IES Viewpoint: Plus ça change?
5 May 2016
Nigel Meager, IES Director
Like many people who've been involved in the public policy research world for some time (in my case since 1979), I often get a massive feeling of déjà vu when I read the latest commentary on the labour market, or hear a minister or civil servant pronounce on the latest public policy initiative. That feeling was reinforced by my recent realisation that this newsletter, which showcases the Institute's research on public employment policy and related matters, has now been running for over ten years in its current form. The first issue was published in early 2005, and this will be the 23rd time that I have put forward my take on a topical employment policy or labour market issue.
I thought it would be interesting this time to look back at the topics I was writing about in the first issue to see how many of the themes are still relevant or resonant today. Two key points struck me: first that most of the opinions I expressed and judgements I made ten years ago still look fairly sensible (or at least not ridiculous) now – phew! Second, I realised how many of the themes were still relevant in exactly the same way today, and how depressingly little had changed in policy terms over the period.
In the first Employment Studies, published in the run-up to the 2005 general election, we previewed the main policy challenges that a new government (as it turned out, a third Blair government) would face, and the areas in which applied research was likely to be required. So we highlighted how, despite record low unemployment, there was still a major need to get harder-to-help and economically inactive groups (especially people with disabilities and long-term health conditions) into work (sound familiar?), and how the holy grail of welfare policy was to find effective ‘preventive strategies to retain people in work and reduce the numbers moving from short-term sickness absence into long-term incapacity’.
We returned to this theme in more detail in our third issue in 2006, where we noted the persistent emphasis of welfare-to-work policy on the ‘supply side’ (focusing on ‘activating’ the workless themselves). We argued for a more balanced approach, which would also incorporate ‘demand side’ elements supporting and incentivising employers to engage with and provide sustainable jobs for, the most disadvantaged. All the same points could be made with equal force today.
Similarly, on the skills front, our first issue noted that government policy seemed to be focused on expanding higher education (where the UK was already well-placed internationally) and on raising the skills levels of the lowest, whereas ‘arguably the UK’s bigger deficit remains at the intermediate skills level (level 3 and above); and it is at this level that skills development could perhaps make the biggest contribution to reducing the productivity gap between the UK and its main competitors’. Again this theme is persistently present in current debates about what we now call the UK’s ‘productivity puzzle’.
Back in 2005, we also noted the emerging challenges posed by an ageing workforce, highlighting that ‘Future challenges will include the need to reform pensions and the management of the retirement process, tackling age discrimination throughout the stages of working life and making a reality of the rhetoric of “lifelong learning”, to equip older people for longer, more flexible careers’. In 2016, ageing remains at the top of many government departments’ agendas for policy and research , although one would be forgiven for thinking that not much has moved forward in policy terms in the 11-plus years since we last raised this issue. It’s also interesting that while pensions, working life, and health remain important themes in ageing policy discussion, the role of ‘lifelong learning’ as a policy tool in this area seems to have been downgraded somewhat and is less present in the debate. Very few of the recommendations of the ambitious and authoritative 2009 Inquiry into the future of lifelong learning  appear to have found their way onto the policy landscape, and arguably this is even more of a policy lacuna than it was when we mentioned it back in 2005.
So has nothing really changed? Well, slightly more encouragingly, there was one policy topic highlighted in our 2005 issue, where we can see some development. Back then we noted that ‘the regulation debate continues to simmer… with concerns raised about further increases in the National Minimum Wage, possible loss of the UK “opt-out” from the Working Time Regulations, and extensions to parental rights at work…Even in the areas where equality legislation is long-standing, research continues to document the distance still to go’. And we bemoaned the insularity of the UK debate on these topics, and the general failure to appreciate that the UK had one of the least regulated labour markets in the developed world, and the evidence that some aspects of labour market and economic performance could even be enhanced by careful and selective increases in the level of regulation. Since then it is clear that the policy climate and the willingness to regulate has shifted considerably, to the extent that we have a Conservative government presiding over a significant above-inflation increase in the minimum wage, extension of parental rights and the imposition of gender pay reporting requirements on employers. All of the latter will provide fertile ground for future research and evaluation.
 A new ‘what works’ Centre for Ageing Better (http://www.ageing-better.org.uk/) has recently been launched to enhance evidence-based policy-making on this topic. See also the article on page 7 in this newsletter about IES’s research into managing older workers for the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.