Politics has been full of surprises this year. The surprise re-election of the Conservative Party with an outright majority in May was followed by Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly decisive victory in the Labour leadership vote. And yesterday the Prime Minister showed that he too retains the capacity for the unexpected.
A heavy focus on national security was not hard to predict in a conference speech by a Tory Prime Minister, nor were the policies aimed at increasing home ownership. But it was the section on opportunity that made me, and I imagine many in the business community, sit up and take notice.
“Picture this,” he said. “You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname.”
He then provided a worrying statistic: people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call-backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names, even if their CVs list the same qualifications. It is likely that much of the problem is unconscious bias, rather than outright racism, but that is little consolation if you are the one who can’t get an interview.
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Business leaders, like the ones we represent at the Institute of Directors, are the people who can turn equality of opportunity from a political slogan into reality. I do not believe that this is an issue of right or left. It simply seems obvious to me that our future economic success depends upon not overlooking the talents of any section of the workforce.
And using talent, wherever it appears, will only be more important in the future. The economy will change in as-yet-unpredictable ways in the coming years, with new business models and technologies transforming whole industries. The long-term success of our society will depend on the agility and alertness of firms in seizing new opportunities, and to do this they cannot afford to miss out on creative and innovative people, whatever their background or gender.
Organisations like the IoD have a role to play in promoting to our members options like removing names from CVs where possible to make sure the recruitment process is truly based on merit. But there are many other barriers preventing people from accessing work opportunities. For this reason, we are collaborating with the Department for Work and Pensions on their “See Potential” and “Disability Confident” campaigns, to encourage businesses to actively look at people with mental health problems, former prisoners and disabled people, who have additional difficulty in finding employment.
So we believe that the Prime Minister has latched onto a point that will chime with many businesses.
Another headline from the speech designed to resonate with the concerns of many voters regarded housing.
It may be the most uncontentious statement in modern British politics that we need to build more houses. And yet, year after year, we fail to build enough to keep up with demand. The solutions are no great mystery. In fact, David Cameron identified them in his speech. He promised a “national crusade to get homes built”, focused on getting “banks lending, government releasing land, and yes – planning being reformed”.
The problem is that crusades are bloody affairs, and Cameron has a fight on his hands in each one of these areas. The Bank of England has imposed restrictions on mortgage lending because it wants to prevent a repeat of the last crisis, and is keeping an eye on the buy-to-let market. The Prime Minister will have plenty of voices warning him against inflating another property bubble.
Releasing government land will help, but even when public sector organisations like TfL seem keen to do it, the process is not moving quickly enough to bring the overall house-building figures up to the level of demand.
But the big one has always been planning. The irony is that, when Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, he promised a complete overhaul of the planning system. The dull-sounding National Planning Policy Framework actually had the potential to force local authorities to speed up the process but, as ever, Nimby objections managed to water down the reforms. In comparison, yesterday’s announcement that developers will be able to build affordable housing to buy, rather than just rent, is pretty small beer.
In his conference speech on Monday, George Osborne called himself a dragon slayer. Nimbyism is one of the toughest dragons out there, so the chancellor will need the Prime Minister’s help on this one.