Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.
Last February, an interesting story emerged about a proposed change to the Employment Relations Act.
It was briefed that Number 10 was looking at ways to bolster employee rights for workers. Amongst other things, it was suggested that the union monopoly on accompaniment to grievance and disciplinary meetings would be ended, and workers given the freedom to take other people with them instead.
Currently, if you find yourself facing such a procedure with your employer you have the right to be accompanied to meetings by a trade union representative, an official employed by a trade union, or a fellow worker. If you want them at a hearing, your employer can’t say no.
However, only one-in-four workers are in a union these days. The other 75 per cent could be stuck in such situations – as legally an employer doesn’t have to allow them to bring anyone along other than a fellow worker. If that colleague isn’t an expert in employment law, then they’re going to be at a massive disadvantage.
It’s clearly wrong that employment rights depend on whether or not someone is in a union, and no other developed country has anything like it in law. It was thus disappointing, albeit understandable, that the proposals didn’t make much progress in the past year.
Now though, things appear to be on the move once more. A Ten Minute Rule motion has been put forward for this afternoon by Brendan Clarke-Smith, titled “Education Employment (Accompaniment to Hearings)”.
It seems to have the backing of a range of people, as well as the whips – which suggests broader support is there and that it could lead to change actually happening further down the line.
This particular motion focuses on accompaniment in education, and I can absolutely believe that there is more support for this move amongst school staff now. Many have had concerns about some unions’ actions during the pandemic. Indeed, at times it felt as though union actions were designed to drive moderates away – I have lost count of the number of teachers and support staff I know who have resigned memberships and signed up with the non-union alternative Edapt.
But it shouldn’t just be school staff who benefit from changes. Any reform should be across all sectors. Widening the ways workers get support can only be a good thing – for employees and employers alike.
There would be positive impacts across the board. More choice for those in sectors that are still heavily unionised – teachers, doctors, social workers, rail workers, and so on. And more support for workers in the gig economy and other sectors where union membership is low or non-existent.
And a happy side-effect would be to encourage existing unions to become more focused on, and responsive to, their members’ priorities to keep them happy. Hopefully there would be more action on pay and personal development, and less on political posturing.
We can already see that Edapt is making a positive impact in education, and that the MPS and MDU are doing the same in medicine. I could see a whole range of different organisations popping up if the law was changed. All staff – unionised or otherwise – should have more options open to them. It really is a common sense, win-win change, and one that is easy to implement.
Obviously we can expect the trade unions to argue against any such change – they benefit hugely from their current monopoly in law.
However, every employee, regardless of union membership, should have the same rights at work. Tweaking the law to allow this is a practical example of levelling up, and should gain support from across the Conservative Party and the House of Commons in general.
So when most viewers are changing channels after PMQs this afternoon, I’ll stay tuned for Clarke-Smith’s speech to see what reaction he gets, hoping that this is – finally – the start of a change for the better for everyone at work.