For a report that hardly warrants the name – it runs to a bare 16 pages – the document produced by the venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft has caused a rare old kerfuffle. Nor is it even the whole of the report. The offending section argues that employers should have the right to sack someone just because, say, they do not like his, or her, face.
Mr Beecroft had been asked to review employment law, with a view to cutting red tape. His proposal for a no-fault form of dismissal was a response to employers' complaints that current labour legislation makes it too expensive, in time and money, to dispense with workers who are not pulling their weight, while not doing anything so bad as to justify summary dismissal.
That so many voices have been raised against such a change is hardly surprising. The objections not only reflect fears that decades of progressive, labour-protection legislation could be reversed, they are also born of a sense of natural justice. The notion that an employer could hire and fire at will, leaving someone with no job and no redress is profoundly unsettling for any employee – doubly so at a time when steady work is, in many places, so hard to find.
But the hue and cry about the Beecroft report reflects something else as well: a shrewd calculation of political advantage. One big winner is Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, who claimed bragging rights even before the report was published. All credit was due to them, they said, for stopping the dismissal proposals in their tracks. Vulnerable, since entering the Coalition, to charges of selling their liberal soul, the Liberal Democrats could suddenly present themselves as defending the barricades on behalf of the workers. The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, declared the proposals "the wrong approach" and "nonsense".
When Mr Beecroft himself came out fighting, attacking Mr Clegg for "threatening to go nuclear and dissolve the whole thing if he doesn't get his way" and Mr Cable for being a "socialist" and "one of the left", the Liberal Democrats were like cats with the cream. They will surely take the kudos with them into their next election manifesto – and Messrs Clegg and Cable can add lines of honour to their CVs. Forcing the Government to admit at the outset that no-fault dismissal was essentially going nowhere was indeed a giant feather in their cap.
No wonder that the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, sought a part of the action at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday. He could hardly allow his party, as the constituency of organised labour, to stand aside while the Liberal Democrats basked alone in the glory. So it was that Mr Miliband denounced the no-fault dismissal proposals as "bonkers" and evidence that the "nasty party" was back. Not for the first time in recent weeks, Mr Cameron was defensive.
As well he might have been. For two questions arise from the Beecroft furore that go beyond all the party political point-scoring. The first is how a Conservative Party donor and venture capitalist, however successful, comes so close to making government policy. Thank goodness, it might be said, Mr Cameron fell short of an overall majority. The second is how many of Mr Beecroft's proposals may yet proceed under cover of the dismissal row.
Not all are undesirable: they include simplified procedures for employers trying to establish whether migrants may legally work, a provision enabling individuals to combine small pension pots from different jobs, and no charges for CRB checks. There can be little doubt that business whose growth will provide most of the new jobs the country so badly needs would benefit from less of this sort of red tape, as would their employees. But there is red tape, and there is necessary regulation. The Beecroft proposals, positive and negative, need a wider airing than, in the present climate, they are likely to get.