· Features

What the Labour Government did for employment law

A joint report published by KPMG and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows employers are divided about the benefits of key pieces of employment legislation that have been introduced by New Labour since 1997. The report also highlights the fact that employers are not encouraging new fathers to take paternity leave insofar as only a minority of businesses currently offer fathers full (or near full) pay during the two-week statutory paternity period and even fewer offer any paid leave after this initial period. The findings of this report will make interesting reading for the new coalition Government which has stated its intention to review employment and workplace laws generally and also to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees.

The report identifies the two pieces of legislation most considered a hindrance by businesses to be the Working Time Regulations 1999 and the Agency Workers Regulations (which will come into effect in the UK in October 2011). In connection with the former of these laws, Mike Emmott of the CIPD states that the CIPD considers that the Working Time Regulations have negligible value in limiting unhealthy workplace behaviour and indeed is calling for its repeal. As for the Agency Workers Regulations, which will give assigned temporary workers no less favourable treatment than if they had been recruited directly by the employer after a 12-week qualifying period, only 13% of employers consider that these measures will be helpful. This report certainly lends support to the Conservatives pre-election intention to review the Agency Regulations, however, this of course will be limited by the requirement to implement the overarching EU Directive.

As for legislation finding favour among employers, the Disability Discrimination Act, Data Protection Act and Age Discrimination Regulations were all considered to be helpful by over 40% of employers taking part in the survey. In particular, employers welcomed the clarity that these laws have provided. Also, the National Minimum Wage is generally supported because of the protection it gives low-income workers, with 30% of employers believing that the adult minimum wage rate (currently set at £5.80) should be increased. 

The survey's findings in relation to maternity and paternity pay are particularly timely in view of the publication of the coalition's programme which states the Government's intention to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees, consulting with businesses on how best to do so. 

Whilst 52% of employers offer their employees enhanced maternity pay, businesses appear to be far less willing to offer similar enhancements to new fathers. As few as 24% of employers pay paternity leave beyond the initial two-week period and only 40% of employers enhance the statutory paternity pay level to anything near full pay during the two-week period.  

While it must be good news for employees who struggle to strike a healthy balance between their home and work life that the Government plans to encourage increased parental leave and flexible working arrangements, for this to become a reality, the benefits provided by employers must be set at such a level so that employees are encouraged to take them up. The first step to achieving this might therefore be for businesses to provide a reward package that is sufficiently attractive to retain its existing staff who have parenting responsibilities and also to ensure that its practices with regard to family-friendly policies generally, do not detract new talent. A review of current policies and practices in this area should therefore be on the agenda for forward-thinking employers. The new Government too will need to consider carefully how its flexible working aims are to be achieved, given the current apparent reluctance of employers to encourage fathers to take paternity leave.

Chris Hitchins is a partner and Rachel Ashwood an associate in the Employment Group at law firm Morgan Lewis