Latest employment regulations - what do they mean for your business?

With the start of the new financial year, businesses across the country have had to take on board a raft of new regulations. Although rules and thresholds tend to change every April, it seems as though this year has seen a particularly large batch of changes with which firms will have to contend.

As well as a number of new financial regulations, businesses of every size must acquaint themselves with significant updates to employment law. Some major changes came into force on 6 April, and virtually every small business will be affected at some point in the future. As a business owner, you have a responsibility to understand the new rules and to ensure that your firm follows them.

Time off to train

As of 6 April, employees will have a legal right to request time off work to train in businesses with 250 more more employees. This right will be enjoyed by any worker with more than 26 weeks’ service, although not agency workers.

Businesses of all sizes must offer this scheme from April 2011.

The scheme means employees may take part in any training that increases their productivity and directly benefits the employer’s business. As an employer, you can refuse a request if the training in question will not be of use to your business – but it is important to note that no formal qualification needs to be given at the end of the training for an employee to qualify for time off.

Most employers are likely to pay workers on the days that they are training. But if you choose not to pay their regular daily wage, you are still legally obliged to ensure that they receive at least the National Minimum Wage.

More information on ‘Time to train’ scheme

Fit notes

In an effort to reduce the amount of money that businesses lose as a result of sickness leave, the government has replaced the old sick note system with the Statement of Fitness to Work – known as the ‘fit note’.

Rather than GPs simply providing evidence that an employee is unwell, they will now be required to fill out a form giving more detailed information about the state of the employee’s health. GPs will be able to state that the employee “may be fit for work” – meaning that they may be able to complete some of their job requirements, or may be able to work altered hours.

You are not obliged to make changes to working arrangements unless they will help the employee return to work. But, of course, it is probably good business sense to accommodate any reasonable request if it means that you will get your employee back more quickly.

You should also pay particular attention in cases where an illness or accident results in disability or a chronic condition. In these cases you are legally obliged to make any “reasonable adjustments” to environment or arrangements to ensure that they can continue to work.

More information about the ‘Fit note’ rules

Paternity leave changes

Male employees expecting the birth or adoption of a child on or after 3 April 2011 are now entitled to extra paternity leave and paternity pay. This is part of the government’s attempts to reduce the impact of childbirth and childcare on the mother’s career.

Mothers can now transfer part of their maternity leave to the father or civil partner. Up to six months’ worth of leave can be transferred, and this can also occur when the baby is between the ages of 20 months and 1 year.

As employees become aware of this dramatic change to the legislation, it is likely that take-up will increase. As such, depending on the nature of your workforce you may need to have contingencies in place to replace male members of staff who would otherwise not be absent. You should also update your official maternity and paternity leave policies in line with the new developments.

More information about paternity leave

Other developments

The start of the new financial year also saw a range of other important changes to laws and regulations. Amongst the most likely to have an impact on SME owners are the new 50 per cent tax rate for those earning over £150,000, and the tapered reduction in the personal allowance for those earning over £100,000. Business owners should also be aware of the dramatic increase in the maximum penalties for breaches of the Data Protection Act; SMEs can now be fined up to £500,000 in the worst cases.

Read our article on the Data Protection Act and the key responsibilities for small businesses.

As an employer it is vital that you keep up with developments in the law. If you fail to do so, you run the very real risk of falling foul of it and ending up at tribunal. If you need personalised advice you should always speak to a reputable employment lawyer.