The best business advice, opinion, news and expertise in Greater Manchester and further afield.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

Dr Brian Sloan, Head of Business & Economic Policy at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

You might well ask. The list of benefits from Chamber membership are all readily apparent and easily accessible when you need them, except perhaps when it comes to policy. Our policy work might seem unresponsive but dealing with Government, both local and national can be a drawn out process. We are constantly seeking your views and feedback on the things that matter to your business, but often letting you know what the result was takes time; but be assured YOUR VIEWS ARE OUR VIEWS. So back to the question, what what have we done for you lately?

The Chancellor's Budget Statement was filled with policy announcements that the Chamber has played a big hand in influencing. The centre piece of the Budget was tax simplification. I sit on the Office of Tax Simplification's (OTS) advisory committees to each of the two reviews, tax reliefs and small business taxation, that made recommendations to the Chancellor. The Chamber is pleased to report that he has listened to our views, and has acted on the Chamber's views, including our previous work on income tax and national insurance, something we have campaigned on for many years - yes policy can take some time! Our work with the OTS also led to other announcements in the Budget that weren't directly linked to them:

The changes to the Enterprise Investment Scheme and Venture Capital Trusts were supported by the Chamber as part of the OTS' work.

Changes to the Entrepreneur's Lifetime allowance, including the doubling of the allowance to £10m was supported by the Chamber.

Further on simplification, the Chancellor quoted the cost of regulation over the last ten years to business was £90bn. What he didn't say was that this figure was determined by the British Chambers of Commerce Burdens Barometer and this year the research for the Burdens Barometer was conducted at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce by Sana Nabi.

The fuel duty increase was widely expected to be dropped, and indeed it was. The Chancellor responded to suggestions of a windfall in his speech, saying that he actually was not going to get one at all. Why then Chancellor did you say yourself you had got one in the Emergency Budget last June? Anyhow, the Chamber was the only organisation to establish highly accurate estimates of the scale of the windfall and costs to businesses and consumers with our fuel duty model and the Chancellor responded sensibly.

The Chamber has also made a number of representations regarding more apprenticeship provision ahead of this Budget led by our Policy Adviser Paul Thomas who is also directing national policy development for the British Chambers of Commerce. It is therefore pleasing to see the Government has taken note of the need for additional funding and is to support a further 50,000 apprenticeships, including adult apprenticeships.

And finally, but by no means least, a long time in the pipeline has been the Chamber's campagin to secure investment in the rail network. Richard Critchley has been working for around 18 months on this campaign, meeting senior ministers of both the current and previous Governments long before others knew what Northern Hub was. £85 million investment in the Ordsall Curve, part of the Northern Hub project, has been confirmed, which will kick start this important infrastructure improvement that will benefit passengers and freight services across the entire North of England and give businesses the confidence that they can move goods and services around the region with ease.

Our work however never ends and we are driving forward the policy agenda with our Action for Business priorities. We need you to input into those policies and ensure that Greater Manchester continues to set the agenda and delivers the right environment for business and job creation. Watch out for further announcements in the coming weeks and let us have those views - you all have them so we're all ears.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Friday Guest Blog: Nolan Redshaw Offers Spending Advice

By Louisa Brown - Senior Asset Manager and Associate at Nolan Redshaw

Property costs can represent a significant proportion of a firm’s outgoings and they are an expense that can often be overlooked. Louisa Brown, a senior asset manager and associate at Nolan Redshaw, has advice on key areas where both owners and occupiers may be able to reduce their property costs:

"Business rates – with new rateable values assigned to business premises last year as a result of the Valuation Office Agency’s revaluation procedure, now is the time to check whether you are paying the correct amount of business rates. Where alterations or additions have been made to a property, this will have an impact on the level of rates payable so it is important to check that your property has been correctly assessed. It is also worth bearing in mind that ‘external’ factors, such as extensive road works, or the opening of a new retail scheme nearby, can also potentially give grounds for an appeal if you can prove that your trade has been affected.

Service charges – where service charges are payable, whether on commercial or retail property, make sure the cost of the services you are being billed for can actually be legitimately recovered under the terms of your lease and that any ambiguous clauses are not being used to the landlord’s advantage. Is the proportion you are being charged fair and reasonable? How has it been calculated? Are the services you are paying for actually being provided? Have they been procured by way of competitive tendering to ensure the best price is obtained? These are all questions which you are entitled to ask and have answered. You should also be provided with an annual certificate detailing what has been spent and you can request a breakdown of the costs and copies of invoices. Similarly, you should be provided with an annual budget detailing the anticipated expenditure and the services to be provided. All too often we find that service charges are simply paid by tenants as an additional outgoing without being queried or analysed. But with potential for money to be reclaimed, is it something you can afford to overlook?

Lease re-structuring – can you re-structure the terms of your lease to reduce your outgoings? Use the economic climate to your advantage. Similarly, if you are a tenant and your lease is due for renewal within the next 12 months, take advantage of current market conditions to secure new terms.

Where property is empty, what steps can be taken to improve its marketability and make it stand out from other available competing accommodation? Would minimal expenditure in dealing with repairs, redecoration or refurbishment improve the chances of securing a new tenant? Take advantage of market conditions to get competitive quotes for any works that need doing."

Nolan Redshaw can provide expert professional advice on all of the above and on any property related matter. Please contact Louisa Brown on 0161 763 0828 for further information.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Chamber Reaction to Today's Budget

By Chris Fletcher - Deputy Chief Executive, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

“On the face of it, today’s budget hits the mark on several issues that the Chamber has been lobbying for on behalf of its members. The delay and cut in fuel duty was one of the most high profile decisions and our members have been crystal clear about their opposition to another fuel increase for the last few weeks, so it is good that Government is listening to the business community.

“The potential simplification of the tax system and halt on a range of new legislation will also be welcomed. These are exactly the things to do to give businesses breathing space to take stock of the current economic situation, develop their plans and go for growth.

“The focus on new apprenticeships and especially young unemployed people is welcome as is the announcement about investment in new technical colleges. Local transport got a boost with the confirmation of funding for the next stage of work for the Northern Hub around the Ordsall Chord.

“The confirmation of a Greater Manchester Enterprise Zone will be greeted with interest. Whilst the geography of where this will be is important the major factor to its success will be what policies will be used to attract businesses to the zone and keep them there for the long term. We await further details on this.

“It was worrying to see the official growth forecast downgraded and inflation looks set to remain high which will impact on the rate of growth and recovery. As is always the case, further details will follow but the initial reaction is one that it seems to be moving in the right direction for business.”

Monday, 21 March 2011

Business Psychology

Hazel Carter-Showell, Managing Director, CarterCorson

How SME’s can benefit from using business psychology tools to increase revenue and retain clients.

Business psychology is a relatively new discipline, blending a deeper understanding of people and human behaviour with an understanding of business and how it all works in practice. 10 years ago, when I started my business, it was seen as an unholy alliance of management consultancy and therapy! Luckily, that attitude is changing, and it isn’t just the major plcs who are using psychology to improve business performance. SMEs already know how vitally important it is for every asset to be used to the max – there is not enough time or energy for limping along carrying underperformers, failing to get decisions out of a dysfunctional board, or trying to whip some enthusiasm from a disengaged workforce who will do the bare minimum.

Few businesses fail because of their business model – they fail because something went wrong for the people in it. Every now and again we have to remind ourselves that businesses are people, making or selling stuff for people – without people there is no business. People are not commodities, they won’t perform just because you pay them – even if you pay them until their eyes water (even footballers).

Psychology gives business owners the edge to understand what I call the ‘Human Balance Sheet’©. By understanding your people – where they are assets and where liabilities (and accepting the same person can be both!), SMEs can ensure they have motivated people doing the right job, in the right way; and getting more from them than it says on the job description. Additionally, no business operates in a vacuum, you can improve your external relationships with suppliers, clients and key stakeholders; with less time spent dealing with misunderstandings or the emotional fall out of unmet expectations.

Tools such as psychometrics (often misunderstood and occasionally misused) can help you to understand the potential of your team, how they behave under pressure, what motivates them. This can then be used to get them re-engaged, aligning what they want with the company’s objectives – a genuine win-win. Other psychology tools include cognitive behavioural coaching – sort of coaching on steroids, helping otherwise talented individuals who are not performing because of something in their past. This isn’t a ‘whip out the couch’ moment – I believe that talking about the past doesn’t change it, but you can change how you respond to it today.

Imagine team development that gives your people the emotional intelligence to handle even the most challenging clients, and the skills to connect and communicate on a whole new level: no more silos, better client relationships, more effective sales processes with everyone pulling in the same direction, creating increased profits. When you see it like that, perhaps business psychology doesn’t seem like such a soft subject. Actually, the soft stuff is always the hardest, and to repeat a phrase I heard recently that I love – when you have to be financially stingy, it is time to be emotionally generous. So, maybe it is time to put ‘analyse human balance sheet’ at the top of your next board agenda. The day you come to sell your business, to investors looking for a quality management team – you’ll be glad you did.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Friday Guest Blog: Why intuition is more smart skill than soft, in today’s business climate

By Nick Kettles, Marketing Director, CTI (The Coaches Training Institute), UK

Even today when the idea of Emotional Intelligence is common parlance, the default setting for business is that decisions must be based on hard facts, derived from clearly set research criteria and benchmarks.

At best the role of gut feeling, or intuition, and other so-called soft skills, will be an auxiliary one, and only accepted as a starting point for collecting the evidence required to underwrite the decision making process.

After all this is how things have always been done, haven’t they? Moving forward by making incremental improvements that follow either the industry standard or the course set by a business’ founder?

But what is available to businesses when intuition is honoured and acted on, without delay? Perhaps in a pressing situation which doesn’t allow for comprehensive research, and where incremental improvement just won’t do? Like a financial crash and recession which few foresaw, or at least, failed to make provision for?

Sadly, the use of the term ‘soft skill’ to describe less linear, deductive processes, suggest that the skill in question, is not as robust or as reliable, as other business skills. Yet, for businesses facing the difficulty of recession, we must be willing to look to a wider set of variables, than hard analysis alone, if we are to not just weather the storm, but powerfully respond in creating new markets and innovating products that meet the current needs of society.

As any artist or inventor will tell you, the creative process begins with a hunch, a certain curiosity, or gut feeling – a willingness to feel and listen to our inner compass - which when acted on, reveals new avenues and pathways of inquiry and discovery.

Successful, business people know this well and perhaps are happy to let it be their secret, competitive edge. For example, in his book “Losing My Virginity” Richard Branson, explains his Midas touch as such: “Some of the best ideas come out of the blue,’ he says. ‘You (just) have to keep an open mind to see their virtue.”

The first step in leveraging intuition in the business place is a shift in perspective about how we view employees as more than information processors.
Instead we need to be willing to see them as whole people, with a unique perspective to offer: where intellectual capacity and emotional intelligence are given equal standing as a legitimate source of ‘business information’ which potentially can increase visibility and inform new direction.

Such a culture shift is unlikely to happen overnight, especially in larger organisations, in which business processes have reduced employees to the role they play in the system, and only that, and yet the acquisition of soft (smart) skills, by middle managers, themselves can begin to seed a new awareness in their cohorts.

Amongst many models which encourage improved emotional intelligence, Co-active Coaching is perhaps unique in placing intuition at the heart of our ability to both have more creative conversations, and, visualise a better, more fulfilling future.
What’s more, once acquired, intuition is a renewable resource: it’s cheap (we only have to learn how to empower it); and potentially, can yield greater results in a shorter period of time.

Soft skill or smart skill? What’s your intuition tell you?

CTI offers Co-active Coaching training courses for executives, managers and new career seekers, in Manchester and London, throughout the year. For their forthcoming 2.5 day Introduction to Co-Active Coaching at Salford Quays, Manchester, (March 11-13, or May 13-15), CTI UK are offering the course at £275 (+VAT) which represents £100 off the normal price of £375 (+VAT).

For more information call Judy Rich on 0845 299 8199, or, or visit

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Carry On Trading

By Chris Fletcher - Deputy Chief Executive, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

One of the Government’s favourite lines is about an “export-led recovery”, however get talking to any business and there seems to be a huge gap before this becomes a reality.

One of the main issues raised time and again by members is the scarcity of credit guarantees for exporters and the knock-on effect this has with accessing finance. Over the last two years, there has been a retreat by credit insurers from the export market, which has made it difficult for businesses to access finance and do the deal. The appetite to offer insurance seems undiminished overseas so many UK firms now access foreign-based cover to continue trading. Indeed many schemes are backed by overseas governments to levels we could only dream about in the UK.

We have made various representations to Government on this issue, looking for the possibility of greater state intervention to support these schemes by covering the risk – not to give handouts – but to support and step in when required. Our International Trade Council has made this issue a top priority to preserve what we have already and encourage new exporters.

It was with some optimism that the recent Trade White Paper heralded the launch of five new schemes from the Government and delivered through the Export Credits Guarantee Department (ECGD) and BIS. On first appearances they seemed to fit the bill and would offer broader access and coverage to encourage exports, but would they be the real deal?

To test this out, the Chamber took a group of exporters down to ECGD and BIS on 16th March to meet with the people that put the schemes together, as well as meet with one of the three main credit insurance companies, Euler Hermes.

It was quite a busy day and involved a bit of criss-crossing the capital, but the meetings with Patrick Crawford, the CEO of ECGD, and David Frost, the EU Trade Director at BIS, with their teams did prove fruitful on a number of levels. They agreed that whilst the schemes were a start, they may need further enhancements and changes before they really do what they were set up to do. This could be seen as worrying on one hand, but actually is a refreshing approach and one that leaves the way open for further input. Direct business guidance on what the schemes eventually look like and deliver will be invaluable and something that we can help co-ordinate. Both teams were keen on visiting Manchester in the not too distant future and we’ll be setting some dates up for this.

One of the real benefits though, and the one that gives me satisfaction time and time again, is getting business owners in front of key decision-makers to get their views and issues across. As a Chamber member you can get access to the politicians and decision-makers as part of the service we offer, not just on this issue, but across the whole range of policy areas identified in our “Action For Business” document.

There will be more opportunities in the future so keep an eye on what’s happening.
In the meantime, the focus stays on this issue and the relentless drive to keep Britain trading.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Friday Guest Blog: Understanding Solicitors' Charges

By Marc Yaffe - Partner at Boote Edgar Esterkin solicitors and Head of Business Development at AB-8 (

How and how much solicitors charge for their services in the UK is not well understood by clients, even though the Law Society does have clear rules about how it should be done. The pity is that the actual rules governing solicitors’ charges were designed to be fair and transparent.

Nevertheless, many clients are still confused about how much they will be charged by their solicitor and it is often the case that they are right to be confused. It was for this reason that I set up our legal cost cutting service “ab-8” ( and since its inception, we have settled each and every case we have taken on in the client’s favour.

One of the most common problems we have encountered is that solicitors provide estimates or quotations which are simply too low for the amount of work required, and then seek to justify exceeding that estimate on the basis that there was more work than initially anticipated. Such practices are simply not acceptable but often clients are unaware of their rights and how to protect them.

Let me give you an example. Consider the window cleaner who knocks on your door and asks if he can clean your windows for £10. You give him the go-ahead and he knocks on an hour later asking for £30. He explains that there were more windows than he anticipated or that your windows were dirtier than he thought. How many of you would pay him more than the £30? Not many I’d assume. Whilst this is a very simplistic example, the same rules generally apply with solicitors costs.

I recently took on a case where a solicitor provided a client with an estimate of £10,000 for taking a litigation case to trial. The estimate contained a number of standard qualifications that it was valid so long as the case did not throw up and unusual or unforeseen work. The case ran smoothly to trial and after the trial the solicitor raised a bill for, wait for it, £47,000! His justification was that there was more work involved than anticipated and he (somewhat arrogantly) expected his client to pick up the bill. In reality, he had merely provided a bad estimate. What made matters worse for the solicitor was that he set out in his terms of business that no estimate would be exceed without first seeking the client’s agreement in writing. There are other such similar horror stories.

What is even more frustrating is that many of the problems with solicitors’ costs can be overcome simply by asking questions. Solicitors, like all others in the service industry, face strong competition and they must learn to work flexibly. For example, I treat each client differently according to their individual circumstances, the facts of their case and their financial position. This means that we will work on fixed quotations, staged costs estimates or pursuant to a discounted fee arrangement or “no win no fee” basis depending upon the client’s needs.
When it comes to raising invoices, the same is true. Some clients request a bill when my charges reach £500, others receive monthly invoices and some may pay in advance (on account) or at the end of a case. The common thread in all cases is that all clients are aware of the basis upon which they will be charged, and it falls upon me to ensure that I act in accordance with our agreement.

My message to clients is very simple:

1. When you first instruct a solicitor, ask questions. In fact, ask as many questions as you can think of to ensure that you understand the agreement between you and your solicitor;

2. Make sure you agree precisely how you will be invoiced and how you will make payment;

3. Make sure you understand who will be carrying out the work, that they are suitably qualified but not over qualified;

4. Ask your solicitor to provide you with regular updates in writing. A common example is for you to be informed every time the costs reach £500.

5. Your solicitor should, at the outset, provide you with an estimate of the total costs of your matter. Make sure you understand how (if at all) this estimate may be revised and ensure that you are to be informed before any estimate is exceeded.

6. Ask your solicitor to give you a cost/benefit analysis. I reviewed a case recently where a solicitor charged £9,000 for a £2,000 claim and although the client won and recovered his £2,000, he was left with a £9,000 bill to pay. The client walked away having won his case but £7,000 worse off!

There is no specific reason why clients feel bemused by the level of their solicitor’s charges, but in most cases, it happens because the right questions are not asked, and the right information is not provided. By increasing dialogue, many solicitor and client relationships will improve and many disputes about solicitors’ costs will fall away.

For further information about solicitors' costs, contact Marc Yaffe on 0161 832 7888 or at Marc is a Partner at Boote Edgar Esterkin solicitors and Head of Business Development at AB-8 (

Marc is happy to offer a free telephone consultation to all Chamber Members.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Friday Guest Blog: How to Select a Professional Photographer

By Bernard O'Sullivan

Bernard O’Sullivan ABIPP, has been a qualified commercial photographer for over thirty years. During that time he has won over fifty major professional photographic awards plus fifty smaller awards. In 1991 he founded Inside Out Photography a commercial photography studio based in Chorlton, Manchester, serving industrial, corporate and architectural clients.

Bernard O’Sullivan is also currently chairman of the British Institute of Professional Photographers, North West region.

Commissioning photography - How do you select a professional photographer?

Anyone earning his or her living as a photographer is by definition, a professional! Unfortunately it is all too easy for someone with no professional experience or qualifications, to promote themselves as a professional photographer. Below you will find guidelines based on thirty years experience, to ensure your photography project runs smoothly.

A cheaper quote for your photography project may seem appealing, but is it worth the risk? Choosing the wrong photographer could end up costing you a lot more!

Tip 1 - Are they qualified and does it matter?
Yes, it can matter. A professional qualification is a guide to quality and level of skill.
One indicator is whether a photographer holds any professional qualifications and is a member of a recognised professional body. At the bottom of this blog, I have listed the two main UK bodies that assess standards and grade professional membership.

Tip 2 - Have they experience of working in your field of business?
It obviously makes sense to select someone with proven knowledge of your particular area of business. Choose a photographer who can show you examples of similar commissions. If they are experienced they are likely to anticipate your needs and answer your questions before they are asked.

If someone tells you “we do everything” it may be a case of ‘Jack of all trades, master of none!’

Tip 3 - How long should a job take, and what is a fair price?
It depends on the quality of the finished product you are looking for. To use a food analogy, you can budget for a high-street burger or for a three-course restaurant meal. Quality takes not just experience and skill, but also time. A five-minute burger from a Michelin star chef is likely to be wonderful quality, but it will not be the same experience as a three-course meal the same Chef has taken forty minutes preparing.

So try to be realistic, if someone is telling you that a shoot will take a matter of hours, while others are quoting a couple of days. Alarm bells should be ringing!

Tip 4 - What equipment do they use, and does it matter?
Naturally all photographers have personal equipment preferences. However certain subjects DO require sophisticated lighting techniques, using a myriad of light shaping accessories. These are essential to make your products and business come alive.

It is not acceptable to turn up to a shoot at a high tech factory with just the built-in camera flash. It will not help to represent your company at its best.

Tip 5 - Getting a quote and sticking to it?
No matter what you are buying, some people will be tempted to give you a very attractive low price, and then once you are half way through the project and therefore committed, load the invoice with ‘extras’.

You should always be supplied with a written quote. This must clearly outline exactly what you will get based on the information you have provided. If during the course of a project, extra opportunities for further photography not included in the original quote present themselves, you should be informed of additional costs before the photography proceeds.

So, if a quote seems ‘too good to be true’ then your instincts are likely to be accurate.

Tip 6 - Being professional beyond the camera
Assuming you have found someone who is creative and technically competent, the next most important criteria, is that they keep you informed and are professional in the way they conduct themselves,

While they are working for you, possibly at a third party client’s premises, photographers represent not only their own company, but also you the commissioning client. It is important that they conduct themselves accordingly; they should also keep you informed regarding the progress of a project with appropriately regular updates.

Tip 7 – Do they have appropriate insurance, protecting all parties!
We all know that it is a legal requirement under UK law, for anyone in business to take out Public Liability insurance. In addition, it is also wise to ensure that your chosen photographer has ‘Professional Indemnity Insurance’. This protects all parties in the event of you, the client, incurring expenses as a result of non-completion of the project, etc.

Don’t assume all photographers will have this important cover. If you have doubts, ask for proof!

Tip 8 – Copyright, be sure of ownership of images!
Some photographers may exercise their legal rights as the ‘author’ of an image to impose what is called an ‘image use licence’. This can legally restrict how, where, and for how long their work is used by clients. It is important to clarify these copyright issues before you commission any photography.

Tip 9 – Keeping your images safe for the future!
We all know that fires, burglaries and accidents happen, computers go wrong and important images and information can be lost.

Be sure that the images you have commissioned and paid for, are safe on multiple external hard drives and on filed DVDs. Ask your photographer about their ‘backing up’ policy.

Remember, your image is your future: trust it to a true professional!

For further advice on commissioning photography contact Bernard O’Sullivan on 0161 881 3385 or visit our website @

British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP)

The Association of Photographers (AOP)

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Wolf Review

Commenting on the Wolf Review into vocational education, Chris Fletcher Deputy Chief Executive of Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, said: “Time and again our members tell us that one of the key requirements when recruiting young people is for them to be ‘work-ready’. In other words they have a basic grasp of what is required, a good understanding of what the workplace actually is and, ideally, they have had some exposure to different areas of work so they move into a job that is attractive to them and can provide a true career experience.

“To back this up it is also a crucial element to have a range of qualifications that have currency within the job market and relevance to whatever career path young people choose. Businesses often say that many of their recruits are missing essential components that should have been included as part of their education.

“We are pleased today to see that a number of these concerns about education have been addressed as part of the review and we will pick these up as part of our ongoing work with employers to make sure that what is being proposed is fit for purpose and delivers what is required to keep the growth momentum going as well as giving young people access to all options for their future success in work.

“There is a misconception that recruitment of young people straight from school doesn’t happen anymore. Our most recent Quarterly Economic Survey showed that over the last 12 months of all those businesses recruiting young people under the age of 24, approximately 1/5 were 16-year-olds recruited straight from school. It is so important that the findings of the review are implemented urgently and effectively. It cannot be left until young people leave school for this to happen or, in the worst case possible, for the activity not to happen at all.”

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

High Speed Politicians

Chris Fletcher, Deputy Chief Executive of Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

Monday afternoon saw the unique conjunction of Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Transport and his shadow counterpart, Maria Eagle in Manchester at the same time having top level meetings about transport issues.

Whilst I was at a small round table meeting with Mr Hammond at the GMPTE offices, just a stone’s throw away my colleague Richard Critchley was meeting Ms Eagle.

The conversation with Mr Hammond was focussed on the launch of the formal consultation on High Speed 2 (HS2) and the potential strength of opposition from the Conservative heartlands of the Chilterns to the first stage between London and Birmingham.

Whilst a high speed rail link to London is still some way into the future there is a real ground swell of opposition beginning to build so the Secretary of State was very interested in starting the process of getting business on board in support of the scheme.

The Chamber has expressed its support in the past for HS2 and the extension of the proposed London to Birmingham line to Manchester. I have sat on several meetings of various stakeholders groups over the last few years as well as receiving numerous briefings from Lord Adonis – Mr Hammond’s predecessor who, interestingly enough, may be brought back into play by the current government to show how this issue crosses political boundaries.

So, whilst it may be some time yet before we can physically get on a train in Manchester and be in London just over an hour later the message from the Secretary of State was that the work starts now in making sure the scheme doesn’t get stopped in its tracks. We will be taking part in the consultation exercise and we will be keeping our members up to speed on developments as and when they happen.

Meanwhile over the road, literally, from my meeting, Richard Critchley the Chamber’s Transport, Environment and Planning Manager was meeting with Maria Eagle the Shadow Transport Secretary. Maria had been travelling from Leeds to Manchester to learn more about the Northern Hub rail proposals and what they could mean for the economy of the North. Richard was there to meet her when she arrived.

The Northern Hub is a package of rail improvements to relieve the bottleneck of trains around Piccadilly Station, freeing up huge capacity for faster, more frequent services to more destinations. Being fairly new to her role, it was a good opportunity for Maria to see and hear first hand what the Hub investment could mean for the economy of the North of England and the difficulties businesses and commuters faced with a restricted rail network.

The Chamber was keen to stress the lack of connectivity between Manchester Piccadilly and the northern areas, such as Rochdale and the impact that this has on journey times to London. To make these arguments more real, Maria has been invited to return to Greater Manchester and meet face to face with Chamber members, to discuss first hand the problems and expectations of businesses when travelling by rail.

So, from both sides of the political spectrum comes a single important message: transport infrastructure matters if you want a successful economy. Locally and short term the mantra is still more carriages, electrification and delivery of the Northern Hub – Manchester’s own Crossrail except a) it’s not in London so we have to work hard to convince the decision makers and b) it hasn’t got the funding and isn’t being built…yet. Nationally and longer term a high speed rail network linking the major cities will be a real game changer and will transform the UK economy and whilst the costs may seem eye watering in the current age of cuts in reality the timing is right to start the work now.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Guest Blog: Absenteeism

Peter Mooney of ELAS

There’s a good chance that many managers across the region will be thinking about absenteeism. As we all know, lots of workers have an unfortunate knack of falling ill on a Friday, often deteriorating so rapidly that despite being fit and well on the previous afternoon that, come 9am, they are too ill even to phone and have to resort to sending a text message to their boss to explain their absence.

If this sounds familiar, then you can at least rest assured that you’re not alone. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics recently show that, after a temporary outbreak of healthiness during the recession, the British workforce is back to its pre-credit crunch levels of sickness. And the medics were telling us that the recession was bad for our health.

Call me cynical but I don’t think for one second that our fitness to work – as a nation – has changed one iota during this time. What changed was our willingness to work. It stands to reason that when the initial prospect of job cuts loomed large, few people wanted to be caught throwing a sickie. Once the threat has passed, then the prospect of an unofficial duvet day suddenly becomes more appealing.

Of course it’s wrong to assume that all those texting in sick today are faking it, but the problem is serious enough for David Cameron to have included steps to tackle absenteeism in his Welfare Reform Bill. Warning that “we need to get to grips with the sick note culture,” Mr Cameron has asked British Chambers of Commerce Director General, David Frost, to join Dame Carol Black in reviewing sickness absence.

The biggest part of the challenge is clearly to get those who are genuinely ill back to good health so that they can be effective, productive workers again.

My own company’s research over the past five years suggests that rather than getting better, our country’s appetite for unofficial holidays is indeed growing – with as many as 375,000 people a day calling in sick at the peak of the absenteeism season (traditionally around the start of February, as winter colds combine with less clinical factors such as miserable weather, dark nights and a long wait until the next bona fide holiday).

We recommend a firm but fair approach whereby businesses start by refusing to accept text messages as adequate notification but also, and more importantly, use a complex formula known as the Bradford Factor to help them determine which staff are honest but unhealthy, and which are likely to be ‘pulling a fast one’.

While it sounds complicated, there is computer software available (such as ours, Employersafe, as it happens) which will do these calculations for you and not only alert you to which staff you need to deal with, but advise you on how to do it safely without ending up in an Employment Tribunal.

The alternative is to turn a blind eye and hope it doesn’t do your business too much harm. The only problem with that is that, as this week’s ONS figures show, absenteeism is catching.

Corporate Manslaughter

Alex Swift, Regional Director at St John Ambulance in the North West.

St John Ambulance is urging businesses to ensure proper health and safety measures are in place after the first corporate manslaughter trial verdict on 15th February. The organisation is warning that safety must be paramount to prevent tragic accidents from happening and to avoid suffering legal and financial repercussions.

In September 2008, 27-year-old geologist Alexander Wright was employed by Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd to take soil samples from inside a pit. The pit had been excavated as part of a site survey near Stroud in Gloucestershire but the sides of the trench collapsed on top of Mr Wright, leaving him unable to breathe.

The company’s Managing Director, Peter Eaton, was too ill to stand trial, but the company was charged with the death of Wright by gross negligence under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007 and charged with breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act. On 15th February a guilty verdict was reached and Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd was subsequently fined £385,000.

In 2009/10 there were 152 deaths in the workplace. Research by St John Ambulance found that worryingly, over 15% of businesses have never carried out an assessment to determine risks within the workplace and therefore how to protect staff. The nation’s leading first aid and health and safety organisation is encouraging businesses to learn how to prevent workplace accidents.

We hope this case will inform employers in all sectors. Stringent processes must be in place to avoid a repeat of this tragic accident.

The Corporate Manslaughter Act is there to safeguard against lax attitudes to health and safety by holding employers accountable for neglecting their duty of care to workers, visitors and customers. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Alexander Wright.

Each year 800,000 people are trained in first aid and health and safety through St John Ambulance programmes. For more information about courses call 0844 770 4800 or visit

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