Category Archives: Politics

What do you call a job without pay or employment rights?

Being forced to work in Poundland may not be very nice, but equating it with modern-day slavery is probably exaggerating. On the other hand, it’s quite reprehensible for an apparently reputable and successful business to employ people to do jobs that need doing and not pay them anything at all, even if the government has asked them to. It’s exploitation, even if the Court of Appeal couldn’t say so.

Cait Reilly’s claim that requiring her to work for free at a Poundland discount store was unlawful succeeded on a fairly technical basis and not on a finding that this was slavery under human rights law.  The court was quite clear that it had no principled objection to the Back to Work scheme but that it and other work-for-your-benefit schemes were unlawful because of the lack of basic information given to the unemployed.

In fact, Ms Reilly’s assertion that stacking shelves and sweeping floors were akin to slave labour was roundly rejected by a senior judge last year, making suggestions that the judgement was a damning indictment of the government’s work schemes certainly misplaced.  Anyway, ministers will just come up with new, lawful, regulations.

What is less obvious is whether these revisions will do anything to ensure schemes are ‘designed to assist the unemployed to obtain employment’.  Ms Reilly, a university graduate, had to give up her voluntary work in a local museum to stack shelves and clean floors under a scheme laughably called ‘the sector-based work academy’.  Quite what she was learning is unclear.

Her co-claimant, a qualified mechanic, was told he had to work unpaid cleaning furniture for 30 hours a week for six months under a different scheme known as the ‘community action programme’.  God only knows how that was supposed to help him find meaningful work or how forcing skilled workers to do menial jobs will help boost the economy.

To be honest, I am struggling to see how any of the government’s policies in relation to people’s rights around benefits or employment are going to help the economy.  And they seem to be at odds with recent pronouncements that we must start training our toddlers for work so as to keep up with the top-performing Asian countries – you don’t need a great deal of training to sweep floors or clean furniture (unless it’s antique).

Equally baffling is the government’s continuous trumpeting of the jobs figures that apparently show more people in work than ever before.  Not only do their figures include about 200,000 people on government training and back-to-work schemes (so not actually employed at all) but last week we learned that there are now 367,000 more people who are self-employed than there were in 2008.

I’m one of them, and while I am relishing the freelance life it has some significant drawbacks compared with being employed.  I have no job security, no sick pay, no holiday pay and no employer pension contribution (actually, at the moment no contribution at all), but it’s almost impossible to get a part-time job and it has a major advantage over a full-time one:  it allows me to be a proper mum (no offence meant to mum’s that do work full time).

The general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, must surely be right when she says

‘There may be perfectly good reasons for being self-employed, but it would be naïve to think that all these workers are really budding entrepreneurs.

‘These figures instead suggest that many employee roles are being replaced by self-employed positions.  Bogus self-employment is bad news for staff as they miss out on vital rights at work, such as paid holidays and employer pension contributions, without having the advantage of being their own boss’.

Still, that’s probably what the government wants, believing, I imagine, it will enable businesses to grow and create more (second-rate) jobs.  Amazingly, not all businesses agree, even the small ones, three quarters of whom gave a ‘withering response’ to George Osborne’s idea of allowing staff to trade their employment rights for shares.

Quite reasonably, a majority of small firms with annual sales of more than £1m felt the proposal would damage people’s trust in business by weakening staff rights or creating the wrong impression of entrepreneurs.  And it’s not just because they think administering such a share scheme would be a nightmare, or because what they really need is long-term shareholders focused on creating wealth, but because it would end up rewarding bad employers.

I’m fairly sure this won’t stop the chancellor going ahead with it.  O’Grady also believes the government has even set its sights on the employment rights guaranteed by social Europe that it currently can’t touch: such as health and safety protection, equal treatment for part-time workers and women, paid holidays, a voice at work and protection when a business is sold off.  A licence for bad employers if ever there was one.

Wanting to have a decent job, one with fair pay for a day’s work, fair treatment and a bit of job satisfaction is not unreasonable, even if it isn’t exactly a human right.  Standing up for this does not make someone a scrounger or workshy, it simply means they want something better for themselves.  I fail to see why the government disagrees.

The idiot’s guide to parliamentary campaigning

It has to be said, despite my line of business, that you don’t need a professional to run your campaign. It depends rather on what you are trying to achieve and whether you have the resources at hand to achieve it, bearing in mind that a campaign doesn’t have to be an all-singing, all-dancing, media-blitzing, no-expenses-spared kind of affair.

It is always worth thinking about whether your campaign would be helped by engaging with MPs, however distasteful that might appear at first glance.  While MPs remain universally unpopular, with probably a lower popularity rating than lawyers, journalists, or kitten haters, they can be quite useful.

But before you even think about approaching them, do your homework.  You may have the impression they are a lazy, good-for-nothing, tax-dodging load of hypocrites (I couldn’t possibly comment), but actually most of them work quite hard, juggling their role as a constituency MP, legislator and for some of them, ministerial portfolio .

MPs, unless they don’t want to get re-elected, are most interested in issues affecting their own constituency, so make it local, preferably with a news angle and a photo op so they can get a nice picture of them doing something worthwhile in their patch.

If you want to contact MPs more generally, don’t do a random mail shot to all 650 of them, it will be a waste of your time and money as their researchers will spot a circular and will instantly ‘recycle’ anything of no interest before it even hits the MP’s desk.

Instead, find out which MPs are interested in your issue – do they have a shadow portfolio, are they on a select committee or all party group, did they work in that area before they became an MP?  You can find all this out simply by searching biographies on the website.

While letters and emails will get picked up if your issue resonates (or if you are a constituent), social media is an increasingly useful tool for getting in touch. Follow the MP on Twitter, look at their Facebook page, check out their website or their blog. If you don’t know what any of those are, you’d better drop me a line.

Work out what you actually want your MP to do to help your campaign. Do you want to raise the profile of an issue, get something done, raise money, change the law? It is important that whatever the ask, it is integral to your campaign and not something bolted on because it seemed like a good thing to do.

There are three golden rules when contacting MPs, although I have also invented a fourth (as you do):

• Be brief and direct: almost nothing is so important or complicated it takes an hour to say it or more than two sides of A4 to write it. If you can’t manage this, you’d better drop me a line.
• Be relevant: there is no excuse for not thinking about how your issue fits with their priorities.
• Bring solutions: don’t just present them with a problem but proposals for solving it. If your issue is with government policy, bring them a better option.
• Nurture the relationship: you will get more out of it if you do this, rather than waiting for a crisis and then calling them up.

Don’t forget, for the moment at least, there is also a House of Lords you can target. Peers may have more time and it is likely there is one at least who is interested or even an expert in your issue. They can question ministers, instigate debates and even propose legislation just as MPs can.

That, in a nutshell, is how you do it.  If it all sounds too much,  do get in touch.

We’re not out of touch. Here’s a petition website to prove it.

What has happened to the silly season?  The usual August fare of wacky surveys, funnily-shaped vegetables and celebrity faces seen in the sky are nowhere to be seen, or if they are, they’re lurking sheepishly on page 10.  I am quite certain that there are still rude carrots in the vegetable aisle but they have overshadowed by the rather gloomy state of national affairs.  No-one is even talking much about the crap weather, so depressing is everything else.  It’s the sort of time when a country could really do with some stirring political leadership…

But the government has been noticeable in the last few days by its absence, despite riots in London and economic meltdown.  For those of us who have always rather suspected that being in power is just another little game for Dave and his Chipping Norton chums this comes as no surprise.  This government is so out of touch with the lives of the people in Tottenham, or even St Albans for that matter, that they couldn’t touch it with a barge pole.

Forgetting to tip a waitress in a Tuscan cafe could, of course, be an innocent oversight; or it could be a sign of total arrogance.  Either way, I’m pretty certain if Dave had ever had to work as a waiter or barman he’d never forget.  And making a photo op out of correcting the error is worse, especially when London is in flames…I’m not saying they shouldn’t go on holiday, but come on, surely Dave could put in an appearance between his mid-morning Milano espresso and his Tuscan olive-oil-drizzled, sun-dried tomato, Pecorino focaccia? 

However, fear not, our ruling clique have come up with a great idea for getting back in touch:  HMG’s e-petition site.  What a brilliant idea – let individuals start a petition.  Couldn’t we do this already?  And what an amazing prize, if you get 100,000 signatures for your ’cause’ then a cross-party group of backbench MPs get to decide if its worthy of debate. Couldn’t we do this already, by raising the issue directly with our own MP?

Ok, so let’s not be cynical for a minute, let’s have a look at the worthy causes that have found no other avenue for getting heard. The petition topping the charts is a call for cheaper petrol and diesel.  This is not something I’d necessarily disagree with, given it cost me £70 to fill up my car the other day, but bizarrely it’s been started by the Tory MP for Harlow – couldn’t he just table an adjournment debate or something and let the rest of us have a go?  Like, well, yes, calling to keep formula 1 free to air in the UK.  That’s certainly something parliament should spend its time debating as our streets burn and our economy nosedives.  Oh, and of course, there’s the death penalty. 

When I last looked, the petition to restore the death penalty had just over 10,000 signatures and the one to retain the ban just over 18,000.  That’s following a blaze of publicity, including coverage on the national news.  I know there’s a few months to run, but is either one really going to reach 100,000?  Probably doesn’t matter to the crusading chap who started the ‘restore’ petition and has seen his profile rise significantly with, no doubt, corresponding increases in visits to his website and advertising revenue (I’m not going to mention his name, he doesn’t need any more exposure, even if it’s only on my little blog). 

So excuse me if I’m a bit cynical about this attempt by the toffs in charge to get ‘in-touch’ with the people.  Quite a lot of people who might want to sign a petition, or even start one, don’t have the time to spend browsing a government website, that is if they have access to the internet.   And even those of use that do, and I admit I signed the ‘retain the ban’ one, are far more concerned about job losses, riots, increasing NHS waiting times,  pension shortfalls, benefit cuts, closing law centres, rising food prices and watching our economy go down the toilet. 

The epetition site, like the ‘tell us the crap laws we should get rid of’ website that came before it, are just fig leaves, pathetic attempts by a government that hasn’t got a popular mandate for half of its harebrained ideas to pretend they are listening.  By staying on their summer holidays they have also shown a quite dazzling ineptitude for presentation, which is the one thing Dave should be good at.  I’m not sure what’s the bigger crime, being out of touch or being seen to be out of touch.  Either way, they are starting to look pretty silly.

Don’t be fooled by the Big Society

This is a revised version of a blog published on the Convergence website in February.

What is the Big Society? We were told it was about ’empowering communities’.  Cameron says its his ‘great passion’.  Steve Moore of the Big Society Network (no I don’t know what it does either) has said it is the sum of a million small things.  However, I am finally starting to get it and it seems the sceptics were right all along.  It is just a smoke-screen for cuts and now we are starting to see the proof.   

Before I go any further I should confess that I am one of those Big Society sceptics and I am also a bit of a lefty, so I am bound to grab any opportunity to score some cheap political points.  But all my attempts to get to the bottom of this ‘defining vision’ failed, even when I had the opportunity to question Mr Moore himself (he just got more and more annoyed as I got more and more confused). 

One of my big concerns is that there is a big difference between people getting together to run, say, a single mums’ support group once a week or campaigning for a 20mph zone, and making the commitment to take over a library, or even set up a school. We are not all Toby Young and most of us don’t have the time or the skills to take on these responsibilities (and there is also something a bit distasteful about saying enthusiastic volunteers can just pick up when the professionals, eg librarians, lose their jobs). I won’t even get into how I feel about letting parents set up schools all over the place. PS I am a parent.

Equally as absurd is expecting cash-strapped charities to step in where the public sector has had to step back. For years charities, certainly the small, community ones expected to build the Big Society, have been unable to capacity build effectively because grants are always ring-fenced for specific projects.  I used to set policy for lottery grants and witnessed the absurdity of perfectly good charities having to reinvent themselves, repackage what they do and fill in reams of paperwork to get their hands on even the smallest amounts of cash.  Then, when the project was over, they had to do it all again, possibly even for the same funder.  But now there is no more cash…

So maybe volunteers are the answer, maybe Cameron is right, maybe we should expect charities to rely less on money and more on ‘gifts in kind’.  I am a trustee of a small legal charity and much as we love lawyers helping us on a pro bono basis, what we really need is money to pay our excellent core staff, not city lawyers giving legal advice in an area they probably know nothing about.  It comes back to the professionalism point.  Some volunteering can do more harm than good.

I am also fearful that by relying on donations, financial or otherwise, we are unwittingly recreating the paternalistic Victorian philanthropists who chose between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.  Of course, Daily Mail ‘journalists’ and their followers in government will tell you there are undeserving poor (largely, of course, benefit cheats of which I am sure there are millions). But I think the distinction is more subtle than that and worthy of proper attention, not just recourse to a Daily Mail headline.

And now, the campaigning website False Economy, tells us that at least 2,000 charities are facing budget cuts as local authorities reduce their funding.  They point out that ‘these cuts are not just to ‘nice to have’ groups, but organisations providing services for older people trying to maintain independent lives, vulnerable children and abused women.’ Cutting their funding doesn’t just cause misery and distress, it only puts pressure onto other statutory services like the NHS.  How is that the Big Society?

The Guardian writes today about a Home Start centre in Hull, the 11th most deprived region in the country, losing its £107,000 grant.  If it closes, after 25 years, then 167 families with 406 children will be without a service they rely on and that costs just £21 a week for each family.  Pretty difficult to see how that could be done any cheaper.  How is that the Big Society?

Yesterday, Citizens Advice, which provides advice and support to more than 2 million people, said that Bureaux across the country are facing closure because of budget cuts.  It said the situation in some areas was ‘desperate’.  Government proposals to remove social welfare and housing cases from legal aid will only exacerbate the situation.  So how will the poor and vulnerable get justice?  How is that the Big Society?

When I first wrote this blog, I was just a sceptic, but now I am angry.  Far from empowering communities, the Big Society and its evil twin Budget Cuts are in danger of ripping them apart.  I refuse to believe there isn’t a more responsible way to solve the economic crisis.  But then I suppose I am rather missing the point.  The Big Society may be a cover for the cuts, but the cuts are the cover for a deluded ideology that bears no reflection on real people’s lives and is happy to cut much of society adrift.  If that’s David Cameron’s ‘great passion’ then we are all in big trouble.