Unfairly dismissed? Well, speak to your union…

The Beecroft Report commissioned – and apparently supported – by the Head Bullingdon Boy himself, which was leaked originally on Tuesday to the Telegraph, continues to startle.

It is not just that the evidence base for the conclusion is so poor, as revealed by Channel 4’s FactCheck (did No. 10 really pay money for this? And, if so, who paid?). And neither is it the overt prejudice on the issue of workers’ rights from the shurely unlikely source of a venture capitalist who has strong links to the Tories, as revealed today in the Indy. This is, perhaps, the most shocking sign yet of the attack on working people which the Tories are mounting under cover of the state of the economy. Not an unprecedented attack, by any means, but which is startling from the perspective that it is a coalition government that is making it (although the junior partner has squeaked its opposition to the Report). And neither was there any mention of abolishing unfair dismissal laws in the Tory manifesto. No-one, indeed, voted for this.

Two observations, really:

(a) this is a sign of an increasingly confident, not to say arrogantly aggressive, government which feels it needs to pay no attention to protest. This might have been a bit of kite flying to assess public reaction to such a move, but I doubt it: such a piece of kite flying wouldn’t have been attempted by a government that knew it would not get away with it. Consequently, protest actions – like the one on November 30 on pensions in the civil service – need to be supported and the actions themselves need to be stronger if the attacks on working people are not to become even more direct.

(b) unfair dismissal laws were introduced – originally by a Conservative government, ironically enough, albeit in a rather different era of unions’ ability to mount a strikingly successful national campaign of civil disobedience to the law and its machinery – since it was thought by the 1965-1968 Donovan Commission that a law institutionalising unfair dismissal would prevent much of the unofficial strikes over dismissals which it regarded as a major factor in the UK’s low productivity. It is a sign of the times that we now have a new Tory-centred administration which is either ignorant of this or which feels it can simply ignore it on the assumption that strikes are now – and with some exceptions, this week not least – such an apparently invisible part of the industrial relations scene.

The ability of trade unions to take strike action over unfair dismissals, particularly unofficially, might be far removed from policy considerations these days, but the suggestion that things have gone so far that public policy can remove one of the employment rights safeguards whose original intention was actually to reduce the incidence of such action being taken is a novel one. Nevertheless, that’s a manual we will have to dust off again if we are to be able to deal convincingly with the increasing threats which this government is posing to workers’ rights. And, conversely to its aims, dusting off that manual is a move which could be good for us – if, of course, we can remember where we put it. Like the Charter earlier this year, this is something around which we could organise – but ideally locally, actively, rather than nationally.

Back to the future? Only under the Tories…

Marching on together

There are probably as many reasons to march tomorrow as there are cuts. Of all the reasons set out in the megabytes of bandwidth devoted to this, I liked Accidental Academic‘s perhaps the best.

The TUC’s largest mobilisation for decades will see hundreds of thousands on the streets of London demonstrating opposition to the government’s ideologically-driven cuts programme and in support of a better economic alternative. Sadly, I’ll not be among them – for reasons which include a certain indolence in getting myself organised in time; and weekends being sacrosanct, combined with a lot of travel at the minute from my Perthshire eyrie. Both reasons which are insufficient in themselves, and outweighed by the number of reasons why I should be out there. Though I will be there in the spirit (or, otherwise, in the Armchair Army (First Chairbourne Division)).

The False Economy and March for the Alternative websites have done a terrific job in the mobilisation in providing reasons for people to get out there, and the use of Twitter (@March26March) has been terrific in adding a steady drip feed of messages to stiffen resolve and provide backbone. The TUC has dealt well with the organisational and logistical difficulties in rallying this number of people in one place – as have thousands of ordinary trade unionists up and down the land.

Above all, probably, is the simple message that taking billions out of an economy faced with recession – and this week’s OBR report provides more proof that this economy is on the slide, compared to where it was six months ago – is neither sensible nor a strategy. ‘Marching for the alternative’ sounds to me  a campaign theme that it’s been pitched exactly right and it’s clear what the TUC is marching FOR, as opposed to what it is marching AGAINST.

And the campaign theme? Well, James’s Sit Down for me (obviously!); for everyone else: Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up (equally clearly). But for everyone, whether in the armchair army or the mobile marching one, how about dusting off Billy’s Between the Wars? The call for ‘sweet moderation’, when confronted with an ideological onslaught of the simplest, most caustic public-sector-bad, private-sector-good type being exhibited by the Tories and their yellow Tory mates, remains a strongly relevant call to arms for middle Britain.

For those going tomorrow, have a great day: and have a sing out for me! And make it massive (hat-tip: @kmflett).

Mayday! Indeed…

What better place to look for some informed comment on the Tory plans to relocate the May Day bank holiday to later in the year than the TUC’s ToUChstone blog?

Paul Sellers’s post hits all the right notes on the issue, but I also learned – courtesy of ToUChstone commentator Adrian Cruden – that the UK actually came into being, as a result of the Act of Union of 1707, on 1 May. And so it did. What better day indeed to celebrate ‘UK Day’?

(Meanwhile, Adrian has some interesting, and radical, alternative suggestions of his own for a Bank Holiday date later in the year.)

The universal citizen’s pension

Pensions Minister Steve Webb’s plans for a universal citizen’s pension of £140 per week – first broken on Citywire last Friday and confirmed on Monday with a DWP Green Paper due before the end of the year – is an attractive-looking option but, as always, the devil is in the detail.

Nigel at ToUChstone points out that the issues of the cost of the scheme and who pays for it, and unravelling the contracting out aspects (and see also Bryn Davies’s comments on the impact on contracted out pension schemes), present immense practical difficulties while the costs are likely to be well in excess of the suggested savings from abolishing the means testing elements; meanwhile, further leaks about the proposals (that the measure will not be introduced until 2015, by which time the state pension plus means-tested Pension Credit will be well above £140; and that, even then, it will be for new pensioners only) indicate that the gritty reality is likely to fall rather short of the ambitious glory of the headlines.

None of this means that the concept of a citizen’s pension is not worth looking at, while pensions tend to be considered within a long-term time-frame, so a gentle introduction is not completely incredible (though neither did that prevent Beveridge from radical, and rapid, reform to improve state pension provision, and at a time of course when the debt situation was *even* worse). The sheer complexity of the UK’s pensions system also implies a web of difficulties whenever reforms are attempted (and, in this context, today’s announcement of the outcomes of DWP’s review of automatic enrolment appears to be worth at least two cheers).

Even so, a new system with older pensioners on one regime and new ones on another does stretch the bounds of credibility, not least within a system whose essential characteristic is a striving for greater fairness. If greater fairness is not the outcome, any reform looks surely set to fail and, at least this side of the publication of the Green Paper, I can’t see any circumstances in which this reform might, at least under the current government with its, er, obsession with cuts, succeed.

For decent work, stand up…

Today is the International Trade Union Confederation’s World Day for Decent Work 2010; while tonight sees Shappi Khorsandi join Philosophy Football for the TUC’s Stand up for Decent Work event. I’ve joined with a bunch of other bloggers over at Bloggers Unite to celebrate it.

What’s interesting about the Day is that it’s not about standing up for labour rights on behalf of someone else, in some other country – important though that is, too. It is, on the other hand, about standing up for your own rights, right here, in your own country. However, you want to define ‘decent work’, it doesn’t matter – what counts is that you do something to recognise the need to strive for it. And that, at the same time, you call to mind that, all over the globe, other trade unionists are doing the same to move the principle of ‘decent work’ forwards as well.

As trade unionists, we know that no social advance ever falls into your lap – whether it be (more) equal pay, union recognition or decent wages. What we do sometimes forget, however, is that, unless we continue to keep pushing forwards, not only do we not make further gains, we’re also likely to lose the progress that we’ve already made.

As the ConDems make the final preparations for their Spending Review, which will see departmental budgets cut by 25-40%; as call-me-Dave starts to repeat the ‘there is no alternative’ mantra of his Tory predecessor as Prime Minister but one, while his Foreign Secretary starts to retreat into a Little Englander mentality; and as paying for the costs of the crisis is lumped not on those that caused it but on the shoulders of ordinary working people, we need to remember that an alternative worth achieving is one that has to be fought for.

Stand up.

Pensions: going down a bomb in the boardroom

A belated welcome to last week’s publication of the TUC’s annual PensionsWatch survey.

This is a really useful reminder of the true nature of the pensions divide in the UK – not between public sector and private sector, but between the pensions of senior executives and everyone else. Among the findings of the 2010 survey, we find that the value of the average executive pension pot has increased by 11.7%, to £3.8m – a sum that would deliver an annual pension of over a quarter of a million, some 26 times the average occupational pension in payment. Over half of all directors in the survey are in defined benefit schemes (a percentage coverage reached among employees in general in 1983, since which time it has fallen back to less than one-third), even though many such directors retain such provision despite having closed it for many of their staff. And the average contribution into an executive’s defined contribution scheme was 19% – three times the average for shopfloor workers. For executives not in a scheme, the average cash payment was £120,000.

As Brendan Barber pointed out, directors have been in the vanguard of attacking pensions provision in the UK, via its so-called ‘independent‘ pensions commission with the Institute for Economic Affairs, while a more fair and reasonable approach would be one based not just on greater transparency of executive pension arrangements but a common scheme for all in the organisation. Not least since taxpayer support for executive pensions is so huge. The point is not lost on Joanne Segars, of the National Association of Pension Funds, which has ‘real concerns‘ about the issue on the grounds of fairness. Real change, however, is likely to require a somewhat stronger intervention.

On top of today’s research showing that executive bonuses are back to pre-recession levels, the notion that it’s business as usual in the boardroom, regardless of what is going on elsewhere in the economy, is one that increasingly seems to define our modern age.

Equalities challenge to the Budget

The Fawcett Society is seeking a judicial review of the ConDem coalition’s ’emergency’ budget, on the grounds that it is detrimental to women and that the Treasury had not undertaken the required equalities impact assessment.

The Fawcett Society believes that 72% of the cuts proposed in the budget (£5.8bn out of £8bn) will come out of the income of women, since the majority of cuts are to benefits on which women rely while changes to the tax system will benefit more women than men. Given that 65% of public sector workers are women, public sector cuts are also likely to have a disportionate impact in this respect, too.

An equalities impact assessment must be conducted under the law before policy decisions are taken, so that steps can be taken to mitigate any adverse impact identified. However, the Fawcett Society reports that, ‘despite repeated requests’, the Treasury has produced no evidence that such an assessment took place.

The Society may not be successful in getting the whole budget declared unlawful. But the Treasury does need to come up with some proof that it has considered, and sought to mitigate, the impact on women as identified in the Society’s headline figures. Especially in a time of recession, the need for equality must remain a prime consideration and the Treasury needs to be held to account for its apparent failures.

Hat-tip: the TUC’s ToUChstone blog.