A Beecroft Brainteaser

Last Friday, Vince Cable announced that the government had abandoned plans to introduce no fault sackings in this parliament, one of the key recommendations of the Beecroft report on employment law, published in May 2012.

Whatever you think about the pros and cons of giving employers greater powers to manage their workforce, the passing of the Beecroft recommendations would have been yet another example of the distain that HM government has repeatedly shown towards evidence-based policy in recent years. Although this is a trend that began long before the current Conservative leaders began their tenure in Downing Street, the current Beecroft near-miss shows this lack of respect for evidence at its most stark.

I must admit that when I first read in a Sky News report about the lack of evidence in the Beecroft report, I assumed that maybe the references were just poor or the report had linked to some poor quality research. However after tracking down the report in question, I soon realised that it wasn’t that the references were bad, but that they don’t actually appear to exist. If Beecroft did do or use any research to support his views he was obviously not that keen to disclose it.

The Beecham report, found here is simply an opinion piece, containing a shopping list of recommendations to the government. The list includes recommendations on
16 areas of policy, including the headline grabbing policies such as unfair dismissal, immigration and redundancy. The London school of economics did an excellent teardown of the paper back in May that branded its influence on policy as “policy witchcraft” and showed just how disconnected paper was with the body of evidence on employment law.

What is surprising to someone like me is that a report like this manages to get credibility within the governing party considering its complete lack of regard for facts (I.e the truth). The document instead makes repeated calls to ‘common sense’ arguments, for example:

…Making it easier to remove underperforming employees will not in the short term increase unemployment as they will be replaced by more competent employees. In the long run it will increase employment by making our businesses more competitive and hence more likely to grow.

Although this makes a level of intuitive sense to me it comes as a bit of shock to someone who has been brought up in the scientific disciplines and expects to read well argued empirical papers. At the very least you would expect to see an attempt to back up this argument, even a link to a Google search would be a start.

Is should be fairly clear that this statement is full of broad assumptions. It assumes that there are more unemployed competent employees than there are employed incompetent employees for a start. Even if this were true, is our employment system set up to get competent employees who have been unemployed for a while back into work? I’m not sure and I don’t have much time for anyone who can be won over by such a simplistic argument.

As a document that could shape policy for a number of years to come shouldn’t we expect a little more rigour?

The lack of empiricism is even more surprising when you consider Mr Beecroft’s background. Adrian Beecroft is currently chairman of Dawn Capital, a venture capitalist firm. His biography on the site shows that he:

has a degree in physics from Queen’s College, Oxford.

… and …

is a sponsor of the Beecroft Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Oxford University. He is also a joint sponsor of the Oxford Academy and … is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and an Honorary Fellow of the Queen’s College, Oxford.

This blows my mind. Adrian Beecroft is not a scientifically illiterate man, and indeed seems to have, like me, a passion for astrophysics and cosmology. He is clearly no stranger to the scientific method, a tool that could and should provide so much more value in determining the truth behind an idea or a government policy, yet instead we still somehow end up with a document that reads like a daily telegraph editorial. It is an ideologically driven piece of fluff that is fine for what it is and raises many good questions about the status quo in employment law, but should absolutely not be used to shape any government policy, ever.

Adrian Beecroft is a successful businessman and Tory donor with a disproportionate amount of influence on his party’s thinking, but that is not his fault. The real questions should be asked about the entire structure of our political establishment that has sidelined science to such an extent that documents such as Beecroft’s are allowed so much influence.

This is an entirely non-partizan issue and deals with, at its core, the dangerous levels of scientific ignorance in our society, (though not in Beecroft’s case) and a lack of understanding as to how evidence-based policy making is what our country needs more than ever to get us out of this economic rut.