How Osborne's shares for rights scheme has flopped

Only six companies have enquired about the Chancellor's plan to allow workers to give up employment rights in return for shares.

The centrepiece of George Osborne's speech to last year's Conservative conference was his plan for employees to give up their rights in return for acquiring shares in their companies. While losing rights and protections, including unfair dismissal, statutory redundancy pay and the right to request flexible working, they would gain shares worth between £2,000 and £50,000.

The Chancellor said:

This idea is particularly suited to new businesses starting up; and small and medium sized firms. It's a voluntary three way deal. You the company: give your employees shares in the business. You the employee: replace your old rights of unfair dismissal and redundancy with new rights of ownership. And what will the Government do? We'll charge no capital gains tax at all on the profit you make on your shares. Zero percent capital gains tax for these new employee-owners. Let shares and become owners of the company you work for. Owners, workers, and the taxman, all in it together. Workers of the world unite.

The policy was attacked from all sides in parliament, with former Tory Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth describing it as "ill-thought through, confused and muddled", Lord O'Donnell, the former head of the civil service, declaring, "In the old days the price of slavery was 20 or 30 pieces of silver – is it now £2,000?" and crossbencher Lord Billamora memorably warning, "This is not just a dogs's breakfast, this is a mad dog's breakfast". Andrew Adonis noted that "The idea that depriving employees of these basic rights is somehow going to boost growth is not supported by a single employer I have met, let alone [an] employee".

It turns out that the government is having trouble finding any too. With just two months to go until the scheme launches, today's FT reports that only six companies have enquired about it.  The Treasury had expected thousands of employers to sign up, pencilling in lost capital gains tax receipts of £135m in the three years to 2017/18.

Responding for Labour, Chuka Umunna said: "It was a ridiculous policy that had the support of very few people indeed. It was condemned by business and by people on all sides and it should be dumped. I am not at all surprised that it has attracted little interest from businesses who on the whole do not want to rob their employees of their fundamental rights at work."

The government rather optimistically remarked that its "approximate estimate" is that "around 6,000 companies" could choose to use the scheme, adding that "it could be more, it could be less."

In the absence of a 1,000 per cent surge in interest in the next two months, it looks like it will be less.

A member of the PCS union wears a George Osborne face mask at a demonstration on Whitehall on June 27, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.