October 9, 2012 3:25 pm

Stores chief attacks Osborne shares plan

Justin King©Charlie Bibby

Justin King

Justin King, chief executive of J Sainsbury, has launched a stinging attack on George Osborne’s plans for new staff to surrender employment rights in exchange for shares.

Mr King, the longest-serving chief executive of one of Britain’s largest supermarket chains, said the measures risked widening the chasm between the general public and big companies.

“The population at large don’t trust business,” he said. “What do you think the population at large will think of businesses that want to trade employment rights for money?”

The plans unveiled by Mr Osborne appeared to be targeted at smaller businesses, Mr King said, rather than companies such as Sainsbury.

“I don’t think it’s a measure for big business, and it has the danger of creating a further concern that businesses only want to do bad things,” he said.

Mr King – who serves on David Cameron’s business advisory group – said the proposals “should not be our agenda. Our agenda, if the government want to help us, should be making employing people easier and less costly.”

He said the easiest way to do this would be for the government to reduce national insurance costs for employers.

“We want to be the place where people come for these first jobs. We want to provide employment,” he said.

The plan was also attacked by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the professional body for human resources managers.

“It is highly doubtful whether inviting employees to sign away basic employment rights will deliver the motivated, driven, high-performing workforce that small firms need,” said Mike Emmott, the CIPD’s employee relations adviser.

He added: “Successful mutually owned firms do not thrive on employee ownership alone, but on the high trust, high engagement, all-pulling-in-the-same-direction cultures they have.”

However, Mr Osborne’s plan has been welcomed by business leaders including Neil Clifford, chief executive of Kurt Geiger, a shoe retailer, Brent Hoberman, co-founder of lastminute.com, and Sir Stuart Rose, the former chief executive of Marks and Spencer.

But business groups warned that take-up may be small. John Longworth, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said it could be a useful option for some new and fast-growing businesses, “but it is unlikely to be a game-changer”.

Mr King’s comments mark the second time the business leader – regarded as the elder statesman of the supermarket sector and widely praised for Sainsbury’s successful sponsorship of the Paralympic Games – has attacked the government in the past six months.

In May, he warned that inconsistency in crucial policy areas was damaging consumer confidence.

He said on Tuesday at a conference organised by the Institute of Grocery Distribution, the food industry think-tank, that he was not in the “business of arguing for tax cuts, the government has got a problem balancing the books . . . If the government believes it does have money to spend it should start with national insurance.”

He added that businesses and politicians needed to “be very careful that the things we are doing . . . demonstrate that we are listening to customers”.

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