Bishop of St Albans calls for new social contract to address low pay and poor working conditions

On 11th October 2018 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Haskel, ‘To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of proposals for greater employee shareholding and participation in corporate governance.’ The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, for securing this debate. With such limited time, I shall make just a few comments about the purposes of business in general and then to make one or two observations about the very specific themes raised in the debate.​

All too often, business and commerce are viewed as though their main aim was simply to make the most money possible. This rather reductionist view of business fails to take into account wider questions raised in Christian theology, as well as by many others, such as how everyone can contribute to the common good, issues of justice and fairness, and particularly the sort of values we wish to celebrate and promote as a society. The best businesses, I believe, are those that balance the need to make money with a high priority on the flourishing and thriving of their workforce and a concern for human dignity.

Unfortunately, debates such as this can all too easily focus on differences between left and right. Looking at who is speaking in this debate and who is not, in terms of political parties it seems we have something of an echo of that here, sadly. My most reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote recently in a much-publicised book:

“God is neither left-wing nor right-wing but stands above all such forms of political or economic ideology. God relates to human beings, loves the poor, the widow and the orphan, endows the earth richly with goods and fruitfulness enough to satisfy every human need, and judges our selfishness and self-seeking”.

In Christian theology, work is a positive activity and not something to be scorned or avoided. That is why the concept behind universal credit, for example, has been supported by the Church: making work pay is a good thing, even if we have serious concerns about the practicalities of its implementation.

Nevertheless, the most reverend Primate was right to observe that we have a crisis of capitalism. Anger at our economic system, brought into sharp relief by the 10th anniversary of the financial crash, should be at the forefront of our minds. True dignity at work begins with a fair workplace environment, where employees have a meaningful stake in the companies they work for and where all share an interest in eliminating overwork and underpayment. To do this we need a new social contract to address low pay and poor working conditions.

Defenders of the gig economy will point to how new freedoms and flexibilities in the labour market enable many more people to fit work around the circumstances of their lives, and that is obviously good in this form of self-employment for some people in the workforce. At the same time, we risk normalising a level of insecurity in our workplace unseen since the 1930s. It will therefore not surprise noble Lords that I support the IPPR commission report’s proposals to have more workers on boards. Surely, all the evidence points to the fact that allowing employees a part to play in corporate governance can be a very positive step. I support moves towards increased transparency, towards greater gender balance and increased employee shareholding, especially if it is designed so that people are holding their shares for a significant period, for long-term investment in the company in which they work.

Giving employees an opportunity to see the fruits of their labour, in the form of shares, must surely be considered as soon as possible by this Government. While neither employee shareholding nor workers on boards are silver bullets, they are, I believe, steps in the right direction. However, without a new social contract they are unlikely to deliver the change we so urgently need.​


Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con) [extract]:  My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, for securing this important and timely debate. Giving employees a stake and a voice in the organisation that they work for is important. As the noble Lord very powerfully noted in his opening remarks, it can lead to better outcomes for all stakeholders—employees, shareholders, customers, suppliers and, indeed, the Exchequer—through better-quality boardroom decision-making, stronger worker commitment to the business, higher productivity and greater influence of workers over the strategic decisions that will affect them. This has been noted by many people, not just in the Chamber today but outside. This debate is indeed very timely. The IPPR report has recently come out. It was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson…

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