Legal profession reacts to Queen's Speech
There has been disappointment that the Employment Bill was omitted for the third year running
The legal profession has been responding to key aspects of the Queen’s Speech, which announced a range of new bills and reforms yesterday (10 May 2022).
The Queen’s Speech was delivered by Prince Charles as the Queen was unable to attend the ceremony for the first time in almost 60 years.
One of the key – and most controversial – proposed changes is the introduction of a new bill to replace the Human Rights Act. Prince Charles said: “Her Majesty’s Government will ensure the constitution is defended” and “Ministers will restore the balance of power between the legislature and the courts by introducing a Bill of Rights”.
However, Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce expressed concern: “The Human Rights Act confirms and protects the rights and freedoms of people in the UK and provides robust protection in British courts”.
She said: “Dismantling it will have far-reaching consequences, conferring greater unfettered power not just on the government of today, but also on future ruling parties, whatever their ideology.
“If the new Bill of Rights becomes law, it would make it harder for all of us to protect or enforce our rights.
“The proposed changes make the state less accountable. This undermines a crucial element of the rule of law, preventing people from challenging illegitimate uses of power”.
Boyce added: “Weakening rights for some would weaken rights for everyone and undermine the UK’s international reputation for justice and fairness.”
With regards to Brexit, Prince Charles said: “Her Majesty’s Government will continue to seize the opportunities of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, to support economic growth.
“Regulations on businesses will be repealed and reformed. A bill will enable law inherited from the European Union to be more easily amended.”
The government said the Brexit Freedoms Bill will ensure retained EU law can be “amended, repealed or replaced with legislation which better suits the UK.”
“Any reforms as part of the Brexit Freedoms Bill must be balanced and subject to appropriate scrutiny,” commented Boyce.
City law firm, Bates Wells, said accelerated divergence from EU law will create considerable uncertainty for businesses.
Eleonor Duhs, partner and head of data privacy at Bates Wells, who was the lead lawyer on the core provisions of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 which created retained EU law, said ripping up EU laws could also remove important protections for workers and consumers.
Duhs commented: “Retained EU law in the UK performs a hugely important function across all sectors of the economy.”
“We need to approach the transition away from EU law carefully and thoughtfully. This will take time. Unfortunately a more radical approach will have negative unforeseen consequences.”
When the Brexit transition period expired on 31 December 2020, any EU law that still applied to the UK was written into law, which provided businesses and individuals with certainty as to how their activities would be regulated.
Bates Wells said businesses would prefer plenty of advance warning as to how laws are set to diverge and by when, so they can ensure they have the necessary frameworks in place to comply.
In respect of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, Prince Charles said: “A bill will be brought forward to further strengthen powers to tackle illicit finance, reduce economic crime and help businesses grow.”
Boyce welcomed the bill and said it will “help the government uncover potential criminal activity in the UK”. She offered the Law Society’s expertise to “make sure the act meets the bill’s ambitions.”
Chris Bones, Chair of CILEX (the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives), echoed these thoughts and said: “CILEX welcomes the intention to legislate in support of victims of crime and the focus on economic crimes”.
Notably absent from the Queen’s Speech was the Employment Bill. The bill was first promised by the government in December 2019 but was absent from both the 2020 and 2021 legislative agenda, with the pandemic cited as the reason for delay.
Boyce said it was “disappointing” that “a long-awaited employment bill has once again been dropped”.
The proposed changes in the employment bill included the right to request flexible working from day one, the right to carers’ leave, and the extension of redundancy protection for women returning from maternity leave. The bill was also expected to create a single enforcement body for employment rights.
Boyce commented: “Employment law needs to keep pace with changes in the workplace – which have been accelerated by the pandemic – including the growth in flexible working.”
Specialist employment law firm GQ|Littler said the delay will lead to continued uncertainty for employers and that many companies had introduced flexible working policies above the current legislative framework to attract and retain key talent in a competitive job market.
Sophie Vanhegan, partner at GQ|Littler, said: “Yet another delay to the employment bill inevitably leads to continued uncertainty for employers, who have been unable to determine whether their policies and practices need to be updated in readiness for the proposed changes.”
She added: “A lot of large corporates have already gone ahead and put similar measures of their own in place. In the absence of legislation, the current tight labour market is generating change in and of itself. Employers competing for talent are leading the way in the absence of these changes coming through changes to the law.
“However, many employers we speak to would welcome a level playing field on these issues and would welcome the Government taking the lead on employment rights".