Zero Hour Contracts: A Countdown to What?

What are zero hour contracts?

A zero hour contract is a contract which gives neither an obligation to the employer to offer work, nor an obligation on the party of the employee to accept it. The exact mechanisms for achieving this differ between contracts, but the lack of obligation is the heart of the zero hour contract.

They are designed to provide an alternative to agency workers. An agency worker would be rented out when there is demand, through an intermediary (the agency). A worker on zero hours doesn’t have to work through the middle man. This is an advantage.

A difficult battleground?

There is a debate as to their effect. On the one hand, it is possible to argue that they damage the ability of the lowest-skilled workers to demand living wages by permitting employers to take advantage of employees. Often, a zero hour contract is the only available offer of work. Yet this does not provide a guaranteed income. Naturally therefore, those working under such a contract seek to find other work. Employers however, could insert clauses to prevent the individual from searching for other jobs, knowing that the individual who accepts a zero hour contract is often desperate.

On the other hand, the argument can be made that during a period of economic recovery (when this become a hot topic) jobs were few – and even the ephemeral promise of a zero hour contract was preferable to nothing. This is particularly helpful for students, especially since some universities limit the amount of hours an individual taking a course is permitted to work.

Certainly, the changes formalised on the 26th of May 2015, forbidding zero hour contracts containing exclusivity clauses was a positive move because it addresses their potentially repressive nature.

In fact, this change significant becalms the storm surrounding the topic. Because the fact that zero hour contracts have been shown to stack rights in favour of the employer is not one that can be solved through legislating. A contract is the result of a negotiation between two parties. One of these two parties will almost always have a stronger position – and therefore be able to demand better terms. It is true that any government left of absolute capitalism should be interested in mitigating the harshness of the most heinous of demands (i.e. exclusivity clauses). But beyond this, there is little clarity on what exactly a government could to, beyond work on wages that employers must pay.

Future?

Zero hour contracts, having had the exclusivity element removed, are no longer a tools for repression. They are far from perfect, but they are a useful tool to ensuring more flexibility in an era where traditional jobs seem to be disappearing fast. Careful legislation must continue to prune them when they threaten to strangle their hosts.

Budgeting for a Better or Broken Britain?

It is fair to say that the first Conservative budget since November 1996 has caused quite the reaction. This blog looks at changes introduced by the budget for individuals and companies. For the sake of context however, it is worth noting that the Chancellor, George Osborne, has promised savings totalling £34 billion – half from government budgets, £12 billion from welfare cuts, and £5 billion coming down on tax evasion.

1. Overview

  • Benefits

Those aged 18 – 21 will lose their (automatic) entitlement to housing benefits.

  • Business

The Northern Power house idea – at the national level, there has been an acceptance of a need to devolve power to the north – Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, and Leeds.

The Chancellor has signposted his readiness to ensure that the UK maintains the lowest corporation tax in of the G20 – the proposed aim being of 18%.

At the same banks were rewarded on one hand levies on a bank’s worldwide assets will be restricted to levies only on UK assets by 2020. But there will be an introduction of an 8% tax on annual profits.

  • Government and Welfare

Student maintenance grants will be cut from 2016. Instead, a loan of up to £8,200 will be available which will have to be repaid when the individual earns over £21,000.

Child benefit – tax credit and universal credit – is to be limited to the first two children, from April 2017.

More generally, tax credit changes will hit three million families who will lose an average of £1,000.

Public sector rises will be capped at 1% until 2019.

The NHS is being offered £8 billion.

Cap on benefits will be lowered from £26,000 to £23,000.

Working benefits will be stripped from those who are not disabled and have no children.

Rent payments for social housing will be cut by 1%, per year, for the next four years.

  • Income Tax

Two headline figures, relevant to everyone: on the one hand the 40p rate of tax was raised to £43,000, whilst on the other the threshold for basic tax was raised to £11,000, an increase of £400, on the way to the target of £12,500. This latter is projected to raise with the minimum wage. The former is part of an increase – the 40p rate is aimed to be applied to £50,000. According to the Chancellor this is will mean 29 million people will pay less tax.

  • Inheritance Tax

In the same vein as the 1996 budget, the inheritance tax was increased; then it was to £215,000. Now it has been increased to £1 million.

  • National Living Wage

Over 25s will have a minimum pay of £9 per hour by 2020 – which is 60% of median earnings. This will start in April 2016, with the figure being £7.20. This compares favourably to £6.50 for under 21s. This is estimated to concern 6 million people.

2. Commentary

This is a well-rounded budget. In 1996, the budget was the last budget for a government that was coming to its close – this is the budget of a newly mandated government Yet political pressures simply manifest them in a different, not lesser, way. During the campaign for the 2015 general elections, Mr. Osborne was seemingly aiming to have his photograph taken by every single employer in the UK.. But having obtained the support, it has been argued their resources are now needed to fund his other promises.

Whilst this analysis is persuasive, there is a further consideration: the language of working man has been used repeatedly by the Tories. Could it be that they actually mean? The budget is aimed at creating jobs and pushing people into those jobs – however well it does so, being an entirely different matter. When viewed in this narrative, the cuts on the corporation seems to be less a ‘pound of flesh’, than a seed from which to develop a stronger work force.

The big question is, of course, whether things will deteriorate for the worse off. Osborne has hung his budget on the fact that an individual working full time under the new National Minimum Wage would be better off even considering the cuts to benefits. The National Minimum Wage is applicable only to over 25s. Under 25s,  who are most in need because of their low employment rate, will be a cheaper labour source. Thus, they will be preferred to over 25s. As for the students, changing a grant into a loan does not impact the position of students at the moment. It also does not seem it will impact the ability experience – total funding for a student eligible for the maximum loan will be somewhere around £12,000 a year. Poverty of the parents should not mean that a student who perhaps emerges and gets a well-paying job should not be asked to pay back the money they were given for university. And  if they do not have a well-paying job they do not have to pay it back – this fairly well accepted fact seems to discredit any arguments that suggest that  Certainly, students who will have to pay the money back, might be more spend thrift of that money.

The impact of the budget on the wider political landscape has exposed to salient facts: firstly, Labour are evidently still reeling from their defeat given their lack of response. Secondly, there may now be substantial weight to the suggestion that Osborne and Boris will go toe to toe for the leadership of the Conservative Party post-Cameron.  This is clear by Osborne’s adoption of what Boris first championed; the living wage.

Google: Last Engine Running?

New Racers

On the 18th May 2009 the BBC reported the launch of Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram is a computational knowledge engine. Alternatively, call it an “answer engine”. It specialises in producing answers to factual questions based on data. The data that it has available is “curated data”. It is in this sense that it earns its keep as a web engine in the same breath as Google. Instead of having a list of documents (from which to draw its answer) it searches the web.

The Times interviewed several salient members of the business and IT communities shortly after the service became widely available. Despite the engine’s creator, Dr. Stephen Wolfram, refusing to engage in the language of battle (denying, in fact, that Wolfram Alpha was a “google killer”) the question that seemed to form on everyone’s lips was whether Wolfram Alpha would displace Google.

To ask this question is to fundamentally misunderstand two things. Firstly, the two are incredibly different services. Whilst Wolfram Alpha will give you an answer, replying on data which has been rigorously checked, Google will direct you to a page which is most likely (according to its algorithms) to have the answer you want on it. Secondly, and indubitably linked to the service, is the target audience. Wolfram Alpha seeks to resolve quandaries. Google instead is a method of discovering information to resolve your own quandary. For these two reasons, Wolfram Alpha can never gain the same widespread use as Google.

Ultimately therefore, it is difficult to see anything other than a grim fate manifesting – but for Wolfram Alpha, not Google. A search engine has a fundamentally commercial aim. Google sells advertising, and so do most others. But Wolfram Alpha struggles to adopt this because the searches it processes do not have good context. For example, if someone searches into Google “coffee shops” the information points to someone who wants to buy coffees. This is sellable. But for someone who searches using Wolfram Alpha “distance to the moon” it is not a sellable piece of information. Without being to sell search information, then advertisements cannot be ‘targeted’. In the 21st century, that is fatal.

An older question?

This explains why Wolfram Alpha falls down. But it does not answer the question we started with; why does Google (seem?) to carry on ticking over whilst other search engines run out of gas? Bing and Yahoo are the most comparable. Whilst it may not be possible to accurately determine market shares it does seem that Google has seized a lead and will not let go.

There is some differentiation. Bing has historically focused on ensuring privacy with its searches and it has an older target age group. It is the youngest of the three leading search engines (founded 1st of June 2009). On the other hand Yahoo (the oldest of the three search engines – founded on the 1st of March 1995 as opposed to Google, which was founded on the 7th September 1998) focuses on trying to create an experience. It is interesting that Yahoo actually offers many features that Google does not; more email storage (one terabyte as opposed to 15GB for google), localised websites by region, and dedicated games. But at one point it relied on Google as the search engine. Moreover, link Bing it is generally used by an older age group.

The fundamental point propelling Google around laps faster than its competitors is that it does what it does better than the other two. Bing may offer a higher tech experience – but for most searches this is not required. Equally, Yahoo may allow the individual to carry out multiple online functions through its unified services, but this should not be the main function of a search engine. Google’s PageRank algorithm means it returns relevant results time and time again. It is a one trick pony; with a very good trick. Because it is the leader in this, overtaking is almost impossible Consequently, it secures itself a powerful stream of income which will allow it to keep making investments. Google has many miles left as the market leader.

Student Immaturity: Not Just a Growing Pain

I have already written a post about what can be learnt from the recent general elections, which you can find here. https://speak21st.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/lessons-learnt-general-election-2015/

There is one thing, however, that I did not predict or mention; but which certainly deserves a mention – and that is the outpouring of left–wing outraged. In addition to, frankly, extreme, articles (such as this) criminality resulted; notably the graffiti which was applied to the Women of World War Two memorial on Whitehall. The first article, seeks to argue against the use of the graffiti story (but does not seek to justify the graffiti itself) to “vilify” the movement protesting against the result. But I do not think that is the point that is being made by those who criticise the events; the point is one which seeks to highlight correlation, from a criminological standpoint. Where there are conditions where crimes can occur (e.g. a protest) then crime will result (e.g. graffiti) – broadly broken windows theory.

What this response shows, in my opinion is an institutional immaturity in student politics, which prevents it from being an effective actor at the national level. The youth vote should be a powerful force, courted by those seeking a democratic majority. Instead, the reactions seen in the aftermath in the #ge2015 evidenced why those in power and those seeking power can continue to ignore the 18-25 category. This is evidenced by how the opportunity of the Friday after the elections, was squandered. I write (a much delayed) response, in particular to the reactions of the Stepford Student a left-leaning (read: horizontal) student endeavour responded to the 2015 election with an array of articles. The defence of the graffiti makes my point eloquently; it’s a question of style – and student politics does not understand this. I want to substantiate this argument by making two points. Does student politics recognise (as was ably argued here) that it is in danger of becoming everything it is (said) to stand against?

Firstly, by creating the conditions in which violence rather than rational discourse can flower, a valid point is being wasted. Does swearing work in any national election? Not that I know of. Yet, somehow, people believed that the “#fuckthetories” was the best way to express discontent with how the results panned.

My second point is that there is a valid point (in the anger somewhere): whether elections are entirely democratic is an interesting point. But, people are quick to forget that there was a referendum to change to alternative voting system – with 41% turnout, the result had 67% no vote. There were problems with how the referendum was carried out, as explained here. But 67% is overwhelming and doubts as to whether any reason is more convincing than the fact that people simply did not want it. Labour, let us remember, did not support the change (although perhaps prophetically Ed Miliband sought to support the “Yes” campaign).

This post is brief; I believe that there is much that should be problematised about the reaction to the general election result. But this is no longer helpful. Instead, the immaturity of student politics should be addressed squarely, now it has been highlighted for all to see.

Lessons Learnt: General Election 2015

Here are five things that we have learnt from the general election 2015:

1. Results

Conservatives took 330 (plus the Speaker)

Labour took 232 seats.

The SNP received a landslide 56 (all but three Scottish seats).

Liberal Democrats were cut down to just eight (from 57)

The Democratic Unionist Party received eight seats.

Plaid Cymru managed three seats.

UKIP only managed to obtain one seat.

Greens also only received one seat.

2. Serious thought needs to be given to voting reform

Amongst the many stories that were flying on the night of the general election, was the discontent of the minor parties (Greens and UKIP) regarding the resulting injustice of the current ‘first past the post’ system. Sky have shown that UKIP received more than 3 million votes, coming second in near on 100 seats – yet they only managed to hold one seat.

Sky’s live news service termed this a problem of “conversion” of votes into seats. This does not seem a very helpful analysis. It misunderstands the point that the minor parties (might – should) be making: it should not be the problem of the voters to vote tactically. The first past the post system is an archaic fossil of a different political landscape, and should be seriously re-considered. This is what would have happened with proportional representation.

3. Polls need to be revised

British Polling Council (an independent inquiry) are going to examine “apparent bias” in the polls. In the lead up to the vote, major national polls predicted a neck and neck between Labour and Conservative – in fact, there had been some indication that Labour were one point ahead. This is not what happened. Only the exit polls (which tragically enough, all the leaders said must be treated with extreme caution)

Some have argued that there was a problem of methodology; that telephone polls had highlighted a stronger Tory vote than others. This does not seem enough to explain the massive lead of the Conservatives because similar demographics were touched by both polls. Others have said that there was a massive swing at the individual level; yet this should have been caught by the methodology. Questions remain unanswered.

4. Changes to the Election Campaign Trail

Two changes occurred in this election: (i) TV debates have become institutionalised and (ii) massive spending on American spin doctors.

On the first, the crucial point that it can be made is that it puts more emphasis on leadership; and if this is one of the areas which let Labour down they will have to re-think their approach.

On the second, the Economist have referred to the global nature of spin doctors involved in the election. Two advantages must be highlighted: (i) the fact that it brings a new point of view and (ii) that it spices up discussion (e.g. the dead cat approach).

5. Consequences for the Parties

A. Conservatives: (slim) majority. Conservatives backbenchers will have a significant influence; this will nevertheless be a better situation than having coalition partners, as at least the Ministerial seats will be of one stripe.

B. Labour: four factors militated to cause its loss: (i) leadership problems (ii) taking the party too far to the left rather than occupy the centre left (iii) were targeted by negative campaigning – fears that voting for Labour would mean either a Labour/SNP or Labour/Lib Dem coalition and finally (iv) there was no . Each will have to be addressed before Labour can reform. However, there cannot be too short a reform system; a weak leader elected quickly will not guarantee a strong base moving forward.

C. SNP: heralded by many as a landslide victory, their extraordinary result in Scotland should be understand in the context of the rest of the election. It is clear that many who voted for them were doing so because they did not seriously believe that the Labour party would be able to beat the Conservatives.

D. UKIP: will be the party (along with the Greens) calling for electoral reform. Crucially however, they will have a powerful platform to re-engage with the electorate during the (promised) 2017 referendum. Farage has not ruled himself out, after all.

E. Lib Dem: the fundamental problem was one of confidence; the student vote which propelled them to power was lacking in this campaign after the increase in tuition fees. After such a poor result, it would not be surprising if they joined calls for a proportional representation system.

The British General Election VIII: SNP

1. Home Affairs

A. Taxes and Economy: Oppose oil and gas drilling, and invest in offshore wind farming. Support an international bank tax and limits to industry bonuses.

It is smart to strike a tone which has been seen to work for the Greens. It is a smart move to try and piggy back onto those voters who do not mind that their vote would not be for a party with any chance of forming a majority. Yet there position is somewhat problematic; oil has recently found its second wind (with significant reserves being found under Gatwick). Popularity of the status quo will mean that significant resistance from business will be found. The SNP should have learnt their lesson; it was highly influential in the Scottish referendum that the businesses came out against them.

B. The NHS: Reduce the number of senior managers in the NHS by 25% over the next parliament. Streamline the work of health boards.

The Tories claimed to have done it, UKIP claim they need to do it more; middle management (as noted) needs to go. Efficiency is desirable. But one should question whether with change, removing management is the best step. It is through the middle management that directions and themes from the top filter through to the bottom. Especially for the Tories (who want to change the direction of the NHS) this might be problematic. It is more persuasive to hear it from the SNP.

C. Jobs: Introduce gender quotas on public boards. Living wage “a central priority” in all Scottish government contracts. Continue the ‘small business bonus’

Gender quotas on public boards is a forward thinking movement; considering the initiatives being taken by various countries in order to address inequalities in corporate boards.

D. Education: Guaranteed free 30 hours of childcare a week for three and four-year-olds in Scotland, up from 16 hours. Maintain lack of tuition fees at Scottish universities, and offer financial support in grants and loans to students. Continue to build and refurbish schools. Lower voting age to 16 in all UK elections.

It is not surprising that the SNP, in line with Labour, are seeking to lower the voting age. They are both projected to do better with younger ages. Indeed, the results of the Scottish referendum support this for the SNP. It is surprising, given the real possibility of the SNP influencing the outcome of the elections, to focus so much on Scottish rights.

E. Law and Order: Support the European Arrest Warrant. Co-operate with other countries on organised crime and terrorism.

A refreshing acceptance of a doctrine which is working.

2. Foreign Affairs

A. Immigration: Allow the devolved government to have control over immigration to Scotland, and introduce a Canadian-style earned citizenship system to attract highly-skilled immigrants.

Allowing the government to have control over devomax does not seem outside the realms of possibility. It should be recalled however, that there are constitutional limits to the powers which may be devolved. And the ideal of giving control to the government seems prima facie incompatible with EU law. Which is a reserved area of competency. If they mean introduction of points style immigration (as well as citizenship) they may well have a better chance.

B. EU: Oppose nuclear weapons and push for removal of Trident submarines from Scotland.. Maintain 0.7% commitment to foreign aid. Enhanced role for Scotland within the UK in Europe, particularly in fisheries policy.

Given current concern regarding treatment of seals by salmon farmers, more influence at the fisheries level might well show that Scotland is taking these concerns seriously. Trident always is a risk area to discuss: especially because concerns of national security influence any such discussion. Recently, it seems to have been determined that the cost would be less than previously predicted (estimates are more accurate around the £2.5-3.5 billion, compared to the £20-25 billion),

The SNP have erupted powerfully onto the national scene, after what was an incredibly able campaign for independence. However, they have not learnt the lessons of their failure. Firstly, they should have courted support from Scottish businesses. Secondly, popular as they are with the youth they should have either ensured that their proposed benefits touch everyone – rather than just Scottish youths.

Misdiagnosis: Barts Health NHS Trust

In a recent blog post on http://www.lexology.com Tom Gough has discussed what “special measures” mean for a NHS hospital. Specifically, he highlighted the fact that there are both multiple reasons for which a hospital can be placed in special measures, and multiple ways in which those factors can be resolved. This holistic approach is important because it seeks to correct the misdiagnosis which occurs in the general press when such services are labelled.

More specifically, the blog post discussed the situation of Barts Health NHS Trust. The BBC has reported on this particular case: this was the result of the health service regulator the Care Quality Commission. It is important to understand that there were no direct concerns raised regarding patients – and yet it was in those terms in which the special measures were discussed. The story run by the Mirror did not mention many of the factors of the report – preferring to focus on what was probably the reason for commissioning the story in the first place.

Whilst journalism has an important role to play in any society, we should question the boundaries. This has clearly been discussed before in respect to national security – but what about the cases were stories discourage individuals to seek health care? Should this carry consequences?