Employee ownership organisation rejects "employee-owner" plans

"There is no need to dilute the rights of workers in order to grow employee ownership."

The Employee Ownership Organisation, which represents employee-owned businesses "contributing some £30bn to the UK economy each year", has written an open letter to Jo Swinson, the incoming Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs, about the government's plans to introduce a new "employee-owner" status for workers in some businesses. 

Earlier this month, I referred to the plans as "Beecroft through the back-door", and in the intervening time, the actual proposals haven't got any better, while the execution of them has been even worse than expected. The first reading of the bill to introduce the new status happened on the very same day that a consultation into its implementation was launched. Today is the second reading of that bill, while the consultation doesn't even close until 8 November.

No wonder, then, that the EOO is concerned that the measures may tarnish the entire concept of employee ownership. The EOO's Chief Executive, Iain Hasdell, writes in his letter to Swinson that members of his organisation have three concerns:

Firstly, proposed legislation has appeared in a Bill before the Government consultation on the possibility of deploying this model of employee ownership has finished. Indeed it has only just started. Secondly, our Members are very aware that there is no need to dilute the rights of workers in order to grow employee ownership and no data to suggest that doing so would significantly boost the number of employee owners. Indeed all of the evidence is that employee ownership in the UK is growing and the businesses concerned thriving, because they enhance not dilute the working conditions and entitlements of employee owners. Thirdly, the appearance of this measure in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill appears to our Members to be completely disconnected to the recommendations in the Nuttall Review. That Review, as you know, contained a series of recommendations on how to grow employee ownership and none of those recommendations suggested the dilution of worker rights.

If it wasn't clear enough that these measures are a proposal aimed at reducing rather than increasing employees' rights in the workplace, the fact that the  very organisations they are named after are rejecting them ought to be a strong indicator.

Waitrose and John Lewis, Britain's best known employee-owned organisations. 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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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.