Reform still on the agenda despite union vote defeat

The supposed conflict between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown unsurprisingly grabbed most of the headlines in the national press after last week’s Labour Party Conference in Brighton, but there was plenty to interest employers. We round up the key announcements of interest to HR.

Pensions

Tony Blair gave the clearest hint yet that the government would recommend that employees should be automatically enrolled into an occupational pension.

After receiving Adair Turner’s Pensions Commission recommendations at the end of November, the government plans to implement reforms in the new year.

“There will be a proper basic state pension,” the prime minister told delegates in his keynote speech. “And alongside it, because in the modern world the state cannot provide it all, a simple, easy way for people to save and to reap the rewards of their savings.”

The secondary scheme hinted at by Blair is expected to be among Turner’s key proposals. It is believed to be based on the system used in New Zealand, in which all workers will have a percentage of their salary automatically deducted and invested in a second pension.

Although workers will have the right to opt out, experience shows the majority of employees continue their contributions once they have been enrolled.

Childcare

Parents struggling to juggle their home and work commitments will be targets for assistance, Blair said. “We will open up for the first time a new frontier of the welfare state, with affordable, wrap-around childcare from the hours of 8am-6pm for all who need it,” he told delegates.

Workplace health and absence

Work and pensions secretary David Blunkett announced that the government is to appoint a national director for occupational health to focus on the health and well-being of people of working age.

The director will oversee the implementation of the health, work and well-being strategy to be published later in the autumn, and will raise the profile of work and its relationship to health and well-being.

Blunkett said a new occupational health programme for the UK would aim to prevent ill-health, to help rehabilitate those who are ill, reduce absence from work, and help the unemployed to avoid relying on benefits. “The health and well-being of people of working age is of great importance to our future,” he said.

The scheme forms part of the government’s efforts to get one million people off incapacity benefit and back into work.

Secondary picketing

Unions inflicted an embarrassing defeat on the government, when 70% of votes cast in a conference- floor ballot backed a call to rescind legislation banning sympathetic – or secondary – industrial action.

The call from the Transport & General Workers’ Union followed secondary action carried out by British Airways staff during the summer in sympathy with sacked workers from the airline’s caterer Gate Gourmet.

However, trade and industry secretary Alan Johnson said the government would not be swayed by union protests.

“We could not go through the 1980s and 1990s only to emerge in the 1970s,” he told delegates. “Back then, this party supported secondary action and opposed the minimum wage. Now it’s the other way round, and that’s how it needs to stay.”

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