Faced with stubbornly unchanging polls and less than a month before the General Election, what can a party leader do to prevent the nation drawing the duvet over its collective head on 7 May?
Into the arena is pulled employment relations law. All the main parties have something to say here – the coalition points at the new shared parental leave (SPL) regime, the Lib Dems at a proposal to extend statutory paternity leave, and Labour at plans to revisit that perceived tool of worker oppression, the zero hours contract. The Tories, meanwhile, aim to require companies to give staff three days’ paid volunteering leave a year.
Is this the best we can do? The SPL regime is so complex that most flowcharts for employers look like the wiring diagram for Sellafield. The extension to statutory paternity leave brings nothing new that isn’t available under SPL, and flies in the face of the miniscule number of people who took up additional paternity leave under the pre-SPL regime. A survey by my firm of 3,000 clients and contacts earlier this year suggested a likely take-up for SPL of less than 5 per cent, and the government’s own forecast is similar. As for zero hours contracts, no one disputes that exclusivity clauses should go, but otherwise there is little evidence that such contracts are not accepted relatively freely – and sometimes positively – in some sectors.
All of these proposals seem like desperate attempts to unearth niche employment relations issues that can be blown up into something worthy of legislative change in order to win votes.
So here is a different thought – that the party which will most appeal is the one which promises to make no change at all to employment relations law.
All the parties talk about the burden of red tape on business. But this overlooks something important: employers and employees will ultimately come to terms even with a law which bears harshly on them, provided that they can easily understand how it works, sensibly assess the costs and risks of a given course of action, and be reasonably sure that the whole thing will not require expensive re-learning in a few years’ time.
The problem with the SPL regulations, 2013’s “protected conversations” rules, the employee-shareholder status, and a number of other recent changes is not that they were not well-intended. Rather, they have not been brought into law accessibly enough to give either businesses or their staff any confidence in them. It is surely fundamental to a good law that you do not have to be a former codebreaker (or lawyer) to understand it.
This is not just a coalition issue – certain parts of Labour’s 2010 Equality Act were abandoned as unworkable before they even came into force. These laws are all attempts to fix things which are basically not broken.
Of course, the field of industrial relations is very broad and contains management and worker practices from the most enlightened to the most exploitative. A safety net of protective legislation is necessary, but maybe all the parties’ current offerings go too far – they address problems that few people have, through laws which also weigh on those who don’t face such issues at all. Importantly, they put businesses of all sizes and employees through procedural hoops which could be rendered unnecessary in most cases by a grown-up discussion.
The changing nature of the UK’s workforce – with an increasing number of self-employed individuals pursuing portfolio careers – means that this one-size-fits-all approach to employment legislation is increasingly out of date. Less routine wants and needs from both sides of the employment relationship mean it’s far more difficult to legislate effectively to cover them all. There must be a case, rotten television debate material though it would undoubtedly make, for just leaving well alone.