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 Some hamper growth, and must surely be repealed, but others have proved positive for both society and business.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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.