Osborne's "employee-owner" plan is Beecroft through the back-door

Remember "fire-at-will"? It's back! In co-op form!

George Osborne's plans for an "employee-owner" scheme, announced today, may sound familiar to people who care about employee protections. That's because we've heard much of it before, when it was announced by Tory donor and venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft.

The plan is described by the Treasury as a "new type of contract":

Employees will be given between £2,000 and £50,000 of shares that are exempt from capital gains tax. In exchange, they will give up their UK rights on unfair dismissal, redundancy, and the right to request flexible working and time off for training, and will be required provide 16 weeks’ notice of a firm date of return from maternity leave, instead of the usual 8.

Crucially, while the status is optional "for existing employees", any company can chose to offer only that type of contract for new hires.

In other words, for the princely sum of £2,000 of equity, companies can completely and permanently buy out their employee's protections again unfair dismissal and redundancy, and their rights to flexible working and time off for training, as well as severely curtailing their maternity leave flexibility.

The last time we heard changes to employment law of this magnitude was the publication of the Beecroft report, the raft of employment law reforms suggested in May this year. The report, when published (ahead of schedule, due to leaks), was ridiculed for the complete lack of evidence to support its assertions. Clive Hollick, the co-founder of IPPR, wrote that Beecroft had told him his recommendations were "hearsay", based only on what he had been told, while Helen Lewis spotted that "the words “I” or “my” appear 20 times in 16 pages, while the words “research” or “studies” don’t feature at all."

Shortly after, many of the proposals suggested by Beecroft were implemented by Vince Cable – but not, notably, the fire-at-will provisions, which were blocked by the Liberal Democrats, with Cable saying he was opposed to the "ideological zealots who want to encourage British firms to fire at will".

Five months on, and the proposal is back on the cards. But this time, the government wants the public to think that employers aren't getting something for nothing. Whereas a switch to everyone's employment rights looks rather nasty, a negotiated switch between employers and employees is much fairer. And being paid £2,000 for your rights looks like a downright good deal.

Except it's not. Even if the £2,000 was in cash, upfront, and negotiable, it would still be a comparatively small amount (it is, for instance, less than four week's wage at the median full-time salary, although it stretches further due to its tax-free nature). And the provisions contain a number of measures which make it even more preferable for employers, and less for employees.

The minimum value of the shares required to be given is £2,000, but there is a nasty hidden in that. The Treasury writes:

The Government consultation on the owner-employee contract will include the details of restrictions on forfeiture provisions to ensure that if an owner-employee leaves or is dismissed, the company is not able simply to take the shares back but is able to buy them back at a reasonable price.

The £2,000 in shares the employee holds may be bought back "at a reasonable price" if the company decides to dismiss them. For non-listed companies (precisely the "fast growing small and medium sized companies" at which the initiative is aimed), this price will be extremely hard to determine. And if an employee thinks they've been short-changed, their only option is to take their employer to court; always tricky for someone without a job, and trickier still if the Government's plan to introduce fees for employment tribunals goes ahead.

The new rules are an attempt to introduce Beecroft back in through the back door. For £2k, you will be expected to sell your rights. No wonder Beecroft wrote:

This is a creative and exciting version of proposals that I made in my report.

There is, though, one last twist to the story. Dan Davies, of Crooked Timber, has been tweeting about the other implication of offering up to £50,000 shares tax free: if you're thinking of starting up a private firm, it could let you get away with not paying much tax at all.

The founders of a company rarely need much employee protection; and since they are also the ones who choose how much the shares are "worth", it might be extremely easy to end up owning large proportions of a new company with permanent tax-free status. A similar dodge was used by Mitt Romney; his retirement savings, which could only accept $450,000 in nominal shares during his years at Bain Capital, are now worth over $21m. When you say how much a company is worth, limits don't count for much.

Osborne's crafted a plan which, at a stroke, gives employers the ability to dodge tax on their companies, while dodging the responsibilities they have for towards their employees. It's almost impressive. 

The Old Street roundabout, an area full of tech startups hoping to benefit from Osborne's scheme. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Show Hide image

Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital