New Decade, New Approach

New Decade, New Approach

Introduction:

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 year.

Appendix 2 sets out the program for government in the longer term.

Finally, there are a further two Annexes being the UK Government’s commitment to Northern Ireland and then the Irish Government’s commitments.

Commentary:

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 earned salary.

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 abandoned.

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 include:

  • 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 strategies include:

  • Racial Equality Strategy
  • Disability Strategy
  • Gender Strategy
  • Sexual Orientation Strategy
  • Active Ageing 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.

Conclusion

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!

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