Labour Party Conference: Round-up of employment issue debates

The Labour Party Conference this week saw employment issues take centre stage with new policies on tackling unemployment, pension reforms and childcare being hotly debated. Personnel Today spoke to employer groups, think-tanks and HR directors to get their reactions to the announcements made.

Long-term unemployment

Work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper said the number of jobs created through Local Employment Partnerships (LEPs) would treble from 250,000 to 750,000 by the end of 2010, and she told Personnel Today the scheme should be used to help people aged over 50 find jobs.

How it was received

David Coates, associate director of policy at the think-tank The Work Foundation, said LEPs were “absolutely the right way to get [the over-50s] back into work.”

But Tom Wright, chief executive of Age UK, warned that Jobcentre Plus “routinely failed” the over-50s by not matching jobs to their skills.

He said: “We are calling for the government to do much more to improve the support offered by the Jobcentre Plus and to provide financial incentives to employers to take on people aged over 50, particularly those who have been out of work for six months.”

Moira Brown, HR director at social care provider Care South, echoed Wright’s calls for a financial incentive for the hiring of the over-50s and said this would help recruitment in the care sector where older workers are a valuable talent pool.

Childcare vouchers

Gordon Brown announced tax exemptions on childcare vouchers would be scrapped by 2015 to fund free nursery places for 250,000 two-year-olds.

How it was received

HR professionals warned politicians that any attempts to remove the financial incentives linked to childcare vouchers would make the gender pay gap worse as women would opt to stay at home.

Linda Scott, HR director at the British Transport Police, told Personnel Today: “If you take the tax benefits for childcare vouchers away you could find people won’t return from maternity leave, so we will lose talented people. It will just make the gender pay gap worse as women will be out of the workplace for longer.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) warned that halting this tax relief could stop HR functions providing the vouchers altogether.

A Conservative Party spokesman said the opposition party could not rule out a similar policy to scrap tax exemptions on childcare vouchers, stating that the party would have to “see what the costings are”.

Council pay and pensions

Pension entitlements of the highest local government earners will be slashed, and council chiefs made to publish their pay, pensions and bonuses awards. John Denham, secretary of state for local government, said: “I don’t want to see the pay or the pensions of local public servants dragged down by public anger at the excess of a few.”

How it was received

The CIPD warned council bosses could be tempted to move to other public sector jobs.

Charles Cotton, rewards adviser at the CIPD, said: “It might encourage people not to go into local government, while chief executives of councils may look to get jobs elsewhere in government, for example the NHS or central government.”

Cotton added the pension cuts for council bosses would not help to protect the pay and pensions of their lower paid colleagues as the money saved would probably equate to about £1 per employee.

Gillian Hibberd, president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association told Personnel Today, it was unfair to single out local government pensions, but conceded pensions should be reviewed as they were unsustainable.

She said the decision to limit the pensions of just the highest earners could be seen as discriminatory as the majority of council chiefs were male.

The Conservatives have already announced they will freeze local government pay if they win next year’s election.

Skills

Skills minister Pat McFadden told Personnel Today the government may – like the Conservatives – review the provision of vocational qualifications such as NVQs. Meanwhile Gordon Brown announced the creation of 20,000 new internships and green work placements.

How it was received

Kate Lawton, a researcher at think-tank IPPR, said the skills budget should be reviewed and should favour higher qualifications in green and care sectors.

However HR professionals defended qualifications, such as NVQs, saying they worked well for them. Jonathan Cawthra, group resources director of housing association Affinity Sutton, said many of his staff had completed NVQs and to scale back funding for these courses would be a “huge retrograde step”.

Meanwhile David Coates, associate director of policy at the Work Foundation, said it was essential that those taking up internship and work placement opportunities were still encouraged to seek work otherwise they would return to the dole queue after six months.

He said: “If the person is not currently working, employers have to ensure they are still looking for a job. They have to allow space within the programme to still undertake job searches. If these opportunities disincentivise the job search you are sending people backwards not forwards.”

National Minimum Wage increases

Gordon Brown vowed to keep increasing the National Minimum Wage for at least five years.

How it was received

Employer groups said it was not the government’s place to pledge an annual rise in the National Minimum Wage.

Charles Cotton, rewards adviser at the CIPD, told Personnel Today: “It’s not Gordon Brown’s promise to make and he’s not the one who has to pay for it. Either it’s an empty promise because it’s going to go up anyway or it’s a promise that he shouldn’t have made anyway because it is outside of his control.”

John Cridland, deputy director-general of the CBI, added: “The Low Pay Commission was set up as an independent body to advise the government on the level of the minimum wage. There is a danger of undermining its standing if politicians make promises about what will happen to the minimum wage in future.”

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