I hope the contenders for Conservative leadership will be asked whether they intend to take forward the Government’s good work agenda.
Brexit has ground down what political imagination was left in the Conservative Party. Tory leadership hopefuls could be trying to out-do one another on ambitious policy proposals, but at present they seem solely focused on how to win the votes of no-dealers without committing to a no-deal.
Rory Stewart, who has started to put himself on the map as a contender has at least discussed the importance of lifelong learning. Matt Hancock, another outsider has suggested that the NHS needs to embrace automation to survive. The bookies’ favourites, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, are yet to make any statement on how their governments would ensure a modern and well-functioning labour market.
Yet this is an area where the Government have a story to tell, one that is popular and helps address some of the Tories’ brand weaknesses. As well as the strength of the labour market and the commitment to make our minimum wage one of the highest in the world, nearly all the measures proposed in my report (The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices) and many of those suggested by Director of Labour Market Enforcement, Sir David Metcalf, are now Government policy and some have already been implemented. For example, workers will now get basic information about their terms and conditions from day one, the Swedish derogation loophole for agency workers has been closed and the threshold for workers to claims rights to information is being significantly lowered.
But there are several other areas where more work needs to be done. We await an official response to the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission to reduce the exploitation of zero hours contracts. Primary legislation will be needed to clarify employment status and, hopefully, reduce the scope for bogus self-employment. We need to hear how the Government intends to collect metrics on work quality as a step towards being accountable for it improving across the economy.
There is much work to be done to prepare for a unified labour market enforcement agency. And I am still doing what I can to promote the idea of a single employability framework, something which I believe could be part of the broader lifelong learning agenda along with some the important measures in the recent Augar Review.
Beyond this there is the broader concept of good work. In the opening pages of the Review I argued that good work matters for five reasons:
Because, despite the important contribution of the living wage and the benefit system, fairness demands that we ensure people, particularly those on lower incomes, have routes to progress in work, have the opportunity to boost their earning power, and are treated with respect and decency at work.
Because, while having employment is itself vital to people’s health and well-being, the quality of people’s work is also a major factor in helping people to stay healthy and happy, something which benefits them and serves the wider public interest.
Because better designed work that gets the best out of people can make an important contribution to tackling our complex challenge of low productivity.
Because we should, as a matter of principle, want the experience of work to match the aspirations we have for modern citizenship; that people feel they are respected, trusted and enabled and expected to take responsibility.
Because the pace of change in the modern economy, and particularly in technology and the development of new business models, means we need a concerted approach to work which is both up to date and responsive and based on enduring principles of fairness.
I stand by these principles; indeed, the RSA is carrying out a study with the Carnegie Trust looking at the evidence for links between work quality and productivity. At a time when optimism, and a sense of agency seem at a low ebb in our country, the aspiration that all work should, in the phrase I used in the report, ‘offer scope for fulfilment and development’ could be an important rallying cry. The persistence of a narrative of technological determinism which both overstates our knowledge of how innovation will develop and understates human agency makes this task even more important.
One reason why the RSA’s ‘Four Futures of Work’ was so well received and is having such an impact is that it explicitly engages with both technological and socio-economic-political contingency. The Chancellor is among a number of thoughtful ministers who have acknowledged the legitimacy crisis facing capitalism. ‘Four Futures’ underlines the major choices face us and the possibility of a concerted backlash against technology. If the Conservatives want to have relevance beyond Brexit they will need to show they understand and care about the impacts on people and places of market-driven technological change.
Over the last two years I had given innumerable speeches on the good work agenda to a variety of audiences but just recently I’ve sensed a loss of momentum. Perhaps there are just too many future of work initiatives or maybe people think the argument has been won. But it hasn’t. There is still a great deal of low quality, dead end, work in our economy and, as with most other issues, the problems are concentrated at the bottom end of society.
From detailed labour market regulation to radical new organisational models, such as those we celebrated in our recent global Future Work awards, the journey to better work will be like all major social shifts; a combination of complex, slow moving progress and moments of rapid change and innovation. This is the reality reflected in the RSA’s injunction to ‘think like a system and act like an entrepreneur’. It is a mission I’m as comitted to now as I was when Theresa May appointed me to chair her Commission. Let’s hope our next Prime Minister shares her enthusiasm.
Fabian Wallace-Stephens sets out key findings and recommendations from our report on how the dual impacts of Covid-19 and technological change and could reshape the labour market.