In a bid to boost jobs, the Prime Minister has launched another initiative to ease the burden of employment regulation. According to James Forsyth in the Mail on Sunday and confirmed by the Daily Telegraph, the man heading up this latest review is venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft.
In what is fast becoming a pattern, No 10 is briefing out that an independent adviser has been asked to come up with new ideas because David Cameron is exasperated by Whitehall's failure to draw up the necessary reforms. As usual, Conservative sources are also letting it be known that the proposals are unlikely to find favour with (anti-)Business Minister Vince Cable, who will frustrate any radical moves to cut regulation.
So far, so familiar. The Tory press gets its headline, Cameron gets the credit for wanting a bold initiative, but we all know nothing will happen because, hey, this is Coalition. The Government switches the subject back to deficit reduction (or long-tailed bank reform) and the regulatory burdens pile up. In two weeks' time the new gold-plated EU directive on temporary workers kicks in, threatening businesses with £1.6 billion in extra costs, and putting thousands of jobs at risk where employers are unable or unwilling to offer short-term workers the same rights (including pensions) as longstanding staff.
Can this impasse be broken? Lord Young was the first in line to come up with creative solutions at the request of the Prime Minister. Shortly before his fall from grace last year, the Thatcherite former Trade minister said he was contemplating doubling the qualifying period required to gain unfair dismissal rights and introducing measures to deter frivolous claims. When Young was forced to resign over his unwise "never had it so good" remarks, the Government decided to play it safe and took the review back in-house. That gave us the Employer's Charter, designed to reassure employers that if they comply with all the regulations they have nothing to fear. Not much help when the regulations continue to pile up, including the adoption of all the ludicrous provisions of Harriet Harman's 2010 Equalities Act. But Chancellor George Osborne continued to talk up expectations of serious reform, promising the Institute of Directors' annual convention in May this year that there would be a "wholesale" review of employment law.
So is Mr Beecroft the man to deliver that "wholesale" change? Can we expect him to put rocket boosters under Whitehall and break down Vince Cable's resistance? Will he be backing Steve Hilton's desire to "ignore" the EU directive and unwind maternity rights? And can he clear the way for George Osborne to announce a rolling back of red tape in his much-heralded growth statement at the end of November?
I'm not counting on it, and here's why. Mr Beecroft is undoubtedly a hugely successful venture capitalist and a generous philanthropist. But he also happens to be one of the Tory party's biggest donors, giving the Conseratives more than half a million pounds last year. On top of that, he donated another £50,000 to No to AV. Maybe not the best man to win over Mr Cable, then. And at a time when the Government's proposed planning reform is tainted by its close association with major donors and business sponsors, you might think that a truly "independent" adviser would carry more weight with voters when it comes to reforming an important but sensitive policy area.
There is an alternative. If the Prime Minister wants to hear the voice of British employers and put forward some well-researched, evidence-based proposals for reform, to boost jobs and get the economy moving, why not ask British industry? The CBI, for example, has published a series of reports on the impact of employment regulation, with some practical ideas for change that could make a real difference to their members and get British jobs – and the British economy – moving again. We don't need gimmicks, but we must get rid of the worst regulatory excesses of the Labour years.
It isn't that hard. Instead of raising expectations with empty headlines, couldn’t the Prime Minister and his aides sit down with Nick Clegg, take him though the proposals and then announce a Coalition consensus for jobs?