Interview with … Tony McNulty

Last month, McNulty was at the centre of a row aboutoptimism during the recession when his remarks on unemployment levels rising to 1.92 million were deridedas “out of touch” by the Tories.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” McNulty said in a television interview. “It is some way off, I think that’s clear, [but] all that we are doing in terms of the economywill mean that we will get through this downturn and this recession.”

Speaking exclusively to Personnel Today, McNulty explained that his main priority was keepingthe numberof long-term unemployed as low as possibleat all costs, to prevent the economic downturn lasting longer than it needsto.

“The one big lesson from the 1980s and 1990s is, the greater distance the individual is from the job market, the more difficult it is for them to get back into work,” he said. “We’re not going to let people fall by the wayside.”

“Proximity to the market and getting back into the market as quick as possible is the absolute key, whether it’s for the longer–term unemployed or the more recent unemployed,” McNulty added.

Coming to an understanding

Late last year, Jobcentre Plus and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) signed a memorandum of understanding, promising to cooperate to fill the 500,000 vacancies in the UK.

But January’s Labour Market Statistics survey showed that nearly 80,000 people joined the claimant count and the number of people out of work edged nearer to two million, at 1.92m.

McNulty admitted that the partnership wasn’t a panacea for the economic downturn, but he robustly defendedthe ability of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to cope with rising unemployment levels.

“We will try to be as flexible as possible. We need to be as lively and responsive as possible to what happens next,” he said. “It’s something we will keep an absolute eye on and review at all times,” he added.

In November the DWP announced it was recruiting an extra 6,000 front–line staff to help meet the increase in demand. The government has since pledged to enhance volunteering opportunities, extendgraduate internship schemes or help people set up their own businesses.

McNulty said: “In these tough times, people need real help to find a job. That’s exactly what this government is offering and everyday people are finding work.

“Our message to job seekers is clear – we won’t give up on you but you mustn’t give up on looking for work.”

Time to make plans

McNulty insisted that HR also had to remain flexible in tough times. Workforce planning, now more than ever, is vital to ensure organisations are working to theirmaximum capacity while spending as little aspossible.

“Good HR people have adapted to [workforce planning]. Bad ones, however, are trying to put square HR process pegs into round holes that don’t fit anymore,” he said.

“There is still a tension between HR processes [and hierarchical structures] and the kind of flexibility of flat organisation structures that good organisations need to survive,” he added.

In his early career, McNulty lectured in organisational behaviour at the London Metropolitan University, where he stayed until he was elected to Parliament in 1997. His HR ‘street cred’ is still strong strong, however.

“HR has radically transformed since the 1980s, and I was there for the start of people understanding that personnel and human resource management was much more a multifaceted study of people in organisations rather than lots of little boxes,” he said.

McNulty has maintained a watchful eye on the HR profession during his political career. “Politics and political philosophy can and should teach us much about personnel and the relationship between cogs and the machine,” he said.

“As a lecturer, I would make my students read Machiavelli’s The Prince and Puzo’s The Godfather just to understand the relationships between people, and how to read people,” he added.

Out-streeting Cameron

The son of Irish migrants, McNulty revealed that he was born in South Kensington and “dragged up” in the less ritzy North Kensington.

“Nevermind David Cameron – I’m the original Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill set,” the minister joked.

The second eldest of five siblings, McNulty was the only one to attend university, receiving a degree in political theory and institutions from the University of Liverpool. He crossed the Atlantic to pursue an MA in political science at Virginia Tech, returning in the early 1980s to a new prime minister, and plummeting job numbers.

“I walked straight into MrsThatcher’s first recession, where politics graduates weren’t exactly popular in the labour market,” he said.

He attempted to reassure job seekers that if they persevere they will find their way intowork. “There were about 18 months where I variously was unemployed or doing casual work through friends on building sites. I still have about four hundred refusal letters lying around somewhere.”

HR chiefs would love to get their hands on those.

Tony McNulty, minister of state for employment and welfare reform

  • 2008 to present, Minister of state for employment and welfare reform/minister for London
  • 2006–2008, Minister of state for security, counter-terrorism, crime and policing, Home Office
  • 2004–2006, Minister of state for rail and London, Department of Transport
  • 2002–2004, Parliamentary under secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
  • 1999–2002, Party whip
  • 1983–1997, Principal lecturer in organisational behaviour, University of North London

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