On the Politics Show, Sunday 24 February 2008, Jon Sopel interviewed John Hutton, MP, Secretary of State, Business
JON SOPEL: John Hutton, you're flying off to the States today, just as we're going on air and I think one of the things you're looking at is why America produces so many more female entrepreneurs than we do. Why do you think it is?
JOHN HUTTON: Well, there's no doubt at all that the US is the most enterprising economy in the world and our ambition in the UK I think should be to match that level of enterprise here at home and when it comes to women setting up businesses, the US is streets ahead of everyone else. 50% more women in the States start businesses every year than they do here in the UK and if we could close that gap, we would be on a par with the US economy.
Now, we're out there for the next couple of days to actually look and learn from the best practice in the States. In the States they have a network of women's business centres which I think are aimed specifically at encouraging and supporting women who want to take that first step in to the world of self-employment.
And maybe there's something there for us to learn from the US in that particular area but I think the UK has made tremendous progress in the last twenty years. We now are the most enterprising economy in the European Union, but I think we've got to have an ambition to do more and to be better and the US is the benchmark now.
JON SOPEL: And in terms of your enterprise White Paper, which I know is coming out in a couple of weeks time, are there other things that we should look to where you're thinking there are other areas where you could help business and development grow further.
JOHN HUTTON: I think there are a number of areas that we're looking at. I mean most small businesses say to us that there is still a problem about regulation. We've done a lot in the last few years to try and ease the burden of regulation on small firms but we should be prepared to look at what further we can do to help small firms.
And in relation to for example, those first crucial months when someone has actually taken the plunge and started the business, access to the right kind of help, whether it's mentoring and business support or financial help, we've got to look always to see if there's more we can in those areas as well.
JON SOPEL: Well let's look at one area where people are concerned about levels of red tape and regulation around them and that is on flexible working. Now there is a review going on in to that isn't there.
JOHN HUTTON: There is and I think the right to request flexible working has been one of the most successful new employment rights that we've introduced and I think it's been successful for one fundamental reason, that it builds in to it the right of the employer to say, actually, look it's not going to work for me at this moment in time. Maybe we can do something later.
It's not a right to work flexible, it's a right to get the employer to consider whether it is possible for you to work flexibly and that builds in the right balance that has to be there in employment law, between the rights of the employer and the legitimate expectations of employees.
JON SOPEL: But you've got a review going on and some of your Labour colleagues think you've pre-empted it by essentially saying, the more people that have the right to ask for flexible working, the harder many businesses may find to prioritize those whose needs are greatest. In other words, you've taken your decision, you're in the side of business.
JOHN HUTTON: Now we, we've taken a decision to extend the right to request flexible working and the point I was trying to make this week, in relation to those remarks was simply this - we have a choice to make. We've decided that we should extend the right to request flexible working to the parents of older teenage children.
There are some people who are arguing that we should extend the right to all employees and we've said no, because that clearly would dilute the opportunity for people to exercise flexible working. And I think we've got to prioritize who we think should have first call on the right to request flexible working and my perspective is very simple: I think that should be parents who've got the really difficult job of bringing up kids, not other workers, but parents. And that is what we decided to do when we asked for the review.
JON SOPEL: Just to be specific what (interjection)
JOHN HUTTON: That will be, that will be something for the, for the review team to recommend and I'm not going to pre-empt in the way you suggest I have earlier, what that age should be. Imelda Walsh who is the head of (interjection) human relations at Sainsbury's is doing this review and she should come forward with her proposals.
JON SOPEL: At the moment, children up to the age of six, would you like to see that extended to children under the age of twelve.
JON SOPEL: Well let's look at one area where people are going on it to that isn't there.
JOHN HUTTON: We have said, we've asked Imelda Walsh, who's doing this review, to consider how it can be extended to the parents of older teenage children so we are envisaging a significant extension of the right but she must come forward with her recommendations in relation to this very important point and I'm not going to sit here today and say what the age should be. That's something we're looking for her to recommend.
JON SOPEL: Would you say you're on the same page on this as Harriet Harmen and Beverley Hughes, who've said, it's time to go further and extend the right to all parents and then ultimately to all workers for flexible working.
JOHN HUTTON: Well we, we have agreed that we will extend the right to parents of older teenage children, but we're all agreed that there is a choice that has to be made here. There is a limit to how you can go (interjection)
JON SOPEL: But they're not talking about limits. So you're not on the same page as them.
JOHN HUTTON: Well they are known, we're all supporting the Imelda Walsh is doing which is about looking to extend the right to older teenage children
JON SOPEL: I'm suggesting there might be other people who want different things out of the review than you do.
JOHN HUTTON: Well, there may well be, I'm not disputing that. I mean people are entitled to, to put their views forward. What I'm saying very clearly is that the review is looking at extending the right to parents of older teenage children. We have made our choice, that is where we think we can extend the right. We have no plans to extend the right to other groups of employees Because it would have the effect that I described earlier.
JON SOPEL: Well let's talk about another area of choice and this is over what rights you give agency workers, a hundred and thirty six Labour MPs voted to give them the same rights as full time workers. The government is unhappy about this. Wants to set up a commission and we can listen now I think to the Labour MP Jon Cruddas, who's not that impressed.
JON CRUDDAS: I'm very worried about the proposed commission cos many in the Labour Party see that as a way of putting in to the long grass our commitment in the last manifesto to regulate employment agencies and this is trying to swerve around that commitment and it's not the same as the low pay commission, cos that in turn was in our manifesto of 1997, this isn't.
And there's a real concern across the party that we're just collapsing in the face of CBI and business criticism and for example, this week, around the flexibility agenda that John Hutton talked about, which I thought was against actually what was agreed as party policy. And there's a sense that these political choices, and they are choices are being made one way, they're being made pro business and against often, proven policies of the Labour party.
JON SOPEL: You've been using the language of choice, we just heard Jon Cruddas there saying you had a choice and he thinks you're making the wrong one.
JOHN HUTTON: We, we've got to make the right choice here which extends protection to groups of workers who are at risk of being abused and exploited but at the same time it doesn't compromise our fundamental search for competitiveness and productivity. So we accept that there is a case for regulation in this area. We accept that there is a case, there have been cases of abuse, but I think we've got to proceed in a sensible way here so we want both sides of industry, employers and unions to come together to make a recommendation to us about how we can sensibly extend protection in this area but we've got to be aware of you know - he's right there are choices here. We've got to be aware of what the choices are. If we get this wrong, we damage the UK's economy and competitiveness. If we get it right, we can actually address the real abuses that are out there.
JON SOPEL: Clarify the choice for us. What is the choice that you're talking about when you have John Prescott, Peter Hain, who was only in the Cabinet until a few weeks ago, voting for this.
JOHN HUTTON: Well I've just described what the choice is. We've got to regulate in the appropriate way. It's got to be targeted on where the abuses exist and it mustn't damage UK economic competitiveness. Now we have always accepted that there is an issue around the rights of agency workers, particularly permanent temps, and that is the basis on which we've been negotiating with the European Union, a package of measures that could address that particular problem. So we've got to have a process involving the unions and (interjection)
JON SOPEL: Some would say
JOHN HUTTON: .. to try and get a solution on this.
JON SOPEL: the reason that you're taking many might say is a pro-business stance is that your reputation as being the party that is pro-business, has taken such a hammering over recent weeks. You look at the nationalization of Northern Rock, you look at the U-turn over capital gains tax, you look at the U-turn over non Doms, it hasn't been exactly a purple patch has it, for you.
JOHN HUTTON: We've had a consistent view about agency workers over a number of years, about trying to get this balance right. So there's been no change in that position and we are currently trying to find a way forward with the European Commission and other governments in the European Union which is where this issue fundamentally, has to be addressed.
In relation to you wider point about business, I think if you look at the UK economy, it's in an incredibly good position. We have strong fundamentals, we've got growing business, three and a half thousand new businesses every week for example, are formed in the UK. We are better placed to deal with the current global turbulence caused by this crisis in the sub prime market and I think most people would have thought, we are in a good strong position and I think really, when you talk about business relations, I think this is the fundamental issue. Is the UK economy strong and I believe it is. Is it strong because of the measures that the UK government have taken in the last ten years, absolutely.
JON SOPEL: I just want to ask you one other question while we've got you. A lot in the papers this morning about the Speaker, Michael Martin, what do you make of his position.
JOHN HUTTON: Well this fundamentally, this is a matter obviously for the House of Commons, it's not a matter for the government, the government doesn't have a view about this. But obviously, this is you know, an issue for the Commons and Members of Parliament there and I'm sure it will be discussed in the weeks ahead.
JON SOPEL: But as an MP, a Member of Parliament, what do you make of it. Do you think that the questions that are raised are serious and that he should be considering his position.
JOHN HUTTON: I, I've known Michael Martin for a long time and I have a great deal of personal respect for him. I think he's been a good speaker in the House of Commons and he's a decent and honourable man and I'm sure that that is the position that he will want to defend in the weeks ahead and he'll have my support in doing it.
JON SOPEL: John Hutton. Thank you very much indeed.
END OF INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HUTTON
Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of these transcripts are used.
NB:These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from original scripts.
Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy.
Let us know what you think.
The Politics Show Sunday 24 February 2008 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.
You can reach the programme by e-mail at the usual address or you can use the form below to e-mail the Politics Show.
You will be returned to the Politics Show website after submitting the form.
Disclaimer: The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all emails will be published.