Much has been said about the whirlwind first 100 days Gordon Brown endured as prime minister. Just around the corner from Downing Street, the man he appointed to look after employment relations must be feeling pretty shell-shocked too.
Minister for employment relations and postal affairs Pat McFadden used his first 100 days to get abreast of the issues he would be tackling.
He has spent the past three-and-a-bit months learning about Royal Mail strikes, Post Office closures, dangerously low worker morale across the public sector, a badly broken dispute resolution system, a swell of union discontent about agency worker rights, and a population that is massively under-skilled.
“There are a number of issues – not all of them easy,” he conceded to Personnel Today – before adding as convincingly as he could: “I have relished getting stuck into them all.”
Surely the thought that he has been stitched-up by the beat he’s been given at least flickers across his mind?
“No-one gets into politics for an easy life,” he said. “These are important issues. Some of them are difficult, but if I can make a difference then that is a really good thing. I don’t feel in any way unhappy with the role – I’m delighted to be here.”
The top challenge on McFadden’s list is protecting vulnerable workers through tougher enforcement of the minimum wage and progress on agency worker rights.
The government has come under increasing pressure from trade unions this year to give temporary workers equal rights to those enjoyed by permanent employees.
McFadden said the government still believed it could find an agreement with EU member states on the wording of the Agency Workers Directive.
“The Portuguese presidency of the EU has put the directive back on the agenda, and the UK government will take part in a constructive way in discussions,” he said. “We are keen to seek an agreement, but it must be right for the UK, with an appropriate qualifying period.”
Defining an appropriate qualifying period has been the subject of five years of European wrangling. In the UK, trade unions want temps to have equal rights from the moment they start a job, while employers believe they should wait at least a year.
McFadden refused to state the government’s position, but said: “In the draft directive, the qualifying period is six weeks. We take the view it should be longer than that.”
Another issue of urgent importance to McFadden is the Royal Mail dispute. Four consecutive working days of strike action by postmen earlier this month brought mail to a standstill and did nothing to improve the chances of an autumn general election.
“I hope the dispute ends soon because if it continues it will be damaging to the Royal Mail and its employees,” said McFadden.
“The government put up about £2bn of finance to support the pension fund, and it is now for the management and the unions to negotiate on the issues of pensions, pay and flexibility.
“There are very active negotiations going on. I keep in touch with both sides on a regular basis.”
McFadden has also played a key role in the consultation on new dispute resolution procedures. He refused to say when they would be published, except that it would be sometime this autumn.
But he was confident that what he announced would be an improvement on the much-maligned 2004 regulations. Employer groups and unions agree that the current procedures lead to too many claims and too slow a tribunal process.
McFadden said: “We can come up with a change to the system that protects people’s rights at work but gives employees and organisations a more flexible dispute resolution process that encourages solutions without resorting to tribunals.”
How threatened does the minister feel by trade union calls for co-ordinated strike action across the public sector over pay levels?
“I hope not to see strikes,” he said. “It has been a tight year for public sector pay rises and that is tough. But in the long term it will be better for the economy and for public services themselves – they won’t benefit from damage to the economy.”
So finally to the skills agenda, where McFadden has the role of taking the voice of business to skills minister David Lammy. Is he concerned that the pace of change is not fast enough to head off the crisis predicted by the Leitch Review as globalisation takes hold?
“Across government there is a real recognition that the UK needs to raise its game on skills,” he insisted.
Brown delayed the election because, he said, he wanted his government to be judged on change rather than competency.
What change does McFadden think he can bring for employers?
“I hope that we will have better dispute resolution procedures for employers and employees, more justice in national minimum wage enforcement, and better enforcement of laws that we have passed with regard to vulnerable workers,” he said. “Being optimistic, I hope we will also be on a better footing with regards to the Royal Mail than we are at the moment.”CV: Pat McFadden
- June 2007-present Minister of state for employment relations and postal affairs
- May 2006-June 2007 Minister for social exclusion
- 2005-present MP for Wolverhampton South East
- 1994-2005 Political secretary and policy adviser to prime minister Tony Blair
- 1993-1994 Policy adviser and speech writer to Labour leader John Smith
- 1988-1993 Research assistant to Donald Dewar MP