Employment laws included in Queen’s speech

The government’s last Queen’s speech before the next general election contained a number of measures affecting business and the economy.

The Equality Bill, which has been carried over from the last Parliamentary session, is about to enter its report stage.

Under the terms of the Bill, laws protecting employees from discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, race, religion and sexual orientation will be harmonised and extended.

The Bill also includes regulations that will give the government the authority, should it choose, to oblige larger employers to assess any gaps in pay between male and female employees and to publish the results.

Elsewhere, plans will go ahead for implementing the EU Agency Workers Directive.

The Directive will grant agency or temporary workers who do the same job for 12 weeks equal rights on pay, holidays and basic employment conditions as those of permanent staff.

All agency workers, from the first day of their employment, will also be entitled to information about job vacancies at the firm where they are working so they have the same opportunity as other employees to apply for a permanent position and they will have equal access to childcare and transport facilities. New and expectant mothers will have the right to parent-friendly working hours and to reasonable time-off to attend ante-natal appointments.

The government has already opted to delay introducing the Directive until October 2011, the last possible date allowed by EU law.

More help was promised to get younger people back into the labour market. The government is to guarantee an additional 10,000 places in education for unemployed 16-17 year olds; to help 18-24-year-olds find work or training from day one of their unemployment claim; and to provide new graduates, who are still out of work after six months, with access to a high-quality internship or training, as well as help to become self-employed.

On the broader economy, the Fiscal Responsibility Bill commits the government to a firm and binding pledge to tackle public finance debt.

Government borrowing has soared in the aftermath of the credit crunch and the recession. The Bill promises to halve the deficit, which is currently running at £175 billion for the present fiscal year, during the next four years.

More precise details on the fiscal measures the government intends to put in place will be announced in the pre-Budget Report, due to be delivered on 9 December.

Both of the Treasury’s ‘golden rules’ – that government borrowing will only be used to fund investment spending and that the national debt must be no higher than 40 per cent of national income – have been torn up by the economic crisis.

A combination of falling tax revenues and the vast sums of public money used to bolster the UK’s banking system have inflated the national debt to around 50 per cent of GDP. That level could rise to 80 per cent.

The Financial Services Bill will give the Financial Services Authority (FSA) the power to nullify contracts between banks and employees if it is deemed that pay structures promote irresponsible risk taking.

A Financial Stability Council will be set up to supervise the banking regulatory system managed by the FSA, the Bank of England and the Treasury.

Measures under the Bill will also be introduced to enforce a levy on banks to support a consumer protection agency. Consumers will be given the right to lodge claims in the courts if they have suffered significant malpractice such as the misselling of endowments or personal pensions.

Although the number of Bills included in the Queen’s speech has been slimmed down, there are doubts whether the government has sufficient Parliamentary time to see all the proposed legislation through before the general election.