Smaller political parties account for fewer than a fifth of parliament’s 646 seats, so any talk of an electoral breakthrough by their leaders seems fanciful. But their limited political leverage would increase dramatically if no party wins an overall majority at the general election.
Smaller parties tend to be characterised by single issues, often directly related to employment. If the UK Independence Party (UKIP) backed a minority government, for example, a much more hostile stance towards European directives could be expected. And the British National Party (BNP)’s commitment to blocking immigration in all but exceptional circumstances would have far-reaching implications for sectors heavily dependent on foreign workers.
With 63 MPs, the Liberal Democrats are bigger than all the other minority parties put together, so likely to exert the most influence after the election.
Its policies on youth unemployment and gender equality are particularly distinctive. A £55-a-week allowance would be paid to anyone undertaking an internship for three months. The party says up to 800,000 people will benefit and the allowance will “take the pressure off employers that want to offer young people work experience but cannot afford to pay their expenses”.
Fringe party employment policies
UKIP argues it is wrong to address the gender pay gap by imposing extra regulations on employers, because this simply deters them from recruiting young women and mothers. Its solution is to introduce a non-means tested child benefit of £38 a week for all children aged under 18. This figure is based on research suggesting that the average pay gap amounts to about 7% for every child that a woman has.
The Green Party wants a statutory code laying down minimum terms between employers and employees. They believe anyone employed for at least 35 hours per week should be legally entitled to at least 28 days’ paid holiday per year on top of public holidays. They propose one month’s leave for both parents immediately after the birth of a child, plus 22 months’ paid leave which would be shared between them.
The BNP aims to end unemployment and create secure, well-paid employment by selective exclusion of foreign-made goods, the reduction of foreign imports, and insisting that manufactured goods are, wherever possible, produced in British factories employing British workers.
Lib Dem shadow business minister Lorely Burt says: “It’s not good for business if people are working equally hard and one group is getting more money.”
Under Lib Dem plans, organisations would have to conduct compulsory equal pay audits and, if the gap between men and women was 5% or more, action would have to be taken to narrow it.
The party would also allow workers to band together to fight pay discrimination as well as promoting the use of ‘hypothetical comparators’ in equal pay claims to hasten change in jobs dominated by women and characterised by low pay.
One criticism of the idea, made by Local Government Employers, is that it could end up increasing the overall number of equal pay claims due to disagreements between employers and claimants about what job can be justifiably compared with another.
David Coats, associate director for policy at think-tank The Work Foundation, argues that although Lib Dem gender equality policies “may help at the margins”, no fundamental shift in culture is possible until the issue of childcare is addressed. He says this will involve making choices about whether parents should be expected to return to work before their children start formal education, and how much society should invest in pre-school childcare facilities.
Tom Potbury, senior associate in employment law at Pinsent Masons, approves of the proposal for representative actions, saying women in low-paid jobs are unlikely to have the financial resources to mount a claim by themselves. “The vast majority of claims like this are for female cleaners or cooks. One of the problems has been that it’s very difficult to bring a claim against employers if it’s going to cost £20,000 and you’re only paid £10,000.”
Potbury and Coats both support a Lib Dem proposal to introduce a‘name blanking’ policy on job applications, following research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission which showed that applications from people with non-English-sounding names were less likely to be shortlisted. However, some experts suspect the problem is overstated, and Ben Willmott, senior public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, agrees.
“In a labour market where there is a fight for talent, employers that do screen out people on that basis will be penalising themselves,” he says. But Willmott does favour a Lib Dem proposal to extend the right to request flexible working to everyone in a bid to improve the work-life balance of both parents and non-parents.
Duncan Brown, director of HR business development at the Institute for Employment Studies, suggests the Lib Dems are proving more interventionist on employment legislation than Labour, referring to their proposal for compulsory equal pay audits. “Whatever happened to free market liberalism?” he asks.
Burt insists other policies would mean business was regulated with a lighter touch, pointing to a Lib Dem commitment to end the ‘gold-plating’ of European directives. She says: “There’s a disparity in the conformity of implementation of a lot of European directives between what we do here in the UK and in other countries. Gold-plating makes them more long-winded and complex than they need to be.”
She believes enforcement of business regulations needs to undergo a cultural change, and says: “Instead of going along with a ‘tick-box, catch-you-out’ mentality, inspectors should see themselves as being there to help employers to fulfil requirements and suggest ways of fulfilling those requirements more efficiently.”
Burt also argues that regulations need to be implemented with more sensitivity and on a risk basis, particularly for small businesses. But Jonathan Exten-Wright, partner at law firm DLA Piper, predicts complications when trying to define what a small business is. He says: “I can’t see why you shouldn’t be protected if working for an employer with 20 employees rather than someone who has 100 employees.”
Default retirement age
David Yeandle, head of employment policy at manufacturers’ lobby group the EEF is concerned about Lib Dem moves to end the default retirement age. He says: “They are more likely to say explicitly ‘get rid of the retirement age’ than the Conservatives. Our members are opposed to it, saying it creates uncertainty about when people are going to go. It arguably makes it more difficult to bring people through in career progression terms.”
Although the Lib Dems are keen to emphasise their pro-business credentials, Yeandle fears the importance of business interests could be sidelined, saying: “Doing things on family-friendly policies and that sort of area is seen as a good vote winner. But when voters often struggle to grasp what the Lib Dems stand for, it is understandable if the party sees employment policy as an area that will make it stand out.”