This month's news round-up features: trade union reforms, the 'living wage', gender pay reporting, nurse revalidation, tribunal fees, the 'fit for work' service, tax-free childcare, Freedom of Information and details of our forthcoming events. Julian Hoskins reports.

Trade union reform

As widely expected following the Conservative's campaign in the general election, the government intends to introduce new restrictions on trade union activities and, to that end, has now published the Trade Union Bill 2015-2016 ('the Bill').

What are the key reforms set out in the Bill?

  • Increased ballot thresholds.  Currently, a strike or other industrial action will be unlawful unless at least 50% of trade union members who responded to the relevant ballot voted in favour of the action. The Bill proposes two new additional threshold requirements:
    1.  at least 50% of all eligible members must have voted; and
    2. for workers in certain "important public services", 40% of all eligible members must have voted in favour of the action. The services affected would cover
      - health services
      - schools with pupils aged 17 or under
      - fire services
      - transport services
      - decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste
      - border security.
    Please click here to view the consultation documents on this proposal.  The consultation closes on 9 September 2015.
  • Introducing an expiry date for action following a ballot.  Currently, strike action must start within four weeks but unions may suspend and restart action, in reliance on the original ballot, provided that it is the same industrial action. The Bill introduces a new four-month time limit after a ballot during which strike action must take place.
  • Increased union supervision of picketing.  These are detailed requirements, but will include the union appointing a person who is 'familiar' with the codes of practice to appoint an authorised supervisor who will have various statutory duties.  Failure to comply with these duties will render the industrial action unlawful. Unlawful industrial action is not protected and would, therefore, be actionable in court. The consultation documents on this (and other proposals in relation to picketing) are available here. This consultation closes on 9 September 2015.
  • Increased notice of industrial action from one week to two weeks.
  • A new requirement for public sector and publically funded organisations to publish information about how much time off they allow employees to undertake union activities. 
  • A new power for government to make further regulations restricting the right to be paid for trade union activities in the public sector.

It is unlikely that the Bill will become law before the end of this year, given limitations on parliamentary time. 

Alongside the publication of the Bill, the government has also published a consultation on repealing the current ban on using agency staff to cover work which otherwise would be undertaken by employees who are on strike. The consultation documents can be found here and the consultation closes on 9 September 2015. As this proposal simply requires the repeal of existing regulations, it may be that this change is implemented sooner than the reforms set out in the Bill.

The 'living wage'

The press have reported widely this month on the 'Summer Budget' announcement that the current National Minimum Wage will be replaced by a "living wage".  The attention grabbing figure of £9 per hour has been trumpeted – but the (less dramatic) reality is that there will be a gradual, incremental increase in minimum earnings requirements over the next five years, eventually rising to 60% of median earnings by 2020.  This would put the minimum hourly rate of pay at just over £9 per hour.  The current National Minimum Wage regime will remain in place, but will be 'topped up' by a 'living wage' premium, and will only apply to workers over the age of 25.

Please note that there will be two increases in minimum earnings over the next 12 months:

  • 1 October 2015: the National Minimum Wage (standard adult rate) will rise from £6.50 to £6.70
  • 1 April 2016: a 50 pence premium will apply, bringing the standard adult minimum rate to £7.20

Finally, the Low Pay Commission has been asked to give indicative minimum wage rates for 2017, in order to give more certainty to employers. A report on expected National Minimum Wage rates is expected in early February 2016; and a further report on an indicative 'living wage' rate is due by October 2016.

Mind the [gender pay] gap

The government has confirmed that it will utilise a power under the Equality Act 2010 to require large companies (i.e. companies with more than 250 employees) to publish information about the difference in men and women's average salaries: 'gender pay gap' information. 

A consultation paper on the proposals has been published here, and closes on 6 September 2015.

The consultation seeks views on how gender pay gap information should be reported – for example, whether information should be provided on the overall difference between the average earnings of men and women as a percentage of men's earnings; or whether that information should be broken down into different categories, such as differences in average earnings between all full-time and part-time employees, or differences in average earnings within specific job grades.

Other issues include

  • where gender pay information should be published,
  • whether employers should be required to describe any remedial action they intend to take, and
  • whether employers should be required to explain any apparent discrepancies in pay.

The frequency of reports is yet to be decided, but cannot be required more than once a year. 

The regulations are expected to come into force by June 2016, but transitional arrangements may mean that implementation is delayed, in order to give businesses time to prepare.

Nursing revalidation

The Nursing and Midwifery Council has published new guidance on supporting employees through the revalidation process.  The guidance specifies two levels of support that employers may consider: a 'minimum' level (for example, ensuring that employees are registered) and a 'reasonably expected' level (e.g. identifying renewal dates for all nurses and midwives).

Tribunal fees

In addition to Ministry of Justice's review of tribunal fees, which opened last month, the Commons Justice Select Committee has announced that it has launched a separate inquiry into court and tribunal fees. A key focus of the Select Committee review will be on whether the introduction of fees has affected access to justice or the quantity or quality of cases brought.

Unlike the Ministry of Justice review, evidence may be submitted by external bodies and the deadline for submissions is 30 September 2015.

Separately, the UNISON challenge to the introduction of employment fees continues: the appeal against the union's first unsuccessful judicial review was heard last month but judgment has been reserved.

Fit for Work service – roll out complete

The new, government backed, Fit for Work (FFW) service has now completed its roll out across the UK.  However, it is being reported that there is a lack of awareness about the new service and some scepticism about its benefits.  We have prepared a 'Question and Answer' guide to FFW, which you can access here.

Tax-free childcare - 2017

The launch date for the new 'tax-free childcare' scheme has been announced as "early 2017". Exact rollout details for the scheme are to be confirmed "in due course". 

The current employer‑supported childcare vouchers system will remain open to new entrants until the new scheme launches. Individuals who wish to remain within the old system will be able to do so while their employer continues to operate it. However, after the new scheme launches, the childcare voucher scheme will close to new entrants.  The NIC savings for employers, available under the childcare voucher scheme, will, therefore, gradually decline and will eventually be lost entirely. 

Review of Freedom of Information Act 

As we reported last week, the government has announced a review of the Freedom of Information Act, which will look at "whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection", and also whether the Act "adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice".

To see our full briefing on this development, please click here.

Workforce Forum

Our next Workforce Forum will take place on 7 October 2015 at our London office, where we will be building on our strategic workforce discussions.  Please keep an eye on the events page of our website for further details nearer the time. 

Our Workforce Forum is an interactive employment discussion forum for Directors of Human Resources and Organisational Development, focusing on strategic workforce issues and are by invitation only.  If you would like more information please contact Jodie Sinclair.

December seminars

Our popular year-end update on the most significant workforce legal developments of the year will be taking place this December, across all our offices.  Please keep an eye on your in-box for your invitation and ensure you sign-up quickly, as we expect places to fill fast!

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