Skip to main content

Working Time Regulations (Amendment)

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Working Time Regulations 1998 to reduce the maximum working week from 48 hours per week to 32 hours per week and to provide for overtime pay; and for connected purposes.

It was almost exactly a century ago that British workers switched from a six-day week to a five-day week. Saturday used to be included in a standard working week, but between the 1920s and the 1940s, a five-day working week and a weekend became the normal way of working across most of the western world.

One of the early pioneers was Ford Motor Company in the United States. On 1 May 1926, Ford became the first major company in America to adopt a five-day, 40-hour week for workers in its automotive factories. Edsel Ford, who was Henry Ford’s son and the company’s president, said:

“Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation…We believe that in order to live properly every man should have more time to spend with his family.”

Although working time was reduced, productivity went up.

Manufacturers all over the country soon followed Ford’s lead. Closer to home, John Boot, chairman of the Boots cosmetics company, initiated the same experiment. He, too, found that having two days off each week had a positive effect on productivity and reduced absenteeism. The weekend was made official Boots policy in 1934. Those who argued at the time against such a move said that the country would suffer economically, that businesses would not be able to afford it and that workers would not be able to adapt. They were proved wrong.

It should be put on record that without the sustained campaigns by the trade union movement that began towards the end of the 19th century and lasted for many decades, the weekend that we all enjoy today would never have been won. In that historical context, right hon. and hon. Members should reflect on the surge today in the popularity of a four-day working week.

The nine-to-five, five-day working week still remains the dominant model of work in much of the western world, but it is important to remember that it was designed for the industrial and agricultural economy we had at the time. I am sure Members would agree that 100 years later, the world of work has been completely transformed. However, working hours have not adapted to the changing nature of work. Campaigners for a four-day week say:

“The nine to five, five day working week is outdated and no longer fit for purpose.”

A look back at our more recent history suggests that they have a point. Since the 1980s, working hours in the UK have barely reduced at all. Despite the productivity gains of the last few decades, none of that has been passed on to workers through more free leisure time.

We are long overdue an update, and the covid pandemic has given us that opportunity. The UK is currently taking part in the biggest ever experiment of a four-day week, with no loss of pay for workers. Seventy companies and more than 3,300 workers are taking part in a pilot run by 4 Day Week Global, the think-tank Autonomy and the 4 Day Week Campaign, and a survey of the companies taking part at the halfway point suggests that the trial is going extremely well. The companies taking part are from a diverse range of sectors: hospitality, manufacturing, healthcare, housing, telecommunications, construction and financial services.

It may seem counterintuitive that working fewer hours results in greater productivity, but there is already mounting evidence that proves the hypothesis. Wherever in the world a four-day week with no loss of pay has been trialled, it has been a win-win for both workers and employers. Productivity has improved, and so has the wellbeing of workers. When Microsoft in Japan trialled the four-day week, it found that productivity increased by 40%. In Iceland—the country, not the company—the largest ever public sector shorter working week trial was an “overwhelming success”, and resulted in 86% of the working population gaining the right to shorten their hours.

Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland ran two large-scale trials of a reduced working week of 35 to 36 hours with no reduction in pay. The analysis of the results, which included 2,500 workers, demonstrates the transformative effects of a shorter working week for both employees and businesses. Productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces, and worker wellbeing dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout to health and work-life balance. The trials also remained revenue-neutral for both the city council and the Government.

I was therefore pleased to learn that last month South Cambridgeshire District Council became the first UK council ever to proceed with plans for a four-day week. A three-month trial of a four-day week with no loss of pay will begin in January for all desk-based staff, and if it is successful, a trial of the council’s blue-collar workers—such as bin collection crews—will follow next year.

There are other major benefits for businesses that are worth noting, including a reduction in the number of sick days and the ability to retain staff and attract new talent , which is increasingly important in a tight labour market. When Atom Bank, the largest UK four-day-week employer, made the switch, it found that job applications increased by an astonishing 500% in just three months. The four-day, 32-hour working week is a multi-dividend policy which, ultimately, is about giving everyone the time in which to lead a happier and more fulfilled life.

Long working hours are an acute problem in this country. According to the TUC, British workers put in some of the longest full-time hours in Europe, while having one of the least productive economies in comparison and the fewest bank holidays. According to the Health and Safety Executive, 18 million working days were lost in 2019-20 as a result of work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation has shown that long working hours are killing hundreds of thousands of people globally every year.

It is time for change. The arguments made against the four-day week today are exactly the same arguments that were made against the five-day week 100 years ago, and I am afraid that the evidence just does not back them up: all the evidence shows that a four-day week with no loss of pay would be good for the economy, good for workers and, indeed, good for the environment. We should not forget the impact that such a move could have in bringing down carbon emissions. One study has suggested that simply working one day less could cause carbon emissions to fall by up to 127 million tonnes per year, which is the equivalent of taking all private cars off the road.

The pandemic has undoubtedly shaken up the world of work. We have already seen a huge rise in remote working, flexible working, part-time work, and yes, four-day working weeks. Change is coming, and the Government and my own party should grasp it. We could be leading the world in moving to a four-day week, and my Bill would enable us to do just that.

The same old arguments about the economy suffering that were made against the introduction of the weekend, holiday pay, maternity pay, the living wage and equal pay are being made again today against a four-day working week. Those arguments were wrong then and they are wrong now, and the growing number of businesses adopting a four-day week successfully in this country are proving them wrong. Long working hours and low wages are no way to live. My Bill includes a clause that will ensure that anyone working beyond a 32-hour working week is paid extra in overtime, in recognition of the falling wages and falling living standards that this country has experienced over the last decade or so.

The movement for a shorter working week is growing in strength and momentum. I am proud to support that movement, and I urge colleagues to support the Bill.

I thank the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for presenting a measure that should single-handedly unite all on these Benches in their belief that there is a real, continuing threat from the prospect of a Labour Government who will be intent on destroying our economy. The hon. Gentleman has articulated one way in which that would happen, and I am delighted to see that he has the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) here to support him this afternoon. The hon. Member for Bootle himself, of course, is a former shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

In his speech, the hon. Gentleman suggested that there were virtues, or could be virtues, in a four-day working week. I do not think anyone disputes that, and there is already a freedom—which the hon. Gentleman recognised—for employers, or other individuals, to work four days a week to limit their working time to 32 hours. Unfortunately, however, that is not what his Bill says. It is described as a

“Bill to amend the Working Time Regulations 1998 to reduce the maximum working week from 48 hours…to 32 hours per week”

—in other words, to prevent people from being able to work for more than 32 hours a week—

“and to provide for overtime pay; and for connected purposes.”

Effectively, what the hon. Gentleman is saying is that everyone who is currently working more than 32 hours a week will be prevented from so doing in the future under the provisions of his Bill. If ever one could think of a hand grenade being thrown into the economy, preventing people from being able to work longer hours and forcing them to reduce their hours at a time when we have very high levels of employment and very low levels of unemployment is probably a good example. When someone is forced to be able to work only four days a week, who is going to fill the gap? Who is going to work during the time in which that person is not working? We are told that there is a crisis in the health service relating to the number of people working in it. If the Bill were passed, the junior doctors to whom the working time regulations were applied in, I think, 2004 would not be allowed to work for more than 32 hours a week. How will that help the national health service? It will not help it at all; in fact, it will undermine its effectiveness.

However, the hon. Gentleman has done us a great service because he has reminded us that the working time directive upon which the 1998 regulations were based emanated from the European Union and that it was implemented in this country under duress because the EU interpreted the working time directive as being a health and safety measure for which there was no veto and it could therefore be proceeded with under qualified majority voting. The present Government are quite rightly committed to supply-side reforms and removing unnecessary regulations upon our workforce, and this is a timely reminder that they could, and in my view should, get to grips with the issue of the working time directive and the working time regulations.

My basis for saying this is that in the period between 1993 and 1997, when the working time directive and the implications flowing from it were being discussed in this country, I was a member of the Health and Safety Commission. The commission produced a series of papers in which it was made quite clear that the working time directive had nothing whatsoever to do with health and safety and that it was all to do with employment protection on the continent of Europe. It was a specious justification of the introduction of these regulations to label them as health and safety regulations merely so that they could be imposed on this country under the qualified majority voting that applied at the time.

So the working time directive has nothing whatsoever to do with health and safety. It is a legitimate issue in relation to employers and employees, and it is certainly an important issue in relation to productivity. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that some of the organisations that have reduced the length of time that their workers work have benefited from more productivity from the workforce, but there is no evidence that making this compulsory would result in higher productivity. All it would do is result in much higher and unbearable costs for employers in the private sector and, significantly, in the public sector.

Once again I say that this is a timely intervention by the hon. Gentleman and his allies on the Labour Benches. I am sure that if his Bill were to be put to a vote today, he would receive overwhelming support from his parliamentary colleagues, but it would not receive any support at all from our side. I am not going to divide the House on this because I am a believer that everybody should have the right to bring in whatever Bill they want to, and I have exercised that right on many occasions. However, it is important to put on record that, were such a Bill to be drafted and brought forward for debate by the hon. Gentleman, it would be hotly opposed by everybody on this side, although we would enjoy the spectacle of seeing many on his own side having to eat their words. They talk the talk on high growth but obviously a compulsory measure such as this applying to all employers up and down the country would be damaging to growth. It would undermine the right of people to be able to work hard to look after their families and to spend their money as they wish. It would be an impoverishing exercise for so much of our economy and so many of the people engaged in it.

It is also important in a debate such as this that we remind colleagues on our own Front Bench that there is a lot more to be done to deregulate the labour market. The working time directive is now completely surplus to our requirements, and I would like to see a Bill brought forward to repeal the working time regulations and all that flows from them. They have been developed insidiously over the years since 1998. Originally it was said that the directive should deal only with matters such as drivers’ hours, for example, and with the mobile people employed in the transport industry. It was then extended to cover almost everybody with a sedentary occupation in any of those industries and in the early 2000s it was extended to cover doctors as well. The working time directive is in itself responsible for an enormous lack of productivity and potential among our workforce in this country, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to try to goad our Government into action on this point. In the meantime I put on record my strong opposition to everything contained in the Bill.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.


That Peter Dowd, Kim Johnson, Yasmin Qureshi, Ms Marie Rimmer, Judith Cummins, Mike Amesbury, Tony Lloyd, Ian Byrne, Dan Carden, Sir George Howarth and Mick Whitley present the Bill.

Peter Dowd accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 9 December, and to be printed (Bill 164).