Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)|
WEDNESDAY 1 MAY 2002
1. May I call the Committee to order and welcome
our guest from the British Retail Consortium, Bridget Rosewell,
who is the Chief Economic Adviser. We are really grateful to you
for your appearance this morning. We know a little bit about the
British Retail Consortium but it might help us if you said a little
bit about the organisation and the work it is involved in. Perhaps
the best way to proceed would be to spend a moment or two looking
at how the general economic situation looks to you. One of the
things in the inquiry that we are doing on the impact of economic
slow down on the Government's employment strategy is beginning
to focus on the difference between the performance of the service
sector, in which you are deeply involved in the Consortium, where
we have gotfrom the latest figuresincreases in the
last quarter of GDP of 0.1 per cent which shows a steady state
of perhaps a small increase in the performance of the economy
as a whole. But that masks the last quarter two per cent decline
in GDP for manufacturing production and that is an issue that
I think is beginning to emerge together with localised problems
that have got a geographical impact on the labour market and some
of the clients groups which are hardest to help, people who are
furthest away from the labour market. Why do you not just make
a short opening statement to help us understand better the British
Retail Consortium and the work it is doing and then we can go
to questions from there, if we may.
(Ms Rosewell) Okay. The British Retail
Consortium is essentially a trade organisation for retailers.
It has in membership both directly individual retailers and also
trade associations representing smaller retailers. We probably
cover in one way or another up to about 90 per cent of all retailing
activity. We conduct regular surveys of what is going on in the
retail sector, both on prices and employment and on sales and,
of course, in the usual trade association way, we represent the
interests of our members to bodies such as yourselves or, indeed,
any other Government or other organisation where it is relevant.
We do a lot of work, for example, for the Food Standards Agency
as far as food retailing is concerned, a lot of work on waste
and recycling issues at the moment as well as more general economic
issues. As I said, we conduct every month surveys of retail business
and that survey covers around half of all retailing activity,
it is not necessarily just members it is a group of individual
retailers and associations who are interested in receiving very
detailed results, and we publish the headline results. Those indicators
have been showing that over the period really since about May
last year, in other words coming up for a year, there has been
pretty steady and quite good growth in sales. This is the value
of sales, it is the money that is going through retailers' tills.
In fact it has been the steadiest period of expansion that the
survey has seen since it began in 1995, quite surprising really.
After a period of quite weak growth in the year 2000, it picked
up through 2001, as I said, and has been reasonably steady since.
I expect there to begin to be now some signs of a declining rate
of growth. Now that is for two reasons. One is that since growth
accelerated a year ago, even if improvement is the same month
on month then still year on year you will get a deceleration in
that standard of performance. Secondly, the spurs to some of that
expansion that we saw, particularly towards the end of the year,
have slowed down. In other words, we had a two per cent cut in
interest rates last year, I do not expectI do forecasting
so this is always very scary to say I definitely do not expectthere
to be a further two point cut in interest rates this year, indeed
most commentators are expecting the next change in interest rates
to be upwards. We have a steady and relatively slow rate of increase
in wages, for example, maybe good for job creation but certainly
it does not accelerate the increase in consumer spending. Finally,
although unemployment on the claimant count measure has been slowing,
continuing to tick downwards, if you look at the ILO measure there
are some ticks downwards there too but they are very slow. There
is not a spur there from falling unemployment either. On all those
grounds we do not expect consumers to be increasing spending in
2002 at the same rate as they did in 2001. Indeed, I believe that
we are beginning to see the first indicators of that. We have
seen already the deceleration as far as the volume measures from
the Retail Sales Index is concernedthe Government's official
figuresand in our own survey, if you look at the month
of March, you would have expected quite a spike in sales in March
because Easter was in March this year and it was in April last
year and Easter is a spur to sales, people go shopping because
they are on holiday, there is a bit of a spike but it is not really
very marked, in fact you would be hard pressed really to identify
it. That to me at any rate is the first indicator that this slow
down in sales growth is indeed happening. The third thing I would
like to mention in that context is the impact of the Budget. Now
admittedly changes in National Insurance contributions do not
in fact take place until April of next year, on the other hand
announcement effects can be quite important as far as confidence
and willingness to spend is concerned. That is going to buttress
any slow down which is in the pipeline in any case. If people
are feeling optimistic and their spending is increasing you can
shrug off things which you do not think are going to happen. If
it is already moving downwards then you are more likely to think
"Well, perhaps we should be a bit more careful". How
does that impact then on the position of retailers? Well, I think
perhaps there are three points I want to make about that, particularly
in the context of job creation. Although sales growth has been
rapid, the pressure on prices has not abated as a result. If you
look at what has been happening to the prices of goods in the
shops, they do not go up. There is a stylised fact about inflation
in shops, it is that it does not exist, indeed, if anything, prices
are falling. Even if people go shopping, they go and buy things,
they do not expect to pay more than they did last time or the
time before, indeed they are looking for price reduction. An increase
in sales does not necessarily mean that prices go up as well.
I think there has been a complete sea change in the way that consumers
think when they go shopping. This means that margins remain tight.
You can shift the volumes but you have to be careful on the cost
side and that inevitably puts pressure on all aspects of costs,
whether that is distribution costs or staff costs or refurbishment
costs, investment and so on. Retailers are under competitive pressure.
In many markets there has been a huge expansion of shops and floor
space and so on and in many markets or sub-markets of retail that
means that people look more and more carefully at their cost structure.
The second point is that, of course, retail is a fairly labour
intensive industry. It employs ten per cent of the workforce,
about 2.6 million people, and represents seven per cent of value
added in the total economy, therefore there are relatively more
people than output compared with the rest of the economy. Moreover,
although many of these jobs are part-time, it has a high representation
of part-time people, nonetheless over the last three years in
fact one of the interesting things about retail is that it has
been on balance a creator of full-time jobs rather than part-time
jobs. We have seen some shifts going on there. From 1998 to 2001,
December to December, the sector created 200,000 jobs net and
that represented an increase of 600,000 roughly speaking in full-time
jobs and a fall of 400,000 in part-time jobs. So the stylised
fact that retailer workers are all part-time is only partially
true. Of course that means that things like the impact of changes
in National Insurance rates are increasingly important. There
is a smaller and smaller proportion of people below the lower
earnings limit in the retail sector than used to be the case.
The third point I think is about the places in which retailers
create jobs. Obviously they create them in shops and shops are
very often at the centre of communities and in particular are
very important, certainly retailers see them as being very important,
to deprived communities. A community which loses its shopping
centre has much greater difficulty, if you like, in bouncing back
than one which has not. One of the things that we believe is important
is to recognise the importance of a retailer and retail contribution
to regeneration and re-employment in communities. Generally speaking,
such jobs are near to where people live, they are cheap to get
to. They are flexible, they may or may not be full-time or part-time
but they tend to have flexible hours so they can be fitted in
around other commitments. Of course they employ relatively equal
proportions of men and women so they offer opportunities across
the whole range. Retailers have been working on training schemes
and have been part of the CBI/TUC initiative on extending the
training credits and so on, and we are very keen on that. Again,
the stylised view of retailersis that training is not terribly
important and certainly it is true that many retail functions
do not need extensive training but that is not to say they do
not need some training. So, again, they offer access into the
world of work on a flexible basis. We are concerned that not enough
attention is paid to the retail sector as part of that impetus
towards regeneration of local communities in particular. I think
that probably covers some initial points so I would suggest that
you ask me questions and I will try and answer them, though I
do not guarantee to be able to.
2. That is very helpful. Can I ask you thisthe
answer to this question is probably nodo you have a view
about the way that the employment support services that have been
deployed at the national and local level are co-ordinated by central
and local Government? It may be that is not a part of your experience
and if so that is fine. Do you have any perspective of whether
there is a co-ordination between the supply side employment policies
which have been deployed for the last five years and some of the
activity that has taken place in local authorities and some of
the other Departments? Do you have anything to say about that?
(Ms Rosewell) Yes. I think we would say that our experience
is mixed. There are places and occasions where co-ordination appears
to work well and there are places where co-ordination appears
to be sometimes almost negative in the sense that the things required
to fit one set of criteria are entirely different from the things
required to fit another set of criteria. You almost feel that
policies are working in opposite directions. It does depend very
much on the location and the local authority, what the Regional
Development Agency is like and so on. You cannot generalise in
the sense that it is very place specific but certainly it does
not always work well.
3. Okay. Secondly, would you accept the proposition
that the kind of work, part-time or full-time, that your members
are able to offer is vulnerable and perhaps more vulnerable to
economic swings than other kinds of employment?
(Ms Rosewell) It is hard to point to direct evidence
on that proposition because on the whole swings in retail activity
have been less strong than swings in other kinds of activity.
In other words, even when there is a downturn in the economy,
some level of consumer activity goes on, people go shopping still,
at least for food if not for all other things. Retail is a very
broad church in that respect. Indeed, since it takes supplies
from all other aspects of the economy, then it has backward linkages
into a whole variety of different parts of the situation. For
example, if you get a turndown in the economy, certainly you will
see that consumers' willingness to buy big ticket items is more
quickly and more strongly affected than their willingness to go
and buy food. So some parts of the activity will continue and
possibly do quite well and not be very vulnerable to cyclical
activity whereas other parts will be so vulnerable: electricals,
household goods and so on. There you can see quite strong swings
in employment but that will be masked at the level of the sector
as a whole since so much of economic activity actually goes through
the retail sector. For example, I did some calculations recently
on the National Insurance change that is proposed. If you take
a one per cent increase on National Insurance, its impact on the
retail sector, that costs something between 100 and 150 million
for the sector as a whole, depending on the proportions in and
out of the lower earnings limit. If all of that is absorbed as
a cost and passed through in terms of reductions in output, I
am not saying it would be but if it was so passed through, over
time that would cost about 10,000 retail jobs and a further 25,000
jobs in other parts of the economy because what retailing is doing,
after all, what retail is is a method of bundling things which
have been bought from a whole variety of other businesses, not
just in the UK but a lot in the UK. So retail is vulnerable in
the same way and for the same reasons as other parts of the economy
are vulnerable. That is a rather long semi-answer to your question.
4. That is fine. Finally, from me, using your
skills as an experienced forecaster, in the middle term do you
think the service sector will be able to continue to be able to
provide job opportunities in the way it has in the recent past?
(Ms Rosewell) I think that different parts of the
service sector may be able to. I believe that all sectors have
periods where they grow faster and periods where they grow slower.
Certainly over the medium term I would expect the baton of employment
growth to be taken up by different industries than in the past,
indeed even if you look over relatively short periods you can
see that. For example, if you take the period between 1995 and
1998, the biggest growth in net jobs was in things like banking,
finance, business services, all of those sorts of sectors, whereas
the period between 1998 and 2001, the biggest growth was in public
administration, education and health, that tells us something
about where the sources of expansion are coming from. Even within
the service sector which is, after all, already three quarters
of the economy, we are going to see very different patterns going
forward over the medium term. As far as retail is concerned, we
do expect retailers to continue to provide increasing employment
but we expect that also probably to slow down as far as the rate
of growth is concerned. Some sectors of retail I think are undoubtedly
reaching, if you like, what might be termed the status of a mature
industry rather than a growth industry in the context of that
kind of terminology.
5. You have particularly focused on retail which
is understandable. What is your assessment of the growth prospect
of the economy as a whole based on the first quarter?
(Ms Rosewell) I think that the first quarter results
were more or less as I expected them to be, so it is not out of
line with the view that I am taking which is that I think that
growth in 2002 will be no faster than last year and probably slower
because I think there is more weakness on the consumer side of
the economy as it happens, I think that is the key to the situation.
I think there is more weakness on the consumer side of the economy
than most commentators think that there is, I think we will see
that as we go forward into the summer. I am not expecting to see
really a pick up in the economy until the back end of this year,
and indeed I am putting some probabilitymaybe 10 or 15
per centon the need for a further interest rate cut before
we get any more increases.
6. Do you see regional variations in that trend?
(Ms Rosewell) Yes. I think this is the period where,
if you like, the South East begins to bear the brunt. When you
do begin to get a downturn of this sort of variety then it will
begin to affect the service sector and it does not look like 1991
but it looks like 1991 in the sense that regional imbalance which
we saw in 1999-2000 begins to unwind itself at least somewhat.
7. You have talked a lot about the prospects
for retail, what other industry occupational sectors do you see
having a strong growth potential? How job intensive is that economic
growth likely to be?
(Ms Rosewell) I think there are two sectors that I
would like to focus on there. One is there are after all considerable
sums of money and investment being put into public services, and
those must be candidates, therefore, for creating jobs. Some of
them require quite a lot of specialist skills, so that may be
more difficult than we think, nurses, obviously, and doctors and
so on spring to mind or even teachers. The other area is business
services or business to business services where I think there
is still scope as new specialisms really begin to emerge. Those
jobs and occupations will range from, if you like, the technical
and the technological through to the support. Things like specialist
call centres, support, software support, all of these businesses
I think still offer considerable opportunities really on the basis
of more specialisms and more support for those specialisms.
8. What sort of things do you think could risk
the economic outlook in the medium term? Do you see any differential
there between retail and any other sectors of the regions?
(Ms Rosewell) From an employer's point of view and
the willingness to create jobs, I do think there are problems
and certainly our members experience problems with what can be
called the red tape issues: regulation, lack of flexibility. Really
that is a deterrent to making people redundant, sure, but also
a deterrent for taking people on in the first place. I think lack
of flexibility is an increasing concern particularly to smaller
members, people like hardware, newsagents, all of these sorts
of retailers who find that a very considerable burden and a deterrent.
I think that would be one of the main considerations. I think
also rises in National Insurance are a deterrent, there is no
doubt about it.
9. How sensitive do you think the economic cycle
is to job entry rate of welfare-to-work programmes?
(Ms Rosewell) I think the economic cycle in general
is not very responsive to that. We see those sorts of programmes
as operating in areas where people do not have the right motivations
perhaps and therefore it is solving problems for individuals rather
than making a macro economic contribution.
10. You do not really see the welfare-to-work
programmes as having any major effect then?
(Ms Rosewell) At the macro economic level, no I do
not. At the micro economic level, the level of those individuals
so affected then obviously it does have an effect.
11. What sectors do you think demonstrate the
best potential for generating entry-level jobs?
(Ms Rosewell) Generally retail certainly does; distribution
more generally also and many of what I would call support services,
which are particular occupations which might cut across a whole
variety of different industries. Essentially entry-level jobs
are those in which people can gain good habits of work and some
skills while not having to acquire a whole lot of technological
and technical expertise before they enter them.
12. What do you think the Government could do
to make people more attractive to employers and to make sure that
prospective employees are equipped to fill these vacancies?
(Ms Rosewell) How long have we got? I think the big
issue as far as employers are concerned is willingness very often.
It is not easy to say exactly how any programme or any Government
can alter people's motivation and willingness. Anything, any policy
that can be produced which affects that must be a good thing but,
it seems to me, individual employers cannot say exactly what those
programmes might look like. I do not think I am in a position
actually to answer your question definitively.
13. Willingness obviously is a two way street.
If the job is not attractive then people are not going to be willing
to take it on. There are questions about what industry can do
to make their jobs more attractive to people. I suppose things
like the minimum wage makes jobs more attractive because it makes
the pay better than might otherwise be the case and things like
Working Families Tax Credit and similar in work benefits also
make the financial aspects of jobs more attractive. What else
do you think the Government could do? If willingness is your prime
answer to the question about what can make people more equipped
to take on those jobs, what else do you think the Government could
do to make them more willing that is not done already?
(Ms Rosewell) I think most of that comes down to the
right mix of policies in local areas. I do not think there is
a macro answer to that question, there might be micro local answers
to those questions, ways of enabling communities to work more
effectively together but there is no "one-stop-shop"
answer to the question.
14. Could I ask a question about the composition
of the workforce. Do you see any future changes or trends which
would affect the supply of vacancies suitable for entrants or
re-entrants to the labour market? For example, issues about the
future birth rate, number of women in the work place, early retirement
rates, brain drain, graduate trends or unemployed people who are
not registered to join the workforce?
(Ms Rosewell) The activity rates in the UK are reasonably
high in international terms. I suspect that as far as the activity
rates of women are concerned, for example, the increases at any
rate are tailing off and we reach a point where it would be hard
to move them forward much more, indeed most of the projections
supplied by what used to be the Employment Department and is now
the Department for Work and Pensions, I guess, shows that kind
of phenomenon happening. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Chancellor
announced an increase in the underlying rate of growth that he
is now planning for in the economy is based not on more entrants
to the labour force from the existing population but essentially
more immigration and to some extent a slightly higher birth rate.
Yes, the underlying view at the moment at any rate is that there
will be more people available to work so that the supply side
constraint is not a binding one. I think on the whole that I agree
with that argument. Obviously policy changes can affect willingness
or ability to immigrate into the country so there are questions
about how strongly you can make that an underlying assumption
but certainly based on recent past projections and the history
of immigration and hence the projections it seems a reasonable
15. Do you have any worries about tabloid headlines
about the brain drain or is that something invented, for example,
for the people with great technological skills or scientific skills?
Is there a genuine worry about the loss of skilled technical people
from a workforce to, say, the USA?
(Ms Rosewell) Yes, I think there is such a worry.
I think it is very hard to quantify because you are not talking
about very large numbers of people, it is what is the quality
of these people. Certainly from my experience of academic life
and universities, I would say that certainly I would not wish
to be an academic in a UK university, indeed I chose not to be
an academic in a UK university some years ago but my recent experiences
of the US universities suggests that these would be eminently
pleasant places to be employed where I would have better working
conditions, better support and certainly a much better salary
than would ever be available to me in a UK university. On a personal
note, I just spent a trip with a friend of mine in some of the
north-eastern universities of the United States, and in comparison
with the UK universities they are astonishingly good, from a student
point of view as much as from an academic point of view. Yes,
I think we must be concerned about those sorts of issues and the
status and standing that we give to people at that level.
16. In your view has general economic growth
created employment in disadvantaged communities and areas that
have undergone industrial restructuring and job losses? We were
hearing from the last session we had about concerns about high
unemployment still, for example, in Inner London and in some of
the Glasgow constituencies.
(Ms Rosewell) I know very little about the particular
Glasgow issues, I know rather more about some of the London issues
from some of the other things that I have done in the past. Some
of these issues have been intransigent problems over many years
both in periods when growth has been strong and in periods when
growth has not been so strong. Some of it comes back to this rather
unclear definition of willingness. For example, I undertook a
study not so long ago for the City Corporation on a City Skills
Audit looking at skills needed in the City and ability to supply
those skills and with some reference to increasing the employment
of people from such fringe areas, deprived parts of London and
so on. One of the things that we established was not just that
there was sometimes an unwillingness or a lack of recognition
that you could look for employees in these places but also a complete
lack of willingness to consider that you might be employed in
a city institution in some capacity or other, even where people
had relevant qualifications and sometimes experience.
17. You think there is a stigma.
(Ms Rosewell) If you lived in Islington you did not
work in the City unless you were a fat cat person. There was quite
an embedded attitude/issue there and it was very unclear how you
could undermine it except in the very, very long term. That is
why I think these are much more fundamental than cyclical issues,
these are much more about structural attitudes which become embedded
over time. One piece of research that we did looked at network
effects in job search, for example, a theoretical piece of work
which one of my colleagues did in my consultancy company, which
showed essentially that if your main source of information about
new jobs is other people's employment characteristics in the vicinity
then who you know can have a quite out of proportion effect on
the kind of jobs that you look for and indeed the kind of jobs
that you get than would be the case if networks are more random.
In other words if you know the people who live near you, the jobs
that you will find out about are the jobs that they have got and
therefore changing those patterns requires much more than just
one or two people having different jobs, you have to change the
way those networks work in order to change the habits of employment
that people have.
18. There is a simplistic stigma effect about
where you live and the chance of employment. There is also the
issue about the number of jobs which are not advertised that you
hear about through the networks and communities.
(Ms Rosewell) Possibly stigma but it is your internal
stigma, if you like, I think a lot of it. It is what you expect
of yourself as well as or as much as what an employer thinks about
a particular place, though obviously I am not saying that is not
19. Finally, what appears to be the effect of
demand and supply side measures that result in jobs growth in
areas that currently have low employment rates?
(Ms Rosewell) I am sorry, can you repeat that?