Playing party politics with HR

Patricia Hewitt Labour secretary of state for trade and industry

I don’t need to tell readers of Personnel Today the importance of businesses valuing their employees and subscribing to decent work-life balance policies. One of my proudest achievements over the past four years at the DTI has been our ability to build support for, and extend our policies on flexible working. It’s telling that in the last election campaign not one of the political parties dedicated a full day’s campaigning to this agenda. Now, already, all three have (with the Tories reversing their consistent opposition to this agenda just in time for the election). The culture has changed and, I believe, changed for the better.

Work-life balance

We want to give more choice to families about how they balance their work and home life – because it’s good for them, good for our economy and society, because it gives their children a better start in life, and it’s good for business. Our flexible working laws are already proving a success, with nearly 800,000 new working patterns in the first year alone and 87% of businesses surveyed by the CBI reporting that the law has had either a positive, or no impact on their business.

We are now consulting on proposals to extend the law to the carers of sick and disabled relatives and parents of older children. We also want to know if there is more the government can do to assist employers handling requests for flexible working and help employees make requests. As someone who has run small organisations for much of my working life, I recognise that the needs of parents and carers [have to be] balanced with the needs of business. We want to provide real choices for families but we must do this without damaging economic growth.

Light-touch legislation

Many employers offer flexible working across the workforce as they consider it makes business sense to do so. We recognise this and have sought to encourage uptake through promoting the spread of best practice alongside targeted, light-touch legislation.

We have already introduced a number of measures to support working families, including longer maternity leave, increases in both Statutory Maternity Pay and the Maternity Allowance, plus extending the payment period. We are now consulting on giving a further £1,400 to working parents, and extending maternity pay and adoption pay from six to nine months by April 2007, with the goal of a year’s paid leave by end of the next Parliament.

We are also looking at a new right for mothers to transfer a proportion of their leave and pay to fathers and giving employers greater certainty over when employees return to work.

Best practice

We believe this is a strong, workable package as it builds on the best business practice. It also builds on increasing support and awareness among the general public for these measures.

I am committed to working within the grain of best business practice and involving the business community, trade unions and family groups.
I want to mention the action we are taking on skills. Skills are fundamental to achieving our ambitions. They help businesses create wealth, and they help people realise their potential. So they serve the twin goals of social justice and economic success.

Proposals set out in the recent White Paper, and further measures in our manifesto, complement the wide-ranging reforms we have made across the education system. Our expansion of early years provision and our 14-19 White Paper reflect our commitment to make the UK the best-educated, best-trained, best-skilled country in the world. Our reforms will enable all children to start education at three and continue until they are 19.

We want to ensure that business has access to a well-educated and highly-skilled workforce, and that those working in HR have the tools at their disposal to offer the flexibility and choice we know is now more important than ever.

Stephen O’Brien, Conservative shadow secretary of state for trade and industry

Accountability will be the main signature of a future Conservative government. To restore trust in government, we will only make promises that we know we can deliver.

We will reform the DTI, so that it focuses on the issues that matter to business. We will alter the culture in government to one of deregulation. We will abolish the complicated and costly regulations on statutory dismissal procedures and renegotiate the essential elements of the UK’s opt-out from the EU Social Chapter.

Reducing red tape

The Conservatives will reduce unnecessary and inefficient government expenditure, allowing us to spend more on priority areas and leaving enough to avoid tax rises. In his first budget, Oliver Letwin will cut taxes by £4bn.

To be a successful and dynamic economy, we need a flexible labour market. We will scrap the New Deal for Young People. To get the long-term unemployed back into jobs, we will use independent contractors to provide job opportunities, and we will expand the New Deal for Disabled People.

We believe choice and flexibility are essential for the work-life balance. We believe in giving families greater power to decide what to do when bringing up children and that childcare policy should not restrict hard-working families or over-burdened businesses.

Childcare

We plan to give 250,000 more parents up to £50 a week for every child under five, regardless of the type of childcare, and we will increase maternity pay by £1,400.

The skills shortage is a growing problem for business. We plan to improve vocational skills by giving 300,000 grants worth £1,000 to 14- to 16-year-olds to take up vocational subjects. Our Right to Choose policy will allow parents to select the school they want.

We will ensure the survival of key subjects such as engineering and chemistry at university level by giving undergraduates bursaries of £2,000 on graduation.

Immigration

One Conservative policy that may be of concern to employers is our commitment to introducing quotas on immigration. The quota set each year by Parliament will take into account the needs of business and the prevailing labour market and skills needs.

We believe that employers and employees alike thrive best in a low-tax, low-regulation economy. We wish to provide this framework by introducing deregulation measures, raising the skills levels, and reducing unnecessary government expenditure.

Malcolm Bruce, Liberal Democrat shadow secretary of state for trade and industry

In recent weeks the Liberal Democrats have published a Business Manifesto and a policy paper on workplace rights. These set out how we will create a business-friendly economic climate, with policies designed to address the disproportionate burden that rules and business rates have on small companies.

Our priority is to create a working environment that promotes fairness, equality and growth – to strike a balance between employee rights and the needs of business.

We have welcomed the development of more flexible working practices, but want safeguards to prevent employers circumventing employment legislation.

Responsive workplaces

We want workplaces to be more responsive to workers who have young families or care responsibilities by allowing employees to have a say in positive changes to their work environment.

With the growth of tribunals, trade unions play a vital role in representing their members and obtaining redress. We see unions as an important stakeholder in the economy but we do not believe they should have a privileged, statutory position.

Diversity

Diversity in the workforce adds to productivity and we will end compulsory retirement, grant older workers protection under unfair dismissal regulations and modernise pensions to allow people to retire gradually. We will end unnecessarily discriminatory job adverts. We also want to see a Single Equality Act brought in to consolidate anti-discrimination legislation.

New regulations will have an independent impact assessment and those affecting business will include a sunset clause. We will consider which regulations need not apply to small companies.

Abolishing the DTI

A key thread to our policy is the abolition of the Department of Trade and Industry to simplify and clarify the role of government in relation to business. We will cut away the DTI’s bureaucratic and wasteful functions and transfer its useful functions to other departments.

We will consult business on how to make the current complicated tax system simpler and fairer. We will also address the problem of business rates impacting disproportionately on small businesses.

While we are seeking to free business from government micro-management, we recognise the government has a major role to play in addressing low skills and shortages of trained workers.

Immigration offers us opportunities to fill skills gaps and we will replace the work visa system with a fairer one based on green cards, with a set number of economic migrants, based on the needs of the economy.

We are a richer society as a result of immigration – culturally, socially and economically.


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