Are there really no votes in employment rights?

So, the longest general election campaign in history – it surely started at least 12 months ago – has at last reached its final phase, with the three main political parties publishing their manifestos over a frantic three days at the start of this week. This blog’s founder, the fantabulous Sean Jones QC, has put his sanity at risk (so that you don’t have to) by ploughing through their combined 330 pages and documenting every last relevant policy commitment in the Hard Labour Guide to #ukemplaw Election Pledges. But I can’t resist adding a bit of (highly) subjective commentary.

Overall, it’s hard to avoid concluding that all three main parties see no great electoral advantage in trying to improve the working lives of some 30 million people. In 330 pages, there is just one mention of ‘flexible working’, and even that is just a reference (by the Lib Dems) to the Coalition’s extension of the right to request FW in 2014. Labour and the Liberal Democrats each use the word ‘exploitation’ in relation to workers just once, and the Tories four times – but five of those six uses of the word are in relation to migrant workers. Zero-hours contracts get six mentions by Labour, two by the Liberal Democrats, and one by the Tories, but there are no new ideas on how to tackle the exploitative use of such contracts. Despite the Coalition having handed the EHRC £1m to investigate “systemic” maternity discrimination, the issue gets just one brief mention (by Labour). And there is no mention anywhere of unfair dismissal.

Disappointingly, there is no space in the Liberal Democrats’ whopping, 160-page tome for Vince Cable’s October 2014 promise of a new Workers’ Rights Agency to “revamp efforts to enforce employment law and tackle the exploitation of workers” by combining the remits of “the minimum wage enforcement section of HMRC, the working time directive section at the Health & Safety Executive, the BIS Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, and the GLA.” Perhaps I shouldn’t have pointed out that this was my idea. [Since I wrote this post, Jo Swinson has responded to a tweet from Sean Jones, saying “the idea still there” – ‘there’ presumably being the inside of Vince Cable’s head.]

Regular readers of this blog – hello David, Gem, Michael, Paul and Peter! – will not be surprised to hear that the first object of my skim reading was the issue of employment tribunal fees. The Tories let the cat out of the bag by claiming credit for “reducing the burden of employment law through our successful tribunal reforms” – that’s not what they said about their hefty, upfront fees at the time – and Labour can only find space for a tweaked, two-sentence version of the pledge previously set out in its Manifesto for Work:

The Conservatives have introduced fees of up to £1,200 for employment tribunal claimants, creating a significant barrier to workplace justice. We will abolish the Government’s employment tribunal fee system as part of wider reforms to make sure that affordability is not a barrier to workers having proper access to justice, employers get a quicker resolution, and the costs to the tax payer do not rise.

However, as noted previously on this blog, this raises at least as many questions as it answers. And note that the Manifesto for Work’s “costs to the taxpayer are controlled” has mutated to the arguably more restrictive “do not rise”.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats are even more parsimonious on the subject of what their BIS employment relations minister, Jo Swinson, recently described as “one of the most high-profile debates around employment law in the last Parliament”. Their manifesto manages just a wishy-washy half sentence:

We will improve the enforcement of employment rights, reviewing employment tribunal fees to ensure they are not a barrier.

Whoopie doo. The Liberal Democrats devote more space to a promise of legal protection for bumblebee nests. Clearly, worker bees are more important than workers to a Liberal Democrat economy.

On the plus side, all three parties pledge to work to close the gender pay gap. The Tories say they “want to see full, genuine gender equality. The gender pay gap is the lowest on record, but we want to reduce it further and will push business to do so: we will require companies with more than 250 employees to publish the difference between the average pay of their male and female employees”. Similarly, a Labour government would “go further in reducing discrimination against women, requiring large companies to publish their gender pay gap and strengthening the law against maternity discrimination” – though there’s no indication of how they would do the latter. The Liberal Democrats only have enough space to say they would “work to end the gender pay gap, including with new rules on gender pay transparency”. The voting public could be forgiven for not realising that  little if any of this is new, mandatory gender pay gap reporting having been one of the last actions of the Coalition.

More positively, all three parties commit to the national minimum wage, and it’s especially heartening to see the Tories confirm they “strongly support the [NMW] and want to see further real-terms increases in the next Parliament”. They go on to expose the pathetic timidity of Labour’s promise of £8 per hour from October 2019, by stating: “We accept the recommendation of the Low Pay Commission that the [NMW rate] should rise to £6.70 this autumn, on course for a [rate] that will be over £8 by the end of the decade”. This is accompanied by a pledge to increase the tax-free Personal Allowance from £10,600 to £12,500, so that “those working 30 hours on the minimum wage pay no Income Tax”.

However,  as the FT’s John McDermott notes, this pledge is “less than it seems”, as a minimum wage rate of £8 per hour by the end of the decade would mean £12,480 per year for a worker on 30 hours per week. So, “give or take £20, [a Personal Allowance of £12,500] won’t make any tangible difference”. In any case, most workers on the minimum wage work fewer than 30 hours per week, so already pay very little if any Income Tax. And then there’s National Insurance.

Much the same can be said of the Tories’ other eye-catching move to outbid Labour’s core childcare offer (an expansion of “free childcare from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents of three and four-year-olds, paid for with an increase in the bank levy”) with a pledge to “give families where all parents are working an entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare for their three and four year-olds”. This pledge is costed at £350m, which sounds too good to be true – and it is. As Sarah Hayward, leader of Camden council, points out in a splendid demolition job, the Tories have previously ‘costed’ Labour’s less ambitious pledge at £1.5bn (Labour’s own figure is £800m). So, to deliver 50% more extra hours than Labour for just £350m, “the quality of the childcare would need to be so appalling that no right-minded parent would ever subject their child to it”.

Elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats re-iterate their offer of an extra four weeks of paternity leave, but only at the current, lousy rate of pay (£138 per week, or just 60% of the NMW), and Labour repeats its February 2015 pledge of an extra two weeks, paid at a much more respectable £260 per week. And, in Labour’s separate Manifesto for Women, issued two days after the main event, there is an interesting promise to “consult on allowing grandparents who want to be more involved in caring for their grandchildren to share in parents’ unpaid parental leave, enabling them to take time off work without fear of losing their job”. This has been welcomed by the CBI, and represents a significant and well-deserved win for Grandparents Plus, which has mounted a sustained campaign on the issue.

And that’s about it. I just hope that, in 2020, at least some of the political parties will bear in mind the axiom that less is more. Because I just don’t think Sean Jones could survive 330 pages again.

3 thoughts on “Are there really no votes in employment rights?

  1. Having spent several years bringing claims against the Home Office I can confirm that it is far and away the most fundamentally incompetent organisation I have ever encountered. Someone at Tsol once told me they are forced to do a stretch there.

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