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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.