Swap protection for profit? What did business make of the Chancellor's speech

Laura Kuenssberg

Former Business Editor

Chancellor George Osborne arrives for the second day of the Conservative Party Conference at the ICC, Birmingham. Credit: Rui Vieira/PA Wire

Most business groups were, and still are supportive of the biggest decision George Osborne has made - to try to get rid of the deficit faster than Labour had planned, and to try to get debt falling as a proportion of national income by 2015.

He was pretty tight-lipped on that in his speech earlier, with the political focus very much on trying to squeeze more out of the welfare budget, not how progress is moving towards those two big targets.

But in recent months the business community has become increasingly restless at the speed at which the government is making decisions in other areas - energy policy, road building, where to put the next airport, and mentioning the rail franchise fiasco is not something currently done in polite business conversation!

So was there anything in today's speech to reverse that growing sense of frustration? A plan to swapping protections at work for a share of profit came as a surprise. Under the plan, staff would sign away some rights at work, like redundancy and unfair dismissal rights, or a reduction in maternity rights.

In return, they'd get a tax break on shares the might get in the company they work for. This policy has been praised by the Institute of Directors for being 'interesting and innovative' and encouraging share ownership. It could work well in the kind of company, say a technology start up, where there is a lot of risk involved but potentially an awful lot of money to be made but there are some pretty big questions about whether this would be a good deal for the average employee.

For example, if the average worker were to take £3,000 of shares in the company they work for. Things go well, the share price goes up by 20 percent so the value of shares goes up £600, so the employee decides to sell which they are allowed to do without having to pay any tax. Sounds good so far,except the amount of tax on the £600 gain that would have been payable at the basic rate of 18 percent would only have required them to pay £108.

That doesn't sound quite so great if you compare it to the worst case scenario. If the company did very badly and the employee's job were to disappear, they'd have signed away their rights to an average of around £9,000 of redundancy money.

Equally if the employee were to be treated unfairly, having no right of recourse seems a lot to surrender for a pretty small tax break that would only apply if the company had done well and the share price increases.

The firmly diplomatic John Cridland of the CBI suggested it would be a 'niche' scheme - hardly the kind of policy that will snap the economy out of the doldrums. The Federation of Small Business welcomed it but agreed it would only appeal to a handful of firms. One big company who uses an employee ownership model said to me this is not exactly what they were expecting today.

What was more warmly greeted was the promise of a tax break for shale exploration. Shale gas has slashed energy costs in the United States and some enthusiasts here believe it could transform things here too (just don't mention the Blackpool earthquakes).

But some of the big players in the UK market are yet to be convinced that there is real potential in this country. And green groups have very serious concerns. And at the same time as the Chancellor is encouraging one emerging part of the energy market, shale, another that is ready to grow, the renewable sector, is calling for much faster decisions on their future so that they can start signing cheques and invest.