John Street’s Diary

Written By: John Street
Published: February 11, 2018 Last modified: February 11, 2018

The GMB general union has demanded a workers’ voice on the Food and Drink Council to prevent it becoming an exclusive talking shop for big business, says the GMB. The new Council includes 16 representatives from across the entire food chain, covering farming, manufacturing, retail, hospitality and logistics. Members of the council are appointed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, subject to the final agreement of the council’s joint-chairs. They have seen fit to appoint Nick Varney, chief executive of Merlin Entertainments, the owner of theme parks such as Legoland, as well as Cassandra Stavrou, the founder of snack firm Propercorn, but no one from a union. The GMB is calling on the council to ensure that unions and workers are invited to be involved in the future work of the group. National officer Eamon O’Hearn said: “Without a true voice for the workers on the Food and Drink Sector Council, it seriously risks becoming an exclusive talking shop for big business.” The £28 billion industry making some of the most famous British exports from Marmite to mustard and whisky to Walkers Crisps “relies on thousands of people, including our members, who work every day to not only put food on the table of their family but of families across the country and the world”.

An employer’s “contemptible” attempt to restrict the right to picket during strike action has been overturned in the courts by the Unite general union. The case arose as a result of a dispute involving Sutton Tanker workers based at Ellesmere Port. The 30 workers have been on strike since 19 January as a result of the company’s plan to dismiss and re-engage them on inferior terms and conditions, which would result in their pay being slashed. On 24 January, Unite was given less than 30 minutes warning that Eastham Oil Refinery of Ellesmere Port, where the workers are based, was in court seeking an injunction to prevent picketing in the locality. As Unite was given no time to attend court and defend the case, a temporary injunction was granted and the case was adjourned until 1 February. At that hearing, Unite overturned the injunction and secured the right to picket at the entrances of the lorry park. The court confirmed the separate right to conduct lawful protests on the public highway. Unite assistant general secretary for legal services Howard Beckett said: “This was a key legal victory. It was vital to preserve the right to picket during a lawful dispute. If Unite had been unsuccessful the fundamental right of freedom of association would have been greatly restricted. Frankly the action of Eastham Oil Refinery in seeking an injunction without allowing Unite to mount a defence was contemptible and I hope this defeat will persuade other companies not to try the same tactic in the future.”

A courier driver with diabetes who was fined by his employers for taking time off for a hospital appointment has died. The widow of Don Lane, from Dorset, says her late husband feared taking time off to get care for his condition because of £150 penalties imposed by delivery firm DPD if he did not manage to get his round covered. Lane, 53, was fined for taking a day off to see a doctor and also missed appointments with specialists because of the pressure imposed by the company. Ruth Lane criticised DPD for failing to honour its “duty of care”. She said: “There was a constant threat of a fine. They had to deliver the parcels to tight slots and the pressure to get them done was huge. He was putting the company before his own health. He wasn’t able to do his parcels first and make the hospital appointments, so he would cancel on the day. He collapsed in January 2017 and they knew that because they collected his van. It was after that Don cancelled three appointments. DPD had a duty of care to make sure he got to those appointments, but they failed in it.” Under the terms of the contract, drivers are not entitled to sick leave and the company can charge them £150 if their rounds are not completed.

A British Election Study analysis appeared to puncture claims that a “youthquake” almost gave Labour last year’s snap election. The study found that there was very little change in turnout by age group between the 2015 and 2017 contests and that younger voters were still much less likely to vote, older voters much more so. In both years, turnout among the youngest voters was between 40% and 50%. Labour’s popularity increased among all ages, except for those over 70. Turnout did go up in constituencies with more young voters – for every percentage point increase in 18 to 29-year-olds living in a constituency, turnout went up by 0.1 percentage points compared with 2015. However, the analysis shows that large, sudden, and unexpected shifts in the age-turnout relationship are very unlikely. The idea that there was a surge in youth turnout may reflect a belief that politicians achieve success because of what they set out to do. In this case, increasing youth turnout was part of Corbyn’s political strategy. As Labour did unexpectedly well, it was not unreasonable to form the view that the strategy paid off. But the hard evidence shows that, at best, the result was marginal.

The contentious issue of the RPI rate of inflation has gone up the political agenda with the Bank of England rubbishing the measure favoured by union negotiators. In the courts, Justice Zacaroli rejected a case brought by BT, ruling that the telecoms giant could not replace the Retail Prices Index (RPI) with the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) measure of inflation when uprating pension payments. Due to its exclusion of owner-occupier housing costs and a different method of calculating average rises, CPI is typically lower than RPI. The BT case turned on the interpretation of the pension scheme rules which said pensions should be uprated by the RPI unless RPI ceased to be published or had “become inappropriate”. On the first, RPI is still published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). On the second, the ONS and the statistical regulator have deemed it “fundamentally flawed”. If the ONS were right, then BT could switch the pension to CPI. Expert witnesses queued up on each side. However, it was Simon Briscoe, former FT statistics editor and member of the Council of the Royal Statistical Society, and his support for the RPI that won the day. He argued that the significance of RPI’s reported flaws was overstated and applied more to its use for macro-economic purposes than as a measure of inflation as experienced by pensioners. He concluded that RPI is the best index available to measure inflation as experienced by pensioners of occupational pension schemes. Zacaroli sided with Briscoe and found that the RPI had not “become inappropriate”. However, as the TUC’s senior economist, Geoff Tily, reports in a blog, this is not the end of the debate, with a forthcoming government White Paper on defined benefit pension schemes likely to be the next scene of battle. It is expected to favour allowing employers or trustees to impose changes in the inflation measure used to uprate pensions. The TUC’s position is clear, says Tily: “There is no case for permitting cuts to members’ benefits without their consent. This includes changes to rates of indexation and revaluation. Giving schemes with RPI inflation uprating in their rules the ability to switch to CPI for uprating without member consent, would cost an average affected DB scheme member £20,000 over their retirement.” Meanwhile, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, wants the RPI pensioned off. He told the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee that he wanted the government to stop issuing bonds — parcels of debt — linked to the RPI within the next seven to 10 years. He also told that new public sector contracts should be moved as soon as possible to the CPI measure of inflation. Carney said: “It would be helpful to just have one public-facing measure of the cost of living for consumers. At the moment we have RPI, which most would acknowledge has no merit; we have CPI, which virtually everyone recognises and is in our remit; and we have the ONS favourite CPIH, which includes housing costs.”

About John Street

John Street is Tribune's diary columnist.