Leading Article: Safe? Wait till the next term

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The Independent Online
WITH house prices rising, inflation under control and unemployment still falling, only a fool would write off the Conservatives' chances of winning the next general election. So, as well as asking what the first Labour government in nearly two decades might be like, we should also consider the nature of a fifth term of Tory government. The signs are alarming. Last week ministers showed that they are unlikely to slacken in what amounts to a crusade against employment rights. Michael Heseltine, it was revealed, proposed to stop sacked workers from taking small businesses to industrial tribunals. The idea was withdrawn - but, if you are one of the nine million people who might be affected, do not breathe a sigh of relief, watch the small print. Mr Heseltine was opposed by Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, who, in the leaked letter which blew the lid on the affair, said that the proposal would be "immensely controversial". Not wrong, note, just controversial, and who wants controversy with an election on the horizon? John Major ruled that nothing should be done just yet. The idea was, according to "Downing Street sources" (ie the Prime Minister's press office), "very much on the back-burner - with the heat turned low". Be sure that the heat would be turned up sharply if the Tories won another five-year term.

The Heseltine proposal is driven by ideology, not economics. There is not the smallest evidence that the prospect of an industrial tribunal case deters significant numbers of employers from taking on workers. The idea that corner newsagents and greengrocers live in mortal fear of such cases is preposterous; it is doubtful that Mr Heseltine could quote a single example of a company ruined by a tribunal award, though he must know perfectly well that slow payment of bills (which he recently advocated) is one of the chief reasons for company bankruptcy. The annual number of cases may have trebled since 1989, but it is still less than 100,000, and about two-thirds of them are settled or dropped without a hearing. Leaving aside sex or race discrimination (a few hundred cases a year), the average award is pounds 3,000.

We should remember why industrial tribunals exist. They acquired their present role when Edward Heath's Tory government legislated to curb the number of strikes. If the right to use collective muscle-power was modified, it was reasoned, employees deserved more legal rights. The aim was to bring the rule of law to industrial relations and the tribunals provided a cheap and speedy way of allowing workers to challenge dismissals that could affect their health and their marriages, as well as their livelihoods. Any law will be abused: no doubt, some tribunal cases are brought by lazy and disruptive ex-employees who deserved the sack. But even the Federation of Small Businesses has conceded that the small employer "does tend to fire first and then think about it".

The implications of putting whole swaths of British industry outside employment law go beyond the small number of cases where dismissals are disputed. In reality, only a small proportion of the workers who are arbitrarily dismissed will ever bother to go to a tribunal: quite apart from the time and expense (there is no legal aid), employees are not, as a rule, anxious to advertise the details of a sacking. But the tribunals' existence is a reminder to employers that their relations with their workers should be governed by proper procedures, not by whim and temper. The law is now virtually the employee's only protection. The important people in unions are no longer the picket-line organisers or the factory-gate orators but the legal experts. Union members pay their subscriptions not to build up strike funds but to build up legal funds. This, the Tories told us, was what they wanted - a country where workers, if they were aggrieved, believed that they would get more from conciliation and law than from open conflict. Yet, far from looking for new ways to coax employees into putting their faith in the legal route (by, for example, adopting the European Social Chapter), they are trying to erode existing rights. Already, rights of access to industrial tribunals are limited to those with two or more years' continuous employment (though this is being challenged through the courts). To continue changing the rules suggests that the Tories' critics were right all along: their true motive was, and is, to put all the aces in the hands of the bosses.