On Tuesday 7 November, the Government set its legislative agenda for the coming year in the King’s Speech. Each bill included in the speech had the aim of focusing on three priorities: growing the economy, strengthening society and keeping people safe.
In terms of the pain points for HR, the speech touched on two key legislative areas: increasing the number of high-quality apprenticeships and helping people with disabilities into employment. However, the CIPD warns of a lack of focus on mental health in the speech, whilst other expected a greater emphasis on laws around AI.
Here is what experts have to say...
Increasing valuable apprenticeships
In his first speech, King Charles touched on plans to increase starts in high quality apprenticeships and reduce the number of young people enrolling into “poor quality” university degrees.
The monarch also shared plans to “strengthen education for the long term” through the introduction of the ABS, which aims to replace A-levels and T levels, combining the two into a single qualification.
Yet, some call for reforms to the current rigid Apprenticeships Levy. Ben Willmott, Head of Public Policy at the CIPD, comments on the announcement: “The focus on boosting the number of high-quality apprenticeships for young people is positive but will be fundamentally undermined unless there is action taken to reform the Apprenticeship Levy into a more flexible training levy.
"The levy in its current form has incentivised too many employers to rebadge training as apprenticeships as a way of developing typically older, existing employees. This is an expensive and inefficient way of upskilling existing staff and takes valuable potential apprenticeship funding and opportunities away from young people.”
Apprenticeships also offer a way for businesses to close long-standing skills gaps. Stacey Hayes-Allen, Director of Corporate Partnerships at Arden University, says: “Using apprenticeships is a great initiative that more businesses need to be utilising. The labour market is becoming more stretched – not only are we seeing businesses experiencing skills gaps, but the rapid pace at which industries are evolving is making it harder for businesses to keep up.
“Offering workers the chance to learn while working can help to tackle this, enabling businesses to grow their team internally while retaining staff, and allowing them to stay one step ahead and remain agile given the transformations that are taking place.
“In an ideal world, access to education would be available for everyone; this would ensure that businesses are inclusive and diverse, but also would allow for an active, buoyant employment market. So, while we thoroughly support the government wanting to better use apprenticeships as a means for people to get a degree, the restrictions applied to the current apprenticeship levy – such as the need for functional skills, which could be proved via the job or throughout the course – put many people off enrolling onto beneficial programmes.”
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“There was also a welcome reference to welfare reforms to help more people into work,” says Willmott from the CIPD. “However, this will require ensuring there is effective, bespoke support to help people with a long-term health condition or disability into sustainable employment. Just as importantly, there’s a need to support the creation of more flexible jobs and other measures to help prevent people falling out of employment for health reasons. We hope the Chancellor will follow this up with the announcement of effective proposals to boost employers’ access to quality occupational health advice and support, particularly small employers.”
Mental Health Act ditched
To the surprise and discontent of many, the Mental Health Act Reform was not included in Tuesday’s speech, meaning there will be no changes made to the Mental Health Act 1983 before the next election.
Wilmott comments: “Missing from the speech was a Mental Health Bill, which received pre-legislative scrutiny but hasn’t made it into the final King's Speech of this parliament. Recent CIPD figures showed workplace absences are at a record high with poor mental health and stress being two of the leading causes. For employers, and crucially those individuals that are affected, more sustained action on mental health is long overdue.”
Safer technological developments
Chris Pedder, Chief Data Analyst at AI company OBRIZUM, comments: “Calls in The King’s speech for new legal frameworks and to ensure the safe development of emerging technologies like AI is a welcome and necessary step. However, while regulatory oversight is crucial, we must be wary of over-correction in reaction to new capabilities.
“Laws and regulations move slowly while technology advances rapidly. Rather than rely solely on top-down governance, we need transparency and accountability measures built directly into AI systems by the entities developing them. They must be open about how models are trained, what data is used, and what safeguards are in place.
“As with discussions at the AI Safety Summit, talk must urgently translate into ethical action on the part of governments, tech companies, and AI researchers. As capabilities grow more complex, the margin for error tightens, so developers have a duty to proceed cautiously, updating standards as technology progresses.
Trends Report 2023/24
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What good leadership looks like in 2024
“Fear often accompanies the unknown, but we must not let apprehension breed rash policies that could hamper AI's immense potential. With diligent cooperation between government, industry and the public, we can develop frameworks to steer rapidly advancing AI technologies toward benefiting humanity.”
Science, Innovation and Technology Committee Chair, Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, said: “This new session of Parliament will be the last opportunity to pass significant legislation before the General Election, and in all likelihood, before 2025. It is therefore disappointing that there is no mention of an AI Bill in the King’s Speech.
“In March the Government said that it would consider legislating to establish ‘due regard’ duties for existing regulators, as part of the implementation of the high-level principles set out in the AI white paper. In our interim report, we called for the introduction of such a short tightly-focussed Bill to make sure existing regulators’ powers are up to date to be applied to AI. We warned of the risk that without regulators’ powers being up to date the UK could be overtaken by other jurisdictions – particularly the European Union and United States."