Will Theresa May defend workers' rights? Don't hold your breath | Nils Pratley

The prime minister has been slippery about getting workers on boards – and looks likely to do little about the gig economy

The suspicion that Theresa May’s commitment to strengthen the rights of workers is less than it seems is encapsulated in this passage from her piece for the Financial Times: “I will ensure that there is representation for workers on company boards and that every employee has a statutory right to receive information about key decisions affecting their company’s future.”

Let’s take these promises in reverse order. Tell us more about this right to hard facts that supposedly information-starved workers will enjoy? “This will be no more than the information that shareholders currently receive,” says the prime minister’s next sentence.

For employees of publicly quoted companies, the correct response is a shrug. They are getting nothing they don’t have already. Quoted companies do not communicate with their shareholders in sealed envelopes. They are obliged to publish their financial results and material relating to takeovers and the like via announcements to the stock exchange. Anybody – whether they work for the company or not – can read this stuff.

On the first promise, May’s slippery use of the phrase “representation for workers on company boards” is well known. She does not mean actual workers on actual boards. The CBI and other corporate lobbyists killed that radical idea months ago.

Instead, to meet the prime minister’s ambition, a company may merely have to designate a non-executive director as the “employee representative”. That director may feel obliged to meet a few workers once in a while, but dressing up the process as “a workers’ right” is ridiculous.

True, a few of the other pledges are more solid. A new statutory right for bereaved parents to have time off work is an act of common decency. And the promise to guarantee current EU worker protections after Brexit is important.

But the more interesting manifesto content will relate to what the Tories say about gig economy workers. If she listened to responsible employers, the prime minister would know that fury over bogus use of “outsourcing” contracts, especially in the delivery industry, extends to boardrooms. Upright firms accept the duties and obligations that come with employing people and don’t see why rivals should be able to undercut them by abusing the definition of self-employment.

Will May address this legitimate worry? Don’t hold your breath. On the basis of her pledges about workers’ representatives and access to information, she is more interested in playing with words.

Is GSK getting the prescription right?

“My viewpoint, and that of other like-minded institutional investors, has been heard but ultimately ignored – repeatedly,” complained fund manager Neil Woodford as he revealed last week that he has sold his GlaxoSmithKline stake.

He has been in the stock for more than 15 years, he said, so grumpiness is perhaps understandable. At the time of the grand merger in 2000, GSK’s share price was pushing £20. Now it’s £16.58 and the flow of dividends over the years is inadequate compensation.

Woodford’s complaint, however, is that none of the chief executives over the years has adopted his idea of breaking up GSK, a business that spans pharmaceuticals, vacinnes, consumer products and a specialist HIV unit. He calls the company “a healthcare conglomerate with a sub-optimal strategy”.

It’s a point of view and, as ever with Woodford, he makes it clearly – indeed, has done for ages. But his campaign for a break-up cannot be said to have caught fire. There may be “like-minded” investors but they surely don’t amount to anything approaching a majority. The consensus opinion is still that the three-way asset shuffle with Novartis, which was executed in 2014, should be given time to work. There was little grumbling when Emma Walmsley, who Woodford calls the “continuity candidate”, succeeded Sir Andrew Witty in April.

Woodford’s analysis may be vindicated in time. His investing record is superb. But the idea that GSK has somehow frustrated the will of the bulk of its shareholders doesn’t hold water. Woodford was an unhappy minority. That’s life sometimes.

Edmonds furious as Lloyds offers no deal

Is Lloyds Banking Group “foot dragging” over compensation payouts to victims of the HBOS Reading fraud, as Noel Edmonds alleges? It’s impossible to know from outside but, if Edmonds’ £73m claim hasn’t yet been examined, it does seem remarkable that Lloyds thinks it can complete the process for the dozens of victims “within weeks”.

The telly funster should keep pushing. Lloyds’ top brass have often given the impression that they regard their bank as the true victim of the Reading fraud, for which six people were jailed. Sorry, chaps, but your predecessors bought the wretched HBOS, complete with all its nasties, which means the problem is yours.


Nils Pratley

The GuardianTramp

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