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Tories embrace Flexible Working

Does Conservative policy make a natural home for flexibility?

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 economic progress.

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 benefits."

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 enterprises.

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.


Now everyone at Westminster loves Flexibility...

And we're very pleased about that, of course!

Over the summer, and now at the 2006 Party Conference, leading Tories are giving out the message that "General Well Being" is as much their goal as economic prosperity.  And flexible working plus a good work-life balance are key to achieving this.

We welcome this development, and our assessment is that flexibility has a natural place in Conservative political thinking, even though it's their opponents who have been making all the running on this issue over the past few years.



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