Here in the UK it's been the Labour
government that has made the running in supporting and promoting
flexible working over the past 6 or 7 years. Under Labour
there has been family-friendly flexible working legislation and
the Department of Trade & Industry has been keen to promote
flexibility as part of an agenda for modernising industry and
promoting the knowledge economy.
Now there are signs that the
reviving Conservative party is taking flexible working and
work-life balance consciousness into its thinking as they
develop new policies that they hope will take them into power at
the next election.
First there was David Cameron saying that "general
well-being" is as important as GDP, and that flexible working
and a good work-life balance is an important ingredient of this.
Working isn't just abut making money.
|| Recently Phil Hammond (left), the
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said the Conservatives
aim to bring about a massive shake-up in Britain's
nine-to-five employment culture, and that more flexible
working practices are crucial to safeguard the country's
He said delivering of the UK's economic
and social goals depends on a huge increase in flexibility
in employment patterns:
"The Conservative Party believes that flexible
working practice is the future - for both public and private
sectors. Flexible working practice is a key element in the
delivery of economic competitiveness, social justice,
affordability in public service delivery and an improvement in
General Well Being.
"Making work accessible will form a cornerstone of the next
Conservative Government's programme for delivering its social,
economic and environmental objectives.
"We have no doubt that, to deliver both our economic and
our social goals, we must see a huge increase in flexibility
in employment patterns. That will play a key role in
accommodating the increase in older workers and lone parents
in the workforce as well as those returning from incapacity
Educate not legislate
Hammond called on the state sector to give a lead - with
Government seeking to educate rather than legislate:
"We know that flexible working practices deliver
significant benefits to business. We know, because businesses
that are using them tell us so. What is needed is not
legislation but education, so that employers across the UK -
in all sectors and of all sizes, can see, and take advantage
of, the benefits of offering flexible employment. Government
must be a partner in this venture. Not by regulating to
require flexibility, but by deregulating to permit it.
"In the interest both of efficient delivery of public
services and value for money for the taxpayer - and also in
the interest of setting an example and a bench-mark, the
public sector must become the champion of cutting-edge
flexible working practice. Through enhanced productivity,
reduced accommodation overheads and significantly lower levels
of absenteeism and staff turnover, delivering improved value
for money for the tax-payer, as well as an enhanced working
environment for the millions of public sector employees."
A new direction
The response of the other parties has been naturally
critical, with Labour spokesman Alistair Darling pointing out
that while the Conservatives talk, Labour delivers. And
that David Cameron had voted against all the labour flexible
working legislation. Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats has
called it "posturing without substance".
It is true that these policy statements from the
Conservatives are about principles rather than particulars.
We wait to see what is meant when they say they will achieve
their goal "not by regulating to require flexibility, but by
deregulating to permit it." Removing which regulations, exactly?
However, wind back to the mid-1990s and it was captains of
industry and Tories who were preaching flexibility, while Labour
and the Unions were saying "flexibility = exploitation".
What has happened in the intervening decade is that the
business agenda of flexibilising the labour market has combined
with the agenda of social responsibility in the workplace.
There has been a new realisation that flexible working practices
have the ability to empower the individual worker as well as
improve business competitiveness.
There are many aspects of flexible working that ought to
chime well with traditional Conservative values, not least those
that stress the autonomy of the individual, the value of family
life, removing restrictive practices in the workplace and
fostering economic growth through developing new small
While it is far from being our job to write Conservative
policy, we can see a natural place for flexibility and work-life
balance in it. And we can give some guidance too on how to
de-regulate to encourage flexibility, while retaining a robust
framework of employment rights - if that's really the way they
want to go.