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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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.