Stormont returns: 11 potential employment law changes

Employment law in Northern Ireland has remained largely static in recent years due to successive suspensions of the Assembly in 2017-2020 and 2022-2024. This has increasingly left Northern Ireland trailing behind the rest of the UK, where the pace of change hasn’t slowed, and indeed a number of important developments are due this year. Catching up will be on the agenda for the newly installed Economy Minister Conor Murphy.


We’ve picked out 11 potential employment law developments to watch:

  1. Public sector pay: the most immediate issue for the Executive is resolving the ongoing dispute over public sector pay which has seen widespread strike action over the winter months involving 16 trade unions. Around £600m from the UK government’s financial package for the incoming Executive has been allocated to public sector pay and Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald has already met with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to discuss a potential pay award. With a 72 hour bus and rail strike scheduled for 27 February now postponed, there is pressure to reach an agreement.


  1. Gender pay gap reporting: the Assembly legislated for gender pay gap reporting in Northern Ireland in 2016 with enacting regulations promised for June 2017. With successive Assembly collapses in 2017 and 2022, these regulations remain unpublished and without consultation. Elsewhere in the UK, employers with 250+ staff have been reporting since 2018. Ireland introduced reporting with the same threshold in 2022, which will drop to 150+ staff in 2024 and again to 50+ staff in 2025. This leaves an obvious gap in Northern Ireland and there may be a temptation to bring more employers in scope by adopting the Irish thresholds.


  1. Safe leave: during its final week in 2022, the Assembly passed legislation to guarantee up to ten days’ paid leave for victims of domestic abuse. Regulations are needed to flesh out how this new leave will work – and when the entitlement will go live. This legislation made waves when passed back in 2022 and was unique in both the UK and Ireland – it would be no surprise to see draft regulations published and consultation begin in the coming months.


  1. Carer’s leave: a new right to carer’s leave comes into effect in GB from 6 April 2024, giving employees the right to one week’s unpaid leave to care for a dependent. Although this stops well short of the long-established carer’s leave scheme in Ireland, it will be a popular change with employees, and it is difficult to imagine equivalent provisions not been fast-tracked in Northern Ireland, especially as this was a Sinn Fein manifesto commitment in 2022.


  1. Parental rights: GB employees will see their parental rights significantly increased from 6 April 2024. Priority for suitable vacancies in redundancy situations will be extended to cover pregnancy and up to 18 months from the date of birth or placement for employees returning from maternity, adoption or shared parental leave. The new right to up to 12 weeks’ neo-natal leave was legislated for in May 2023 and will be introduced by April 2025 or sooner. These create an unwelcome disparity in parental rights in the UK and we would expect equivalent Northern Irish legislation to be prioritised.


  1. Day one flexible working: from 6 April 2024 employees in GB will have the statutory right to request flexible working on day one of employment, a departure from the current six-month waiting period. Many Northern Irish employers have embraced hybrid and remote working models in recent years, and there will likely be calls for equivalent legislation in Northern Ireland. However, the recent trend towards increasing office attendance may encourage a “wait and see” approach, though legislation to improve access to flexible working was a Sinn Fein manifesto commitment in 2022.


  1. Harassment at work: the Worker Protection Act will come into force in Great Britain in October 2024, creating a proactive duty for employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment at work. This could be a popular, topical change in Northern Ireland as well.


  1. Zero-hour contracts: exclusivity clauses in zero-hour contracts have been banned in GB since 2015 and ahead of the upcoming general election, Labour has proposed a total ban. From September 2024, employees will have the right to request a predicable working pattern. In Ireland, zero-hours contracts have been effectively banned since 2018. This leaves a significant rights shortfall in Northern Ireland, and we would expect reform in-line with the wider UK position.


  1. Equality law reform: the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has been lobbying for reform of equality law in Northern Ireland. This would address major anomalies and gaps in coverage in the pre-Equality Act legislation still used in Northern Ireland, including the lack of protection against indirect disability discrimination or age discrimination in the provision of goods and services. It is now almost 15 years since the Equality Act was introduced in the rest of the UK; consolidation and modernisation in Northern Ireland is now well overdue and it is anticipated will be on the medium to long term agenda.


  1. Sinn Fein proposals: with Conor Murphy taking up the reins in the Department of the Economy, it is worth recalling several other manifesto commitments made by Sinn Fein in 2022. This include some less likely proposals, such as devolving power to set the national minimum wage, but also commitments on other burning issues in 2022 which are still relevant now, such as improving access to childcare, ending “fire and rehire” and legislating for a “right to disconnect” – likely influenced by the recent Code of Practice in Ireland. With a UK general election expected in Autumn 2024, these commitments may soon be renewed.


  1. Labour proposals: many commentators expect a Labour victory, which could herald a number of major employment reforms in Great Britain. Labour’s proposals in their “New Deal for Working People” include removing the qualifying service period for unfair dismissal and simplifying employment status into two categories rather than three; these changes are so fundamental that the pressure for equivalent reform in Northern Ireland would be difficult to ignore.


Members of Tughans’ Employment Team are qualified to practice in NI, England & Wales and in Ireland and would be happy to assist with employment related queries.

If you have questions about Employment Law, please contact Patricia Rooney or Jack Balmer in our Employment Team for more information.

While great care has been taken in the preparation of the content of this article, it does not purport to be a comprehensive statement of the relevant law and full professional advice should be taken before any action is taken in reliance on any item covered.