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.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.