Alison Schreiber is director of the Durham franchise of national outsourced human resources network, The HR Dept, and a long-time supporter of the Peterlee and Seaham business parks group.
East Durham Business chatted to Alison about important upcoming employment law changes and other topical HR matters.
EDB: Tell us what is happening in the world of HR at the moment.
AS: People being people, there’s always a lot going on in HR! But one of the main things that employers need to be aware of is a raft of employment law changes coming into force on 6th April 2020.
EDB: Is that out-of-the-ordinary? Employment law seems to change all of the time.
AS: You’re right that there are regular changes and it’s important to always keep on top of these. However, this April is particularly unusual – firstly, in the sheer number of changes that are coming up but also in the fact that they involve some fundamental issues that will affect almost all employers.
Part of the reason for this was a comprehensive review of UK working practices that was carried out independently in 2016/17 by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts, at the request of the government. The government accepted most of his recommendations, resulting in what is called The Good Work Plan, which sets out their vision for the future of the UK Labour market.
EDB: So, what sort of changes are they?
AS: The biggest change this year concerns the “statement of particulars”, or contracts, you are required to provide when someone starts working for you.
From 6 April, these will need to be given on or before the first day of employment to everyone starting to work with you. This is as opposed to within eight weeks, as is the case now. They must now also include information about the right to sick leave and pay, maternity or paternity, days and times of working and notice periods.
Holiday pay is another key area with this year’s change following several others over recent years. For employees with variable pay, the reference period for calculating holiday pay will be extended from 12 weeks preceding the holiday to 52 weeks.
EDB: Can you tell us about the new Bereavement Leave law that has been in the news recently?
AS: Yes, this is what is known as “Jack’s Law”. It entitles employees who lose a child under the age of 18 to two weeks’ paid bereavement leave. Naturally anyone who is going through such an awful experience like that will almost certainly not be in a fit state to work and it helps to reduce additional financial worries at such a stressful time.
EDB: Are there any other changes?
AS: Well, as well as the usual increases to minimum wage levels, quite significant in themselves this year, there are improved pay rights for Agency Workers through the abolition of what is called the Swedish derogation. There are also changes in responsibility for IR35 tax compliance, which will shift from the company to the client or intermediary.
Another important change is the length of time to break continuous employment, the benchmark for many employment rights. This will be extended from one week to one month.
EDB: Tell us about The HR Dept’s involvement in The Future of Work Inquiry at Westminster.
AS: I own and run The HR Dept within the Durham region, but the HR Dept model of supporting small and medium businesses with their HR and H&S requirements is active across the UK. As a whole, we support about 6000 SMEs and are well placed to understand the pressures they face. We therefore put a few of our ideas forward for the Select Committee to review. We were then invited to present them to the Future of Work Inquiry in Westminster itself.
Worker status, whether someone is categorised as self-employed, employed or the middle category of “worker”, can be very confusing for a small business and also carries significant risk if an employer gets it wrong. We believe abolition of the “worker” category would simplify the process but, as yet, there are no plans to do this.
EDB: How do you think Brexit will affect employment law?
AS: To be honest, a lot of the basics of UK employment law have been in place since before we joined the EU so any changes will be “fine-tuning” to suit the UK rather than anything too radical. Stories of employees’ rights being eradicated are exaggerated – many UK employment rights are already higher than the EU minimum (e.g. 5.6 weeks holiday against the EU’s 4 weeks) and The Good Work Plan shows the tendency towards more, not less, protection for workers.
EDB: Outside of employment law, what do you see as the key HR issues for employers in 2020 and beyond?
AS: One of the biggest issues facing employers in the UK is the current skills shortage. It is important to recruit effectively but also vital to maximise the potential within an organisation by upskilling and retaining your existing work force.
In terms of employee retention, flexibility is one of the most important motivators for people today. I see a trend towards variable hours, part-time work, holiday buy-back as many people value their work-life balance and quality of life above financial reward.
Another very important issue is mental health. The stresses of today’s world are creating almost an epidemic in this area and it is important that employees are assisted in the right way. The earlier support is given, the better the final outcome will be. One in four people suffers from a mental health condition at some time in their lives and it is the biggest cause of workplace absence in the UK. For an engaged, effective workforce, businesses need to demonstrate a proactive approach to employee well-being.
EDB: What does the future look like for The HR Dept Durham?
AS: We love working with local companies and seeing them thrive so we will continue to build on the relationships we already have, as well as welcoming some new ones. In addition to the HR and H&S support we provide, we also have a number of complementary services and we have just launched an e-learning service to this range. We are excited about introducing this as it will provide clients with a quick and cost-effective means for them to give training to employees.