Monday 13 February 2017 4:15 am

We should roll back the barriers to growth post-Brexit – not employment rights

Dr Adam Marshall is director general of the British Chambers of Commerce.
director general, British Chambers of Commerce

For years, some of the people I’ve encountered on the Westminster circuit have argued that one of the principal reasons for the UK to leave the EU is employment law. For this hardy bunch, and their tight circle of business supporters, rolling back employment legislation always seemed to be the answer to everything that ails Britain.

Yet as the Prime Minister prepares to trigger Article 50, the diverse business communities I represent across the UK show scant appetite for a bonfire of employment rights. When asked, most say that the current balance of rights and responsibilities between employers and employees is, well, about right.

As a business lobbyist, I would have argued five or 10 years ago that big new obligations were being piled on, and that the balance between employers and employees was tipping in the wrong direction. But today, the message we get from businesses is that this is no longer at the top of their list of concerns.

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To be absolutely clear, firms don’t want expensive new employment regulation post-Brexit, or for the UK government to add on obligations that make them less competitive in a fast-changing world. But neither do they want a return to the Victorian era. If anything, most businesses are frustrated more by the arcane bureaucracy around their responsibilities as employers, rather than the core duties themselves.

So when the Prime Minister reiterated the government’s commitment to maintaining employment rights in her recent Brexit speech, it barely caused a ripple.

While endless attention is focused on the small number of high-profile firms that are guilty of breaking either the letter or the spirit of the law when it comes to employment and wage rights, almost none is focused on what the other 99 per cent-plus of businesses think.

These businesses are, by and large, indignant that their good reputation is brought into disrepute by a small number of their peers.

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They are indignant that successive governments have loaded them with huge up-front costs and taxes – from business rates to new tax compliance measures to new immigration charges – all of which make employing and investing in people far more costly than compliance with basic employment regulations. And they are indignant that the courts, both in the UK and at European level, have delivered successive verdicts that have warped basic rights and responsibilities into complex, unworkable and expensive conundrums.

For example, the maximalist decisions on holidays and bonuses that have left companies trying to calculate what a staff member on holiday would have made in commissions, had they been at work at all. Or being told they must give an employee back holiday days for injuries the employee suffers due to their own personal sporting or leisure choices while on holiday.

Rulings like these must end. While businesses will largely accept the core employment rights enshrined during the UK’s membership of the EU, they would be angered if such extreme interpretations continued following Brexit.

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What we see in Chamber business communities across the UK are firms of all sizes that are absolutely dedicated to getting things right. They are proud of the close relationships they nurture between management and employees, but they are frustrated to be lumped in as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

So it’s time to start shining a light on those many firms that are doing the right thing. The companies that go above and beyond in working in local schools, in developing great training, in retaining staff and in building the sort of workplace culture that breeds loyalty, pride and productivity. Put simply, it’s time to celebrate Britain’s “civic businesses”; the anchors of local economies and communities all across the UK.

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These firms – often privately owned, sometimes decades old, and rarely household names – are the unsung heroes of the British economy. Many are run by people who live, raise their families and spend their leisure time in the same communities where they work. They employ millions, prioritise investment and long-termism over short-term dividends and executive remuneration, go above and beyond their basic legal obligations to their people – and provide a great example to others.

Put simply, most firms I see across the UK realise that a business is only as good as the people that drive it, and build a culture of trust to match. Now if only these firms – and their strong civic commitment – got as much attention as the few bad apples that seem to take up most of the media column inches.