Owen Smith, the Labour Party leadership hopeful, has this week unveiled his “workers’ manifesto”, which, if implemented, could significantly change the face of English employment law.

Amongst Mr Smith’s plans for the workplace are:

  • Employment rights regardless of length of service
  • The abolition of zero hours contracts
  • Equal pay legislation to close the gender pay gap
  • The abolition of employment tribunal fees

The proposals are likely to prove divisive, with arguments to be made both for and against each item on Mr Smith’s agenda. For example, on the one hand, the introduction of employment tribunal fees in 2013 resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of claims issued, and many have argued that this has resulted in a sorry state of affairs whereby less affluent employees are denied access to justice. On the other hand, since tribunal fees are typically recoverable from the respondent if the claim is successful (and the very poorest are eligible for means-tested fee remissions) advocates for the retention of fees argue that they weed out frivolous or audacious claims.

Corbynistas are likely to accuse Mr Smith of a cynical ploy to outflank the veteran socialist leader on the left, whilst the Conservatives may point to the manifesto as evidence that Labour cannot be trusted on the economy. Of course, all of this depends on Mr Smith overcoming not only leader Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity with the party membership but also the 14 point lead in the polls currently enjoyed by Theresa May’s new-look Tory Government over the Opposition.

Introducing employment rights from day one – whilst undoubtedly good news for those in their first couple of years with an employer – is also likely to cause risk-wary employers to think twice before taking on new members of staff.

It is the SMEs with limited manpower who struggle to cope, and with a new recession possibly looming, an extra regulatory hurdle may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of many of the smaller companies that are the engine of the British economy. And, as ever, it is not the large multinational corporations who suffer most when a new wave of regulations are introduced.

Whilst Mr Smith, in advocating equal pay legislation, may have the best of intentions, critics might point out that the inevitable increase in businesses’ compliance workload is likely to do further harm to the skittish post-Brexit UK economy.

There is also much to be said for preserving a flexible labour market in which occasional workers such as students and retirees can play a part – not to mention the fundamental principle of the freedom of contract. Equally, whilst zero hours contracts have received some bad press in recent years, last year’s regulations (introduced to prohibit exclusivity clauses) took much of the sting out of criticisms levelled at that working arrangement.

Whatever happens between now and the Labour Party Conference in September (and between September and the next general election) we can at least be thankful that Mr Smith’s workers manifesto has given us cause to debate some important issues in English employment law.

Need some advice on employment law matters? Contact Will De Fazio-Saunders via email on Will.DeFazio-Saunders@rhw.co.uk or call 01483 302000