Raising the Titanic: what Labour must do to protect vulnerable workers. By 2015, the Coalition Government will have transformed the UK’s legal framework for the protection of vulnerable workers. Transformed, that is, in the way that a volcano transformed Pompeii, and an iceberg transformed the Titanic.
The bedrock of the legal framework – protection against unfair dismissal – will have been shattered by the fracking of no-fault settlement offers and a doubling, to two years, of the qualifying period to bring an ET claim. Access to the ET system more generally – to recover unpaid wages, say – will have been narrowed to a slit by the introduction of hefty claimant fees. And the various State enforcement bodies – puny even under the last Labour government – will have been further shrunk by budget cuts or even abolished.
Worse still, no one voted for this ‘transformation’, because in 2010 none of these specific policy changes were set out in the Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestos. Nor did they feature in the Coalition Agreement (PDF).
So it is to be welcomed that the Labour Party has launched a public consultation on ‘protecting vulnerable workers’, in which it seeks policy ideas for the next Labour government (whenever that might be). As I’ve noted here previously, the consultation paper is so light with concrete ideas of its own that it almost floated off my desk. But that presents geeky wonks (and wonky geeks) like me with a fabulous opportunity: we get to ask ourselves, what authentic, empowering policy positions would we like Labour to adopt?
So, here are my starters for ten. And, if you’re reading this and your name’s Jon Cruddas, Chuka Umunna or Ed Miliband, please do note that each of these specific policy proposals comes with no price tag attached – they would each be fiscally neutral.
- Tackle the UK’s chronic problem of low pay, reduce the subsidisation of low-paying employers by tax credits, and ensure that ‘work pays’ by (i) substantially increasing the level of the National Minimum Wage; and (ii) promoting and incentivising payment of the Living Wage, this could include reducing the rate at which Living Wage employers pay National Insurance (and maybe even corporation tax). The Living Wage should become the norm for the public sector, including all private sector procurement supply chains.
- Restore access to the ET system, by replacing the Coalition’s unfair fees regime with one based on a nominal, flat-rate fee for claimants (including a lower, flat-rate fee for each claimant in a multiple claim case) and a ‘losing fee’ for employers found by an ET to have acted unlawfully. I have previously shown how such an alternative fees regime could generate (at least) the same revenue.
- Ensure justice for ET claimants, by using the best debt collection agencies to improve enforcement of unpaid ET awards.
- Restore legal protection against unfair dismissal, by (i) repealing the provisions of the Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Act 2013 on no-fault settlement offers; and (ii) reducing the qualifying period to bring an ET claim from two years, to six months.
- Tackle exploitative ‘flexible working’ practices, by (i) restricting the use of zero-hours contracts; and (ii) closing loopholes in the agency worker regulations.
- Enhance State-led enforcement of workplace rights, by rationalising the remaining statutory enforcement bodies – the HMRC NMW enforcement team, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, and the BIS Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate – into a single Fair Employment Agency, empowered and resourced to work closely with local authority inspectors.
There, that’s my utterly brilliant six-point plan. It could almost fit on a credit card-sized flyer. Better protection for vulnerable workers, better value for money for the taxpayer, a fairer competitive environment for law-abiding employers, and no £X million price tags to provide Daily Mail headline writers with an easy day’s work.
I’ll be exploring some of these ideas in further detail in future blogposts.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.