THERESA May has been accused of breaking a promise to British workers after ruling out imposing the appointment of employees to company boards.
The Prime Minister offered an olive branch to businesses who were concerned about the proposals but unions reacted angrily to the announcement.
Mrs May told business organisation the CBI she wanted a partnership with firms as part of a “great national effort” – but warned that a minority of rogue bosses had damaged public opinion of the corporate world.
The Prime Minister said the Government was preparing to take action to tackle problems with executive pay and accountability and would ensure employees have a “voice” in the boardroom – but promised to “work with the grain of business” on the reforms.
Proposals will be set out in a UK government paper kicking off a period of consultation soon. But Mrs May told the CBI conference in London: “This is not about mandating works councils, or the direct appointment of workers or trade union representatives on boards.”
While those measures could be appropriate for some firms, others could continue to use existing board structures “complemented or supplemented by advisory councils or panels” to ensure that workers are represented.
Mrs May’s comments appeared to represent a step backwards from her promise at last month’s Tory conference when she said she planned to have “not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well”.
GMB general secretary Tim Roache said: “The mask is slipping – nice speeches followed by broken promises will not help working people get fairness and dignity in the workplace.”
She used her address at the CBI, just two days ahead of Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement, to set out a range of business-friendly plans, including ensuring the UK has the lowest corporate tax rates in the G20 group of advanced economies and measures to boost productivity.
Following the rise in anti-establishment and anti-globalisation movements, Mrs May said she would defend capitalism and free trade, but warned the image of business had been “bruised” by poor behaviour from “a limited few” bosses.
She said the vote for Brexit reflected not only a desire to leave the EU but also a public demand for “change” in the way capitalism and the market system operate in the UK.
“If we support free markets, value capitalism and back business, and we do, we must do everything we can to keep faith with them,” she said.
“And with not enough people feeling that they share in the wealth created by capitalism – and with the recent behaviour of a small minority of businesses and business leaders undermining the reputation of the corporate world as a whole – the way to keep that faith is to embrace reform.”
She added that when some bosses “appear to game the system and work to a different set of rules, we have to recognise that the social contract between business and society fails and the reputation of business as a whole is undermined”.