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Avoiding a Brexit bonfire of workers’ rights?

Rachel Suff

With Brexit negotiations underway, the debate about the pros and cons of employment regulation is rising sharply up the agenda. Rachel Suff, Employment Relations Adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development.

With Brexit negotiations underway, the debate about the pros and cons of employment regulation is rising sharply up the agenda. Over the past decades, EU directives have affected workers’ rights across the UK economy. So, in our departure from the EU, what should happen to the large body of employment law that derives from Brussels? Even without the UK leaving the EU, there has long been a debate about the benefit or burden of employment law in this country.

That debate is often dominated by an assumption that UK employers need to be freed from the bind of ‘red tape’, which risks masking the real impact of employment regulation in workplaces. This is why the CIPD, in partnership with law firm Lewis Silkin, surveyed more than 500 senior HR professionals and employers about their views of how employment law works in practice. The results will surprise those commentators who believe that most employers would welcome a ‘Brexit bonfire’ of workers’ rights.

The research shows that employment regulation is not regarded by employers as simply either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, with attitudes much more nuanced than is often recognised. The majority of organisations agreed that all 28 listed areas of employment law – ranging from unfair dismissal to agency workers and TUPE – are ‘necessary’, with at least three-quarters indicating that 20 of these are so. Other findings reveal a predominantly positive view of employment law among employers. Many believe it contributes positively to employee relationships, and that it improves the quality of employees’ working lives. New employment regulation is also viewed as the joint-top driver of change in employment practice and behaviour in organisations, showing the progressive impact it can have on organisations.

However, it’s not all plain sailing for employers when complying with employment protection laws. While many HR professionals think they’re necessary, many also agree that they could be re-drafted to make them easier to apply in practice.  This is especially true for whistleblowing, modern slavery, agency workers, unfair dismissal and TUPE.  Indeed, the two main barriers for employers when acting on legal changes are a lack of resources and ‘too much legislation’. The research suggests that it’s not the quantity but the efficacy of employment regulation that is key, both in terms of the quality of its drafting and how straightforward it is to implement in the workplace.

Complying with employment regulation is a necessary part of operating a business. However, the focus shouldn’t be on compliance alone, but on the responsibility of HR professionals and businesses making good, ethical decisions. Many businesses espouse the value they place on their people in their company reports, but how often does the rhetoric match the reality? In today’s modern workplace there is a compelling case to approach employment regulation in a more holistic way, in a more human way, which will encourage a potentially far greater return on investment from people in terms of their well-being, engagement, commitment and loyalty.

The research findings hint at such an approach, with the majority of respondents reporting that their organisation exceeds the statutory minimum when implementing employment law. This reflects the importance with which many employers view employment protection for employees, as well as the value they place on approaching regulation in a way that goes beyond the letter of the law. If most organisations are exceeding their statutory requirements, this does not suggest a climate whereby employers perceive regulation as a burdensome bind of red tape that impedes their day-to-day operations.

In the CIPD’s view, the UK’s employment regulation framework broadly strikes the right balance by providing sufficient flexibility for employers and appropriate employment protection for workers. This doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement in the drafting and application of some laws. Brexit should be viewed as an opportunity to enhance the quality of some aspects of EU-derived employment law, as well as consulting on reforms to improve the implementation of certain laws in practice. Both these aims can be achieved without undermining the level of protection these laws afford to people at work. We will be making this case to the Government as what we hope will be an evidence-based debate about the future role of employment regulation develops.

The CIPD/Lewis Silkin report, ‘Employment regulation in the UK: burden or benefit?’ can be found here –

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