CBI conference urges government to resist further employment regulation

At the November 2001 annual conference of the main UK employers' organisation, the CBI, business leaders called on government ministers to demonstrate their pro-business credentials by resisting trade union demands for new employee rights.

In early November 2001, the main UK employers' organisation, the CBI, held its annual conference in Birmingham. The conference was addressed by a range of leading government figures including the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, as well as the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), John Monks.

In an interview with The Times prior to the opening of the conference, CBI director-general Digby Jones was critical of what he saw as the government's tendency to accommodate trade union demands and said that the government had to choose between being pro-business or pro-union. He said that the government's decisions on key aspects of its employment law agenda would be seen as an important test of ministers' pro-business credentials (UK0004165N). These included: employment tribunal reform, where the CBI believed employees should be required to exhaust internal company procedures before pursuing cases to employment tribunals (UK0108142N); and the extent to which new legislation would enable working parents to insist on flexible working hours, which employers feared could have an adverse impact on business (UK0107137N).

Addressing these concerns, the Prime Minister emphasised in his speech to the conference that there would be 'no dilution of [the UK's] essentially flexible labour market'. He said that, while there may be areas where the government would look to improve employees' rights, 'there will be no new ramp of employment legislation taking us backwards to the 1970s. The basic settlement in the last parliament will remain.' On government-business relations more generally, Mr Blair said: 'We will not always agree. But there is a vast area on which we can agree. The partnership we have tried to build with [employers] over these past four years is one I am deeply committed to. It is a founding principle of New Labour and it will not change.' In a press statement, Mr Jones said he was 'reassured' by the Prime Minister's speech but that 'the proof will, of course, be in the delivery'.

In his speech to the conference, TUC general secretary John Monks noted that there was a regular exchange of views between the CBI and TUC on a range of issues and hoped that dialogue could be extended further: 'Even on the most difficult issues like the employment rights agenda, joint work and sensible discussion should be possible. But it will need a change in rhetoric, and a calmer disposition.' Mr Monks said it was not a question of 'unions win, employers lose', nor the other way round. What was needed was 'a mature relationship where we can listen better to each other and display give and take'.

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