Ian McFarland: What’s brewing for employment law in Northern Ireland after the Assembly’s hiatus

Ian McFarland: What's brewing for employment law in Northern Ireland after the Assembly's hiatus

Ian McFarland

Ian McFarland, partner at Eversheds Sutherland Belfast, writes on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly at long last.

After nearly two years, we welcome a reformed legislative Assembly. In amongst it all, this is a significant development for employers, employees, and us lawyers alike.

Recently I wrote about how the employment laws of Northern Ireland were being left behind, as we observed developments south of the border and across the Irish Sea, but with little in the way of legislative progress here. The gap has widened since, but with cautious optimism we can now look ahead to playing catch up and modernising our legal framework to reflect developments in society and the ever-changing ways of working.

As a starting point, there remain provisions of the Employment Act (NI) 2016 that have not yet been brought into force. These include amendments to protect and grant further rights to “zero hours workers”, including to prevent a worker from being forced to work exclusively for one employer.

The 2016 Act also sought to introduce gender pay gap reporting in NI, a concept that is familiar in GB and, more recently, the Republic of Ireland. We await regulations that will set out an employer’s obligations, including the threshold (likely based on the number of employees) for mandatory reporting. What we do know, however, is that as well as gender, employers in Northern Ireland will also be required to provide statistics in relation to ethnicity and disability.

Flexible working is also likely to be on the agenda. In June 2023 the Alliance Party confirmed that it intends to introduce a private member’s bill to extend the rights and entitlements of employees. Currently, there is only a right to request flexible working and six months’ service is required before you can legally do so. GB is making this is a “day one” right that can be exercised more regularly and, generally, strengthening the rights of employees. Perhaps we will do similar?

There are also areas in respect of which we are proposing to go further than GB. For example, NI is proposing to introduce a right to paid miscarriage leave (covering the first 24 weeks of pregnancy), which is due to be in force by 2026. A corresponding right will not exist in GB.

Other areas are worth watching too. With GB introducing changes in respect of holidays and TUPE, two complicated areas that regularly vex employers (and lawyers), we could expect to see similar thought given to our own position.

Overall, the Assembly’s “to-do list” is lengthy. There are only so many hours in the day and prioritisation will be necessary, but what we hope to see is what was intended by devolution — laws by Northern Ireland, for Northern Ireland — and nowhere is that more applicable than in respect of our employment regime.

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