I have always believed political policies fall into one of two categories. First, issues above pandering to populist narratives, party political games and crass vote (perhaps even donation) winning tactics. These are inalienable rights – matters in relation to which the political direction of travel is strictly one way, where rights given can and should never be taken away, where each stride forward represents a Rubicon crossing. Equalities, a free NHS and the universal right to education all fall into the first category.
Second, there are the issues of the day where politicians try to tap into and shape the prevailing Weltanschauung. Here, issues are political footballs to be juggled with at least one eye on the reaction of voters in the crowd. The Coalitin government juggling notions of the ‘compensation culture’, ‘cutting red tape for business’ and ‘standing up to Brussels’ fall this category.
Following those mantras, the legislative onslaught against unions and workers over the last 5 years has been relentless, vitriolic and utterly savage. We have seen the qualifying period for unfair dismissal doubled; barriers erected blocking access to employment tribunal through tribunal fees; the ‘rights for shares’ sale; and the entire court system south of the border radically altered with the apparently sole purpose of preventing union members accessing justice. Each of these matters may fall into the second category.
But there is one blatantly anti-worker piece of legislation the Coalition has enacted which represents a deliberate, unabashed, and for that, morally unacceptable (if not reprehensible) erosion of hard fought rights. I am referring to s69 of the Enterprise Act in which workers’ right to a safe workplace was simply removed in flagrant disregard to European Law.
Under European Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work an employer must ‘ensure the safety and health of workers in every aspect related to work’. That is why we had a series of health and safety regulations in the UK. s69 ended the protection under the UK regulations and removed the obligation on employers to ensure workers safety. Because of s69 workers no longer have a right to a safe workplace, the Tories have removed an inalienable, basic, human right and until now they have been allowed to do so. But that cannot be allowed to stand.
There are 2 things that can be done and I would call upon everyone to assist. Firstly, call upon the European Commission to intervene by writing to one’s MEP demanding that the Commission take action. Secondly, Richard Baker MSP is currently consulting on a Members’ Bill to restore workers European rights at least in Scotland. I would encourage everyone to support Richard’s proposal.
Patrick McGuire is a solicitor advocate and a partner with Thompsons Solicitors. He is a leading campaigner for law reform and has worked with many campaign groups and trades unions over the years to improve our country’s health and safety record.