As far as General Elections go, that which played out across the UK in May had more than its fair share of drama. Fast forward a couple of months and, with the Queen’s Speech now delivered to Parliament, Peter Webster reviews the likely future direction for UK plc’s political policy and, closer to home, how it could affect the security business sector.
In many respects, the General Election result was a tale of two nations. Most of us expected a hung Parliament of one kind or another, so when the BBC’s constantly updated exit polls started predicting that the Conservative Party would win an outright majority it was somewhat hard to believe.
Let’s just say very few of us truly thought Lord Paddy Ashdown GCMG CH KBE of Norton-sub-Hamdon would actually have to eat his hat. That said, I was one of those who suspected there may well be a surprise outright victory for the Conservatives as, against all expectations, the UKIP vote seemed to be emanating from the supporters of other parties.
The success – or otherwise – of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat partnership fostered across the last five years is a moot point and, with public enthusiasm for ‘Government by coalition’ now at its lowest ebb in 30 years, it’s probably a good thing that a hung Parliament didn’t transpire on the morning of Friday 8 May once all of the votes from the 650 Parliamentary constituencies had been duly counted and affirmed.
The issue of spending dominated political discussion both pre- and post-General Election. Broadly speaking, the Conservatives will focus on continued fiscal consolidation, UK devolution and a renegotiation of European Union (EU) membership. The Labour Party would have looked towards a less aggressive deficit reduction programme in order to limit what the Opposition perceives to be the negative effects of austerity.
For sure, Conservative Party promises of a referendum on EU membership will continue to cause a degree of uncertainty for those in the security sector who export their goods and services outside of the UK.
Seismic shift north of the border
While the startling success of the Tories was down to English voters, north of the border a seismic shift occurred with the Scottish National Party (SNP) winning 56 of the country’s 59 seats. Although this result was greeted with a certain amount of incredulity by most political commentators, some of us were rather less surprised given the result of the Scottish Independence Referendum wherein just shy of 45% of the voters supported the Nationalist message.
What transpired in the General Election was that the SNP achieved 50% of the vote in Scotland and, in turn, placed itself firmly in the driving seat when it comes to negotiating greater devolution. Indeed, Angus Robertson – the SNP’s Westminster leader – recently stated that his party wants to negotiate the transfer of even more tax and welfare powers to Scotland.
The Scotland Bill will make Holyrood responsible for raising around 40% of the country’s taxes, with powers to set the thresholds and rates of income tax included in the legislation. SNP MPs at the Palace of Westminster will no doubt be pushing to make the Scottish Government responsible for raising all of the money it spends. No surprises there, but we have to be careful that any moves in this direction don’t adversely affect those businesses conducting their operations in both Scotland and England.
For instance, if income tax levels are different and/or changes to the National Minimum Wage are made independently, confusion could be the end result. We must be careful not to create a situation in which Scotland sets the agenda for the rest of the UK. This surely strengthens the case for English votes for English laws.
Zero hours contracts
Moving away from this subject for a moment, the issue of zero hours contracts was a hot topic leading up to the General Election and I’m glad to see positive steps being made in respect of this agenda.
The Government acted in advance of the Queen’s Speech (‘Queen’s Speech 2015: Government’s plans for repeal of Human Rights Act “on hold”’, Risk UK, June 2015, p6) to outlaw the use of exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts and, as part of the Enterprise Bill, David Cameron and his Cabinet indicated that there would be a further crackdown on the abuse of such contracts.
Details are pretty scarce just now, but the Government has entered into a period of consultation on the issue and we can expect to hear more very soon.
Although they’re certainly being abused in some cases, when employed correctly zero hours contracts are a force for good and offer flexible employment opportunities. Therefore, any legislation must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and hinder the employment of those who are happy to work under this type of contract.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has argued that zero hours contracts “provide people with a flexible way of working and the freedom to arrange jobs around other commitments’. Some employers, though, are clearly abusing the system and creating an intolerable situation for their employees, either by placing them ‘on call’ 24/7 or by preventing them from taking on additional work elsewhere. This practice is wholly unacceptable.
Data from the Labour Force Survey indicates that the number of people employed on zero hours contracts between October and December 2014 was 697,000 (or 2.3% of all people in employment). Of course, nobody knows how many of the individuals involved choose to have a flexible contract as it suits their lifestyle or how many feel that such arrangements are potentially exploiting them.
‘Naming and shaming’ process
It’s good to hear that a harder line will be taken against those employers failing to pay the National Minimum Wage. A ‘naming and shaming’ process has already begun. To date, the Government has publicly named over 200 employers who’ve failed to pay their workers the National Minimum Wage, with total arrears of over £635,000 and penalties somewhere north of £248,000.
Companies could now face financial penalties of up to £20,000 if they don’t pay the National Minimum Wage, while ‘naming and shaming’ could also result in serious reputational consequences for those involved.
Wage rates in the security guarding sector have been a significant cause of concern for many years and, to my mind, this isn’t helping our ongoing bid to improve the security sector’s image. The Government recently announced that the National Minimum Wage would be raised by 3% to £6.70 an hour from October 2015. This is welcome news that will afford a pay rise to over 1.4 million of the lowest paid workers in our country.
I’m pleased that this type of decisive action is being taken as, in my opinion, we should all be working towards paying the Living Wage in the security industry (‘The Living Wage: Stepping in the Right Direction’, Risk UK, May 2015, pp14-15) as a bare minimum in order to benefit from increased staff motivation and retention rates and reduced absenteeism. Hopefully, we’ll see greater moves in this direction going forward.
At £7.85 an hour, the current Living Wage is 21% higher than the National Minimum Wage, while this figure rises to £9.15 an hour in London. During 2014, the number of accredited Living Wage employers more than doubled, with over 1,000 employers across the UK having now signed up to the pledge. That said, any improvement to the National Minimum Wage will have a positive impact on those at the sharp end of the security guarding sector.
As a security sector professional, another Parliamentary-produced document that catches my attention is the Investigatory Powers Bill, colloquially referred to as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’. In addition to enabling the tracking of individuals’ Internet and social media use, the proposed Bill will also strengthen the Security Service’s warranted powers for the bulk interception of the content of communications.
Although this move has not proven popular with pro-civil liberties and Human Rights groups such as Liberty, those with nothing to hide should not be concerned about this legislation as we need to do everything in our power to prevent terrorist attacks.
Peter Webster is CEO of Corps Security