The feeble attempt to shore up support is too late for this anti-worker minister, says Adrian Weir
In a forlorn attempt to distance his party from the employment law polices of the coalition government, Vince Cable has announced a “wide-ranging review” of employment law.
The spin on his speech to his party’s conference suggests that far from being wide ranging, the review would concentrate on the contractual status of workers which would by implication include those on zero-hour contacts.
This is clearly no Pauline conversion on the road to Damascus but a cynical ploy to attempt to shore up any support there may be for the Lib Dems on the centre-left.
Cable has presided over a catalogue of anti-worker measures introduced since 2010 by the coalition. In this he has been supported by two Lib- Dem junior ministers responsible for employment relations, Ed Davey until 2012 and subsequently Jo Swinson.
There can be no evasion of responsibility, no blaming the Tories — all the anti-worker changes to the law have been on Cable’s watch assisted by Lib Dem junior helpers.
Early in life of the coalition, the government:
announced a moratorium on all new domestic regulation for businesses employing fewer than 10 staff, which also applied to employment law.
repealed the planned extension of the right to request flexible working to parents of 17-year-olds
decided not to bring forward the dual discrimination provision in the Equality Act
decided not to extend the right to request time to train to companies with fewer than 250 staff
announced its intention to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board
reviewed the compliance and enforcement arrangements for those employment rights enforced by government.
On Cable’s watch, the government also published the so-called Employers’ Charter, setting out for employers that the law was on their side in such issues as discipline, sickness absence and dismissal.
There was of course no corresponding employees’ charter. Instead in November 2011 Cable announced a 15-point plan to reform employment rights. The headline changes to the law arising from this plan were:
the raising of the qualifying period to two years for unfair dismissal claims
the introduction of fees to take a case to an employment tribunal, firstly lodging a claim and secondly for proceeding to trial. For unfair dismissal there was a £250 issue fee and a £950 hearing fee. The cost of justice if sacked from work is now £1,200
allowing employment judges to sit alone on unfair dismissal cases with no more practical advice from a trade union “winger”
the minimum consultation period when employers propose 100 or more redundancies has been reduced from 90 to 45 days.
Many of the points in Cable’s 15-point plan looked remarkably similar to the proposals made in the secret Beecroft Report drafted for the Prime Minister by the man behind Wonga.com, leading many to ask who was pulling Cable’s strings.
Another case where Cable was shown not to be in total control was the introduction of the so-called “shares for rights” initiative led by Chancellor George Osborne.
This new law allowed employees to be given at least £2,000 in shares in the business, exempt from capital gains tax if they sold.
In return, the employees had to give up their rights on unfair dismissal, statutory redundancy and the right to request flexible working and time off for training.
They would also be required to provide 16 weeks’ notice of a firm date of return from maternity leave, instead of the current eight.
“Rights for shares” has sunk without trace but where was Cable’s voice in opposition to the creation of new form of contractual relationship in employment relations?
The government is ploughing on with its so-called reform of employment law. The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill is at committee stage in the House of Commons and contains the government’s much vaunted, but untrue, claim to deal with exclusivity in zero-hours contracts.
Does Cable need his review of contractual status because he knows this proposed law will not really deal with the problems around zero-hours contracts?
The Deregulation Bill is currently going through the House of Lord, raising particular concerns about the removal of health and safety duties from self-employed people and the removal of an employment tribunal’s power to make wider recommendations.
Cable, Davey and Swinson are complicit in building this bonfire of employment rights, even if their Tory allies were chucking on the petrol. Few, if any, will be fooled by a last-minute review after five years of remorseless attack.