The UK party political conferences may not be as glitzy or celeb-fuelled as the high-profile party conventions in the US, but a range of topics affecting employers will be debated when the three main parties gather their troops over the next few weeks.
With the current economic turmoil, increasing globalisation and a general election on the horizon, there has rarely been so much to play for. We asked business experts what they thought should dominate the political landscape over the next 12-months.
The skills debate is hotting up. Employer groups including the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) are hosting fringe events on the post-Leitch skills agenda, and how the UK can achieve world class skills.
But Stephen Overell, associate director at the Work Foundation think-tank, which is running its own event on the subject, said the debate had moved on from the need to train up the workforce to improve productivity. He said politicians needed to wake up to the importance of the quality of the experience of work.
“We have various problems around the low quality of jobs, low pay, and how tightly managed people are, which affects their health and stress,” Overell told Personnel Today.
He referred to Dame Carol Black’s report on the health of the population, which said ill-health was costing the economy £100bn a year.
“It’s about providing sustainable jobs,” he said. “With welfare reform plans to get people into work, there is a corresponding duty on employers not to provide those people with low paid, low-quality jobs, or you end up with revolving doors.”
John Philpott, chief economist at the CIPD, agreed that people management issues should be a priority for any policy on skills.
“If you move beyond the skills agenda, it’s about the quality of work, how effective that work is,” he said.
Another pressing issue for employers will be managing immigration, particularly with the latest points-based migration rules coming into force this October.
Last week the UK Border Agency published a list of allowed occupations for skilled workers from outside the EU, which comes into effect from November. And while many employer groups backed the guidance, the likes of the TUC and the CBI called for flexibility so the system can change as the labour market needs it to.
Philpott said: “The list is sensible, but clearly a lot of employers will be upset if they’re not on the list.”
Meanwhile, campaign group Migrationwatch last week released a report setting out proposals for a new ‘balanced migration’ system to control the UK’s future population. Only 20,000 migrant workers should be allowed to settle in the UK each year, the body insisted.
With Tory MP Nicholas Soames putting his name to that report, employers will be watching carefully during conference season to see where the parties stand.
After the wave of employment law introduced this summer – from the draft Equality Bill to the extension of the right to request flexible working – employers will be hoping for a respite in the coming year.
Philpott said all parties would seek to display a “political sensitivity”, to appear on the side of businesses feeling the economic squeeze.
“Party policies [outlined at the conferences] need to appear less on regulation, and more on the cultural aspects of running a business,” he said. “It looks like the Tories are doing that through ‘nudge politics’ – attempting to get the employer to change behaviour in a light-touch way.”
But, he said, while employment minister John Hutton indicated earlier this year that there would be no more legislation for employers, “one gets the feeling he’s probably in the minority in the government on that”.
Kieran O’Keeffe, senior policy advisor at the BCC, agreed it was crucial that the parties refrained from planning more legislation. “As the economy continues to slow, our members will want some reassurance that the government understands the challenges that employers face,” he said.
The Institute of Directors, which is hosting a fringe event on Labour’s vision for business, also warned the “swathe” of regulatory measures introduced since 1997 could limit business potential.
Chief economist Graeme Leach said: “Some of these measures had only a limited impact when we had sustained economic growth, but now we’re entering a downturn, their full impact could be felt.”
Some lobby groups are calling for the removal of certain legislation altogether. The Employers Forum on Age has long called for the retirement age to be scrapped.
A spokeswoman said: “The shape of people’s working lives is changing as many of us need and want to work longer. We want all the parties to take this issue seriously at the upcoming conferences. It is vital that they address the need to remove arbitrary, age-related retirement policies.”
Philpott recognised however, that because of the economic slowdown, any talk of employment policy at the upcoming conferences was likely to be dominated by the bottom line.
“Within the broader political debate going on this conference season, there is a temptation to dismiss the quality-of-work debate as ‘only for the good times’,” he said. “But the way we treat people is actually about long-term business performance – there’s a big risk of being short-termist.”