Having said that, we have yet to see what the main parties’ election manifestos will promise - and most commentators agree that the next general election will give a higher prominence to employment issues than any since the heyday of Mrs Thatcher. So we aren’t out of the woods yet.
What do we know about the legislative agenda for 2005? There are a number of developments that could affect employers in the grocery industry, including the Road Transport (Working Time) Regulations in March, affecting working hours for hauliers and others in the logistics business, and a raft of changes to statutory maternity, paternity and adoption pay due in April, which will be relevant to employers across the sector.
In April there will also be the introduction of new regulations on information and consultation, giving a range of new rights to employees, as well as new regulations protecting people’s pensions rights in business transfers and new forms for handling tribunal claims. It may sound like a minor technical point, but any employer who attempts to defend a tribunal claim using an old-style form after April 6 will see their response disallowed, regardless of its merits.
Looking further forward, the rules on sexual harassment and sexual discrimination are going to be tightened up further come this October.
But the biggest issue in employment law in 2005 is likely to be age.
Even though the actual legislation banning ageism in the UK is not due to come into force until October 2006 at the earliest, the government will be consulting employers and other interested parties during 2005, and the countdown has now begun in earnest.
If you want confirmation, witness last month’s decision to allow a mandatory retirement age of 65, with a review in 2011, when next year’s law will come into force.
This represented a significant concession by the government - at one stage most commentators expected mandatory retirement to be abolished altogether or fixed at the higher age of 70 - and was understandably welcomed by employers’ representatives.
Campaigning bodies such as the TUC, though, were disappointed by the decision, while Age Concern denounced it as a “cowardly u-turn”.
It doesn’t mean employees have to retire at 65. They will still be able to request the right to carry on working past that point if they wish.
And, as with the current flexible working rules, employers will only be able to refuse such a request if there are sound business reasons why that wouldn’t be appropriate.
That is the theory, anyway - lawyers are already questioning just how much employment protection workers over the age of 65 would actually enjoy. It all smacks of a missed opportunity. Older workers are going to be an increasingly important resource for the grocery industry in future, thanks to our greying population and the shrinking numbers of younger workers.
The food and drink industry already has a high proportion of older people in its workforce.
Setting a mandatory retirement age suggests that employees, like the goods they produce or sell, have a best before date, and that’s a waste of talent that we can no longer afford.