By Tali Fraser
A core member of the Prime Minister’s leadership campaign, Mel Stride, now Department of Work and Pensions Secretary, tells Tali Fraser about his review into why so many people have dropped out of the workforce – and how to bring them back.
Nine million working-age Britons are currently deemed economically inactive. Around 650,000 of them left the workforce during the Covid pandemic and failed to return, while around 1.2m jobs remain vacant. But despite these alarming statistics Mel Stride, the Work and Pensions Secretary, is unwaveringly optimistic about his prospects for dealing with the many crises facing him – and fast.
As we sit down in his department office – a dark space he likens to “a nightclub but without the music, the drinks or the atmosphere” – Stride makes sure to get across his positive outlook: “I just have a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature, which is that I think most people want to do the right thing, they want to get on… that is what is driving me.”
What Stride wants to drive through the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is growth, which involves getting more of those nine million who do not have a job and are not actively looking for one back into the workplace. He likes to break them down into four key cohorts: over-50s (especially early retirees), students (40 per cent of whom don’t have a part-time job), parents and unpaid carers (who struggle to juggle work with other caring commitments), and the long-term sick and disabled (whose share of economic inactivity doubled during the pandemic).
A recent House of Lords report found that early retirement and an ageing population are particularly driving labour shortages – and Stride has begun with a real push for the over 50s to either stay in or return to work. Part of the solution is to “nudge” them into thinking twice and, according to Stride, question: “If you are retiring early, can I afford to do so?”
He says that some people may not have taken into account growing life expectancy. “It requires a leap of imagination to turn yourself from somebody who’s maybe in their early mid-50s to somebody who might be approaching 100 years old in reasonable health,” Stride says with a smile – he is 61 himself. He adds that the key question is: “Have you got enough to really get through that journey financially?”
What the DWP will be looking at, Stride says: “Is how do we inform people, give people more information, get them to engage with trying to make that assessment so that they know the realistic answer to that question… if we could nudge them into doing that, that could be quite a powerful thing.”
He adds: “There’s a lot of stuff on the communication side that we’re working up… another thing that you can channel is this almost sense of civic duty; you can help out your local community if you’ve got some skills and you want to go and spend a day or two a week putting something back in and earning at the same time.”
But there is an issue with employers, too. A November poll by the Chartered Management Institute found that just four in 10 managers were open to employing those aged between 50 and 64 to a “large or moderate extent”. How will he tackle that?
“There are some employers that totally get it, like B&Q, which has a high proportion of older workers. They’re reliable, they’re very customer focused, very helpful individuals and they make great employees,” Stride says, “That’s an area where you can expect us to be doing a bit more particularly around the comms campaign side… in a tight labour market, every worker is really important.”
Although happy to discuss communication plans, Stride is less keen to reveal any policy details, often saying he “cannot comment” on specific issues which appear to have been briefed to various newspapers. Whether, as reports suggest, the over-50s are set to receive an income tax exemption of up to a year if they go back to work is “a matter for the Treasury… I cannot comment on things that are fiscal or tax, unfortunately. I would love to because I’ve got all sorts of thoughts about those kinds of things but it is a matter for the Chancellor”; Stride “can’t start to talk policy” on how to get employers to provide better healthcare, which in turn improves staff retention, following reports that companies who do so could be handed tax breaks, although he says tackling retention “ is absolutely up there with our priorities”; when it comes to reports of hiking the state pension age earlier than anticipated, Stride says: “There is very little I can say other than the fact that I have a statutory duty now to review that, which I’m going through at the moment. By May, I will have concluded that… I can’t comment on that story, I don’t know where it came from”.
What he does recognise is that “it is quite a broad terrain that we are surveying, with a lot of moving parts”. There are some Tory MPs, including former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, who claim that Covid created a “something for nothing culture” with regard to the UK workforce. Does Stride agree? “There is no doubt that the pandemic over a couple of years would change society in a number of different ways,” he says, “I think the problem is it is difficult to disentangle exactly what those consequences have been.”
One such consequence is that the UK is now an outlier among other developed economies in having not reversed pandemic levels of economic inactivity. The Learning and Work Institute estimates that if the UK matched the economic activity rate growth of Australia, France or the Netherlands since the pandemic, there would be an additional million people in our workforce. Stride admits that the UK is marked out from other countries because of this but says “we don’t know all the answers as to why”.
The head of the Confederation of British Industry, Tony Danker, sees a clear short-term solution: migration. While he has welcomed the government’s focus on economic inactivity, Danker says its refusal to relax migration rules means the UK is starting with “one arm tied behind our back”.
“I don’t accept that,” Stride says flatly. “It is far better for us to encourage domestic workers into the labour market than it is, all else being equal, having increasing migration. But it is true that migration is a relatively quick and easy lever to pull to resolve labour shortages and boost the economy. That puts a particular duty on us to really make sure that through the work that we’re doing here, and what we will be rolling out in the months and the next couple of years to really make sure that has an impact and that we do get domestic workers back into work.”
One of the reasons Stride says he entered politics and became a Conservative was to provide the help of the state to those that need it – and it is part of the reason he is passionate about coming down hard on those who abuse the system: “We should have zero tolerance of them… I’m absolutely determined we’re going to clamp down on that [benefit fraud] as I did, and felt that I was doing, on tax avoidance when I was financial secretary to the Treasury for two years.
“If people play by the rules, that’s great. If they need help, we should provide it. If you look at what fraudsters are doing, they are making it more difficult for us to look after the people we want to look after.”
There are a number of challenges for him to wrestle with but again Stride is optimistic: “The ONS [Office for National Statistics] hasn’t said that we’re in recession yet but we may be in the foothills of one. I would like to think that if this department really delivers, we can shallow out any problems we’re going to have, maybe even truncate the length of those economic problems and get some growth going.
“The best thing that we can do at the moment is to strengthen and expand the labour force. That will be quick economic wins if we can do that. That is why the Prime Minister quite rightly set this as such a very high priority.”
At Sunak’s request, Stride has been carrying out a review into how to get people back into the workforce at a time of record vacancies. The pair have a close political relationship; the DWP Secretary was Sunak’s campaign manager during the Conservative leadership races, although he says their friendship “doesn’t go back that far at all”.
“I got to know him most when he was chancellor and I was chair of the Treasury Select Committee. That really wasn’t that long ago in political terms but I had also spotted him quite early when he became a junior minister and always looked at him from afar,” he adds. “The time came when things were moving and I thought, ‘Who’s the best person now for the country?’ and I was firmly of the view that it was him. I ended up working very much at the centre of his campaign to try and convince as many colleagues as possible that it should be him, and it did ultimately succeed but there was a twist or turn along the way!”
Stride has been within a circle of high-flying Conservatives longer than he has been in politics, having served as president of the Oxford Union after former Tory leader Lord Hague, followed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. But he is not from a political family.
His parents both left school early, his dad at 14 – having grown up in orphanages and foster homes – and his mum at 15 – to search for work to bring money back to the family home on a council estate. “My parents’ journey was really one of social mobility,” Stride says. “My father set up his own business and I became [along with his younger brother] part of a family where things generally seemed to progress in an upward direction and my education was part of that.”
He got a place at a grammar school and became the first in his family to go to university (Stride went to Oxford to study chemistry but after only three weeks transferred to study politics, philosophy and economics). “I was always aware that if you had the opportunity and you were prepared to work hard and use whatever skills or imagination you had, things could happen. I was always surrounded by that as a young person but not in a very political family at all.”
The same lack of political upbringing cannot be said of his three daughters, aged 26, 16 and 14. As financial secretary, a debate ran over in Parliament on his wedding anniversary, while his wife, Michelle, and two of their daughters were left waiting for him while sat watching from the gallery. The middle is currently doing her mock GCSEs, which he says has created “quite a stressful time” at home but it sounds as if he isn’t too concerned about what the world of work may have in store for them: “They are great because they are all self-starters. I spend my time saying: ‘You should be revising less. Why are you still up doing this?’ I am very lucky they are like that.”
If Stride ever wanted a career change himself there is an obvious option: a tour guide. As a hobby, the DWP secretary completed two years of tour guide training, meaning he can conduct tours at sites including Westminster Abbey, Stonehenge (a photo of which hangs on his office wall), the British Museum and more, although he has only ever taken four or five tours out professionally.
Stride, who claims to now be “very rusty”, says: “I’ve always been interested in history but there’s nothing more wonderful than not just reading about it but actually going and looking at something and being able to communicate it to other people. I just found it absolutely fascinating to be able to go into a museum and look at all that sweep of history and think I know something about this, I understand something about this, and then realise that they are all connected.”
He regales the farcical story of one of his tours: “One of the guiding things that I did, involved a panoramic tour around London in a coach. I had 53 Texans on my coach and they were all absolutely brilliant – and we whizzed along! I had always been told what you have got to be good at is keeping your group together. We were doing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and I started out with 53 but after the first stop I was down to 49. Then after the second stop, I was down to something like 45 and I was frantically waving around for everybody to come together and getting stressed. “The remarkable thing was that when we got back to the hotel, about four hours later, I was just missing two! Then as we got off, somebody said: ‘Hey, there’s Elma’ and whoever else it was! They all came together marvellously right at the end. So I wasn’t very good at keeping people together, but I had a lot of fun.” Stride’s optimistic nature means he is confident he will do a better job at bringing the nation’s workforce together.