Lord John Monks is a Backbench Labour Peer and a former General Secretary of the TUC
Today, the Lords will debate two Statutory Instruments (SIs) which reduce, substantially, workers rights. One will increase the qualifying period of employment before protection against unfair dismissal kicks in, from one year to two. The other will remove lay members from serving on most tribunal cases, leaving decisions to be made by a judge alone.
Two to three million people in the UK will lose protection i.e. those with between one and two years service, as a result of the Government’s measures. This weakening will lead to increased insecurity and injustice.
It is also a major step towards making tribunals full courts – an intimidating prospect for most people.
You might have thought that with unemployment levels at a 17 year high, there is a pressing need for the Government to take steps to encourage job creation and security. But the extension of the qualifying period before protection against unfair dismissal will make jobs less secure by handing bad employers carte blanche to do what they will with workers with less than two years service.
This is not a matter of probation. In almost all cases, trial periods to see if a new employee can meet the required standards last one year at most, not two. In any event, if someone fails to reach the required level of competence, it would be a fair dismissal.
So this is no more or no less than a gift to those with poorer employment practices to fire at will during the first two years without risk of legal challenge. It is an unworthy act for a UK Government to proceed in this mean spirited way.
The cut in the role of lay members in tribunals is just as bad. Even employers bodies like the CBI oppose it, recognising that judges are likely to lack direct experience of life in the workplace.
These are amendments to primary law but the Lords cannot, by convention, vote down SIs, however profound the impact. But Ministers are exploiting this convention in order to slide through major legal changes.
And these changes will not be the end of it. There may well be more, for example, to compel tribunal applicants to pay a deposit in order to proceed with a claim; this is one of a number of ideas being canvassed by Adrian Beecroft in a report for the Prime Minister.
If the Government wish to fundamentally change the landscape of this country’s employment rights, they should have the courage to come forward with a Bill and allow Parliament and the public to fully debate the issues.
So let us lay down a marker. Fight these changes which diminish worker rights and vow to make the passage through Parliament as hard as possible.