Your rights at work versus the coalition. (2024)

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David Cameron's government has come under criticism for itsdisastrous public sector and health policies. Less well known, however,are the significant changes it is introducing to our employment rights,and rights to claim for injury. The significance of these changes shouldnot be underestimated. Taken collectively they represent an enormouschange and are uncontrovertibly the greatest attack on individuals'rights to claim against wrongdoers Britain has ever seen.

When elected in 2010, the government announced a parliament-longreview of employment rights, soon followed by a decision to underminelegal aid; so-called 'no win no fee' arrangements, the abilityto recover some compensation following criminal injury and health andsafety.

The employment rights review--which this article focuses on--hasbeen charged with examining every major piece of employment legislation,with the aim to simplify it and removing what the government views as'gold-plating'. The review has been linked to other policyinitiatives such as the so-called 'red tape challenge', wherecompanies are encouraged to nominate laws that they would like removed.

Thus far, the review has concentrated on several key themes:reductions in rights at work, including unfair dismissal, the Transferof Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE) andcollective redundancy; deregulating workplace health and safety; majorchanges to the tribunal system; and reductions in government enforcementactivity. None of these changes have had any benefit to workers, withrights stripped back and restitutional justice removed.

Making it easier to sack you

The government seems particularly obsessed with making it easier tosack people. The qualifying period for unfair dismissal has been movedfrom one year to two years. Consultation periods for collectiveredundancy have been reduced and the maximum award for unfair dismissalclaims has been cut. In addition, new rights have been introduced foremployers to offer 'settlement agreements' to employees (withor without any formal dispute) to pay off workers. These are covered by'protected conversation', which cannot be used in evidence ata tribunal--of particular concern, for example, in unfair dismissal orbullying cases. The latter could be of major significance in the NHS,undermining the Francis report's recommendations aboutwhistle-blowing and reinforcing the culture of bullying and fear thatUnite members are so often reporting.

Many of these ideas have been derived from a secret report (nowleaked) by Adrian Beecroft, an adviser to David Cameron and the privateequity capitalist behind payday loan company Wonga. Others, like GeorgeOsborne's conference announcement of a new 'employee-ownerstatus', seem to be pulled out of the hat for a cheap headline.

Employee-owner status is now included in the Growth andInfrastructure Act, 2013 and allows companies to offer employees tokenamounts of shares in return for giving up their rights to unfairdismissal payments and statutory redundancy, among others. Iain Hasdell,CEO of the Employee Ownership Association, dismisses this idea, arguing,'There is absolutely no need to dilute the rights of workers inorder to grow employee ownership and no data to suggest that doing sowould significantly boost employee ownership.' While even JohnCridland, CBI Director General described it as 'a niche idea andnot relevant to all businesses'.

At the same time, pay has been under attack with public sector payfreezes and caps, real-term cuts to the national minimum wage and theabolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. The government has cut backand reconfigured its employment rights enforcement agencies such as theHealth and Safety Executive, Gangmasters Licensing Authority and theEmployment Agency Standards Inspectorate--some of which are now underthreat of abolition.

The government has refused to implement the Equality Act in full,diluting the equality duty, and removing legal requirements onsocio-economic inequality as well as legislation on third partyharassment and combined discrimination. They have also severelyundermined the Equality and Human Rights Commission, redefining its roleand cutting its resources.

Health and safety

Health and safety protections have come under particular scrutiny,with David Cameron promising to 'kill off the health and safetyculture for good'. This follows an arbitrary public commitment to'scrap or improve 85% of health and safety regulation',including removing the self-employed from many health and safetyprotections altogether. Regulatory activity has been significantly cutback with proactive inspections by health and safety regulators beinglimited to some so-called 'higher risk' workplaces.

Changes to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme will deprivelarge numbers of people of any compensation for injuries atwork--particularly arising from violence--which will be of particularconcern to health visitors and other health professionals.

In addition, the effect of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act2013 will be to prevent claims for personal injury compensation againstan employer in the civil courts arising from a breach of health andsafety regulations (which are criminal legislation). Rather than beingable to rely on breach of the regulations, generally the worker will nowhave to rely on negligence to prove their case against their employer.

Access to justice

This last issue emphasises the other major theme of thegovernment's reforms--reducing access to justice through changes tothe employment tribunal (ET) system. Of particular note is theintroduction of fees for lodging tribunal claims and proceeding to trialat a minimum of 390 [pounds sterling] (eg, for non-payment of wages) andas much as 1,200 [pounds sterling] (eg, for unfair dismissal) upfront.This will act as a major disincentive to many from even thinking aboutraising a claim, given that there are no guarantees of winning(currently around 30%) and the risk that an employer will simply refuseto pay if they lose (according to the Ministry of Justice 49% of all ETawards go unpaid without further enforcement). This attack on access tojustice is further confounded by the substantial cuts to legal aid thathave been brought in and the effects this is having on community legaladvice services such as the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Attack on trade unions

While those who are a member of a trade union, like many in theNHS, will be better protected, it is no coincidence that the governmenthas also spearheaded a growing attack on trade unions and facility timefor trade union representatives. This has become increasinglysignificant in the civil service and local government, but is also nowentering NHS employment practice with NHS unions facing derecognition inmany parts of the country. Such attacks to access to justice remind usthat rights without remedy are no rights at all.

What does this mean for you?

Plain and simple, many of these changes could directly affect youand your colleagues in the near future, particular with the rapid growthof outsourcing and subcontracting brought on by the Health and SocialCare Act 2012. Some of the proposals under discussion are explicitlybeing linked to the government's public service agenda. Forexample, the proposals under consultation about TUPE legislation--legalprotections for your contractual terms and conditions should you beoutsourced, privatised or transferred to a new employer--explicitly citethe need to water down collective agreements such as Agenda for Changeto make public services contracts more appealing to the private sector.

These changes will have an enormous impact on all our lives at workyet, as with the Health and Social Care Act, neither the Tories nor theLib Dems mentioned these plans in their manifesto. This government isgunning for the NHS and its staff, reorganising it and cutting back onyour terms and conditions. Without rights at work it will be moredifficult to stop them--we need to spread the word.

To find out more visit:

James Lazou

Research Officer


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Your rights at work versus the coalition. (2024)


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