Business Secretary Vince Cable, one of the sadder Liberal Democrat barnacles clinging to the hull of the coalition, has launched a ‘call for evidence’ on reforming employment law.
Up for grabs are ideas such as allowing businesses to cut the consultation period for making redundancies from ninety days to just thirty, making it harder for workers to take their employers to an industrial tribunal and the introduction of ‘protected conversations’ between managers and staff. This last means that employers would be allowed to discuss sensitive issues such as retirement or performance with staff without, as Dan Watkins of Contract Law told politics.co.uk this week, ‘fear of their every word being used against them in a tribunal.’
Perish the thought; actually the thought I seem to have had most about ‘protected conversations’ is that like ‘protective custody’ any exercise of power needing to be disguised by a mealy mouthed euphemism is unlikely to be a good thing. As Brendan Barber of the TUC put it ‘protected conversations’ could provide the ‘perfect cover for rogue bosses to bully at whim without fear of being found out.’
Am I the only person out there who thinks this call for evidence seems more like a fishing trip to see what the government can get away with?
If so some of the things they’d like to get away with are very nasty indeed, take for example the proposal put forward by Adrian Beecroft, a big time donor to the Tories, that ‘unproductive’ employees should lose their right to claim unfair dismissal. The Lib Dems managed to kick that idea into the long grass a while ago; I doubt it will stay there though.
The purpose of this assault on hard won rights for working people is dressed up under the dubious term ‘reform’ is, according to Adam Marshall of the British Chambers of Commerce to create a situation where ‘firms won’t have to waste time and money and can focus on running their business and delivering growth.’ Yes, naughty workers always wanting their pesky rights and gobbling up money their bosses could be paying themselves.
Hang on a moment though, will turning the clock back on employment law really kick start the economy? Chukka Umunna, shadow Business Secretary doesn’t think so and told the press this week that ‘watering down people’s rights at work is not a substitute for a credible plan for growth.’ He may have the misfortune to labour under the tag of being the ‘British Obama’ and being named as a potential future leader of a party that has lost its way big time, but on this issue Mr Umunna has a valid point.
There are a great many things the government could do to help businesses, simplifying the tax system in return for companies investing a slice of the money saved in long term job creation; speeding up the planning system for companies that move to areas where jobs are scarce for example. You might notice something about these ideas; they all involve an element of working in partnership; both sides giving a little to meet in a mutually advantageous middle.
That approach is something successful businesses and healthy societies understand implicitly. If the relationship between employers and employees is one of ‘us’ and ‘them’ with both camps armed to the teeth and spoiling for a fight sooner or later everybody loses out.
Anyway should we be dismantling rights for people in work, and for those looking for work thanks to the harshest welfare reforms for decades, in the name of promoting growth; might growth itself be something of a chimera? Natural resources and human capability are finite; the real challenge of the century ahead is to find a way of sharing what we have fairly rather than endlessly chasing after more.
Yet again the government has proved to be drawing its policies from a 1980’s playbook. Demonize the unions, shout at the poor that they just aren’t trying hard enough and attack anything connected to ‘rights’, the public will lap it up; maybe not. Times have changed, if small businesses are going to drive the recovery, and they surely are, then promoting partnership working will matter more than making it easier for bosses to fire staff on a whim.
That the government led by David Cameron can’t see that explains why they can’t some up with a Plan B for the economy and why what we need to get Britain back in business isn’t fewer rights for workers; what we need is a new government.