Alan Duncan – blowing the Tory trumpet

Some three million people across the UK may be forced to stop working more than 48 hours per week if MEPs get their way: the European Parliament’s employment and social affairs committee voted last week to scrap the opt-out to the Working Time Directive.

While the final decision rests with the whole of the European Parliament in December, commentators including Liberal Democrat MEP Liz Lynne have called on Gordon Brown to secure the support of his own Labour MEPs to vote to keep the right to choose working hours.

Shadow secretary for business, enterprise and regulatory reform Alan Duncan, however, has called for the Working Time Directive to be ‘burned’ altogether.

In an exclusive interview for Personnel Today, Duncan said the directive was just another example of an unnecessary burden on UK businesses, which the government must aim to prevent in the first place.

“It will do a lot of damage to a lot of companies, and moreso during the slump,” he said. When asked what form the directive should take to make it appealing to businesses, apart from being burned, he quipped: “The latter, along with lots of other EU directives and regulations which are completely unnecessary.

“The Agency Working Directive has obviously come through in a slightly bastardised form, and it looks as though the left in the European Parliament will also try to ram [the Working Time Directive] through.”

He went on to describe both directives as “grotty”, saying the CBI had no choice but to accept the temporary workers ‘deal’ from unions and the government, which would see agency workers being paid the same as permanent staff after just 12 weeks. John Cridland, the CBI’s deputy director-general, had politely described the deal as the “least worst outcome for British business” when it was announced in May.

Legislating less

But it is not just EU law that Duncan would push to change. The man who formerly ran for Conservative Party leadership, only to withdraw early on through a lack of support, said a Tory government would be a much better alternative for HR, saying his party would “legislate better by legislating less”.

“Under us, HR directors would have improvements in employment law and employment tribunals, as right now they never award costs to the person who’s applied them, but they should,” said Duncan.

“In the end, it’s in employer’s interest to have a stable economic environment, and that’s what you would get from us.”

Duncan is not one to mince his words, describing the impact of the credit crunch “potentially apocalyptic”. But while he pledges to stay calm amid the economic crisis, he used the interview to take a pop at the prime minister’s handling of it: “I’m genuinely furious that Gordon Brown – who is the architect of so much of this suffering and the suffering that’s going to come – is prancing around the world as if he’s some kind of hero, which he’s not.”

Duncan worries that a full-blown recession could lead to massive corporate collapse, three million unemployed, a devalued pound, dramatically reduced government revenues, and enormous borrowing.

Challenges ahead

“It may well be that the biggest challenge HR faces isn’t making a lot of people redundant, but trying to keep people employed and avoid additional costs, such as employment disputes and tribunals,” said Duncan. “Also, coping with new flexible working rules, so that perhaps with people working less they can still work, so both the family and company can survive.”

During the recession in the early 1990s, Duncan worked as a consultant and adviser to foreign governments on oil supplies, shipping and refining. He had gained over 10 years’ experience with oil giant Royal Dutch Shell and controversial oil trader Marc Rich, who was accused of tax evasion and illegal trading with Iran, but has since been pardoned.

“I’ve dealt with Libyans, Iranians, Koreans, Russians – even the French – and with that background, it gives you an understanding of global politics and global commerce, as well as the attitude and culture of people,” Duncan said.

His shadow business role dates back to late 2005 when he moved from the same role in transport, when it was still the department for trade and industry.

He rejects completely media reports from a decade ago that he is “the closest thing [the Conservatives] have to Peter Mandelson”, currently Duncan’s portfolio opposite, but says it’s difficult to confront Mandelson on employer-related issues.

“There’s a difference between [Peter Mandelson] and I, a very big difference,” Duncan said. “He’s in Lords, not opposite me in the Commons, so my criticism is that his department does not have a minister of cabinet rank who I can ask questions in the House.”

But Duncan maintains that understanding the attitudes and work culture in a business is essential to surviving the next few years.

“You’re very lucky if you’re in a company that can afford to have an HR function,” he said. “HR professionals are essential and important in the company because they can get through the legal minefield of employment law. If you don’t have an HR department or personnel skills, [these issues] can blow up.”

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