Labour dismisses alleged plan to remove child benefit from parents who refuse MMR jab

The party says the proposal, reportedly considered by Jon Cruddas, is "not part of the policy review" after opponents label it a "jab tax".

After criticism of a policy vacuum, there's been no shortage of announcements from Labour at this year's conference: repeal of the bedroom tax, guaranteed childcare for all primary school children from 8am-6pm, tougher enforcement of the minimum wage (including increasing the fine for non-payment from £5,000 to £50,000), a ban on Atos running Work Capability Assessments and a requirement for all companies to train an apprentice every time they hire a skilled worker from outside the EU.

But here's one idea that it's safe to say wasn't on the grid. Today's Times front page claims that the party is considering plans to remove child benefit from parents who refuse to give their children the MMR jab. It adds that the proposal, currently in place in Australia, is being explored by Jon Cruddas, Labour's policy review coordinator, "as a way of attaching 'conditionality' to benefits and services provided by the state." A source tells the paper: "This is an example of the sort of measure which we want to see that ties public goods to how people behave as citizens".

In view of the low immunisation levels in some areas (more than 1,000 people caught measles in Swansea earlier this year), the proposal might seem reasonable to some, but it's easy to see how it could quickly become politically fraught for Labour. Unlike other measures, designed to ease the "cost of living crisis", here's one that could increase it. Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, a former GP, was quick to brand it a "jab tax".

Labour figures at last night's New Statesman party reacted with bemusement when the policy was mentioned to them, suggesting that only Cruddas (who has warned that Labour would lose the election if his views were translated "into party policy") could account for it.

And the party's press office swiftly kiboshed it last night.

Labour's policy review coordinator Jon Cruddas. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.