Yesterday’s excellent guest post on the Beecroft report is worthy of a second look, not least because of the potential political and socio-economic ramifications which might ensue if the UK Government adopts its recommendations.
At first glance, this looks like the perfect issue for allowing a coalition divide. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has already dismissed the ideas contained in the report. While the Prime Minister has been offhand about them, his backbenchers are positively slavering at the mouth. When Depute Prime Minister Nick Clegg had the temerity to criticise the proposals, he found himself scoffed at by Lord Beecroft who also denounced Cable as a “socialist who appears to do very little to support business.”
Yet, things are not quite so clearcut as the headlines would have you believe.
Lord Oakeshott, a Lib Dem peer, was on Newsnight last week stating that he had no problem with most of Beecroft’s recommendations, except for the one removing workers’ protection on grounds of dismissal: no fault dismissal was, he said, the “economics of the madhouse“.
So the scene is set for the Lib Dems to make a lot of noise, and then when this key recommendation is dropped or at least, has its sharp edges smoothed, allowing the other proposals to go through, they can claim a moral victory and point to their benign impact on the worst excesses of the Tories.
Other recommendations will also go nowhere, though the Tory backbenchers are likely to use them as a welcome opportunity to highlight unhelpful EU influence and interference over supposedly sovereign matters. Much of what Beecroft proposes – reducing parental leave measures and TUPE requirements – would need EU approval to be implemented, and that is highly unlikely. Expect condemnation along the lines of Europe holding Britain back from the likes of the Daily Mail.
It’s a script that largely writes itself but ignores the wider issues implicit and indeed, explicit in the Beecroft report.
To read Beecroft in its entirety requires a strong drink in hand and lots of deep breathing to get to the end without imploding. Here is class politics at its worst. In sixteen slight pages, Beecroft cuts a swathe through over a century of hard fought and won employee rights and protections.
It is hard to escape the suspicion that dismantling the welfare state, by attacking the poorest, most vulnerable members of our communities, was only the start. Or rather only picking up where Thatcher left off. Now, it’s the turn of the most vulnerable workers – low-skilled, low paid, casual, young and also, women.
A significant number of the recommendations will impact on women, probably more so than men. The exemptions for small business, removal of protections against sex discrimination and harassment, removing the need to conduct equal pay audits after a successful equal pay case, introducing fees and capping awards for tribunals (because many such cases concern wrongful dismissal in pregnancy) – all will hit women particularly hard. And if per chance the changes to TUPE go through, given that these offer greatest protection to the lowest paid in service sector transfers, women are more likely to be caught.
Yet, the objection to these proposals is more fundamental than the practical considerations for particular groups. For they represent a major shift in balance between employees and employers. That balance is a delicate one, with employee rights in the UK already less protected than in many other Western states, but by and large, there is equanimity between workers and bosses.
If these changes are enacted – or even some of them – that balance will shift decisively. Employers will in effect have a “sackers’ charter”, to pinch the phrase used by yesterday’s guest, with employees, especially in small businesses (conversely, one of the biggest employers in the private sector) having very few rights or protections. Beecroft is in effect, calling for a back to the future approach, all in the name of economic growth.
This is a guise. What he is looking for is the ability to squeeze more profit out of business. These measures will not lead to more growth – they are likely to result in less productivity and higher costs. Constantly hiring and firing and managing an inexperienced, surly and miserable workforce actually costs more than looking after employees.
So if the proposals are not going to deliver the aim of enabling much sought after and highly elusive economic growth, what other purpose might they serve? Just like welfare reform, the Beecroft report will assist in a re-ordering of socio-economic norms, where the conditions for inequality will flourish and the sides are clearly demarcated. Trade unions will rightly be preparing to lead their troops into battle, for the old cries which once seemed anachronistic will be back in vogue. Indeed, now would be a very good time to join a trade union.
And as the Tories and the Lib Dems at Westminster demolish, brick by brick, these tangible examples and experiences of Britishness – of the ties that bind – they might want to think on what that does for the constitutional debate. If they take away all the commonalities of what constitutes a compassionate society in which ordinary people have rights and protections and share an identity – that reaches beyond the epithets British and Scottish – then they aren’t offering Scots many reasons to stay in the union.