Jo Swinson gave her first speech to Scottish Conference as a Minister. Her remarks were similar to the speech she gave at Federal Conference last month - but that didn't matter because there many people in Dunfermline on Saturday hadn't heard what she had to say and I'm glad that they did.
I liked her speech because it was very practical and real world. She talked from personal experience how bad she felt at being treated like a number when she worked for a fast food restaurant, and how we should give people more freedom and flexibility at work, how we need to treat people like adults and let them choose for themselves which parent takes what share of the leave available.
Here it is, in full.
Conference, last month in Brighton I gave delegates a breakdown of just how much of our life we spend doing different things. It’s funny to think about how much of our lifetime we spend doing different things:
Handily, someone has done the research.
Apparently, we spend one hundred and fifteen days laughing – that’s six minutes a day, presumably somewhat more when The Thick of It is on telly.
There’s twenty weeks on hold, listening to music while waiting to speak to a human being in a call centre.
Six months of our life queuing, presumably this figure is UK-specific.
And seven months of our life waiting for the SNP to admit they didn’t have the legal advice on the EU.
But another staggering one is this – we spend almost 100,000 hours of our life at work – that’s the equivalent of eleven and a half years. It’s a huge proportion of the time we have on this planet, and it impacts on so much more than just our bank balance: our health, our relationships, our aspirations. Of course, as Employment Minister I’m all too aware that for too many people right now, the challenge is to find a job, any job. The impact of unemployment, especially when people are young, is still felt decades later. That’s why Nick Clegg was right to fight for the Youth Contract, to invest £1bn in wage incentives, training places and more apprenticeships. And it’s why Mike Crockart and other Lib Dem MPs, I have been running a local employment initiative in my constituency, Get East Dunbartonshire Working.
But unemployment is not the only problem. There are also large numbers of people in work, but uninspired. From the graduate who has kept their part-time student job but feels their career is going nowhere, to the employee stuck in a rut in the same job for years, feeling undervalued and unchallenged. So yes, we must tackle unemployment. And we must also improve the working environment for people who have a job. This isn’t just a nice thing to do.
I feel incredibly lucky to be doing a job I love, as MP for my home seat of East Dunbartonshire. I’m also really enjoying the new Ministerial post with all the exciting challenges it brings. But like most people in this hall I expect, I know what it’s like to have a job where you’re clock-watching, or feeling unfulfilled.
- I have worked in a fast-food restaurant in Argyle Street where the cries of “how many bodies do we have on the tills?” made me realise I was less a valued member of staff and more a production machine.
Without a doubt, I know that I have been at my most productive, creative and effective when I have relished going to work. It’s only natural.
When employment has risen significantly but GDP has not, we do need to ask the question, are we doing all we can to unleash the potential of our most precious resource – our people? Conference, the answer is often we don’t. As a Business Minister, I see three big opportunities for the UK labour market.
First, inclusivity – we must draw on all of society’s talents.
Second, engagement – we must harness the energy of employees to build better businesses.
And finally, entrepreneurial spirit. Not everyone is an employee and we must nurture the business creators of tomorrow.
So first – inclusivity.
In recovering from the most serious economic downturn for decades, it’s a no-brainer that we need to draw on everyone’s skills and potential. Making it harder for people to play an active role in our economy because they are women, or have a disability, or are parents, is a shocking waste of talent.
For instance, we need to seize the game-changing opportunity that the Paralympics have given us to improve the employment opportunities of people with disabilities. It gives us a chance to make the business case for employing people with disabilities, and we must do it. Too often they have faced prejudice, stigma and ignorance in the recruitment process. For more than twenty years, the Employers’ Forum on Disability, who I used to work for, have recognised the business opportunity that many are missing. One in five people has a disability, or close to someone who is. So there is a strong case both in terms of tapping into the creative talents of resilient individuals, and better understanding a significant portion of customers.
And the benefits of a more balanced and diverse workforce are clear.
Another example is the wealth of evidence from around the world that shows that company boards that are more gender-balanced perform better. Following the Davies report commissioned by Vince Cable, we have seen the largest ever annual increase in women on boards. But it’s not just about women at the top. It’s about being able to unlock the potential of women across our economy, at all levels. Technology has transformed the ability of people to communicate and work in different ways. Yet our working practices are often rigidly stuck in a time warp that values slogging away in a standard pattern of hours, rather than whatever works to get the best results from the individual.
We should enable mums and dads to choose how they share time off after their baby is born. We should allow carers the flexibility they need to juggle their responsibilities and their job. We should help parents stay in work by promoting meaningful part-time roles, including at senior levels.
This Coalition Government is dedicated to revolutionising the way we work:
· Introducing shared parental leave.
· Sharing best practice and challenging outdated assumptions about part-time work.
· Extending the right to request flexible working to everyone.
Because inclusivity and flexibility aren’t just for parents, or carers, or people with disabilities. These changes help everyone to work in a way that suits the realities of modern life.
And this benefits employers too – through reduced turnover, greater productivity and fewer working days lost.
The second opportunity is engagement.
We should champion the role of co-operatives, mutuals and alternative business models like social enterprises in rebalancing our economy. But a business doesn’t have to be owned by employees to engage employees. Organisations that work to engage employees and improve their wellbeing get better results. According to the Harvard Business Review, happy employees are more productive, more creative and make more sales. Finally, we need to nurture entrepreneurs. Because the workplace is not just about employees – many people are self-employed, and we need to encourage more people to start businesses. Here again, we are missing a trick with the talents of women. There are less than half as many women entrepreneurs as men. If we could get women to start up businesses at the same rate as men, we’d see 150,000 new start-ups each year.
I hope we can use the wonderful Olympic spirit as inspiration across a range of fields, not just sport. Heather Stanning, Hannah Miley and Kath Grainger are wonderful role models. They prove that ruthless determination and desire to win at all costs are not exclusively male traits, nor should they be. Seeing such strong women succeed challenges cultural stereotypes about what is feminine behaviour. I want us to translate this energy into women entrepreneurs too.
So conference why is all of this important? It’s important because the most successful societies draw on the widest pool of talent. We need to reap the benefits of more balanced boardrooms, and a more motivated, engaged workforce. It makes good business sense. A modern workplace revolution. An inclusive, engaged workforce. An inspired new generation of entrepreneurs.
We spend so much time working. Until now, we’ve had to contort our lives to fit an outdated model. But we need to create a new model. A model that works for modern lives. And if it works for modern lives, it will work for business too.