EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Parties' industrial relations policies outlined

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Country: 
United Kingdom
Author: 
Mark Hall

Elections to the UK parliament will take place on 7 June 2001. We highlight the main political parties' manifesto commitments in the area of industrial relations.

The incumbent Labour government has triggered a general election to be held on 7 June 2001 - just under 11 months earlier than it was required by law to do so. Here we highlight what the three main UK-wide political parties' election manifestos say on industrial relations issues. The Labour and Conservative parties are also each due to publish a separate "business manifesto" during the election campaign

Labour Party

The main industrial relations policies included in the Labour Party's manifesto represent a continuation of existing government initiatives and there are no major surprises. The party says that it wants to strengthen partnership at work, which can "foster employee commitment and help at a time of industrial change". The existing Partnership Fund (UK9912145F) will be expanded. On the sensitive issue of information and consultation, the manifesto states that this should be "appropriate to national traditions, with timely discussion of problems. When large-scale redundancies are being considered, there is an especially strong case for consultation. The government is reviewing the effectiveness of the UK's current arrangements for information and consultation - works councils in larger firms operating across Europe as well as consultation on large-scale redundancies [UK0101110F]. We will implement the findings of our review in this area." The manifesto adds that: "We support conciliation in the workplace to avoid resort to litigation. We will examine reforms that promote efficiency and fairness."

On "family-friendly" employment, the party is committed to increasing statutory maternity leave from the current 18 weeks to six months, increasing statutory maternity pay from GBP 60 a week to GBP 100, and introducing a legal right for fathers to two weeks' time off on the birth of a child - also to be paid at GBP 100 per week (UK0101106F). Intensive lobbying by employers' bodies (UK0104125N) appears to have dissuaded the party from pledging to introduce a statutory right for new parents to opt for reduced working hours. The manifesto states: "We will work with business and employees to combine flexible working with the needs of business."

Other commitments made in the manifesto are:

  • raising the national minimum wage to GBP 4.10 per hour in October 2001 and GBP 4.20 in October 2002 (UK0104124N);
  • working with employers and employees to develop effective proposals for tackling the causes of pay inequality between men and women (UK0104126F);
  • tackling discrimination against people aged over 50 in the workplace and examining ways of enabling people to phase their retirement without compromising their pension arrangements; and
  • introducing tougher penalties for health and safety offences.

The Labour Party argues that minimum standards for people at work offer "dignity and self-esteem", but that "regulation should be introduced, where it is necessary, in a light-touch way". The party promises to cut back the "red tape associated with regulation" and offer help to small firms. In a separate manifesto for small businesses, published on 15 May, Labour set out a number of plans for reducing the regulatory burden, including giving small firms a greater role in shaping regulations.

Conservative Party

The Conservative Party's election manifesto does not refer specifically to industrial relations issues but promises a major reduction in the regulation of business. The party proposes that all new regulations would have to be scrutinised by a new Deregulation Commission which would assess the costs for business. The costs of regulation for business would be reduced year on year. During 2000, the Conservative Party indicated that the national minimum wage would be retained by a future Conservative government (UK0003158N), but that it would repeal the statutory union recognition procedure introduced by Labour (UK0007183F). However, neither of these issues features in the manifesto.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats want to promote the consultation of employees, proposing a statutory right for workers to consultation over "key business decisions affecting their future, such as factory closures". The manifesto also proposes:

  • scrapping unnecessary business regulations;
  • reviewing the national minimum wage annually and setting the same rate for all workers aged 16 and over;
  • combating age discrimination by banning compulsory retirement ages; and
  • strengthening the enforcement of health and safety rules.

Priorities of the social partners

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) considers it is essential to maintain the UK's labour market flexibility and wants to see a reduction in "red tape", arguing that "the combined effects of the new employment rights of recent years are a cause of concern for many firms."

In an initial response to the Conservative Party's manifesto, the CBI said that: "Companies would welcome a fresh bid to ease the burden of regulation. But the CBI would impress on the next government the need for any new initiative to quickly deliver measurable results."

On Labour's manifesto, the CBI said it was "encouraged" that the proposals relating to working parents "[recognised] the need to work with business to improve flexible working practices without recourse to regulation. The CBI will continue to oppose unnecessary legislation, such as giving new mothers a statutory right to part-time work." In addition, "companies will be relieved to see a commitment to reducing the burden of regulation. But they will want the next government to deliver measurable achievements on deregulation, not just warm words."

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has produced a series of workplace posters and adverts for union journals designed to highlight employee rights as an election issue. These criticise employers' characterisation of a range of new or improved employee rights as "red tape". The TUC's top post-election priority is the earliest possible adoption of the draft EU Directive on national information and consultation rules (EU9812135F).

Commentary

Unlike most parliamentary elections over the past three decades, industrial relations issues have not featured particularly strongly in parties' election manifestos nor, to date, the more general political campaigning (though industrial action planned by railway workers in the run-up to the election could change this). There are, however, distinct differences in the political parties' approaches to industrial relations, and the outcome of the forthcoming general election is likely to have important implications, especially in terms of the regulatory framework.

As expected, the Labour Party, which opinion polls suggest is likely to win the election and retain office, has put forward further measures to promote parental leave/family-friendly employment and has signalled the possible reform of employees' information and consultation rights in respect of major redundancies. However, at the same time party leaders have been anxious to avoid alienating business opinion - an important constituency for "new Labour". This is reflected in the party's limited agenda for industrial relations reform as well as the absence of a commitment to introducing a statutory right to part-time working for new parents. No commitment to increase the number of public holidays is included in the manifesto (UK0105129N).

Arguably the key industrial relations reform in prospect over the next few years is the expected adoption of the draft EU Directive on national information and consultation rules (EU0012285F). This would be highly significant for UK industrial relations, driving the spread of works councils or consultative committees in UK companies, with major implications for the nature and extent of employee representation and for employer's employee involvement strategies. Aside from the legal framework of industrial relations, the implementation of either Labour or Conservative plans for the modernisation of the public services, including a greater role for the private sector in their management and delivery, could encounter strong opposition from the public services unions. (Mark Hall, IRRU)