Thank you to the CBI for organising these new awards.
These awards are a great idea because we don’t talk about or celebrate the best employers and the best employment practices in Britain, anywhere near enough. Even though many of our companies are world beaters.
So it is great that the CBI have taken this initiative - and especially as you didn’t ask government to pay for it. For these are challenging times for firms and for the public sector.
To be frank, it’s not that difficult to promote better employment relations during the good times. When the economy is growing, it’s easier to be warm and cuddly.
But, it’s more difficult to be warm and cuddly, when you enter government for the first time in 90 years, and have to tackle Britain’s largest peacetime deficit ever.
With unemployment higher and budget cuts inevitable, it can be a tougher ask to prioritise good employment practice. But actually, it’s more important.
When you have to make people redundant. Or ask people to work even harder. That’s when good employment relations are needed more than ever. And when a record of treating people well can help enormously.
Our message as a Coalition Government has had to be tough - especially to public sector employees. But we’ve been determined to treat people as fairly as we can.
In the Business Department, where I’m a Minister, we will have lost between the election and the end of this year, nearly 25% of our staff. So we’re trying hard to do that in a way that staff see as fair - whilst also trying to give the staff that remain as much certainty about the future, as quickly as possible.
Now we’re not simply doing this because we want to be fair. We’re also being fair, because it’s in our interests as employers.
And I guess that’s the key insight all the award winners here tonight share. Treating your people well, in good times and bad, isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the best thing to do.
As Employment Relations Minister, I’m involved of course in a range of policy work that could end up affecting your world.
Much involves deregulation and simplification of our existing employment law. Some may involve new law. Some involves influencing or improving European legislation. And quite a bit won’t trouble the lawyers at all.
But whatever the issue, I want to promise you four things:
First, we will consult and listen to you.
My decision to make the reform of employment tribunals my first and top priority came not from the Coalition Agreement, but from you. Maybe you didn’t know that. But every business and employer organisation I consulted about the employment law review I’m leading, said tribunal reform was their top priority.
So having listened, we are consulting on reform ideas: to tackle the problem of vexatious claimants. To streamline the employment tribunal process. And above all, to reduce the number of tribunals. With a new focus on more early resolution of disputes, including a greater conciliation role for Acas.
We’re over half way through the consultation on these reforms, so if your firm hasn’t responded yet, please let us know what you think. Because we are still listening.
Second promise. Where we propose new legislation, we will do this in a way that eases your current burden of compliance.
Again an example. There are coalition commitments for a new system of shared parental leave and an extension of the right to request flexible working.
When we publish our consultation on these policies later this year, please read the paper in full and not just the headlines. For I believe you will see there the prospect of reform that’s a win-win for employers and employees. Flexibility, agreement and a reduction in red tape is my approach to family friendly laws.
Third promise. On Europe, I am a passionate pro-European. But that doesn’t mean for a second that I fail to share business concerns about laws like the Working Time Directive. My promise to you is that I will engage with my European counterparts early and continuously. First, to avoid further unwelcome laws and second, to try over time to reform the ones we’ve got now.
Fourth promise. We will work with you on initiatives that don’t need new laws. Or regulations.
So, we are giving strong support to David Macleod’s private sector led taskforce on Employee Engagement.
Indeed, tomorrow morning we have the formal launch of this taskforce with the Prime Minister at Number Ten Downing Street. And we believe this taskforce can build on the best practices that tonight is all about, to help spread them economy-wide.
And we have published an Employer’s Charter - to give greater confidence, especially to small employers, that current employment law does allow an employer to manage their workforce properly.
And last year the Prime Minister launched a challenge to business called “Every Business Commits” - aimed at encouraging firms to play their part in the Big Society. It sets out 5 priorities where we hope business will choose to act, including improving the quality of life and well-being of your employees.
It’s voluntary. Many of you will already be doing it. But perhaps there’s room for more - maybe working with smaller firms in your supply chain, perhaps.
So - four ways I hope we can work with you to make the employment relations in UK plc even better.
I wanted to say more. Especially about the biggest secrets of the Coalition. Yet time is against me.
But let me end on this. I’m really optimistic about our economy and our world. In employment relations, we’ve come along way from the world of “them and us” - last year was the sixth lowest year on record for days lost in strikes.
And in the political world, we’ve come a long way. When two parties can put aside their differences. Focus on the national interest. And get on with it.
Surprising things can happen when you let go of past comfort blankets and take a risk. But placing greater trust in people is always a risk worth taking - as I’m sure we’ll see tonight.
Thank you very much.