Enforce workers' rights

NS/Fabian Society Second-Term Agenda - Enforce workers' rights. By Nick Burkitt

Every year, the government makes us check that our cars are not breaking the law, with the MOT test. If our car fails, we don't get fined or sent to prison - we just get told what to do to put it right. We need the same approach for the new rights at work, including the minimum wage, parental leave and paid holiday. There should be an "MOT" (or, rather, a DOE, or Department of Employment test) for employers, overseen by a new, proactive enforcement agency.

The government wants a flexible labour market, but one that is underpinned by an "infrastructure of decency and fairness". It believes that fairness and efficiency can go together at work. But while many employers provide much better terms and conditions than they are required to by law, hundreds of thousands of people do not get even their minimum, basic rights.

Typically, these workers are low-paid and low-skilled. They are often non-unionised, thus vulnerable to exploitation. Typically, they are care and nursing-home staff; hairdressers; bar, hotel and restaurant workers; shop assistants and cleaners. Despite the rhetoric about the knowledge-driven economy, they are growing occupations that will remain significant in the labour market - you cannot get your furniture moved by ISDN, or your hair cut by e-mail. Last year, Citizens Advice Bureaux dealt with 700,000 employment-related cases, and the conciliation service Acas received more than half a million inquiries about employment rights. Many more people go to other organisations, such as the Low Pay Unit.

Workers who are denied one employment right, because they are in a weak bargaining position, tend to miss out on others, too. Many of those who complain about not getting the minimum wage, for example, are also losing out on rights such as holiday and sick pay, itemised payslips and proper breaks.

Some are not aware of their legal entitlements; others have no idea how to enforce them, or fear losing their jobs if they try to do so. Even if a claim for unfair dismissal leads to compensation, the amount is likely to be small, and the worker will still be out of a job. In any case, many workers are daunted by the idea of going to a tribunal. It takes months, it can be very stressful, and it can be as damaging for the worker's future reputation as for the employer's.

Many employers, especially small firms without a personnel specialist, do not know about or fully understand their obligations to their workforce. Some regulations, such as those on working time, are highly complex, while others relate to situations that arise only rarely. In a company with ten employees, a pregnancy will happen, on average, only once a decade. For small employers, especially in low-profitability sectors, it is not worth the time to learn the detail of such employment law.

The solution is not to deprive large numbers of workers of their rights in the name of "cutting red tape". Such employers need help, backed by state resources, to meet their responsibilities. They need information, but also practical assistance.

To ensure that all working people in Britain enjoy the minimum rights guaranteed them by law, and to avoid the growth of destructive and divisive legal disputes, an employment rights enforcement agency should be established.

The Inland Revenue already has a successful enforcement agency for the national minimum wage. Using this model, the new body would act as a neutral auditor to check that employers are meeting their legal obligations to their workforce. Acting on tip-offs and anonymous individual complaints, as well as random "spot checks", the agency would enter a workplace as an advocate of neither employer nor worker.

Where an employer is not meeting its legal obligations - workers not being given paid holiday, part-timers not getting equivalent benefits to full-timers in the same job, or parents being denied parental leave - the enforcement agency would inform the employer and provide guidance on how to rectify the situation.

To minimise the burden on small and low-profitability employers, the agency could put them in touch with support services, including (state-funded) "locum personnel officers", who could help them adopt current best practice and devise effective work-life balance policies. Thus the productivity benefits of more enlightened and sophisticated management practice would be spread to those parts of the economy that tend to miss out on them.

However, if an employer continues to deny workers their rights, the agency would have clear and effective powers to impose financial penalties and, where necessary, to take a worker's case to an employment tribunal or to the courts - just as the minimum wage enforcement agency does now.

The MOT test keeps rickety and dangerous cars off the roads; a new Department of Employment test could do the same for employers.

Nick Burkitt is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research; Richard Dunstan is employment policy officer at the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. This is the seventh in a series of articles, prepared by the NS and the Fabian Society, on ideas for a second Labour term

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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