Should Tube Workers be allowed to strike?

11 06 2009

This is a thought that has been exercising me (and some of my colleagues) today. In comparison to some of my commuting co-workers (particularly those training in to Waterloo) I had a fairly smooth journey in; not that I want to seem smug about it you understand.  It took Nicola, our trainee solicitor, two hours to get from Waterloo into the City.  She wasn’t alone with nightmare tales to tell.   Reading over someone’s shoulder at the station I saw that the London Lite newspaper has also been questioning it given the travel chaos the RMT has foisted on us today. On their letters page they published a selection of readers’ comments which were 4 – 3 against the RMT. The general consensus around my office was that tube workers shouldn’t be allowed to strike, given the amount of chaos and severe disruption it causes.  Is it just me or do the RMT always seem to call a strike when there is a major sporting event on (the Lions tour to South Africa and the ICC Twenty20 World Cup spring to mind and the Ashes Test series starts next month – are there any strikes planned for then?).  At least the weather isn’t that brilliant for them this week.

The days of hard-left Union bosses holding the public to ransom should be long over.  I have distant memories of the winter of discontent in 1978/79 and then the tanker drivers strike gave us a few days off school: I was all in favour of industrial action in those days! Those days though are long gone; tube drivers are paid pretty reasonable salaries in comparison to other public workers and I would support a ban on them being allowed to strike.  Firemen too.  Particularly firemen.

It would require legislation, of course.  At the moment the Trades Union and Labour Relations Consolidation Act 1992 (TULCRA) provides protection to employees taking part in “official” industrial action, so that if an employee is dismissed for going on strike within 12 weeks of starting industrial action, it will be an automatically unfair dismissal.  A Union is required to ballot its members to get approval for strike action and if it fails to do so and endorses a “wildcat” strike, the Union puts itself at risk of being sued by any person suffering loss as a result of the strike.  If this immunity were to be restricted further (or even removed) it might make the more militant unions think twice before calling strike action.  The London Chamber of Commerce claim that the strike today cost 15mn, although I am always sceptical of such claims. It would, of course, infringe the European Court of Human Rights because it has previously been held that restricting strike action encroaches upon the right of freedom of assembly and association”.  A specific and targeted ban on strike action in important areas like the railways and fire service might avoid that problem because of the wider benefit to the public. 

I fully accept that Unions once had a vital role to play in protecting employees’ rights – I’m thinking of the appalling deprivation suffered by the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the railway workers involved in the Taff Vale case in the early years of the last century.  The RMT workers aren’t the Tolpuddle Martyrs though.

What do you think?  Here is another poll.

Blacklists to be blacklisted?

15 05 2009

I’ve written before about the National Staff Dismissal Register (NSDR) in the Retail Sector and the blacklist published by The Consulting Association (TCA) in the construction industry.  The former is a joint venture between Action Against Business Crime (a consortium formed between leading retailers and the Home Office), the latter a database compiled by a private company that then sold details to about 40 leading construction companies.  News comes this week that the government is planning to introduce regulations to proscribe blacklists used by companies to identify Trade Union members and thus not employ them.  The TCA blacklist appears to have identified trade union members as trouble – e.g “ex shop steward definite problems” and similar.  The government thinks, rightly, that potential employees should not be discriminated against because of their Trade Union membership.

Back in January the House of Lords ruled that care workers accused (note accused, not convicted) of harming children or vulnerable adults and placed as a result on a provisional blacklist could sue for infringement of their rights under the Human Rights Act.  It was estimated by the Royal College of Nursing that there were 5,500 names on the list.  The particular harm with that blacklist was that the people on it were undergoing investigation and could not work in the months it took for the investigatory and appeals process to be completed. Compensation claims will undoubtedly result.

All seems to have gone very quiet on the NSDR, which was a system retailers put in place to notify other members of staff dismissed for theft, fraud, forgery and criminal damage.  Again, no formal criminal investigation or conviction is required, leaving open the possibility that a malicious employer could prevent an employee getting back into work just by placing an entry in the register.   Safeguards are said to exist and all members have to agree to a strict code of practice, but I am struggling to see any fundamental difference between the NSDR and the TCA type blacklist – other than in the latter case the government might be trying to appease its friends in the Trade Union movement.  On the other hand the government is prepared to promote a scheme in the retail sector which surely infringes Data Protection legislation.  Is this yet another example of the government’s rather oppressive attitude towards civil liberties?

Monday musings

11 05 2009

Apologies for the recent silence.  Last week I took Mrs J. and the Junior Jobsworths to Southwold, Suffolk, for a brief holiday.  I had every good intention of posting whilst away but couldn’t get WiFi access.  I have to admit that I didn’t try that hard either. 

Without internet access I was a bit short on employment issues to write about, apart from the one emerging political story on MPs expenses as published by the Daily Telegraph. I have been particularly struck (like with a  cricket bat) by Hazel Blear’s defence of her own failure to pay Capital Gains Tax on a residence she sold on which she was claiming expenses.  She said (as all MPs seem to be doing) that she hadn’t broken any rules but the “system was wrong”.  No one seems to have asked her at what point she realised the system was wrong; perhaps it was when she was found out? Did it not occur to her at the point she elected to choose the London flat as her main residence for CGT but not for parliamentary purposes?  She must think the electorate is stupid.

Why I am posting on this?  Simply because in an employment context any employee doing the same would probably face disciplinary proceedings and a real risk of dismissal. If you want to get rid of an employee, take a look at their expense claims is what I was once told.  What has been happening in Parliament just demonstrates how out of touch they are there. 

Rant over.

Statutory Redundancy Pay to increase

23 04 2009

British Parliament


As you will probably have heard by now, the Chancellor announced an increase to Statutory Redundancy Payment in the Budget yesterday, from the current figure of £350 to £380 per week. He hasn’t said from when the new increase will take effect and the lower figure itself was only introduced in February this year.  The government is also considering further legislation on SRP rates in the next Parliament.

So, what does the increase mean?  SRP is only payable (by the employer) to employees with two years’ continuous employment experience and that figure is paid to employees between the ages of 22 and 41.  For qualifying employees over 41 they will receive 1.5 times £380 = £570.  For those under 22 the applicable figure becomes £190 per week.

SRP is, in reality, a cap.  If the employee earns less than £380 per week, assuming they qualify for SRP when made redundant, they will be paid their weekly salary multiplied by the number of complete years they have served with that employer.     The minimum annual gross salary needed in order to reach the cap is £19,760.  Many employers pay enhanced payments on redundancy, but these are usually discretionary and difficult to enforce legally unless there is a contractual entitlement. 

The Budget Report states (at para 5.27 p.96) that the increase is intended “to help provide adequate support for individuals who have been made redundant”.  For people receiving enhanced redundancy packages today’s announcement will seem academic. But for those smaller employers that can only afford to pay the “official” SRP this increase will be an added burden on them.  It is also hard to see how the increase will materially improve the financial position of employees suddenly finding themselves out of a job.

The TUC was campaigning recently for SRP to be increased to £500. The Chancellor clearly didn’t take their arguments on board and neither was he swayed to increase the maximum amount of tax relief from its current ceiling of £30,000 to £50,000. The HMRC currently allows a concession, pursuant to the Income Tax (Earnings & Pensions) Act 2003, whereby the first £30,000 of a compensation payment for loss of employment, can be paid free of income tax and national insurance deductions.  The limit has been set at £30,000 for many years now and an increase is long overdue.  Presumably the government thought that increasing that limit would be seen as benefiting the better off and thus politically unpalatable at the moment.   They probably also didn’t want to reduce the tax take at a time when redundancies are increasing massively and there is more pressure on the public purse.  However, increasing the tax free limit would do much more to help more people made redundant and reduce the burden on employers.

Bonus Hysteria vs Expenses Sleaze

31 03 2009

The recent indignity suffered by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith over her husband’s viewing of two “adult” films, which she then submitted as part of her parliamentary expenses claim got me thinking again about the slightly older furore over Sir Fred Goodwin and his humungus pension, and the ongoing hysteria over bankers’ bonuses.  I posted a couple of weeks ago on why I thought it unlikely that Harriet Harman’s threat to take government action to recover Sir Fred’s pension would be successful.  In the meantime Congress in the USA has got itself worked up into  a  lather over bankers’ bonuses and is considering a 90% rate of tax on all executives (from those institutions receiving state bail outs, particularly AIG) receiving compensation packages in excess of $250,000. 

When I posted on the subject originally, I said I thought that the politicians were merely trying to deflect attention from their own  inability to actually take meaningful action to mitigate the effects of the recession.  Nothing that has happened since dissuades me from that view.  Indeed reports in the newpapers suggest that President Obama has been coming under some pressure to do something and there are signs that his honeymoon period may be drawing to an end.  A report in the Financial Times on the 27th last was headline “America’s liberal lay into Obama” and he was accused “of taking dictation from the same financiers who have brought the economy to the brink of depression”.  Some of the (American) people I follow on Twitter are also incensed by his actions (ok, that’s not representative I know but the mood of optimism that greeted his inauguration seems to have withered).  America’s liberals! Heaven help the man!

Politics is never an easy world and politicians will always be criticised whatever they do.  What irks me in with these two particular issues though is how politicians were calling, effectively, for the rule of law to be pushed aside so that valid contractual relationships between employer and employee could be set aside to satisfy the public call for bankers’ blood (and make the politicians look like they were doing something) when at the same time politicians dissatisfied with their incomes are loading their expense claims up onto the taxpayer  bcause they feel their salaries don’t compensate the sufficiently.  Jacqui Smith gets a salary of £141,000.  Her husband, who acts as her parliamentary aide, gets a salary of £40,000 (if the newspapers are to be believed).  She lives in her sister’s house during the week (and that has been the subject of criticism already)  and claims an allowance for that.  I have no issue with what her husband chooses to watch on TV (although I do wonder how stupid he must have been to submit the cost as an expense).  Jacqui Smith is not alone in having her expenses questioned – and no doubt we will be hearing a lot more similar stories in future  –  but I do have an issue with the hypocrisy of politicians (as a class) who criticise bankers for greed when their own actions don’t pass scrutiny. 

I’m not surprised; it was ever thus but let’s just bear it in mind next time Harriet Harman, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling et al start singling out sections of the working population for special treatment.