Industrial relations and social dialogue

United Kingdom: Latest developments in working life Q3 2019

The upcoming Brexit deadline, the reaction of social partners to the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, a law to tackle the misuse of non-disclosure agreements, and consultations on issues raised by the Taylor review of work practices are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in the United Kingdom in the third quarter of 2019.

Deadline for Brexit negotiations draws near

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to taking the UK out of the EU on 31 October 2019 – ‘with or without a deal’. [1] He reiterated this on 2 October, during his speech at the Conservative Party Conference. However, just before his move to suspend parliament (which was deemed unlawful by the supreme court on 24 September) [2], Members of Parliament (MPs) passed the EU Withdrawal (No.2) Act (known as the ‘Benn Act’). The act requires the prime minister to ask the EU for an extension to Article 50 to avoid a no-deal on 31 October.

This act stipulates that if MPs have not approved a deal in a meaningful vote or approved leaving the EU without a deal by 19 October, then the prime minister must send a letter to the European Council seeking an extension until 31 January 2020.

In his conference speech, the prime minister had proposed an alternative to the controversial Irish backstop agreement, as a way of breaking the impasse in negotiations before the crunch summit planned for 19 October. [3] However, the plans have been deemed deficient in many ways by the EU. [4]

Social partners claim Brexit deal is essential

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the major social partners in the UK, have repeatedly called for a no-deal to be avoided at all costs.

CBI Director General Carolyn Fairbairn warned in July in an article entitled ‘No-deal Brexit is a tripwire into economic chaos’, originally published in the Financial Times, that a no-deal Brexit is ‘not a panacea, not a clean break and not an end to uncertainty’. [5]

On 29 September, the TUC published an analysis of the consequences of a no-deal. [6] Their research predicts that a no-deal would:

  • negatively impact the UK’s GDP in the long term by up to 10%
  • have a significant bearing on jobs, wages and public services
  • potentially lead to 482,000 job losses
  • cause real wages to fall (by up to 10% in the government’s own long-term economic analysis) [7]
  • mean that British workers can no longer take challenges to the Court of Justice of the European Union
  • mean that judgements from the European courts will no longer be binding in the UK courts
  • enable the UK government to remove employment protections from law without challenge

New law curbs misuse of non-disclosure agreements

The government is to bring in new legislation to tackle the misuse of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in the workplace, including those used to cover up sexual harassment, racial discrimination and assault. NDAs can be used by employers for legitimate reasons, but they can also be used to silence workers who have been subjected to abuse at work.

The new law will prohibit NDAs being used to prevent individuals from disclosing information to the police and others such as regulated health and care professionals, doctors, lawyers or social workers. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) is developing new guidance on the appropriate use of NDAs.

Government launches consultations in response to Taylor review

The government launched consultations on the issues of the establishment of a single enforcement body and ‘one-sided flexibility’ to stop workplace exploitation, as part of its response to ‘Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practice’ that was submitted to the UK government in 2017.

With regard to the single enforcement body, the government launched a consultation document in July, which set out proposals on how the new body will replace the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, and the HM Revenue and Customs National Minimum Wage team. [8] The consultation closes on 6 October, with the structure of the new body yet to be decided.

On the issue of ‘one-sided flexibility’, the review found that some employers were abusing flexible working arrangements through practices such as cancelling shifts at short notice or sending workers home when customer demand is low. The government commissioned the Low Pay Commission (LPC) to provide advice on the prevalence of this phenomenon, the impact of introducing a higher minimum wage for non-guaranteed hours, and alternative policy ideas to address the issue.

Among the LPC’s evidence is that 49% of workers who are self-employed or involved with insecure work said their income changed either a fair amount or a great deal from one month to the next, and that many workers feared losing hours. On 19 July the government launched a consultation asking for views on the LPC proposals, particularly on giving workers a right to reasonable notice of work schedules and compensation for shifts that are cancelled without reasonable notice. It also seeks views on what guidance government can provide to support employers and encourage best practice. The consultation closes on 11 October.


Given the EU’s lack of enthusiasm for the prime minister’s recent five-point Brexit plan, it seems unlikely that a deal will be reached by the deadline and an extension will therefore be required. The social partners have called for a no-deal Brexit to be avoided at all costs.


  1. ^ The Mirror (2019), 11 times Boris Johnson promised the UK will leave EU on October 31, 4 October.
  2. ^ The Guardian (2019), Johnson's suspension of parliament unlawful, supreme court rules , 24 September.
  3. ^ The Guardian (2019), Boris Johnson’s Brexit alternative to the Irish backstop: what’s new? , 2 October.
  4. ^ The Guardian (2019), Brexit: dismay in Brussels as Boris Johnson finally reveals plan , 3 October.
  5. ^ CBI (2019), No-deal Brexit is a tripwire into economic chaos , 6 July.
  6. ^ TUC (2019), Consequences of ‘no deal’ , 29 September.
  7. ^ HM Government (2018), EU Exit, Long-term economic analysis , November.
  8. ^ BEIS (2018), Good work plan: Establishing a new single enforcement body for employment rights , July.

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