Employment Ministers – all change?

5 September 2012

From an employment perspective it is difficult to read the extent to which the Government reshuffle will mark a change in direction for the employment team at BIS (the former DTI).

At first blush it may seem odd that Norman Lamb, widely welcomed as a former employment lawyer, who only joined the Department in February has been moved on, to be replaced by Jo Swinson. Swinson has been Parliamentary Private Secretary to both Vince Cable and Nick Clegg but presumably will now face a steep learning curve before she can take up where Norman Lamb left off. Coincidentally, but interesting to note is the fact that only yesterday BIS announced a new enquiry into “Women in the Workplace,” as part of which process doubtless the issue of “positive discrimination” will be considered. In a previous life Swinson is reported as having been an opponent of positive discrimination to address gender imbalance and was apparently one of the leaders of the move against positive discrimination for the selection of liberal democrat candidates at their national party conference 10 years ago. She is said to have worn a pink t-shirt inscribed with the slogan “I am not a token woman”. If true, presumably there will be some likelihood that she will not be in favour of the latest proposals coming out of the European Commission designed to force listed companies to reserve at least 40% of their non-executive board seats for women, otherwise face being fined.

But perhaps the real clue behind the reshuffle at BIS lies in the appointment of Michael Fallon. He has gone to BIS, as the “voice of business” according to Downing Street. Fallon has been in politics for a very long time and has worked for many of the Tory stalwarts of the past, such as Lord Carrington and Cecil Parkinson. He has also worked in the Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. If his performance on Newsnight last night is anything to go by, (when he faced down well a challenging line of questioning from the inimitable Jeremy Paxman) he is going to be something of a “big beast” at BIS. Hitherto it has always been interesting that the two ministers responsible for employment law at BIS (the Secretary of State and the Employment Relations Minister) have been Liberal Democrats since the coalition agreement was first forged. To some that may not have made it easy for the Government to push through its agenda of employment law reform. Now the Conservative part of the Coalition will have its own heavy weight spokesman at BIS, who might be looked upon as someone specifically appointed to reign in the two other ministers’ liberal tendencies.

In some ways this is odd. Certainly Tony Blair’s government was known as one that did not shy away from making substantial employment law reforms throughout its years in government. Since November of last year, the current Government has not been shy in that area either. Indeed, those of us at the coal face in employment law have probably had as much to contend with in terms of change in the last few months as we had ever had. It now seems that there is to be yet more impetus behind seeking to continue the process of “deregulation” or “cutting red tape” as it has become known. Admittedly that may be what some business leaders are asking for. However, at some stage, hopefully, companies will become satisfied that we have reached an acceptable “compact” in terms of our employment law regime, and the balance between freedom from regulation on the one hand, and the protection of employee’s rights on the other, such that the way will be left clear for them to invest and grow. If that is what is meant by the Government in saying earlier this week just before the reshuffle announcements were made, that we had arrived at “delivery” stage, then do they really need to continue to produce evermore change in the field of employment law?

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