May 17, 2011 10:30 pm

CBI chief calls for tougher strike laws

The coalition should “get on with it” and introduce tough new anti-strike laws, the president of the CBI employers’ group has said, warning that a wave of public sector militancy over the government’s austerity plans threatens to put off foreign investors.

Helen Alexander stepped up the pressure ahead of Wednesday’s vote by the Public and Commercial Services union, the biggest civil service union, on a strike ballot over jobs, pay and pensions.

That could lead to a strike on June 30, possibly co-ordinated with the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which also begin balloting this week on strikes over pensions.

“The international competitiveness element here is one of the things that’s at risk,” said Ms Alexander. “Investors have choices and if they don’t like what they see as an environment here in industrial relations or anything else, they will go elsewhere.”

The coalition is looking at the case for imposing a ballot threshold for strikes, but Downing Street says this is likely only if there is an upsurge of militancy.

he CBI says strikes should be legal only if 40 per cent of the balloted workforce vote in favour. At present, a strike can go ahead if a majority of workers who take part in a ballot opt to do so, regardless of turnout.

“If a good idea is worth doing, as long as you have got the resources to do it, you get on with it,” Ms Alexander said.

Ahead of tonight’s annual CBI dinner, the last of her two-year term, she said the group would hold the coalition’s “feet to the fire” to deliver on promises to curb red tape.

She urged ministers not to waver on its deficit reduction plans and said its growth strategy was moving in the right direction, but business was eager to see changes in energy, planning, skills and tax applied in practice.

Sir Richard Lambert, the CBI’s former director-general, was “absolutely right” to lambast the coalition in January for failing to articulate an economic vision, she said, but since then its focus on growth had been “exactly what businesses want”.

Helen Alexander

Helen Alexander: business had yet to see results from the government’s anti-red tape drive, including a ‘one-in, one-out’ system whereby any new regulation must be balanced by removing one of at least equal cost

She said, however, that business had yet to see results from the government’s anti-red tape drive, including a “one-in, one-out” system whereby any new regulation must be balanced by removing one of at least equal cost.

“We don’t feel it in companies, we don’t feel it on the ground. It’s got to be clear to anyone owning or running a business.”

Ms Alexander said the coalition had “quite a small window” to make its local enterprise partnerships, replacing Labour’s regional development agencies, operate effectively.

Members were particularly concerned to see “clarity and consistency” on energy policy, avoiding the twin dangers of putting off investors in new power generation or driving energy-intensive industries overseas, she said.

There was also a “real concern” that the new system for granting planning permission to big national projects, replacing Labour’s infrastructure planning commission, should work with speed.

Ms Alexander, the CBI’s first female president, said Lord Davies’s report in February on women in the boardroom was already having an impact, with headhunters reporting more female appointments to non-executive posts.

She was optimistic there would also be an increase in female executive appointments because companies needed a pipeline of board candidates.

Ms Alexander is due to be succeeded as CBI president next month by Sir Roger Carr, chairman of Centrica.





Deficit reduction
The organisation was an early backer of plans to cut the deficit swiftly and sharply and now urges the coalition to stand firm.

Growth strategy
After Sir Richard Lambert, outgoing director-general, accused the government of lacking vision, the CBI is broadly happy with the direction set out in the Budget.

Bribery Act
After a delay, the government listened to concerns that honest companies could be unwittingly caught out and clarified areas of the legislation.

Immigration cap
The business group was pleased that ministers responded to its members’ concerns, particularly by exempting intra-company


Default retirement age
The coalition brushed aside the CBI’s pleas for a year’s delay and pressed ahead with abolishing the default age, under which companies could force people to retire at 65.

Offshore tax
The CBI was blindsided by George Osborne’s £2bn Budget tax raid on the oil and gas sector, creating uncertainty that it fears may damage investment in energy.

It remains nervous that the government’s localism agenda, coupled with abolishing the infrastructure planning commission for national projects, will encourage ‘nimbyism’.

The CBI, whose members were disunited, failed to dissuade the coalition from ruling out any more runways in the south-east.

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