Want to know the reality of employment law after Brexit? Just look at this document the government buried four years ago

If we leave the EU, the Conservatives have a blueprint for scrapping workers' rights

Hannah Fearn
Thursday 16 June 2016 12:08
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Vince Cable (pictured) was among the Liberal Democrats to criticise the content of Adrian Beecroft's report into changes to employment law
Vince Cable (pictured) was among the Liberal Democrats to criticise the content of Adrian Beecroft's report into changes to employment law

Four years ago, the coalition government published and then buried a controversial report about employment law. It may sound tedious but the contents of the Beecroft report, though written in impenetrable legalese, were anything but.

The short report, first drafted in October 2011 and authored by multimillionaire venture capitalist and Tory donor Adrian Beecroft, set out some shocking ideas about how to get the economy moving and get more people into jobs. Top of the list? Abandoning the concept of unfair dismissal altogether.

Beecroft’s big idea was that employers should be able to sack their staff overnight with no need for an explanation – and there’s nothing the employee would be able to do about.

Admittedly, he accepted this may be political suicide and toned down his thoughts for his final (though nevertheless unpalatable) recommendations. But anger at the suggestion workers’ rights could be stripped away so brazenly on the advice of a man who need not work another day in his life caused a rift in the coalition government.

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Nick Clegg, then deputy prime minister, attacked the report’s recommendations. “I don’t support them and I never have,” he said, “for the simple reason that I have not seen any evidence yet that creating industrial scale insecurity amongst millions of workers is a way of securing new jobs.” Quite right he was and more on that later – but such was the rift that the report never again saw the true light of day.

It was made public in May 2012, partly to quiet the angry debate sparked by those who had already seen a draft behind closed doors, but Vince Cable, then business secretary, did so reluctantly, and added his own caveat: “At a time when workers are proving to be flexible in difficult economic conditions, it would almost certainly be counterproductive to increase fear of dismissal.”

So the policies Beecroft floated were, happily, cast aside by Cameron and his cabinet. And that was the end of that.

Until now.

Much has been said in recent weeks about the risk to workers’ rights if we vote to leave the European Union. Fears that many such rights at work – to equal pay, maternity and paternity leave, paid holiday and so on – are only sustained because the EU upholds them have been pooh-poohed by Leave campaigners. They say British businesses and any future government would never take these basic protections from its citizens.

But what about the current Government, no longer shackled to the Liberal Democrats and freed from the “red tape” of Europe. What would it have in mind? Let’s take another look at that report.

Beecroft stepped back from his wholesale abandonment of unfair dismissal, but called for the introduction of “compensated no fault dismissal” instead. That means an employer can get rid of you at any time, for any reason (or none), quite legally, by granting a minor pay off – as little as one week’s pay for every year of employment.

“The result of this change would be that the onus would then be squarely on the employee to perform well enough for the employer to value them,” he said.

With a rapidly modernising workforce facing the challenges of a digital economy and automation, might we not want to know our employees were expected to retrain us rather than chuck us on the scrap heap whenever it suits them?

Meanwhile, Beecroft suggested, small businesses with less than 10 employees should be allowed to opt out of pension auto-enrolment, the right to request flexible working (and, if we imagine we’ve now left the EU, that would including parental flexible working too), flexible parental leave, equal pay audits and licensing for businesses that employ children.

He also wanted to reduce the consultation period on collective redundancies, and third party harassment legislation which means it is an employer’s responsibility to protect their staff from harassment in the workplace even if it is conducted by customers or other staff. Yet, knowing what we do about mental health and its economic impact, that’s just a sensible extension of other health and safety rules in the workplace.

Of course, as both Cable and Clegg hinted, implementing these policies would have made little economic sense then, in the middle of a recession, and even less in the wake of a Brexit. Reducing workplace security only results in employees, fearing their income is at best precarious, refusing to spend. The economy slows.

And yet here we are. If we vote to leave the EU, we are giving the Government carte blanche to start again when it comes to employment law and rights at work – and a quick glance at the buried Beecroft report shows exactly how far this Tory government, free of both the checks and balances of the EU and the constraints of a coalition agreement, may be willing to go to scrap workplace rights.

It’s not just maternity or holiday pay that’s at risk if we Brexit, it could be your right to a stable job in an economy that respects the hard work of all those that contribute to it, not the desires of wealthy business leaders.

The EU referendum debate has so far been characterised by bias, distortion and exaggeration. So until 23 June we we’re running a series of question and answer features that explain the most important issues in a detailed, dispassionate way to help inform your decision.

What is Brexit and why are we having an EU referendum?

Does the UK need to take more control of its sovereignty?

Could the UK media swing the EU referendum one way or another?

Will the UK benefit from being released from EU laws?

Will we gain or lose rights by leaving the European Union?

Will Brexit mean that Europeans have to leave the UK?

Will leaving the EU lead to the break-up of the UK?

What will happen to immigration if there's Brexit?

Will Brexit make the UK more or less safe?

Will the UK benefit from being released from EU laws?

Will leaving the EU save taxpayers money and mean more money for the NHS?

What will Brexit mean for British tourists booking holidays in the EU?

Will Brexit help or damage the environment?

Will Brexit mean that Europeans have to leave the UK?

What will Brexit mean for British expats in Europe?

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