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Thursday's Business and Politics round-up

17 Aug 2017

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Good morning and a happy Thursday to you all,

The Prime Minister has wasted little time in making her views clear on an issue which has gone to the heart of British political debate. This is the news that Big Ben will be silenced for 4 years while vital repairs are made to the historic tower (which holds the 13 tonne bell). Her intervention - alongside uproar from fellow MPs - has forced parliamentary authorities to rethink their plans, which were in place to protect workers as they complete a £29 million refurbishment of the Elizabeth tower. While the PM stated the importance of protecting workers, she remarked that ‘it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years’.

In other political news, the EU exit took another step forward yesterday with the publication of the Government's position paper on plans for the border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The IoD welcomed the paper but highlighted that it threw up even more questions about how much flexibility and imagination will be needed to solve the fundamental challenge of the UK’s only land border with the EU.

IoD Director General Stephen Martin went on to urge the Government to exercise caution in its trade negotiations with other countries during the transition period so as to avoid a situation where Brussels may feel inclined to spontaneously introduce border controls.

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Universities challenged

Students across the UK are today waking up to find out their A-level results amid reports that a fall in universities applications will create a ‘buyers’ market’ for those seeking places. The reduction in applications to universities has apparently coincided with a smaller cohort of 18 years olds and uncertainty caused by a change to the A-level framework. Both combine to create a situation where it is even many of the Russell Group universities will have places still on offer. This could lead to some higher education providers lowering their entry requirements in a bid to attract students.

Students registering for university places today may face a tougher time attaining top degrees, though, after the Government also announced a clamp down on the growth in students leaving with first class honours. This is being done in an attempt to maintain the prestige of the top level of degree qualification.

Meanwhile No.10 advisor and architect of the now infamous Conservative election manifesto, Nick Timothy, has used his Telegraph column to label the current university tuition fee framework a useless ponzi scheme. With students graduating from universities with debts in excess of £50,000 in some instances, Timothy claims many degrees offer students “no return on investment” as some then go on to jobs not requiring graduate education.

He advocates a radical rethink of the regime by government in a bid to improve UK productivity. His suggestions include a push towards more ‘technical’ courses alongside university education.

As the IoD highlighted earlier in the year, a shortage in technical skills is leading to a huge number of roles going unfilled.

DiverCity needed

FTSE companies are being urged to look at increasing diversity in their management and boardroom teams as research published today showed it continues to be poor. Despite figures from recruitment firm Green Park showing a 5% increase in representation from ethnic minorities in the leadership pipeline, there was a fall of 18% in other senior positions.

Green Park boss Raj Tulsiani warned that such a lack of diversity at Britain’s largest companies could hinder the UK at a time when it is attempting to increase trade with non-EU countries. The fall in boardroom and executive diversity has also come despite new recommendations on the issue in Sir John Parker's review last year. He called for the end of the ‘all white’ boardroom by 2021 but with almost 6 in 10 FTSE 100 boardrooms still not featuring any ethnic diversity, it would appear the City is at risk of missing that target.

Speaking to CityAM this morning, the IoD said ‘while it is encouraging to see that ethnic diversity has increased in the leadership pipeline, it is a worry that this does not appear to be translating into executive and board positions. A board that is made up of a homogeneous group of individuals will struggle to represent their customer base, workforce and supply chain. By drawing on a diversity of background, gender, ethnicity and indeed thought, a company is far better equipped for the world of business.'

Swings, roundabouts etc.

Unemployment continues to move in the right direction, with the number of people out of work falling by 57,000 in the three months to June this year. This brings the jobless rate to a 42-year low. In surprising news, the number of EU nationals finding work in the UK also rose to a record high, a trend primarily driven by a sharp rise in the number of Bulgarians and Romanians entering the jobs market. This sits in contrast to a recent trend of citizens from Eastern European countries (Poland, Latvia) abandoning the UK over the past year.

Wage figures also outstripped predictions over the period, with pre-bonus pay rising by 2.1%– at one point this year it sat at a more alarming level of 1.8%. However, it's worth keeping in mind that with inflation still hovering at 2.6%, there is still a significant squeeze on real wages (to the tune of 0.5%).

Responding to the figures on behalf of the IoD, Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills policy, said ‘the figures today show that the UK labour market is performing well despite mounting challenges. Once again, we have reached a record employment rate now at 75.1%, with female employment also at a record high of 70.5%.’

All in all, yesterday's figures will be taken as a mixed bag. The continued strength of the UK labour market will be well received, although an ongoing squeeze on incomes will worry economists for now.

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