Today the States voted against the proposition of Deputy Southern to annul an order made last year (with no consultation and without any supplementary evidence to back it up) by the Social Security Minister to extend the period which a worker has to have been in a job before they qualify for protection from unfair dismissal.
A resounding victory for the Jersey Tory Party, and so I want on record the comments I made against it and to put in the public domain some of my views on how you can help both businesses and workers, rather than slavishly following the outdated conservative doctrine that our current Council of Ministers subscribes to.
This measure which has already been taken by the Social Security Minister, with the support of the Council of Ministers, without any meaningful consultation either with the wider public or States Members is nothing short of a scandalous and unjustifiable attack on workers rights.
It seems to me to just be postulating by a government which is more interested in appearing ‘pro-business’ for the sake of it rather than actually doing what matters, which is creating an economic environment that works for both employers and employees, to create jobs and opportunities, without predicating that on decimating the conditions of ordinary people and creating insecurity in work.
I think this is exemplified by the fact that the Social Security minister by her own admission, before taking this move, has, aside from the Employment Forum, only spoken to stake holders from the employers’ side and not spoken at all with workers representatives such as Trade Unions, who are resolutely opposed to this change and who the Minister has made no effort at all to reassure.
If you ask employers if they'd like the qualification period increased, who is going to say no? It’s the wrong question. Question should be, what would help businesses, and when that question is asked in a non-leading way like that, I highly doubt many businesses would say that this is the most important factor holding their business back.
In every answer to a question or a document issued by the Minister on this, there has not been a single credible justification for this change. She simply repeats the mantra “this will help create jobs” over and over again, as if inanely repeating it will somehow make it true.
As the Employment Forum’s report on this shows, there is not a single piece of evidence to show that there is a tangible link between rates of employment and the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims. It just doesn’t exist and this “ah but you can’t prove it doesn’t have an effect” is, quite frankly, one of the poorest arguments I’ve ever heard in the States.
The report states that changes to the qualifying period in other jurisdictions are generally politically motivated and not evidence based. I would say that that is exactly what this is too.
So I listened intently to the Ministers speech yesterday afternoon to see if she could provide any extra evidence to say that something had changed since the Employment Forum’s report in 2013, and the answer to that was a very clear no.
But she offered three reasons why this move is no big deal, so let’s take them in turn.
She said the first was that 1 year was, I think she said “common sense”.
And maybe she’s right. If you’re plucking a number about of thin air, 1 year may seem sound. But no more or less sound than 6 months which we already have, and since there is no evidence to support changing it, it doesn’t sound like common sense to change it without justification.
The second was that this only affects the rights of a minority of workers as the changes just come in for those who take jobs on after the 1st January. I have to say I think that point is pretty pedantic and misleading when the change theoretically affects any workers rights if they take on a new job.
The third, and this was the main one, was that the change is just a small change.
Well sir, I fail to see how a change from 6 months to 12 months, a change of 100%, could possibly be described as small.
She specifically said that it was raised to 1 year, rather than the 2 years it is in the UK, because she wanted to balance it with the needs of those people who may be already in work but wanting to seek a higher role somewhere else or a promotion, but were put off by the potential insecurity for them.
And that is a legitimate concern. I have a friend in the UK who had a decent job, but wanted to move somewhere else to pursue a new opportunity and could stand to lose everything if her new employer ends up not being all they seemed and decides to just sack her off the cuff for no good reason.
But I can’t see how raising it from 6 months to 1 year doesn’t result in the same thing here either. It’s no different. I spoke to someone just yesterday who has been offered a job somewhere else, wants to take it, but is worried about the off chance it doesn’t work out and they end up without a job, not able to claim unfair dismissal and can’t pay the mortgage.
Why is the government seeming so indignant over the idea of businesses taking risks when taking new people on and wanting to help them, but disregards the risks which ordinary workers take when they take on a new job, have to arrange their life affairs around it and the affairs of their families, when they could be sacked unfairly with no recourse to compensation whatsoever.
It is that injustice which shows where this government’s priorities are.
But now moving in a constructive direction -
We’ve heard yesterday from Deputy Norton who I think made some good points even if he did arrive at the wrong conclusion. He spoke of how difficult it is and how no decent employer wants to just sack their workers left, right and centre unless there is nothing else that can be done, no other option. I don’t have any doubt that for the vast majority of employers that is the case. Having good employer-employee relationships is fundamental to the success of any business, and you don’t get that by treating your workers as disposable.
But those businesses are, if they are run by decent people who care about their employees, are the least likely to benefit from this change in the law. They are the ones who, if they’re going to sack someone, are going to have a legitimate reason, which will be covered by the law already. The problem here is that this change is a greenlight for the bad employers there are out there.
This is sending out a message to those business people, if you want to sack people with no real reason, go right ahead, in fact we’ll make it easier for you. How can that possibly be right?
He spoke of how Deputy Southern wasn’t a businessman and therefore didn’t know what it was like, which I thought was a personalisation which wasn’t particularly necessary. The Constable of St John made the same point about the inexperience of Deputy Macon in business matters, which I thought was highly patronising and a demonstration of why young people are so put off by politics.
I’m not going to stand here and claim to have a huge amount of business experience like some States Members, but I have been in a position before where I, alongside a close friend of mine, have taken up projects which, if they had failed, would have seen us a few thousand pounds short. And I even know what it’s like to hit crunch time in that situation and have the phone call from someone you were counting on to let you down. It’s a horrible feeling and I normally don’t sleep for a week when we take up this project. It’s not on the same scale as putting my entire livelihood on the line like others do, but it is still something anyway.
And it is from that that I do actually have sympathy with the people who want more to be done to help businesses, and what annoys me the most about this unfair dismissal change is that I don’t think it genuinely helps these businesses who have legitimate concerns.
It just, as the Employment Forum report says, addresses what is a perception of a problem, and not an actual problem.
The biggest fear is surely that a business may have to sack someone who then ends up pursuing all sorts of legal claims against them that the business really struggles to keep on top of, with legal bills and time in court etc.
So what the government should be focusing on is putting things in place to mitigate those problems.
One that hasn’t been mentioned in this debate yet has been about the JACS outreach service. I’ve spoken to some businesses who when they have sought advice on employment matters, they’ve just been told “errrr, sounds like you need to see a lawyer”, which isn’t particularly much help to them seeing as they want to do the right thing without having to fork out for expensive legal advice. So improving that service is one important thing to do.
Another idea I have had is maybe introduce a temporary state backed insurance scheme specifically for small businesses and start-ups to cover any potential pay outs at the employment tribunal. I think that sort of idea would be worth looking into
And a final suggestion, making it easier for the self-employed to get on their feet and take risks by introducing more classes of social security contribution rates. It’s absurd that a self-employed person who doesn’t actually earn much (and may even have taken a pay cut when initially starting their business) can find themselves paying twice the rate they would otherwise be paying, regardless of their income. We should introduce progressive bands there.
But that is actually already Council of Ministers policy. It’s actually quite worryingly also Reform Jersey policy. But why isn’t that higher up the agenda? That move would quite blatantly help these people far more than this vacuous gesture.
So often we get from this government platitudes and empty gestures. But here, their actions are at the expense of ordinary working people in the Island.
I hope members will support Deputy Southern and consign this to the scrapheap and send a message to the government to actually get on with the things that genuinely matter to get our economy back on track instead of this PR rubbish.