London, United Kingdom. 3rd August 2013 — People hold placards in Oxford St London protest against use of zero-hours contracts for more than 85 percent of Sports Direct workforce.
Could you live on a zero-hours contract? David Cameron was forced to admit, during his grilling by Jeremy Paxman, that he couldn’t. But 1.4 million Britons do. Some out of choice, some through necessity. But the latest attempts by the main parties to tackle the injustices of zero-hours contracts fail to get to the heart of the problem – which has nothing to do with a need for ‘flexibility’ and everything to do with dodging tax.
Many of us might be horrified at the thought of not knowing when our next pay cheque will be coming and how much it will be, but large numbers of people on zero-hours contracts are perfectly happy without that job security. Surveys…
With a general election looming ever larger on the political horizon, the main parties are now unveiling the policies they think will secure them victory.
The economy, immigration and benefits are among the battlegrounds which they will be fighting over in the next four months.
Another is the heavily unionised public sector which has undergone swingeing cuts since the Coalition Government came to office in May 2010 and historically has been the favoured whipping boy of the Tory party.
And so when David Cameron’s party revealed plans to make it harder to call strikes in certain “core” public services if it wins the general election, it came as no surprise.
A policy along those lines, after all, was floated last year by Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster general Francis Maude.
There was also no surprise in its backing by the employers organisations the CBI and the British Chamber of Commerce, or in its universal condemnation by members of the TUC.
Yet, while certain sections of the media need no invitation to attack the public sector, and its day of action last year caused discomfort and annoyance amongst the public – not least the sight of rubbish piling high in places like Newcastle – it is still a risky strategy.
For a start, it opens the Government up to accusations of hypocrisy and double standards.
After all, the present Coalition Government is made up of the Lib Dems and Tories who between them received 38% of the total number of the UK’s eligible voters – 18m out of 45.5m – and below the 40% threshold it wants to demand of the public sector it is targeting. The Tory share of this was 23%.
In her heyday , Margaret Thatcher won around 30% of the total available vote and, during the present parliament, the Tories voted down a Lib Dem motion to introduced an alternative voting scheme which arguably would have made parliament more representative of the people’s views.
Meanwhile, GMB general secretary Paul Kenny also got his calculator out to further hammer home the point. He said:
“Only 16 out of 650 elected Members of Parliament secured the support of 40% of those entitled to vote in their parliamentary constituency area election in 2010.
“Only 15 Tory MPs out of 303 secured that level of support. They had no hesitation in forming a government in 2010 without securing 40% support from the electorate.”
Another point is that, particularly in the North East, the public sector which employs many in the region, is not as hated as the Tories might think. So such a policy strategy could be a vote loser here.
Gill Hale, regional secretary of Unison in the North East, said:
“They are the anti-public sector party – you only have to see what they are doing to the NHS and what they have already done to local government.
“Industrial action is taken as a last resort, and when we’ve had to take it we’ve had very good public support. I don’t think it will be a vote winner.”
Meanwhile comments by Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable, in which he denounced the plans as “brutal” and “ill-conceived”, echo those of Ms Hale.
He said the Conservative proposals were “entirely ideologically-led and a brutal attempt to strangle the basic rights of working people in this country”.
Mr Cable added that a 40% threshold would be “odd”, when MPs do not have to overcome such a high hurdle to be elected.
Under the plans, a strike affecting health, transport, fire services or schools would need the backing of 40% of eligible union members.
Currently, a strike is valid if backed by a simple majority of those balloted.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC says the Conservatives’ proposals would have “profound implications” for civil liberties.
They would also end a ban on using agency staff to cover for striking workers, impose a three-month time limit after a ballot for action to take place and curbs on picketing.
The package of measures will feature in the party’s manifesto for May’s general election.
In explaining the plan, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said a planned London bus strike set to take place on Tuesday had only been voted for by 16% of people entitled to take part in the ballot, and called the walk-out “ridiculous”.
“I think before a strike is allowed to go ahead it must havemuch more support from the union members and cannot be called by politicised union leaders,” he said.
But Ms O’Grady said that participation in strike ballots and other types of vote should be improved by introducing online voting, in “safe and secure balloting”.
At the moment, strikes can only be called based on the results of a postal ballot – which “don’t do the job”, Ms O’Grady added.
She said the government “continues to oppose this proposition”, although Mr McLoughlin replied he would be willing to talk “in more detail” about such proposals.
However, his partner in the Coalition Government, Mr Cable, goes further.
He said: “If there is to be trade union reform, it should be to allow electronic voting in ballots which would improve the turnout and legitimacy of polls.”
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said the Conservative Party’s proposed changes would have a “chilling” effect, and added the way to “resolve disputes was through negotiations – not to intimidate and silence by legislation”.
Ministers have repeatedly clashed with trade unions over pay – with a 1% cap on increases in the public sector – as well as changes to pensions and retirement ages.
It was during the day of action last summer when hundreds of thousands of public sector workers took part in a day of strike action across the UK, that Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “time to legislate”.
But Ms Hale added:
“We already have some of the most draconian laws in Europe regarding industrial action. There are so many obstacles we have to get over.”
However, Mr McLoughlin said:
“It is wrong that politicised union leaders can hold the country to ransom with demands that only a small percentage of their members voted for. That causes misery to millions of people; and it costs our economy too.”
He said the changes, which would be introduced in the first session of a Conservative-led Parliament, would “increase the legitimacy” of strike action held by unions.
“It is only fair that the rights of unions are balanced with the rights of hard-working taxpayers who rely on key public services.”
CBI deputy director general Katja Hall commented:
“Strikes should always be the result of a clear, positive decision by those balloted. The introduction of a threshold is an important – but fair – step to rebalance the interests of employers, employees, the public and the rights of trade unions.”
However, the TUC has previously said imposing a minimum turnout would leave unions with “about as much power as Oliver Twist”.
Labour criticised those plans as “desperate stuff”.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said the proposed measures would make it virtually impossible for anyone in the public sector to go on strike and would shift the balance completely in favour of the government and employers, and away from dedicated public servants.
He said: “The UK already has tough laws on strikes – there is no need to make them stricter still.”
But John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “In the eyes of businesses large and small, these proposals have merit, as they would help ensure essential services and the freedom to work in the event of strike action.”
Staff from City Link’s Gateshead and Durham depots have been told to “go on Facebook” to find a new job.
More than 2,350 workers were made redundant. including many of the company’s 101 North East employees, after an 11th hour rescue bid failed.
And now Business Secretary Vince Cable – who unions had criticised for not doing more to stop the company’s collapse – has told warehouse staff and delivery drivers to search social media for work.
“The Government has put arrangements in place to help employees who are made redundant and we stand ready to help,” Mr Cable said.
“City Link employees and self-employed drivers who have their contracts terminated as a result of City Link’s administration will be able to access the Government’s rapid response service, which draws together local partners such as Jobcentre Plus and the skills bodies to deliver support for each person affected.
> Watch out for the sanctions, lads. Now you are unemployed you automatically become scum and will be treated accordingly.
“In addition, a Facebook page has been set-up to link-up companies holding suitable vacancies with those who have been made redundant, so if drivers can be redeployed into new jobs in this competitive buoyant market they will be.”
> So get ready to grab another self-employed or otherwise unstable job opportunity with another poorly-managed company.
Reacting to the redundancies, RMT general secretary Mick Cash said:
“The City Link Christmas destruction is an act of industrial vandalism that shames our nation while the Government looked on and offered nothing but hollow words.”
Mr Cash had earlier disclosed details of a possible rescue, saying they had been “made aware of what we believe to be a credible bid to take over some or all of the City Link trading operation”.
But the administrators said that the offer they had received “offered no money up front and significantly undervalued the assets to be acquired.”
In total 2,356 City Link redundancies were announced on New Year’s Eve – however there are still 30,000 parcels waiting to be collected from City Link depots, which stopped accepting new items on Christmas Eve, and 371 people have been kept on to deal with remaining parcels and to assist in winding down its operations. It is not yet clear how many of those jobs are in the North East.
Customers who have sent parcels and intended recipients have been advised to collect their items between 8am and 8pm, with depots expected to remain open until “approximately” January 6.
Joint administrator Hunter Kelly said:
“It is with regret that we have to announce substantial redundancies at City Link Limited, which ceased accepting new parcels on December 24 2014.
“The company endured substantial losses, which ultimately became too great for it to continue as a going concern, and City Link Limited entered administration following an unsuccessful sale process.
“At meetings across City Link Limited’s UK sites on Monday and Tuesday, employees were informed that there would be substantial redundancies as no new business was being taken on.”
The administrators said staff affected by redundancy will be offered advice and support in making claims for redundancy and notice pay.
Crunch talks are taking place today in a bid to save hundreds of North jobs following the collapse of parcel delivery firm City Link.
Union officials from the RMT are meeting the company’s administrators Ernst and Young (EY) in the hope they can hammer out a deal to prevent nearly 3,000 job losses, including those at its branches at Belmont in County Durham, Wardley in Gateshead and Carlisle in Cumbria.
The move comes after City Link announced – on Christmas Day – that it is going into administration after years of “substantial losses.”
The union claims the company employes hundreds of people in the North East, although exactly how many is not yet known.
It has branded the move “truly devastating” for the region’s economy.
Officials are to meet in Leeds this afternoon to discuss the fate of the firm’s 2,727 staff, and union bosses have vowed to stay in talks for as long as it takes to salvage jobs.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said:
“RMT’s objective now is to do everything we can to rescue jobs in the wake of the shock collapse into administration of City Link on Christmas Day.
“Despite the festive season there can be no delays in getting on with the rescue programme and we expect the government through Vince Cable to take an active role right now.
“The thousands of workers caught in the middle of this crisis deserve full support from every quarter.”
The union has demanded “urgent talks” with business secretary Mr Cable and said it is disappointed the minister has only pledged to meet them in the new year.
Coventry-based City Link, which is understood to have counted John Lewis among its largest clients, expects numerous redundancies after no buyer could be found to bail it out.
The RMT said it believed there may have been “more cynical motives” behind the decision to “delay” the announcement until Christmas Day and demanded an investigation.
A spokesman for the union in the North said:
“Hundreds of jobs will be placed at risk in the North East and this will be truly devastating for the economy.”
City Link operations have been suspended at all its depots until Monday, when customers and those expecting deliveries will be able to collect their parcels.
Investment firm Better Capital, led by veteran venture capitalist Jon Moulton, bought the courier group for just £1 in April last year from the previous owner, pest control firm Rentokil.
A number of staff will be retained to help return parcels to customers and help with winding down the company, EY said.
The controversial sell-off of the Land Registry was abandoned yesterday (Monday, July 14), after ministers admitted it had run into overwhelming opposition.
The likely £1bn privatisation of the 150-year-old institution – which employs more than 400 civil servants in Durham City – was suspended indefinitely, MPs were told in a statement.
The decision followed strong criticism from solicitors and trades unions about putting a private firm in charge of all land and property data and the threat of higher charges for the public.
Yesterday, the Department for Business (BIS) admitted that 91 per cent of respondents to its consultation did not believe the shake-up would deliver services “more efficiently and effectively”.
In addition, 88 per cent of respondents “did not agree that the overall design provides the right checks and balances to protect the integrity of the register”.
In recent weeks, the Liberal Democrats had made clear they were getting cold feet – over a deal that the Conservatives hoped would raise substantial funds for the Treasury.
Business minister Michael Fallon told MPs: “Given the importance of the Land Registry to the effective operation of the UK property market, we have concluded that further consideration would be valuable.
“Therefore, at this time, no decision has been taken to change Land Registry’s model.”
However, Durham City MP Roberta Blackman-Woods – while welcoming the move – urged ministers to come clean about their long-term intentions for the Land Registry.
Although officials briefed that the sale had been “abandoned”, BIS also said it still favoured privatisation and would continue to “develop the policy”.
Ms Blackman-Woods said: “I want them to scrap the whole idea, not just put it on hold this side of the general election.
“I will be writing to Vince Cable and Michael Fallon, asking them to accept the overwhelming evidence that this privatisation would create a conflict of interest and that people would not trust the data as much.”
Leading City firms had been approached for their advice on setting up a joint venture between the government and a private company, to take charge of the Land Registry.
BIS also considered turning it into a state-owned company that could be sold off, or letting a private company run the body as a so-called ‘GovCo’.
Yesterday, officials denied the U-turn was connected to fierce criticism of Dr Cable over the sell-off of Royal Mail – allegedly at a £1bn loss.
BIS also made clear that the Land Registry would press ahead with creating a single register, instead of separate lists maintained and delivered by 348 local authorities.
It said standardising fees and turnaround times would end the situation where fees vary between £3 and £96 across the country – and turnaround times between one and 42 days.
More than 100,000 people have backed a campaign to keep the Land Registry in public ownership.
The Government held a consultation on the future of the 150-year-old institution, which handles land and property data and employs more than 400 civil servants in Durham City, earlier this year, with critics warning privatisation, huge job cuts, loss of confidence and higher charges for the public could follow.
At the weekend, a national newspaper reported Business Secretary Vince Cable had vetoed any sell-off, said to be worth around £1.2bn, as ‘just too complicated’.
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the Government would publish its response to the consultation shortly.
Now Durham City Labour MP Roberta Blackman-Woods has joined Labour’s shadow business minister Toby Perkins, leaders of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union and campaign group 38 Degrees in presenting a 100,000-name signature calling for the Registry to remain in the public sector to the Government.
Durham’s Land Registry office is said to be worth £10m a year to the local economy.
Dr Blackman-Woods said: “The Land Registry office in Durham provides many good jobs that we need locally and I don’t want this to be diminished in any way by potential privatisation.”
Previously, business minister Michael Fallon said giving the Land Registry more flexibility would allow it to support economic growth in the wider economy.
This article was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for The Guardian on Tuesday 17th June 2014
A cross-party review of universal credit is being launched amid new evidence that funding for the project has been cut so severely that its original aim to provide incentives for people to get into work could be undermined.
Technology flaws, implementation delays and Whitehall infighting has led to deep cynicism about the scheme, which is due to be fully implemented in 2017-18 covering as many as eight million households.
Many critics claim the scheme is dead, but although Labour has been fiercely critical of the way in which universal Credit has been implemented, the shadow work and pensions secretary, Rachel Reeves, has not yet said that she would scrap the reforms.
The expert review, to be chaired by the welfare expert Nicholas Timmins, is being launched by the Resolution Foundation thinktank and will focus on structural redesigns that may be required to restore work incentives.
The scheme is currently being implemented on a limited pilot basis in some jobcentres, and that progress is likely to be re-examined in a second report by the National Audit Office before the election.
In total, eight million households – half of them in work – will be eligible for UC, which has been designed as a single payment to replace six existing types of benefit or tax credit. Half of all families with dependent children will be eligible, so making it vital that UC’s structure works and that recent revisions do not undermine its effectiveness.
Initial work by the Resolution Foundation shows that by 2018 cuts to the basic and work allowances will mean UC is £685 a year less generous for a couple with one child, saving the government £1.8bn a year.
The structure of UC may be badly targeted to protect second earners, according to Resolution Foundation. At present, a second earner under UC can lose as much as 76% of their earnings once they make enough to pay income tax.
The review will also look to see whether the coalition was wise to omit council tax support from UC. There has been widespread concern that a household receiving UC will see its earnings eaten away by the means-testing of council tax support.
The review will look at how those in work may face loss of UC if they cannot show jobcentre staff that they are unable to earn more than £220 a week. If they are earning less than this they may be required to take a different job or work longer hours.
> And of course there are so many other jobs for people to take. Why stop at just two ?
It appears that claimants of UC could face the same sanctions regime as applied to claimants of jobseekers allowance if they cannot show they are seeking longer hours, but there is a much scepticism about how this would apply. Similarly, the self-employed under the UC regime will be subject to interviews to see that they are truly gainfully employed.
Finally, the review will examine the way tax cuts prioritised for after the election could be undermined by the impact on UC. The review team suggests families receiving UC will lose at least £65 out of every £100 tax giveaway, and £72 in every £100 where council tax is already withdrawn.
Gavin Kelly, the Resolution Foundation chief executive, said: “Universal credit is an incredibly ambitious and important reform but the recent focus on the slipping timetable together with the complexity of the underlying policy means that some of the underlying policy changes have not received the scrutiny they deserve.”
He said the beginning of the next parliament was likely to be the last opportunity to make changes to UC.
The review team includes Giles Wilkes, a former economic adviser to the business secretary, Vince Cable, as well as Mike Brewer, a former IFS economist who was one of the first advocates of the reform five years ago.
> All people who have probably never had to claim benefits for basic survival, and probably never will. How far would you trust them ?
Universities and colleges in the North East could be stripped of millions of pounds in funding used to give students from poorer backgrounds a fairer chance of getting a degree.
The cash is at risk because the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is responsible for higher education, needs to make savings of £1.4bn.
Teesside University currently receives £5.9m each year, the University of Northumbria at Newcastle receives £3.5m, University of Sunderland receives £3.3m, University of Newcastle upon Tyne receives £1.1m, University of Durham receives £660,000, Newcastle College receives £959,00 and New College Durham receives £637,000.
The money, known as Student Opportunity funding, is allocated to universities and higher education colleges which succeed in attracting students from neighbourhoods where few people have traditionally taken part in higher education.
It also goes to institutions which succeed in retaining students who would statistically be more likely to drop out, and to those that recruit students with disabilities.
Leaked documents have revealed that the Department for Business is looking for ways to save £570m this year and a further £860m after the election.
Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is reported to be pushing for Student Opportunity funding to be abolished, while Business Secretary Vince Cable and Higher Education Minister David Willets are lobbying to keep it.
Asked to comment on the reports, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said in a statement: “The Department is going through the process of allocating budgets for 2014-15 and 2015-16 and will set out plans in the usual way.”
Prof Peter Fidler, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, was one of nine university leaders across the country to write a public letter warning: “The removal of this fund will damage economic growth and have a wider impact on sectors beyond higher education.”
The letter said that axing the fund “suggests that the Government is willing to abandon the cause of social mobility in higher education.”
The future of the fund was raised in the House of Commons by Labour’s Shadow Higher Education Minister Liam Byrne as MPs discussed funding for engineering students. He said: “On top of the huge cuts for educating 18-year-olds in college, we now hear rumours that the student opportunity fund that helps poorer future engineers will be completely axed.
“Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to promise the House that he will not sacrifice social mobility to pay for the chaos in his Department’s budget?”
In reply, Business Secretary Vince Cable highlighted £400m in funding for science, technology, engineering and maths courses – but did not comment on the future of the Student Opportunity Fund.
The National Union of Students has launched a campaign to preserve the funding.
Toni Pearce, NUS president, said: “Cutting the Student Opportunity Fund is an absolute disgrace and, in the wake of cuts to the National Scholarship Programme, looks like the Government is backtracking on its commitment to support social mobility in favour of balancing the books on the backs of the poor.”
Mr Byrne said: “The Department for Business budget is a complete mess because high paying students at private colleges got access to the state student loan system. Now it looks like help for poorer students will be axed to pay for it.”