How the coalition sneaked through a law making it easier to sack workers

While all eyes were on press regulation, MPs quietly voted to halve the consultation period for redundancies from 90 days to 45.

While the Commons noisily debated press regulation, MPs elsewhere in the House quietly signed away workers' rights. On a delegated legislation committee (a backdoor means of sneaking through contentious amendments), nine Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats voted to reduce the consultation period for collective redundancies from 90 days to 45. 

At present, employers planning to make 100 or more redundancies are legally required to consult with trade unions and other employee representatives for this period to help minimise the impact and seek alternatives to job losses. Unite cites the example of Jaguar Land Rover, which proposed making over 1,000 staff redundant in 2009 but later avoided any job losses after identifying £70m of savings during the consultation.

The reduction to 45 days, based on a proposal in the infamous Beecroft report, means fewer companies will now adopt this enlightened approach. As John McDonnell, one of the seven Labour MPs who voted against the measure (only 18 MPs can sit on the committee), noted: "We know that the reduction to 45 days means that the opportunity for consultation is hopeless. It will not happen and will be meaningless. There will not be the time for the employees to work with the employers to look at alternative plans for that company." 

The Labour leadership is also opposed to the measure. Shadow minister for employment rights Ian Murray said: "Collective redundancies are, or course, one of the most dramatic forms of job loss. That is why the current legislation on collective redundancy is so vital; it allows for particular care to the process of achieving business restructuring, ensuring that employees are involved as much as possible in the decision-making and if job losses are necessary then all employees and their representatives are closely involved."

The change will now come into force on 6 April but you will search in vain for a mention of yesterday's vote in today's papers. 

Unite trade unionists at Unilever's Port Sunlight factory picket outside the main gates of their factory. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear