Conference, time is precious. I can say that, as I’m now officially the Minister for Time. Yes, my weirdly wonderful set of responsibilities bequeathed from Ed Davey and then Norman Lamb includes our time zone.
In fairness, they couldn’t give it to the department’s Lords Minister, he’d only demand his own Tardis.
It’s funny to think about how much of our lifetime we spend doing different things:
Handily, someone has done the research.
Apparently, we spend one hundred and fifteen days laughing – that’s six minutes a day, presumably somewhat more when The Thick of It is on telly.
There’s twenty weeks on hold, listening to muzak while waiting to speak to a human being in a call centre.
Six months of our life queuing, presumably this figure is UK-specific.
And eighty-seven hours of our life waiting for Simon Hughes to arrive at an event.
Ok, I made the last one up, but it feels like it sometimes!
But the really scary one is this – we spend almost 100,000 hours of our life at work – that’s the equivalent of eleven and a half years.
It’s a huge proportion of the time we have on this planet, and it impacts on so much more than just our bank balance: our health, our relationships, our aspirations.
Of course, as Employment Minister I’m all too aware that for too many people right now, the challenge is to find a job, any job. The impact of unemployment, especially when people are young, is still felt decades later.
That’s why Nick Clegg was right to fight for the Youth Contract, to invest £1bn in wage incentives, training places and more apprenticeships.
We were right to end Labour’s ridiculous rules whereby people were penalised for getting experience to make themselves more employable by losing their benefits.
And it’s why, like Stephen Lloyd, Mike Crockart and other Lib Dem MPs, I have been running a local employment initiative in my constituency, Get East Dunbartonshire Working.
Bringing together employers, training providers and government agencies to detail the assistance that is on offer to help businesses take on new staff.
But unemployment is not the only problem. There are also large numbers of people in work, but uninspired.
From the graduate who has kept their part-time student job but feels their career is going nowhere, to the employee stuck in a rut in the same job for years, feeling undervalued and unchallenged.
Yes, we must tackle unemployment. And we must also improve the working environment for people who have a job. This isn’t just a nice thing to do.
In the current economic circumstances we simply can’t afford not to maximise the full potential of our workforce.
I feel incredibly lucky to be doing a job I love, as MP for my home seat of East Dunbartonshire. I’m also really enjoying the new Ministerial post with all the exciting challenges it brings.
But like most people in this hall I expect, I know what it’s like to have a job where you’re clock-watching, or feeling unfulfilled.
- I have worked in a fast-food restaurant where the cries of “how many bodies do we have on the tills?” made me realise I was less a valued member of staff and more a production machine.
- I have worked in the Disney store, where even for someone with my cheery disposition, the enforced perma-smile was too much to bear.
- And I have worked for a local radio station, where the great charity work we did at the grassroots was measured by the parent company solely in terms of positive column inches, which was so demoralising for the team.
Without a doubt, I know that I have been at my most productive, creative and effective when I have relished going to work. It’s only natural.
When employment has risen significantly but GDP has not, we do need to ask the question, are we doing all we can to unleash the potential of our most precious resource – our people?
Of course the arguments for improving the world of work are rooted in strong liberal tradition.
There’s a wonderful example of this in my part of the country – New Lanark, now a world heritage site.
Inspired by the liberal philosophy of Bentham, in the 1800s Robert Owen proved that commercial success went hand in hand with valuing workers. In his textile mills, he provided free medical care, the first infant school in the world, and adult education. He reduced the working day to 8 hours, but increased production.
John Stuart Mill developed the thinking, writing of the benefits of workplace democracy and co-operative associations. He rejected the pitting of workers and owners against each other and he highlighted “The emancipation of women, & co-operative production” as “the two great changes that will regenerate society”.
These enlightened challenges laid down in the 19th century still have relevance as we seek to shape a modern vision of the 21st century workplace that can deliver prosperity.
As a Business Minister, I see three big opportunities for the UK labour market.
First, inclusivity – we must draw on all of society’s talents.
Second, engagement – we must harness the energy of employees to build better businesses.
And finally, entrepreneurial spirit. Not everyone is an employee and we must nurture the business creators of tomorrow.
So first – inclusivity.
In recovering from the most serious economic downturn for decades, it’s a no-brainer that we need to draw on everyone’s skills and potential.
Making it harder for people to play an active role in our economy because they are women, or have a disability, or are parents, is a shocking waste of talent.
For instance, we need to seize the game-changing opportunity that the Paralympics have given us to improve the employment opportunities of people with disabilities. It gives us a chance to make the business case for employing people with disabilities, and we must do it.
Too often they have faced prejudice, stigma and ignorance in the recruitment process. For more than twenty years, the Employers’ Forum on Disability, who I used to work for, have recognised the business opportunity that many are missing.
One in five people is either disabled, or close to someone who is. So there is a strong case both in terms of tapping into the creative talents of resilient individuals, and better understanding a significant portion of customers.
And the benefits of a more balanced and diverse workforce are clear.
Another example is the wealth of evidence from around the world that shows that company boards that are more gender-balanced perform better. Following the Davies report commissioned by Vince Cable, we have seen the largest ever annual increase in women on boards – though incidentally not in the Cabinet.
But it’s not just about women at the top. It’s about being able to unlock the potential of women across our economy, at all levels.
Technology has transformed the ability of people to communicate and work in different ways. Yet our working practices are often rigidly stuck in a time warp that values slogging away in a standard pattern of hours, rather than whatever works to get the best results from the individual.
We should enable mums and dads to choose how they share time off after their baby is born.
We should allow carers the flexibility they need to juggle their responsibilities and their job.
We should help parents stay in work by promoting meaningful part-time roles, including at senior levels.
This Coalition Government is dedicated to revolutionising the way we work:
· Introducing shared parental leave.
· Sharing best practice and challenging outdated assumptions about part-time work.
· Extending the right to request flexible working to everyone.
Because inclusivity and flexibility aren’t just for parents, or carers, or people with disabilities. These changes help everyone to work in a way that suits the realities of modern life.
And this benefits employers too – through reduced turnover, greater productivity and fewer working days lost.
The second opportunity is engagement.
Conference debated this very issue on Monday, highlighting the benefits of mutuals, employee ownership and workplace democracy.
I want to build on the excellent work that Norman Lamb began on employee ownership. We should champion the role of co-operatives, mutuals and alternative business models like social enterprises in rebalancing our economy.
But a business doesn’t have to be owned by employees to engage employees.
one in four employees is a member of a trade union. For all the media headlines about strikes, they do good and vital work: resolving disputes, training and education, protecting the vulnerable.
There are lots of other good examples too of employee involvement in decision-making. Ideas from the shop floor saving businesses money.
And engaging employees makes good business sense.
According to the Harvard Business Review, happy employees are more productive, more creative and make more sales.
Organisations that work to engage employees and improve their wellbeing get better results.
Finally, we need to nurture entrepreneurs.
Because the workplace is not just about employees – many people are self-employed, and we need to encourage more people to start businesses.
Here again, we are missing a trick with the talents of women.
There are less than half as many women entrepreneurs as men. If we could get women to start up businesses at the same rate as men, we’d see 150,000 new start-ups each year.
I hope we can use the wonderful Olympic spirit as inspiration across a range of fields, not just sport.
Jess Ennis, Kath Grainger and Ellie Simmonds are wonderful role models.
They prove that ruthless determination and desire to win at all costs are not exclusively male traits, nor should they be.
Seeing such strong women succeed challenges cultural stereotypes about what is feminine behaviour.
I want us to translate this energy into women entrepreneurs too. We’ve recruited thousands of business mentors, we’re investing £2m in rural businesswomen, and in the autumn I will be bringing forward fresh ideas on how to improve women’s access to finance.
So conference why is all of this important? It’s important because the most successful societies draw on the widest pool of talent. I have a dual role as Minister for Business and Minister for Equalities.
Many people tell me they’re incompatible. But conference, we know they are inseparable.
New measures for growth must go hand in hand with continued measures to promote equality.
There will be some who cry “we’re in a recession, we can’t afford to do this.”
But the truth is, we’re in a recession, we can’t afford not to do it.
We need to reap the benefits of more balanced boardrooms, and a more motivated, engaged workforce. It makes good business sense.
And it is my liberal agenda within the Business Department.
A Conservative Government wouldn’t see this as a vital part of getting our economy back on track.
And Labour don’t understand that empowering employees is about more than a one size fits all solution.
Conference, there’s one person watching today who for me, symbolises the great strides we’ve made. My Nanna, who is 99 this year, was born into a Britain where women couldn’t vote.
They were expected to know their place, and a woman’s place was in the home.
She has lived through two world wars which saw women enter the workplace en masse.
A women’s rights movement that saw women gain control over their bodies.
And the first ever woman Prime Minister.
Now her granddaughter is responsible for employment relations in Britain. And I want to take us on the next stage of that journey.
A modern workplace revolution. An inclusive, engaged workforce. An inspired new generation of entrepreneurs.
We spend so much time working.
Until now, we’ve had to contort our lives to fit an outdated model. But we need to create a new model. A model that works for modern lives.
And if it works for modern lives, it will work for business too.