Familiar problems, failed solutions

When confronted with a familiar problem, the wise either resort to the sure solution or, remembering past follies, try to muster an imaginative and novel way out of their bind. Sadly the current government hasn’t displayed such dexterity in fashioning responses to our economic crisis, rather it responds to familiar problems with failed solutions, says JAMES BRYAN.

The haunting leitmotif of Tory economics can be heard in current consultations on reforming the laws regarding unfair dismissal. It is being mooted that the time served in a post by a worker for which he or she can ‘qualify’ for protection against unfairly dismissal should be raised from the current one year to two years. Little needs to be said by way of justification, the notion coming via the tedious cliché that exhorts the efficient and competitive – two impressive and cold adjectives that have long been euphemisms for conservative ideology.

It is argued that the extension of the ‘qualifying period’ is needed because our employment tribunals are creaking under the weight of constant claims. According to the BBC it costs employers an average of £4000 to defend themselves. It might be thought that the business community, as one of Britain’s vulnerable minorities, would do well not to answer cases that are cheap shots at easy money by feckless former employees.

However, this would require a suspension of disbelief considering the obvious expense and trouble such a claim means to a person who is unlikely to be successful in the first place. Instead, one can’t help but wonder what figure might stand for those unfairly dismissed who have neither the means nor the know-how to seek restitution.

So that this economic deterrence theory is a little more convincing, the business secretary Vince Cable has recommended that each litigant should be charged a £500 deposit to have their case heard. Such a measure will not deter the unjust claimant, but will put off all but the most handsomely salaried workers. The infusion of personal financial means as a criteria will go a long way towards building a two-tier system of workers’ rights where the lowest paid and, therefore, most vulnerable, will be most at risk from their employer’s caprice.

It’s true there has been a striking increase in the number of cases over the last year, rising by 56 per cent compared to 2009. However, as the TUC pointed out, most of this is due to large groups of workers engaged in equal pay disputes. Far from suggesting a mass rinsing of business, the increase clearly correlates with the rapid glut of redundancies that came with the financial crisis and the spike in claims that inevitably followed.

The ominous economic news of late has sent the government rushing to scribble down a narrative of reform to fill the howling vacuum created by their cuts. But in the predictable plan for private sector growth they demonstrate the same Tory orthodoxy seen in the budget cuts: reduce public spending and make it easier for the private sector to reduce theirs. Both strategies are as similar in their application as they are in their forbidding result.

Now that the frost of long-term recession looks set to linger and be compacted by the public sector cuts, the government is hastily weaving a story of economic activism.