The Battle of Beecroft ... to be continued?

Tories suspect consultation is a Lib Dem ploy to shelve plans to scrap some employment protection.

Is the government going to press ahead with plans to allow small businesses to "fire at will" or not? It was the most controversial recommendation in the Beecroft review - a Tory-commissioned report into reforms to employment law - and one that was fiercely resisted by the Liberal Democrats. They argued that a measure likely to make people feel insecure in their jobs would dampen confidence and discourage spending, slowing the economy down further. (They also recognised that it might just make the government look mean.) The Tories are generally persuaded that firms are reluctant to hire if they can't then easily sack under-performing staff. Earlier this week Business Secretary Vince Cable announced that a number of measures to loosen employment protection might indeed be implemented.

This has been reported as a humiliating defeat for the Lib Dems.

In fact the story is more complicated. Cable and Ed Davey, his fellow Lib Dem minister in the Business department, have always been quite sympathetic to the "supply side" case for labour market liberalisation. But the Lib Dem leadership thought "no fault dismissal" was going too far. There has been some pretty ferocious briefing against Beecroft's plan, which aides to Nick Clegg have been quietly denouncing as a shoddy piece of work, commissioned as a favour to a Tory donor (venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft) and, politically speaking, a bit nuts. Have they lost this argument in the "quad" - the foursome of top ministers that runs the coalition? On closer inspection, the Beecroft proposals are mostly being put out for wider consultation. Cable has agreed to "look at the evidence". Some Tories are suspicious that this is a Lib Dem ruse to kick Beecroft into the long grass. David Cameron is known to have a short attention span and the suspicion is that, once the Autumn Statement on the economy is out of the way and some other big events have come along to distract the prime minister - as is inevitable - the fire-at-will idea can be quietly shelved. This, some Tories mutter, is a classic Lib Dem tactic in the coalition. They cite as evidence the way Cameron's tough rhetoric after the summer riots was talked down by Lib Dems and eventually came to nothing. Rightwing Tories accuse the Lib Dems of using the endless demands on the PM's time and his tendency not to concentrate on one thing for long to filibuster ideas off Downing Street's agenda. So the Battle of Beecroft goes on.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.