MARK McALLISTER: Policy direction? Sorry, sat nav malfunction!

So how will the policy gap be filled when our politicians eventually return to the Assembly? Sorry . . . my sat nav seems to be malfunctioning . . .
Mark McAllister

THERE is an old civil service joke about policy direction in a matter devolved to Northern Ireland being a choice of the holy trinity – replicate what has happened in GB, tailor a NI-specific policy direction, or simply do nothing.

Employment law is a complicated area and with a host of pre-existing differences in rights between the two jurisdictions, and the lack of an Assembly heading into its 20th month means the gap continues to grow.

So what? I hear you ask, and yes this may be a direction of travel caused by inertia rather than design which does have the advantages of GB being a petri-dish for employment initiatives that were always going to prove controversial.

For example, fees for industrial tribunals blew up spectacularly in the government’s face in GB some years ago and only recently so too did a short lived law on allowing the use of agency staff as cover for striking workers.

Pending legislation in GB on minimum service levels for some public sector strikes looks to be heading on a collision course with the courts and even a putative Labour government in waiting saying they will repeal it if it gets into power.

There is not doubt that employment law reforms of late in GB have moved from tinkering around the fringes to more substantive and politically polarising in nature. All the while Northern Ireland stands on the sidelines with departmental policy options ready to be tabled for whoever nabs the Economy portfolio.

Where will the policy sat nav point? Will it be east to GB for a return to what used to be called the ‘parity pathway’? Or will it be south to the Republic of Ireland with a view to greater regulatory alignment (an expression that has fallen out of favour somewhat from the heady days of post-Brexit negotiations)?

Or will it be North for some Scandi-sense to seek to learn the lessons of how social partnership can work having taken lessons from the days of Haddington Road in the south and the post-Covid economic realities of our time?

A recent slew of Private Members’ Bills in GB has resulted in a yawning gap of new employment rights between employees in GB compared to Northern Ireland in areas as diverse as neo-natal leave, tips and gratuities, requesting more predictable contracts and flexible working arrangements.

So how will the policy gap be filled when our politicians eventually return to the Assembly?

The answer? Oh sorry . . . my sat nav seems to be malfunctioning……

Mark McAllister is director of employment relations services at Labour Relations Agency NI