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2008 Warwick-Acas Lowry lecture

Professor Linda Dickens and Ed Sweeney

Professor Linda Dickens and Ed Sweeney, Chair, Acas

Giving the 2008 Warwick-Acas Lowry lecture to an invited audience of senior HR managers, trade union officials, employment relations professionals and academics at Warwick Business School, WBS's Professor Linda Dickens addressed the nature and effects of the increasing legal regulation of the employment relationship which has characterised the past quarter century in Britain. Speaking at Warwick on April 15th, Dickens argued that the cumulative result of ad hoc responses to particular problems has been growing institutional fragmentation, complexity and, increasingly, a lack of regulatory coherence.

The attempts of Labour governments since 1997 to combine strengthened individual rights at work with a business emphasis on a flexible and efficient labour market was constrained by legacies from previous Conservative governments. These legacies included the maintenance of restrictive regulation of industrial action and internal union affairs; the absence of legislative support for collective bargaining as a preferred means of governing relations between employers and their workforces; and a desire not to hamper employers' flexibility, often narrowly defined as ease of disposability of labour. Other legacies arose from the failure of previous governments to engage strategically with the issue of effective and appropriate enforcement of employment rights - an issue still not being confronted.

The impact of these legacies, argued Dickens, could be contradictory. For example, several measures designed as 'light touch' legislation or 'better regulation' to accommodate the interests of business have turned out not to be either particularly 'business friendly' or 'employee friendly'. And enforcement of different aspects of employment legislation had become the responsibility of a bewildering array of state agencies and government departments. Dickens concluded that achieving the Government's stated aim of a 'stable and proportionate regulatory framework in which complying with the law is easy and simple' would require more fundamental re-thinking and the preparedness of government take big, bold steps, which have hitherto been lacking.