Grant Shapps's woes grow as he faces investigation

Tory chairman accused of misleading the public with false name will be investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority.

In his capacity as Conservative chairman, Grant Shapps will welcome the media to his party's conference in Birmingham this weekend, so it's unfortunate that he's increasingly a figure of ridicule. As Ed Miliband caustically observed in his conference speech:

We’ve got a Party Chairman who writes books about how to beat the recession, under a false name. Really, I’m not making this up; I’m really not making this up. I mean I have to say if I was Chairman of the Conservative Party, I’d have a false name too.

That false name was "Michael Green" (and/or "Sebastian Fox") and, following a complaint by blogger The Plashing Vole, Shapps is now under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA will respond to claims that Shapps's website, HowToCorp (which now exists only as a help page for existing users), misled the public by implying that  "Sebastian Fox" or "Michael Green" were "real people", and that the glowing testimonies they attracted were "genuine".

Green was presented as a successful businessman with a personal fortune of $28 million (£17 million) who could make customers "$20,000 in 20 days" through the software package, TrafficPaymaster (while also providing a Partridge-esque guide on how to "bounce back" from recession), or offer them their money back. An ASA spokesman told the Vole:

We intend to deal with your complaint under our formal investigations procedure, which means that we will ask HowToCorp to comment on the complaint that the ad misleadingly implies Sebastian Fox or Michael Green are real people, and that the testimonies are not genuine, and to send evidence to support the claims. We will then draft a recommendation and refer your complaint to the ASA council for adjudication.

A spokesman for Shapps, who stepped down from the company in 2008, said: "Mr Shapps hasn't been involved with this company for four and a half years. These websites are no longer online and any blogger can make a spurious complaint about any website, which then has to be investigated. This is in the hands of the ASA."

In the absence of Andrew Mitchell, who has elected to stay away from the Tory gathering, it is Shapps who will be the media's prime target. Of the former, David Davis observed that it would be "very, very difficult" for him to do his job. Could the same now be said of Shapps?

Conservative chairman Grant Shapps adopted the alias "Michael Green" for his internet business HowToCorp. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.