub-Committee which
will be chaired by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (or a nominated
ministerial representative). The sub-committee is to initiate an assessment of
the impact of Brexit on the institutions and their work will be scrutinised by
an Assembly Committee.
Another Priority identified early in the Deal is
publishing a Mental Health Action Plan within two months and a Mental Health Strategy by December 2020. Undoubtedly there is a mental health
crisis in Northern Ireland particularly in relation to suicide rates in males.
Mental Health is also an issue of growing importance in workplaces and this
commitment will ensure it remains high on the agenda over next year and beyond.
Developing an enhanced approach to create sufficient
curriculum training and apprentices is
also given importance. Many businesses have criticised how the Apprenticeship
levy has operated in Northern Ireland and we will see if this will be addressed
by the Executive.
There is a commitment to publish a Childcare Strategy and to identify resources to
deliver extended, affordable and high-quality childcare for families with
children aged 3 to 4. This might result in more females returning to the
workplace at an earlier stage. Some parents currently choose to stay at home
because of the costs of childcare which can more or less extinguish their
Part 2 of the Deal states that the Executive will have
an OBA approach in assessing all its work. For those not in the public sector,
this is not a Star Wars reference but is an acronym for Outcomes-Based
Analysis. It states that any strategy not working will be reviewed or
The Deal is also committed to creating good jobs and protecting workers rights. Some
might recall the Matthew Taylor Review that was conducted in 2016/2017; some of
that Review’s recommendations will be implemented in Great Britain this April
2020 as part of the Good Work Plan of measures. Those Taylor review changes
- Providing a wider category of workers, the right to
receive a written statement of particulars;
- Repealing the Swedish Derogation model which is where
agency worker has an employment relationship with the agency and foregoes the
right to equal pay with the hirer’s staff after the 12 week qualifying period
and also receives a payment in between assignment for at least four weeks
before the contract has ended.
The consensus seems to be that similar measures may be
implemented Northern Ireland. Had the Minister been from a Sinn Fein or
Alliance party background they may have gone further than the changes occurring
in GB. But as we have a DUP Minister this is not as likely.
A sticking point in preventing the political parties
restoring Stormont was over an Irish language act. Unsurprisingly, the Deal
devotes a section on rights, language and identity. It commits to recognising
and celebrating Northern Ireland’s diversity of identities and
culture and accommodating cultural difference. Businesses will want to ensure
that they are also encouraging diversity and promoting tolerance. It will be
vital to remind all employees that mutual respect, understanding and
co-operation is essential in the workplace.
Annex D is an insight into what might happen in relation
to Employment Rights. There is a commitment to develop 14 separate Strategies.
My earlier forecast that Diversity and Inclusion will dominate this year may
indeed prove to be correct as 5 of them relate to equality areas. The
- Sexual Orientation Strategy
The Parties have agreed that within 3 months of 11
January 2020 (i.e. just before the Easter holidays) the restored Executive will
publish a comprehensive timetable for delivering on these and other strategies.
The devil, they say, will be in the detail….
Under Appendix 1 (which
is the program for the first year, further
details of which will be available in two weeks time) the Executive commits to:
- The Executive becoming a living wage employer;
- Move to ban zero hour contracts;
- Powers to make minimum
wage levels a devolved matter;
- An age, goods
and facilities and services bill being brought forward to the Executive to
ensure no one is discriminated against on grounds of their age
Under Appendix 2, which
outlines a possible Program for Government in the longer term, it has a section
on workers rights. This states that the focus will be on
creating good jobs and protecting workers rights. Further details of what this
means will also be available in two weeks.
As I say, the devil will be in the detail and there are
interesting times ahead. But I am certainly letting out a sigh in relief. It
feels good to have the political parties back working together and hopefully in
a sustainable way. We all want to ensure peace is protected in Northern Ireland
and whilst we might not agree on every policy, it is certainly good to see them
all back and stating that they are committed to working together.
At least this year we can speak about possible
legislative reform at our Employment Law and HR Conference in June 2020, a
subject that has been missing over the last 3 years!