Employee rights top the agenda

For the first time in years, the Labour party conference is going to be an important one for employers, especially if you happen to be a certain airline that has had problems with your catering this summer.

The issue of Iraq is still on the front pages, but after a decisive third election victory for Tony Blair it will be hard for delegates to carp too much on foreign policy. Labour chiefs will seek to keep Iraq off the agenda this week, although expect some passionate anti-occupation speeches from the floor.

No, the big story this autumn for the government will be domestic, and in particular, employment issues, notably workers’ rights and pensions.
The unions – the Transport & General Workers’ Union in particular – are pressing for government recognition of secondary picketing in the light of the Gate Gourmet dispute. Downing Street and Alan Johnson, the trade and industry secretary, have ruled out such a move and pledged that there can be no going back to the industrial disputes of the past. You can believe them too: there would be nothing more symbolic of an unpicking of New Labour’s eight years in power if they were to do that.

But the unions that support Labour, and largely funded its election campaign, are getting restless again. Gone are the moderate union barons of the earlier years of Blair’s government; ministers are now faced with a much more left-wing band of ‘brothers’. They have already demanded that the prime minister quit Number 10 by next summer and expressed a preference for chancellor Gordon Brown to take over “sooner rather than later”.

Then there is the Warwick agenda – named after a major party policy forum agreement last year. Ministers may not be prepared to concede on secondary strikes, but at Warwick they did make a pre-election pact over greater employee power.

Warwick includes proposals for bigger redundancy payments, extending the scope of collective bargaining and creating a new employment rights agency similar to the Health & Safety Executive. Giving temporary workers the same rights as permanent staff after just six weeks is one area of concern.

Damage limitation

Businesses, which have already grown weary following changes such as the ever-rising National Minimum Wage and the European Working Time Directive, are already deeply suspicious. Sir Digby Jones, the director general of the CBI, certainly thinks Warwick could damage business and has promised to fight any moves which disadvantage firms.

There are some discrete and technical areas where Number 10 is seeking to quietly pull back on the agreement, but listening to the chancellor’s speech to the TUC you would think the agreement was on the statute book already.

And in Brighton it is likely that motions condemning the increasing role of the private sector in the health service and that UK workers get the same employment rights as our continental neighbours will be passed.

Expect some superficial tough talking to the unions at conference, but don’t necessarily believe it. Blair has been elected for a third term and has announced he is going anyway. And, with a reduced majority of just 65, the government is more than ever beholden to scores of union-backed MPs. Remember also that Brown, who hopes to succeed Blair as prime minister in a couple of years, will rely on the crucial votes of the unions within Labour’s electoral college when it comes to the leadership election.

The other big issue at the Labour conference as far as employers are concerned is pensions. Pensions commissioner Adair Turner, the former CBI chief, will deliver his long-awaited report in November.

Already the signs are that Turner will not go the way of compelling people to save, a move which could have led to more red tape for those in HR. He has cited Australia as a good example of a country that tried to impose compulsion but came up against several problems.

David Blunkett, despite speculation that he may be ready for a return to the Home Office, looks set to stay at the work and pensions department for the while. He will pre-empt Turner by publishing his own ideas on women’s pensions in the next few weeks and he is likely to test his thoughts in Brighton.

Blunkett is moving away from the universal, flat-rate pension favoured by his predecessor. Recently Blunkett has been praising the chancellor, whose tax credit system has a bias towards means testing.

At conference, the GMB union is putting down a motion on pensions, a move which is likely to win support among many delegates. The leaders of a dozen unions have already threatened strike action by three million public sector workers over government plans to increase the retirement age to 65. The motion in Brighton will call for compulsory contributions from all firms and workers, and an expansion of the financial aid programme to help employees when their company’s pension funds are in difficulties.

So, lots for employers to think about, although radical changes on the pensions front will not take place until Brown is at the helm, and probably not even until after the next general election.

Opposition on the move

Next week, the Conservatives meet in Blackpool to begin the process of selecting a new party leader. The minor candidates are expected to pull out of the race shortly, leaving just four main challengers: David Davis, Kenneth Clarke, David Cameron and Liam Fox. The contest looks like being a run-off between Davis and Clarke.

Since May, when Michael Howard announced his intention to stand down, there has been precious little opposition to the government, and much of its plans on employment rights have gone virtually unchallenged. However, with a new leader installed by Christmas, the CBI for one will be hoping that the Tories get down to the serious business of scrutinising the government’s legislative programme in detail.

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