11 Oct 2023
by APSCo United Kingdom

Public policy: APSCo bangs the drum for professional recruitment at Labour Party Conference

By Tania Bower, Global Public Policy Director, APSCo

This year was a first for me – a trip to Labour Party Conference in a surprisingly balmy Liverpool. I was there, along with many other business first timers I suspect, more used to pounding corridors from one fringe event to another at the Conservative Party Conference, which I unfortunately could not attend due to the train strike. 

NHS Reform a Major Theme – a health service to prevent illness, using technology, including AI 

Both the Conservatives and Labour have ambitious plans to reform the NHS, with the NHS Workforce Plan front and centre of the current Government’s policy to decrease waiting lists. 

On Sunday afternoon I was able to put a question regarding flexible workers on behalf of APSCo members to Wes Streeting MP, Shadow Health and Social Care Minister. His response was encouraging that there will always be a place for flexible workers, including agency workers in the NHS. He stressed however that permanent jobs in the NHS need to be more flexible, thereby avoiding the situation where an NHS worker reduces permanent hours, to make it up with more flexible agency shifts. The audience supported his assertion that the £30 billion reported “agency bill” must be reduced and I pushed both him and Matthew Taylor of the NHS Confederation to prioritise one set of national rules for contractor compliance, thereby reducing bureaucracy and minimising “off-framework” spend. 

Skills and Growth, a priority on Business Monday 

As well as the main hall events and Ministerial speeches, at any party conference there are countless 'fringe’ events meetings happening every half hour, each including a Shadow Minister or MP.  I attended an event on growth with Alison McGovern MP Shadow Minister Work and Pensions, on boosting regional growth by implementing an industrial policy, including targeted spending on research and development.  

At a skills event hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC), with a panel including Kate Bell, Assistant General Secretary, TUC and Shadow Skills Minister, Seema Malhotra MP, the BCC highlighted their research, reflecting APSCo’s own, that businesses still can’t find the candidates with the right skills.  General view across events was that Net Zero and AI should be seen as delivering “possibilities” for new jobs, new skills, and innovation – and it already is.  In our submission to Treasury on the Autumn Statement we support Government on their Investment Zones and Local Skills plans but say more targeted money is needed to drive results and there should be specific focus on high value, important sectors and regions. 

Workers’ Rights 

There were surprisingly few events focusing on Labour’s policy on workers’ rights on “business day”– albeit concern around wage stagnation resonated across forums. At one fringe event hosted by trade unions on the New Deal for Working People, it was interesting from a personal perspective to hear Mick Lynch and others in person. It’s clear that the union view is not quite aligned with the latest iteration of the New Deal, with the unions’ focus on collective bargaining rights. Labour has said their policy on collective pay agreements will be trialled across the social care sector, notoriously fragmented with SME ownership and a focus of the current Director of Labour Market Enforcement, Margaret Beels, due to reports of low pay, poor conditions and illegal working. 

Shadow Minister for Employment Rights and Protections, Justin Madders MP, stressed the importance of alignment, in order to be awarded the opportunity by the electorate to put any plans into action. Interestingly, barrister and chair of the Institute of Employment Rights Lord Hendy KC, made clear that he and Madders will need to consider how the ban on zero hours contract law will allow for people who heavily rely on flexible working hours. APSCo will continue to engage with Labour policymakers to ensure that their policies support a flexible labour market, where agency work and highly skilled contracting are recognised as playing a valuable part.  

Reflections on Labour Party Conference 

Stability, certainty, trust, predictability, and fairness.  These words were peppered in MPs’ speeches across Monday’s fringe events, in their bid to win the vote of business, no more so than at the fringe event I attended on tax reform, where Jamie Murray, Shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury, would not be drawn on income tax cuts or higher taxes on capital such as CGT. 

APSCo members in Scotland will likely be pleased by Starmer’s announcement in his closing speech that Great British Energy will be based there. As one shadow business minister made clear s in a fringe event there needs to be an industrial strategy to fully utilise the benefits. Boris Johnson claimed that Britain could be to wind, what Saudia Arabia is to oil but we are lagging behind Denmark in job production. It can’t be ignored of course that many of our members are thriving in this sector, as a result of the focus of the current Government on clean energy 

In Sir Keir Starmer’s closing speech the focus was very much on “working people”.  A rousing speech (glitter and all) for the faithful, but with a new pledge to build “a wave of new towns” - with infrastructure such as clean energy, schools and primary care “hardwired in”. Looking back on conference season, both the Prime Minister’s speech and Starmer’s were well received by their respective members. Sunak’s seemed to me more policy heavy with the cancellation of the northern leg of HS2 to Manchester, balanced by promises to invest in cross country rail and roads. 

As an experiment this year in the value of attending the conferences, it was an insightful trip to the North West for me, and one where I was able to introduce APSCo to a wider audience. I will keep track of any resulting activity and report back to our member Policy Forums. Register here to attend our next events in early November.