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 Some hamper growth, and must surely be repealed, but others have proved positive for both society and business.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 

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.