Minister backs campaign to give HR voice in Europe

The CIPD and the HR profession as a whole must strive to have a stronger
voice in Europe over forthcoming employment legislation, says Employment
Relations Minister Alan Johnson.

Johnson told Personnel Today that UK business – and HR in particular –
neglects its responsibilities in helping to shape European employment
directives that often have a significant impact on employment practices in this
country.

He urged HR to become more proactive on the European stage instead of
waiting until directives are incorporated in UK law before getting involved.

"It [the HR profession] could do more in Europe. I have got this
feeling that business in Britain does not punch its weight in Europe. The
agenda is there in Europe and whether we like it or not, it is not going to go
away," Johnson said.

"Trade unions are very effective in arguing their case in Europe.
Politicians are certainly very effective. Whether business is as effective is
questionable, especially whether the HR part of business is getting its voice
heard."

Johnson welcomed the groundbreaking study by Personnel Today and the
Employment Lawyers Association which gives UK-based HR professionals the
opportunity to influence the European Commission on the Working Time Directive.

Launched in Personnel Today last week, the survey results will be fed back
to the EC which is considering removing the UK’s opt-out provision, that allows
staff to choose to work longer than 48 hours a week.

"In the current climate the scrapping of the opt-out would be very damaging
for productivity I am sure about that," Johnson said.

"The opt-out is good," he said. "It’s a good balance for
individuals to have the right to work more than 48 hours, but not be forced
to."

He cited the drafting of the Agency Workers Directive – which will give
temporary staff the same employment rights as permanent staff from day one – as
an example where HR could have played a more active role.

Employers are concerned the temps directive would threaten the
competitiveness of UK firms through increasing red tape and staffing costs. And
the CBI estimates it could lead to up to 300,000 temporary jobs being cut.

"This is an issue where British business should be heard, it should not
always be the Government. Our role is important but so is the business case.
The channels are there for consultation and are an important influence on the
European Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers," he said.

Johnson believes HR has an opportunity to make its voice heard in business
next year when the Employment Act comes into force, giving staff the right to
request flexible working.

He warned employers that if they do not fully embrace voluntary flexible
working rights for staff the Government might consider introducing legislation
to give employees statutory rights following a review of the Act in 2006.

"It [HR] might like to suggest [to its companies] that if they look at
these issues as burdens on business then they are looking at them through the
wrong end of the telescope. Actually what it is all about is improving business
performance and HR managers could make that case more effectively," he
said.

Johnson is optimistic that other proposals in the Employment Act, to
encourage employers and staff to use statutory grievance procedures before
making an application to employment tribunal, will lead to a reduction of about
30,000 tribunal cases a year.

He does believe HR is taken more seriously by business than in the past, but
warns the profession it must strive even harder for central billing in the boardroom,
particularly in the current difficult economic climate.

"There is still room for improvement in how seriously HR is taken by
business," he said. "Lots of companies had HR directors on the board
in the past, but they were cut back in the 1980s and early ’90s when there
might have been a feeling that they where not necessary. But they [HR directors
on the board] are certainly necessary now."

He hinted that a name change for the profession might help HR achieve its
goal of becoming a strategic business partner.

"Human resources’ is as if humans are there as a resource. The term
rankles with me and people can be quite sarcastic. I think personnel is a bit
better," he said.

paul.nelson@rbi.co.uk

Johnson hits back

Employment relations minister Alan
Johnson rejected suggestions that the UK is in the midst of an industrial
relations crisis, despite the problems of trying to resolve the firefighters’
dispute.

He said there will be just over one million working days lost
to strikes this year compared to eight million working days lost on average
every year during the 1980s and 13 million in the 1970s.

Johnson, who refused to discuss the firefighters’ dispute,
said: "It [industrial relations] is not as good as it could be, but it is
not as bad as it is being painted. There is no turmoil on the streets, no
winter or summer of discontent. It is lazy journalism to suggest that there is."

Strike ban

Johnson refused to rule out banning essential services staff
from industrial action following a year of high-profile strike action in the
public services and transport sectors.

He did, however, dismiss a suggestion by the business research
and consultancy organisation, The Work Foundation, which called for compulsory
arbitration in disputes involving essential public services.

The minister is also opposed to Conservative proposals to
change union balloting laws – forcing 50 per cent of membership to vote in
favour of industrial action instead of 50 per cent of the ballot.

The firefighters are currently in a bitter long-term industrial
dispute over their claim for a 40 per cent wage hike to take starting salaries
to £30,000 a year.

Talks aimed at resolving the dispute broke down at the last
minute because they were not tied to changes in working practices such as
training fire brigade staff as paramedics.

London Underground staff were also balloted on strike action
last week after the company sent home employees without pay who refused to work
during the fire strike because of safety concerns.

In addition, London-based local government workers downed tools
last week over a £4,000-a-year London Weighting claim.   

Other disputes over the past 12 months have included a
nationwide strike by local government staff as well industrial action by
further education staff, benefit agency workers, London Underground employees
and staff working for train operators South West Trains and Arriva Trains
Northern.

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