Modern workplaces and red tape

13 July 2011

Yesterday I attended a fascinating debate at the TUC. It was chaired by Louisa Peacock at the Daily/Sunday Telegraph and the two principle speakers were David Frost, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, and Brendan Barber, the TUC General Secretary, alongside Jo Lloyd, non-executive director of a small to medium size marketing company (Z Cards), and Siobhan Endean of the Union Unite.

The (very) opposing viewpoints were made clear. From David Frost’s perspective, the Government had got things badly wrong. It was the private sector who was supposed to be driving growth, yet his members’ biggest concern currently was, he said, the relentless change of employment legislation. There had been no less than 6 major pieces of legislation over the last decade and Governments were endlessly tinkering with employment laws. They repeatedly saw things through the eyes of the public sector and big business, with ready access to HR advice. This simply did not apply to his member organisations, where often they were run by husband and wife teams.

Brendon Barber took the opposite view. He believed businesses had nothing to fear from giving workers more choice about their working lives. In his view, greater flexibility was good for workers, good for families and good for Britain. It gave children a better start in life and gave us a more “family friendly” society. Britain would be no less industrious as a result, but rather would be a better place to live. He also felt the business case for greater flexibility was overwhelming in terms of its effect on staff loyalty and their ability to meet the peaks and troughs of demand. He considered now was not the time for caution, but rather for boldness. We should change the way we work, and that would change the way we did business forever.

It was not easy to see how both approaches could be brought together, save for this. Ultimately, what business as a whole needed, was an overall increase in demand. The more we can release the shackles on the supply side of the economy, by allowing an increasing number of people to contribute to the place of work, either through part time appointments, more flexible working, or greater accommodation for families dealing with the usual demands of parenthood and other responsibilities, the more they will contribute towards the economy, creating a virtuous circle. Business can be rightly scared of poor legislation and, to some extent, change in general. However, the more they fight for better (and not just less) regulation, arguably the more beneficial for them, and for those they employ.

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