Osborne’s attack on flexible working will harm family life

The Chancellor has taken the axe to a regulation that boosts productivity.

George Osborne is right that businesses should be freed from the shackles of high tax and unnecessary regulation so that they can focus on driving growth in our economy by creating new jobs and wealth.

Wednesday's announcement that corporation tax will be dropped by 2 per cent from this April is welcome. As is the abolition of 43 tax reliefs and the gradual merger of National Insurance and income tax.

But the Chancellor, in his desperate rush to appear pro-business, has taken the axe to a regulation that in fact boosts productivity: the extension of flexible working rights for employees.

Clear the clutter, set businesses free from top-down diktats, is his view. The Chancellor ought to drop the ideology and cultivate a more sophisticated, evidence-based critique of regulations. Some hamper growth, and must surely be repealed, but others have proved positive for both society and business.

One such case is parents' right to request flexible working, introduced by the Labour government in 2003. Slowly, it has been expanded to more and more parents, so today over ten million with children under the age of 16 have the right to request flexible working from their employer.

The regulation has brought about a positive cultural change in our society. Between 2003 and 2007, there was a sizeable increase in flexible working arrangements available to parents – whether that be part-time working, flexitime, working from home or compressed hours.

It has contributed to increased lone-parent employment in the 2000s, ensuring that these parents can access jobs which are compatible with their familial duties. Research shows that both men and women, who report wanting to spend more quality time with their children, are now doing just that.

More businesses, many initially sceptical, have gradually embraced flexible working, the regulation helping to demonstrate its advantages. Fifty-eight per cent of employers report significant improvements in staff productivity with family-friendly working arrangements . From Microsoft and BT to Sandwell Community Caring Trust in the West Midlands, employers say productivity has improved. They open themselves up to a wider recruitment pool, enhancing their ability to attract and retain the best staff.

During the downturn at the back end of the last decade, employers reached for flexible working as a solution to cutting costs: keeping staff but reducing their hours. KPMG offered 11,000 employees a four-day week in 2009, impressively holding on to most of its staff members.

Flexible working really is the future, with nine in ten 16-year-olds aspiring to flexible work. It provides solutions to many pressing policy problems. Congestion on our transport network can be eased by staggered starting times and home working. Time is one of the principal obstacles to volunteering; flexible working gives us that time, supporting the development of the "big society".

Lamentably, Osborne's Budget has halted the extension of the right to request flexible working to parents with children between the ages of 16 and 18. It is both odd and unnecessary, as it was only a right to request, not demand, flexibility: businesses have the right to veto. What this does is send the signal to businesses, wrongly, that flexible working is burdensome.

On top of this, the moratorium for small businesses on the implementation of any new domestic regulation, coming in addition to the review of all existing regulations, threatens plans for the extension of flexible working to all, proudly trumpeted only a year ago in the Coalition Agreement. Gone are the days before the general election when the Tories talked of building a "family-friendly Britain", boasting of their plans to go further than Labour on flexible working.

Family life and the "big society", bedrocks of Cameron's Conservatism, will suffer from this careless policy.

Ryan Shorthouse works at the Social Market Foundation and was an adviser to the Conservatives on family policy before the last general election.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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