Taking the ministerial low road

John Monks_cr.jpgJohn Monks on proposed legislation that will exploit rather than skill up workers

With the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (ERR) Bill now into the committee stages in the Lords (in Grand Committee), Labour are preparing to oppose a series of government proposals to weaken workers’ rights.

Taken individually, the proposals look a bit marginal but add them together and you will see that the ERR Bill is tilting the balance at work significantly towards employers. Vulnerable workers will become more vulnerable.

Ministers’ reasoning is that making workers easier to sack will create jobs. Apparently – although it is news to me – employers would take on more staff if they did not run the risk of having to go to a tribunal in the event of a subsequent dismissal. This view was promoted by a venture capitalist called Adrian Beecroft, the boss of Wonga, the pay- day loans company. Beecroft wanted to allow employers to fire workers for any reason provided they offer a bit of compensation. This proposal was rubbished by Vince Cable yet there are clear signs of its resurrection in the ERR Bill

There is absolutely no evidence in the UK or abroad that fewer rights equal more jobs. What there is evidence for, is that too many British workers lack skills, too many work on old equipment and too many have lower productivity than their counterparts on the other side of the North Sea.

You might have thought that Ministers would concentrate on the skills and productivity deficit in order to get our economy match-fit with the best. Instead, it is showing a green light to employers to lower standards, rather than boost them.

On the specifics, on Wednesday afternoon we will oppose government proposals to expand the scope for claimants to be forced to lay a cash deposit before their case can go to a tribunal. We will also be taking on the Beecroft-style proposal to increase the scope for employers to buy off claims for unfair dismissal. As the law stands, where an employer offers a compromise agreement as a means of resolving a dispute, the subsequent negotiations cannot be considered by a tribunal. Clause 12 aims to make it easier for an employer to offer money and a compromise agreement in return for the worker leaving their employment. This is little more than Beecroft-lite. How can most workers realistically say ‘no’ to such an offer? 

On other provisions to be heard tomorrow, we cannot accept a proposed reduction in the amount of compensation in unfair dismissal cases where the claimant is successful at the tribunal; or a reduction in protection for whistle blowers. Trade union and employer members are to be kicked off most cases at the Employment Appeal Tribunal, just as they have already been marginalised in employment tribunals.

All in all, this is a nasty set of provisions. Once again the government is choosing the low road of exploitation rather than the high road to skills and productivity.

Lord John Monks is a backbench Labour Peer and former General Secretary of the TUC

Published 4th December 2012

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