2024 Lib Dems Manifesto: Protecting carers, strengthening worker rights

General election 2024: Liberal Democrats employment law manifesto

The Liberal Democrats have announced a proposal to add “caring” to the list of protected characteristics under the Equality Act. 

Carers already benefit from protection under the Equality Act. Coleman v Attridge Law confirmed the principle of discrimination by association, although a change in the legislation could refine and codify this area of law. 

Details about how the Liberal Democrats would achieve this are presently limited, and it remains to be seen how “caring” would be defined for the purposes of the legislation. 

Employees (including but not limited to those with caring responsibilities) are also already entitled to make flexible working requests, which can include increasing the time they work from home and seeking to alter their hours. Whilst the right to flexible working is currently limited to employees, amending the Equality Act could provide increased protection for workers with caring responsibilities. 

Whatever the Government decides post-election, taking time out to care for a loved one can be emotive and challenging. Good communication between employers and employees can help reach an agreed-upon and workable way forward and reduce the risks of a dispute. Parties who are unclear about their rights or obligations should seek legal advice sooner rather than later. 

Individuals with caring responsibilities or who have suddenly found themselves with caring responsibilities should check their employee handbook for any policies on taking time off to care for and attend appointments with their dependents. Similarly, it is good practice for employers to continue reviewing policies to ensure their employees are well supported should they need to care for dependents. 

Trans and non-binary rights

The Liberal Democrats are pledging to strengthen the rights of trans and non-binary people. They would remove the need to obtain medical reports and recognise non-binary identities. Whether this would replace the current gender recognition certificates remains to be seen. 

The Liberal Democrats would require large employers to monitor and publish data on gender, ethnicity, disability and LGBT+ employment levels, pay gaps and progression. Whilst likely to be anonymised, employers should exercise utmost caution when handling this data, as personal data revealing racial or ethnic origin and sexual orientation is treated as ‘special category data’ under GDPR and subject to special rules and safeguards. This requires data processors (in this case, the employer) to act within the scope of GDPR legislation, amongst other things, in ensuring that the processing of the special category data falls within one of the ten conditions under which processing is allowed (see Article 9 of the UK GDPR). Failure to comply with the GDPR requirements can result in potential claims by the data subjects (in this case, employees) and severe punitive sanctions by the regulator. The ICO and employers should seek advice on ensuring compliance with their various legal obligations and managing any overlaps between legal considerations. 

Worker Protection Enforcement Authority

Another area of note is the promise to create a new Worker Protection Enforcement Authority (“WPEA”). Presently, there are three Government bodies tasked with enforcing employment rights:

  • Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (“GLAA”)
  • Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (“EAS”)
  • HMRC National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage team (“HMRC NMW”)

The GLAA issues licences to agencies supplying workers to the UK fresh produce sector and seeks to protect vulnerable and exploited workers. It also liaises with the police and NCA to prevent worker exploitation and criminal activity.  

The EAS is responsible for protecting the rights of agency workers. It works with employment agencies and businesses to ensure compliance with the law and investigates complaints from agency workers.

HMRC enforces the national minimum wage on behalf of the government and encourages compliance with minimum wage legislation.

All three bodies work together alongside other enforcement agencies, and any new authoritative body would likely replace the existing three. Its responsibilities would include enforcing minimum wage legislation, tackling modern slavery, and protecting agency workers. 

There are natural advantages to a unified body, including providing a clear source of assistance and information for individuals and businesses alike to approach, greater coordination between the civil and criminal enforcement units and more efficient use of resources. 

Dependent Contractor

The Liberal Democrats have also indicated that they would seek to introduce a new “dependent contractor” status, which would sit between employment and self-employment, granting the contractor basic rights, including minimum earnings levels, sick pay and holiday entitlement (see also Labour’s proposals on worker/employee distinctions here: Election 2024: What’s in store for employment law? 

It is unclear how this new proposed status would interact with the existing status of workers or whether it is intended to replace it entirely. 

National Insurance

The Liberal Democrats have said they will review the tax and National Insurance status of employees, dependent contractors, and freelancers to ensure “fair and comparable treatment.” What this will entail is unclear, but it will likely encompass IR35 reforms. 

Flexible Working

Labour and the Liberal Democrats mention flexible working in their manifestos and give the right to request flexible working to workers and employees alike. Following the reforms made to flexible working that came into existence on 6 April 2024, the right to request flexible working is now a day-one right afforded to all employees. Employers only have limited grounds to reject requests and a dismissal because an employee has made a flexible working request, which is deemed an automatically unfair dismissal. 

The Liberal Democrats would also give “every disabled person the right to work from home if they want to unless there are significant business reasons why it is not possible.” However, it is unclear how this will be implemented, as the Equality Act 2010 already requires employers to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people (as defined under the legislation). 

Family Friendly Rights

The Liberal Democrats, like Labour, are proposing to extend day-one rights for parental leave and pay. 

In their manifesto, the Liberal Democrats say they would double statutory maternity and shared parental pay and increase statutory paternity pay to 90% of earnings during paternity leave. The increase to statutory paternity pay would be subject to a cap on high earners, but this cap has not been disclosed. 

It is unclear whether the entitlement to paternity leave and pay would be extended to the new “dependant contractor” status. Currently, eligibility for paternity leave is limited to employees with no less than 26 weeks of service ending with the Qualifying Week (the 15th week before the baby is due) and taking time off to care for the baby or their partner. If the employee satisfies these conditions, they will be able to take up to two weeks paternity leave. However, the Liberal Democrats have indicated a desire to introduce “an extra use-it-or-lose-it month for fathers and partners”. 

They pledge to give each parent six weeks of use-it-or-lose-it leave paid at 90% of earnings and 46 weeks of shared parental leave, which will be paid at twice the current statutory rate. The Liberal Democrats seem to accept that the state will fund these ambitions and that they will only be implemented once “the public finances allow.”

In the short term, should the party be elected, employers should consider the potential hurdles of covering an employee for an extended period while paying them 90% of their earnings, subject to any caps that may subsequently be imposed. 

The Liberal Democrats have also proposed introducing paid neonatal care leave, but it is unclear how this will affect the incoming Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act 2023. This Act, expected to come into force from April 2025, will create a statutory entitlement to neonatal care leave and pay. It should be noted that much of the details of this Act have yet to be determined, including the levels of pay, duration, and relationship requirements. However, it is likely to dovetail with parental bereavement leave provisions. However, it will be available to employees without a service requirement, providing that their child receives neonatal care (which has yet to be fully defined) within 28 days of birth.

The Liberal Democrats would also mirror Labour in making SSP available on the first day of sickness and aligning the rate with the National Minimum Wage. 

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Trainee Solicitor, Employment Law, Bishop's Stortford office

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