Ministerial moves put Johnson and Blunkett in HR driving seat

I wish Alan Johnson a happy birthday. He is settling into his big chair in his office on the eighth floor at the Department of Trade and Industry.

“Thanks,” he said.

“You’re 55 today, aren’t you?” I tease. “Er next question please.”

He may be older than Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but Johnson is a lot younger and more youthful than fellow Hull MP John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, whose job Johnson is being tipped for when there is regime change at No 10.

Johnson has returned to the DTI, where he was employment minister, after an absence of nearly two years. He was popular with officials there and has been happily reunited with his old press officer.

There is no such thing as the strict 48-hour working week for ministers. And, if Johnson is to be believed, then there is nothing to fear from the latest salvo from Brussels about the UK’s opt-out from the Working Time Directive.

His response is that there is “no way” the government will give it up, despite pressure to do so. He even points out that other EU countries are now arguing for their own opt-outs.

“Our opt-out says that if people don’t want to work more than 48 hours, then the Working Time Directive protects them. However, if they do want to work more than that they sign an individual opt-out and they can work beyond.

“We think that is the perfect solution,” Johnson said. “That is why we are fighting to retain the UK opt-out.

“Our argument is that we don’t want a long-hours culture,” Johnson added. “Working hours have gone down; we are working fewer hours. It is a health and safety measure, and we have the second best record on that in the EU. It is about creating jobs.”

The big showdown comes at the Council of Ministers in June.

Workers’ rights

What about Warwick, the agreement Labour made with the trade unions in 2004 to boost workers’ rights, guaranteeing a host of new rights for UK employees? Is it Johnson’s job to see it through as a former union leader?

“I am proud of my roots, but I don’t want to get categorised as the government’s trade union negotiator,” he said. “Patricia Hewitt brokered that deal, and it is a very important solution to some of these issues that cause tension in the Labour party.”

But does he think UK business will be happy? Johnson thinks they will.

He refers to how in his previous guise at the DTI he saw through the introduction of the right to request more flexible working hours. The unions and employers had concerns, but several years later, 800,000 people have made use of the legislation.

The Work and Families Bill in the Queen’s Speech is implementing the substance of Warwick, including the extension of maternity leave and pay and giving fathers the right to share the time off. Employees will also be able to claim their full entitlement to the eight bank holidays.

“I don’t think this will cause any problems to people and will be seen as quite a just outcome,” Johnson said. “And there are lots of companies that don’t like bad employers undercutting them with bad practices in employment relations.”

He is also determined to meet Labour’s manifesto ‘target’ to extend maternity leave to a full year by the end of the decade.

Over at Johnson’s old department – work and pensions – David Blunkett is settling back into government after his resignation in December. Most of the post-election reshuffle discussions in Downing Street were about finding a job for the former home secretary who resigned over the ‘nannygate’ visa scandal.

Blunkett has said little in public about what he plans to do on the great issue of the day on which Labour is committed to reform: pensions. The government is to publish a draft pensions Bill in the autumn, but ministers are being tight-lipped until the Turner Commission report comes out.

One interesting point has surfaced over the past few weeks: despite Tony Blair saying during the election campaign that he was not keen on compulsion, both Blunkett and Johnson are determined to keep the option open. But they recognise that such a radical policy change will take time, probably more than one parliament. So employers should not expect any earlier change, and certainly not before a long consultative process.

One thing that Turner is certain to conclude, even more so than in his interim report last year, is that people are not saving nearly enough for their pensions.

Age concern

And the mood appears to be moving away from a universal or ‘citizens’ pension’, where people are paid a higher flat rate based on residency rather than National Insurance contributions. This was the case even before Johnson switched jobs.

Blunkett is determined to drive through radical reform. He knows that this is necessary because people are living longer and want to retire earlier than half a century ago. “Also because expectations are higher and because the pension isn’t the sole means of income for people in retirement,” he said earlier this month.

The new work and pensions secretary wants the welfare state to “create not a safety net, but an escalator or a trampoline to get people out of poverty rather than making it comfortable for them”, and to look “at income in retirement and not just pensions.

“In future, people won’t want to be described as pensioners, defined by the source of their income,” he said. “They will want income in retirement that allows them to enjoy a very active life.”

Blunkett, like Johnson, is also sceptical about retaining compulsory retirement ages. “We have got to break down barriers between working and retirement time, so that people can retire and then come back part-time,” he said.

“The idea of people being able to take their occupational pension and continue working is common sense.”

Whatever he decides, Blunkett is likely to get his way. He and Blair speak several times a week – hence his swift return to the top table.

Aside from Gordon Brown, Blunkett and Johnson are probably the most deft and skilful politicians who get their way. And they are modernisers, so employers need not fear a return to old Labour ways. To quote Labour’s cheesy election slogan, they will go “forward not back”.

By David Cracknell, political editor at the Sunday Times

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