So, 2016 ends with not one, not two, but four ongoing reviews of the so-called ‘gig economy’ and all that is wrong with our 21st century labour market. Well, maybe not all that is wrong with our labour market, but definitely those aspects – old and new – that are grabbing headlines thanks to the increasingly common 18th century employment practices of companies such as Sports Direct, Hermes, Uber, JD Sports, and Deliveroo.
First up, having already put the boot into Sports Direct, was the Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee of MPs, with its inquiry into the future world of work and rights of workers. Get your submission in by next Monday. Not to be outdone, the Work & Pensions committee of MPs, having had pops at both Hermes and Uber, is now conducting an inquiry into self-employment and the gig economy. You have until 16 January to get your submission into that one.
The leader of the Workers’ Party, Theresa ‘works for everyone’ May, has commissioned former Blair adviser and chair of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, to conduct a six-month review into “how employment practices need to change in order to keep pace with modern business models”. (Note how there is no suggestion there that modern business models are just, well, wrong). Mr Taylor says he will tell the PM “what’s wrong with modern work”. I’d like to be a fly on the wall at that meeting.
And the Labour Party – remember them? – have a Future of Work Commission, led by deputy leader Tom Watson and Helen Mountfield QC. I imagine this will report sometime in the 2020s, but in the meantime Tom wants your ideas.
The inquiry reports of the BEIS and Work & Pensions committees will no doubt be serious and compelling. They will most likely generate a few headlines, and maybe even dent profits here and there. But government ministers will most likely do nothing – just like they’ve done nothing in response to the BEIS committee’s scathing report on Sports Direct, the Justice committee’s scathing report on the impact of court & tribunal fees on access to justice, and the Women & Equalities committee’s scathing report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Or maybe they will ask someone to do another review.
Indeed, in the circumstances, it would be easy to run away with the idea that Theresa May doesn’t really care about workers’ rights, access to justice, or equality. And, if you think that’s just me being cynical, perhaps you can explain why the prime minister is ploughing on with 25% cuts to the budget of the already severely shrunk Equality & Human Rights Commission, and is content for the Ministry of Injustice to continue to sit on its long overdue review of the justice-denying employment tribunal fees introduced in 2013. This week, we learned that that review – launched, after much prevarication, in June 2015 – is still not finished and will not appear this year. Dead snails have moved quicker.
So, what is likely to happen to the Taylor Review? Assuming Mr Taylor has secured autonomy over publication, to ensure his report does not fall into the limbo inhabited by the review of employment tribunal fees, can we be sure that his review will not suffer the same fate as the last governmental review of these matters, launched by then business secretary Vince Cable in October 2014?
That review was intended to establish “how clear the current employment framework is, what the options are to extend some employment rights to more people and whether there is scope to streamline this very complex area of employment law, thus simplifying and clarifying rights for both employers and employees”. Sound familiar?
As far as we can tell, from parliamentary questions asked by Chuka Umunna in July 2015 and Caroline Lucas in February 2016, the review report was complete and on ministers’ desks by June 2015. And I’m told by someone who should know that it amounted to a substantial body of work. But it’s never been published and, according to the Answer to a further parliamentary question by Caroline Lucas, it’s since been bundled off to a sleepy working group of officials looking – very sedately, it would seem – at the scope for moving to “a more uniform set of tests on employment status across tax, employment rights and the welfare and social security system”.
Somewhat surprisingly, given that Answer to Caroline Lucas’ parliamentary question, the Cable Review report hasn’t been mentioned once in the minutes of the four meetings of the working group to date. And, at its last meeting on 19 October, the working group seems to have decided that there isn’t really any point to it doing any more work until the Taylor Review reports. Yet, as Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government has noted, the Taylor Review appears not to be looking at tax. Doh!
Who knows, maybe Tom Watson’s Commission will report before Theresa May acts upon the Taylor Review. Happy Christmas.