Scottish Engineering traces its origin back to formation in 1865, a timing generally accepted as fairly soon after the start of the first industrial revolution.

Our history records that the founding purpose of an engineering federation of member companies like ours was as a response to the development of labour law (or employment legislation) by building a professional team with expertise to advise and guide companies in their application of the law.

The world feels like a pretty fast-paced place most of the time these days, but it’s interesting to consider whether the mid-19th century onwards might have felt like riding a rocket in comparison. Things done by hand for centuries were mechanised in decades, communication via telegraph replaced fast horses, and the advent of electrical grid systems must have bordered on the magical.

That pace of technological change was not often sympathetic to the health, safety and wellbeing of the people building it, and with it rose a recognition that greater protection for this along with prevention of unfair practices in wage contracts was needed. 

A prominent example came just two years after our formation with the Master and Servant Act of 1867. That might not sound like a beacon of enlightenment to you or I, but the internet assures me that it was indeed a step improvement on the 1825 Combination Act it replaced. 

Supporting companies by advising and guiding in the application of employment law and HR best practice remains a key pillar of what we do, and our team have been at pains to let companies know that 2024 feels like it is going to be a busy year for changes that they will have to make sure they are on top of.

The last few years have been quiet for new and updated laws in this area, principally due to the Covid years and the uncertainty of how retained law from our membership of the EU would be dealt with, with the much paraded "bonfire of EU legislation" quietly sinking into a general status quo that now has a queue of updates that need to be enacted. 

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Last week, coinciding with the start of the new tax year, a first raft of changes that organisations should be aware of came into law.

The first of these are new flexible working laws which affords millions of UK workers extended flexibility over where and when they work. The new regulations entitle employees to request two flexible working arrangements per year as a "day one" right of employment rather than after six months as was previously the case, and covers requests for part-time, term-time, flexitime, compressed hours, and varied working locations.

Rejection of a request for flexible working arrangements now must be explained with the reasons behind that decision, employers must consult with employees when considering their request, and the employer’s response time has been cut from three to two months.

An additional "day-one" rights change makes provision for unpaid leave for employees with caring responsibilities and is available to all employees caring for a spouse, civil partner, child, parent or other dependant who needs care because of a disability, old age or any illness or injury likely to require at least three months’ care.

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This leave entitlement is unpaid, has a maximum duration of one week per year (which can be taken in days or half-days), and whilst such a request cannot be denied, there can be some flexibility to adjust the timing of the leave to fit both the employee and the business needs.

The final part of last week’s changes impacts the law for employees on maternity leave, shared parental leave or adoption leave by extending the special protection they had already in a redundancy situation to be offered suitable alternative employment before anyone else.  That priority status now includes pregnant employees, and those who have recently returned from maternity, adoption leave, or shared parental leave may have the right for that protected status to be extended for eighteen months.

Looking ahead, in October significant changes to an employer’s duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace will place a much greater requirement on employers to not only educate and train managers and employees in this area, but be able to show evidence of the frequency, impact and effectiveness of their training and policies for this requirement.

These are interventions that will require planning and diligence to get right, as in the event of non-compliance the Equality & Human Rights Commission can intervene and take steps to enforce.  In addition, where a dispute arises, a successful tribunal claim would be liable to an uplift of up to 25% on top of the award granted.

Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering