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Saturday 23 May 2020

The death of the HR department

Back in 2017 Nicola Thorp turned up for a temp assignment at Price Waterhouse Cooper staffing the reception desk. She was sent home for wearing flat shoes; the company dress code clearly stated that women employees must wear 2 - 4 inch heels. And despite the press reactions - photos of shapely calves in stilettos from the Sun, outrage from the Guardian - it quickly blew over. Dress codes were and are a quite legal and enforceable power of company HR departments. And it doesn't end with what employees can wear to the office. In the past twenty years they have ended the City's lunchtime drinking culture. The pubs heaving with suited traders getting a couple of pints down their gullets are a thing of the past - the HR departments decreed that, on Health and Safety grounds, the company had a new no-alcohol policy. Any employee with alcohol in their bloodstream was deemed to be an unacceptable risk in the workplace.

Of course it extended even further. Not only must employees not smoke in the workplace, they must not smoke in the vicinity of the workplace or when they can be identified as employees of the company, whether during their paid hours or otherwise. When your DHL driver finishes his shift, he can still be disciplined for having a fag in his liveried overalls in a Tesco car park.

And then there's social media. The reason I started blogging under a pseudonym was counsel's opinion that had been circulated to us confirming that contractors, IR35ers and employees could all be compelled to desist from expressing any form of personal public opinion that could be linked to the company. There's no point in Joe Potato going on Twitter with the bio "Structural Engineer with Thames Water - opinions are my own". They're not. His opinions belong to his employer. Of course, Momentum activists working in the NHS don't have this problem, as the employer doesn't mind being linked with them, but an NHS worker openly declaring membership of the Brexit Party on Twitter will certainly face disciplinary action - not for the membership, but they'll dig into past posts to find one that violates company policy. Offence archaeology. This last pernicious smothering of personal political opinion by corporate HR departments has surely been the most distasteful use of commercial power.

HR litigation has been a rich seam of earnings for law firms, so much so that the workplace has become an incredibly high-risk legal environment. In the past decade cases have even sought to establish that normal human contacts in the workplace can be a cause for action; don't even think about smiling reassuringly at the new girl or joking about the Transport Manager's weight.

And Covid-19 might just have driven a tank through the whole bloody edifice of corporate HR control.

Are female employees of PwC working from home still expected to wear 4" heels when Zooming from their sofa? Can you swig from a can of cold lager in the garden on a steaming hot day while engaged on a work voice call? Can you smoke whilst constructing complex company spreadsheets on the kitchen table, or if you develop lung cancer can you sue the company for secondary smoke from your wife's fag in the workplace? Can you playfully jiggle your spouse's breasts on company time?

And as work itself changes away from permanent employment in a workplace, as will be inevitable, will the legal relationships between employee / contractor and employer become more equal? Will employees cease to be a 'resource' like iron ore or petroleum feed stock or power or produce and start to become sovereign partners, if unequal in financial size?

I started work having an office, a desk with an ashtray and a culture of the three-pint lunch, of Christmas parties that provided opportunity for Bacchanalian fornication. The job of the personnel department was to write the salary cheques. Most people met their partners at work, and their longest lasting friends, bonded over beer and fags and Christmas lunches. It's now the turn of the Puritan zealots from the HR departments who ruined it all to go. They won't be missed.

Update 9.53
I neglected to mention the effects of Covid on liability insurance premiums - general liability insurance, Directors & Officers insurance and Worker's Compensation insurance. In the end it won't be government legislation on distancing that kills the office workplace, but the unaffordability of the risk.

Friday 22 May 2020

On the bright side ...

Climate activists will no doubt be contemplating a new series of disruptive protests at the news. The sunshine and good weather, it seems,  is down to dramatically lower levels of atmospheric pollution across the world. It surely cannot be long before the increased levels of UV trigger a new fear campaign. "Unless we stop this lack of pollution that protects us from harmful UV rays, the whole country will start tanning and producing more vitamin D!"

Seriously, what has surprised many is the speed with which the earth has bounced back from a pause in human activity. The force of life in nature is tremendously strong and an entire city will return to jungle if we abandon it, if we stop the daily fight to keep nature at bay, halt the weeding, the mowing, the cultivating, the taming of all that incessant growth.

It's mating time for both house spiders and salamanders here. The first are no problem - but little webs I've not previously noticed are suddenly holding a pair of spiders. Leave them be until they've done their spider stuff. The salamanders though are as daft as bricks. They've been crawling slowly up the old stream bed each year for a thousand years or more to mate, and the fact that a cart track has become a little road with two or three vehicles an hour at peak times doesn't phase them. But it does me. So as I spot them, I become a salamander lollipop man, sometime picking them up and carrying them across if they're moving too slowly. They seem to give me a look of withering contempt - "We'll still be doing this long after you've gone, human".

It's the trees I feel sorry for. We've just reduced their lush diet of CO2. It won't be long before the Gretas start blaming us for that too - the year of Covid will be recorded for posterity by a thin, emaciated growth ring. All our fault. And the bloody things are probably getting sunburnt, to boot.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Michael Gove runs a tight ship

More of a placemark than a post this morning; I'm sure we will all need to find these documents quickly over the next few weeks as the activities of the Brexit saboteurs rises to a crescendo.

The focus, clarity and process of the talks is a tribute both to Michael Gove and David Frost. What a change from dreary May's demented bungling, and the idiocy displayed by Oliver Robbins.

David Frost's letter to M. Barnier (.pdf)

Draft agreement on Fisheries (.pdf)

Draft Trade agreement (.pdf)

Frost's letter is a model of reasonableness, and recognises that poor M. Barnier has been given an impossible brief by his principals. It also sets out the UK's position to the rest of the world and makes it very difficult for the EU to deploy their usual threat and pressure tactics of smear and confected outrage. It is a well-constructed attempt for the UK to take the moral high ground, and to my mind succeeds admirably.

We will all have learned that all successful negotiations always allow both sides to claim some gains, and I suspect that for the EU these will be tariffs. France, the biggest global consumer of Scotch whisky, may pressure the EU to penalise her own drinkers in a fit of pique. But I'm sure we'll get over it - too much and we boycott EU goods in the UK, which is the last thing that German carmakers want.

Over to you, M. Barnier.

M. Barnier responds to Frost - "I don't like your tone, my man" - but no rebuttal of UK's fisheries position other than "consequences - we will punish you". Twitter comments include "Lord North all over". Judge for yourselves

Barnier response to UK

Tuesday 19 May 2020


Evidence continues to emerge about the way in which the Wuhan virus spreads. There's good news and bad news. The good news is that instead of 60% of us having to be infected to achieve herd immunity, we could do it with 10% - 20% in combination with behaviour modification. The bad news is that the behaviour modification could knock the arse out of our lives. 

The key is that not all of us are infected equally, and those who are infectious are not all equally infectious. It's nothing to do with individual physiology and everything to do with location and positioning, as the Telegraph reports today -
By applying a mathematical model to reported outbreaks of the disease outside China, they estimated that 80 per cent of all secondary transmissions were caused by a small fraction of infected individuals - around 10 percent.
The risk is in strenuous or energetic activities with more rapid, deeper breathing in crowded closed or indoor situations. A mosh pit is very high risk, the Bodleian library much less so. Groundworkers, brickies and scaffolders (provided they don't crowd into the mess rooms) are safe on site, second fix joiners, sparkies and painters less so. And if you want to get around London, I'd suggest the upper deck of one of those open-top tourist buses.

But for most of us, it's our most common and uniting experience that may never be the same again - the pub. They've re-opened here, but table service only, not more than four to a table and bookings are needed. The whole point about going to the pub is (a) it's spontaneous and (b) the opportunity to meet new people, expose yourself to social interaction and to strengthen bonds of identity and community. We have to pin our hopes on a vaccine to get back to anything like normal. 

Post-Wuhan gasthaus

Monday 18 May 2020

The final round of EU trade talks - sham ECJ crippled.

I have long claimed here that the ECJ was named in the same way as Orwell's Ministry of Truth. It is the EU's political court, and has taken on the mantle of bending the law to facilitate ever closer union, to achieve a federal European state. It has as little to do with pursuing justice, equity, right or fair play as Orwell's fictional bureaucracy has with championing veracity. AEP's latest column for the Telegraph does a magnificent job in underlining the institution's failures -
The ECJ merely asserts primacy. The doctrine was invented out of whole cloth in the landmark Costa/ Enel case in 1964. This bootstrap jurisprudence - in essence a bluff - has been indulged and tolerated by member states. Until now.

There is no Treaty basis for EU legal supremacy. Judicial expansionists in the EU legal services unit tried to slip it into the Lisbon Treaty but all they got was a thin Declaration in the annex stating that the “settled law of the Court” has primacy over national law.

The German judges have repeatedly objected to judicial activism by the ECJ, thunderously denouncing its misuse of the Charter to extend its power. Their finger has been on the trigger. Finally they pulled it. The implicit has suddenly become explicit.
AEP, who has successfully predicted twelve of the last three recessions, is not sanguine about the effects of this bust up. We are wrong to believe it will be bodged over with the usual Eurofudge, wrong to imagine that the ECB can just carry on with its QE programme. He strongly believes that this time it's a binary choice between Germany's continued membership of the EU and the Euro.

Their mistake was to trust in a popular misunderstanding. For years we have been lectured that 'EU law is superior to national law and supercedes domestic legislation' - true. It was easy for everyone to assume or be led to believe that if EU law was superior to national law, then the EU's court must be superior to national courts - not true. 

Meanwhile, as the penultimate round of talks on an EU trade deal before the June deadline collapsed, with Boris holding firm against the EU didactic stubbornness, we are reminded that there are just six weeks remaining in which an extension can be agreed. Even though the government has made plain that no extension will be sought or accepted, this won't stop the entire forces of Remain and #FBPE idiocy from going flat out.

As the final round of pre-deadline talks start in June, expect hysteria from all the usual quarters, eager for the UK to handicap itself or shackle our laws to their sham-court, just so cruelly exposed as such by the German judges. 

Expect Blair back on the Today programme explaining why an extension is essential, and the MSM to dig-up the crazed fools who were kicked out of the party; Grieve, Soubry, Rory Stewart et al. Oh, and of course Major will rise from his sepulchre to do the same. Plus the gerontocrats from the Lords will croak their protests over inadequate phone lines and PTSD Adonis and 'Howler' Grayling will melt down. Also expect the BBC to put out a Panorama explaining how not extending will cost more lives than the Wuhan virus, and Sky to interview no-one except closet Momentum members. Hey ho.