HR news round-up: From unemployment to long-term sickness

This week’s HR news round-up covers everything from the latest unemployment and economic inactivity figures to concerns about discrimination against women in the music industry.

Healthcare, Geriatric Medicine, Medical Check Up. Senior man visiting doctor telling about health complaints, female gp or nurse writing personal information, filling form listening to elderly patient

Unemployment and economic inactivity up

The UK jobs market is showing signs of stalling as the number of people out of work grew, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The unemployment rate increased to 4.2% between December and February – the highest level for six months. Meanwhile, the rate of people with a job dipped and the economically inactive – those not in work or looking for employment – continued to rise.

Overall, the ONS said the UK’s unemployment rate rose from 3.9% in the three months to January and surpassed economists’ forecast of an increase to 4%. The number of people out of work due to long-term sickness in the UK has reached a new record high, with over 2.8m individuals affected.

Meanwhile, a report from the Heath Foundation, projects that the number of working-age adults living with a major illness is likely to rise steeply – up from 3 million to 3.7 million by 2040, with disadvantaged regions facing the brunt of the problem.

PM announces review of fit note system

Rishi Sunak has announced a review of the fit note system which he claims is being used to write people off as “not fit for work” by default and says he is considering shifting responsibility for fit notes from GPs to other wek and health professionals.

In a speech today, the Prime Minister said he wants to design a new system where “each fit note conversation focuses on what people can do with the right support in place, rather than what they can’t do”.

As part of this, the government will consider shifting the responsibility for issuing the fit note to “specialist work and health professionals who have the dedicated time and expertise to provide an objective assessment of someone’s ability to work and the tailored support they may need”.

A call for evidence has been published to seek responses from a diverse range of perspectives, including those with lived experiences, healthcare professionals and employers, on how the current process works and how it can better support people with health conditions to start, stay in work.

The Prime Minister said:  “We don’t just need to change the sick note, we need to change the sick note culture so the default becomes what work you can do – not what you can’t.

“Building on the pilots we’ve already started we’re going to design a new system where people have easy and rapid access to specialised work and health support to help them back to work from the very first Fit Note conversation.”

The speech was greeted with anger by anti-poverty campaigners. Child Poverty Action Group Chief Executive Alison Garnham said: “The Prime Minister must know he can’t scare people into good health, but his words this morning will be chilling for low income families up and down the country who rely on our social security system for help.

“His government needs to address the reasons people can’t go to work – like poor health – rather than make life harder for those who are struggling. The PM should focus on delivering investment in the NHS, improving employment support and providing social security for everyone who needs it, including the record number of children currently living in poverty.”

Read more here.

Report highlights hidden poverty crisis for older people

A new report says the UK is facing a hidden poverty crisis among 60 to 65-year-olds.

It cites figures showing a quarter of people aged 60 to 65 live in poverty – the highest poverty rate for any adult age group. The Fabian Society report, When I’m 64, calls for long-term action targeting people at every stage of working life, from social security and health to lifelong learning, but also for short-term interventions to help over 55s stay in or return to work or better support people who cannot work.

There are many reasons for rising concerns about pensioner poverty, including health issues and poor quality work.

Another report from the Resolution Foundation think tank into Universal Credit says the benefit is designed for the labour market problems of the past, not the present and future. It says that, although ‘making work pay’ may have been the right focus for the problems of high unemployment and worklessness in the early 2010s, it is not the right approach for Britain today due to the large drop in unemployment since 2011 and fast rising levels of economic inactivity due to ill health – almost double the rate they were when UC was first introduced.

Supreme Court rules against anti-strike law

The Supreme Court has ruled that the UK trade union law breaches the country’s duty to protect the right to take part in lawful strikes.

The ruling came in the case of Fiona Mercer, a care worker who was suspended by her employer after participating in a planned strike. Lady Simler, who delivered the judgment, stated that if employees can only take strike action by exposing themselves to detrimental treatment, the right dissolves.

The Unison union’s general secretary Christina McAnea described the ruling as “a victory for every employee who might one day want to challenge something bad or unfair their employer has done,” adding: “The government must now close this loophole promptly. It won’t cost any money and isn’t difficult to do.”

Meanwhile, the TUC has warned that Britain is failing to keep up with the regulation of AI in the workplace, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination. It has proposed a legal blueprint for regulating AI, including a legal duty for employers to consult trade unions on the use of high-risk and intrusive forms of the technology.

Government throws out recommendations on women in music

The Government has rejected recommendations from the cross-party Women and Equalities Committee on how to address misogyny and discrimination in the music industry.

While it accepts that everyone should be able to work without being subject to misogyny and discrimination, it stopped short of accepting a series of recommendations, including  taking legislative steps to amend the Equality Act to ensure freelance workers have the same protections from discrimination as employees and bringing into force section 14 to improve protections for people facing intersectional inequality.

The Committee also recommended the Government should legislate to impose a duty on employers to protect workers from sexual harassment by third parties, a proposal the Government initially supported and then rejected last year.

The Government did not respond to calls to extend the time limit for bringing Equality Act-based claims to an employment tribunal from three to six months as recommended by the Committee. While it is bringing in a ban on the use of non-disclosure agreements in cases involving sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, bullying or harassment, and discrimination relating to a protected characteristic in higher education, it does not support the Committee’s recommendation to do so for music or other sectors despite the compelling evidence presented by the Committee.

Worker successfully sues male boss for menopause discrimination

An administrative worker has won a case at the employment tribunal for discrimination as a result of her employer failing to take action due to the challenges she faced with the menopause and her caring responsibilities.

Marie Johnson requested to work a four-day week due to the impact of menopause on her daily activities. However, her boss turned down the request without understanding how menopause affected her. As a result, Johnson resigned after 27 years at the company and sued her bosses for disability discrimination and unfair dismissal.

The employment tribunal ruled in her favour, criticising her boss’s lack of interest in menopause. The tribunal acknowledged Johnson’s struggles with mental health symptoms arising from menopause and the challenges of caring for her elderly parents. The judge stated that her boss could have easily understood the effects of menopause on her daily life and work.

Petition launched on business rates for nurseries

An official petition asking Government to exempt all early years settings in England from paying business rates and be zero rated for VAT has been launched by an early years provider.

Debbie Moliterno, owner of Cheeky Monkeys Two Day Nursery in Bedford and co-owner of Cheeky Monkeys Day Nursery in Borehamwood, has launched the Parliamentary petition, supported by National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) and Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

Research by NDNA reports that the average nursery in England pays £21,000 per year in business rates. For many, the bills are much higher, especially in London and other large cities. The revaluation exercise in 2022 increased bills by an average of 40% for nurseries in April 2023. Read more here.

Meanwhile, the Government is claiming success for its childcare extension programme despite ongoing concerns about staffing and funding and calls for universal access to free childcare.

Badenoch calls for FCA plans on diversity to be scrapped

The Business Secretary, Kemi Badenoch, who is also the Women and Equalities minister, has called on financial services regulators to scrap plans to set diversity targets for finance companies.

Badenoch argues they would amount to regulatory over-reach and place an unnecessary additional burden on businesses.

The Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority have consulted on a requirement for companies to disclose demographic data, including on age, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity, and set diversity targets to address underrepresentation. They would be required to publish their progress.

“The benefits claimed are speculative, but the compliance costs will be real,” Badenoch said in a speech at TheCityUK. “There are significant concerns about likely indirect effects, such as increased barriers to entry and expansion, and the resulting impacts on innovation, competition and choice. At a time when government is focused on driving economic growth through smarter regulation, the FCA should not be adding regulatory burdens which go well beyond the legislative framework in the Equality Act.”

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