Anthony Hilton's Week: How being more flexible can mean you’re just another brick in the wall

 

One of the largest employers and subcontractors of bricklayers said privately the other day that the average pay of one of his skilled craftsmen today was back at the level of 15 years ago. This of course reflects the weak state of the housebuilding market, though it is less weak than it appears at first sight because the detached three-bedroom houses for the middle-aged market, which are the main thing being built at the moment, use a lot more bricks than the high-rise young people’s flats so popular five years ago.

It is also, however, a practical example of Britain’s “flexible” labour force — the fact that hiring, firing and pay cutting are much easier here than in the rest of Europe — and the reality which lies behind the euphemism.

A fair number of ministers seem to believe our future prosperity requires us to be an even lower-wage economy. Vince Cable may have seen off the Beecroft proposals, which would have made hiring and firing even easier. But George Osborne seems determined to bring them in by the back door by persuading employees to swap their employment rights in return for shares.

The merits of this can be debated elsewhere. What struck me this week was the leak of a report which said that employees in this country were the most prone in Europe to depression. The diagnosis rate for the condition here was 26 per cent, whereas in Italy, the lowest country, it was 11 per cent.

According to the compilers of the report, the European Depression Association, the overall cost to the European economy in 2010 was estimated at €92bn (£74bn). This comes in part from lost productivity caused by sufferers being off work typically for a month or so — longer here than elsewhere, incidentally. But it also reflects people concealing or suppressing their symptoms from their colleagues, staying at work but under-performing. It did not say what the UK’s share of this financial cost was, but given that we are the second-largest economy after Europe, we must be looking at quite a few billion.

My observation simply is this. Government should be concerned about the total costs to the economy of its policies. Not just the easy-to-calculate, direct costs, but the externalities, which is economist jargon for the costs which fall in society as a whole rather than on a specific business.

It would be interesting to know how much of the extra depression in this country is a result of the insecurity caused by our flexible labour market, and whether taking this into account “flexibility” is really the advantage it is cracked up to be. And are we really going to secure our economic future by becoming even more “flexible?”

A long-overdue rallying call in favour of Europe

On Wednesday, the gilded surroundings of the Mansion House played host to the annual dinner of TheCityUK, the body whose job it is to promote the British financial services industry at home and abroad. 

There was a high turnout, a reflection, perhaps, of the concern among insurers, fund managers and advisers that their reputation is being tarnished by the backlash against banking, so they had better support the body whose job it is to do something about it.

The highlight of the evening was the speech by the body’s incoming chairman, Gerry Grimstone, for the past few years chairman of Standard Life. What was special was that he steered clear of the usual bland platitudes and self-congratulation which are the typical fare on these occasions to deliver a rousing call to arms to the City to come out in full and open support of the European Union and Britain’s continuing place at the heart of it.

The Mansion House has not heard a speech like it for 10 years or more — not since Lord Levene was Lord Mayor and used to speak passionately on behalf of Europe and the euro. In recent times those who profess to lead the City steer well clear of politics, and it has taken Mr Grimstone to remind them that politics will not steer clear of them. Clearly there are signs of panic in the upper circles as they realise that the Government’s persistent sops to its extremist backbenchers have set us on a slippery slope towards a referendum, where the outcome is hugely uncertain but where for the first time there must be a serious possibility of a “no” vote.

Mr Grimstone clearly thinks this would be a disaster and has the courage to say so. He told his audience it was absurd to think the UK financial services sector had a future cut off from Europe, or indeed that Europe would be better off without London as its financial centre. So City firms and City figures needed to stand up and articulate this fundamental truth, rather than indulge as many do in a romantic but dangerous flirtation with UKIP. 

It was a brave performance, and overdue.

Darling could be the man to captain the Bank

The other talking point at Mansion House was speculation about who would be the next Governor of the Bank of England, the City’s favourite, Deputy Governor Paul Tucker, or his strongest rival, the FSA chairman Lord Turner. 

“Neither!” remarked one well-connected City veteran. “My money is on Alistair Darling.”

His logic was that with all the extra powers now dumped on the Bank the job is far too big for one person. What it needs is a strong skilled chair and three specialist deputies; one for prudential regulation of the banking system, one for monetary policy and one for insurance and non-banking supervision. Mr Darling, though obviously of the left, is much more highly thought of in the City than the current Chancellor and could be just the right person to chair.

If the tip turns out to be true, remember you read it here first.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
people
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Carlton Senior Appointments: Private Banking Manager - Intl Bank - Los Angeles

$200 - $350 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Managing Producer – Office...

Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advisor – Ind Advisory Firm

$125 - $225 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advi...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Finance Manager

Up to £70,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Sheridan Maine: Regulatory Reporting Accountant

Up to £65,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick