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Health: Working Hours

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 25 October 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What are the consequences for the health of individuals and for demands on the National Health Service of people regularly working for more than 48 hours per week.

My Lords, weekly hours of work, full time and part time, have fallen from 33.2 in the second quarter of 1997 to 32.2 in the second quarter of 2007. In the past 10 years, the number of full-time employees working more than 48 hours a week has fallen by more than 20 per cent. That followed a period in the mid-1990s when working hours were increasing. While there is evidence that suggests giving people choice and control over their working time can enhance occupational health, research has not shown a clear and unequivocal link between the length of time that people work and ill-health.

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for his encouraging reply, does he agree that the nation would be healthier, marriage and family life more sustainable and the costs to the NHS less if we all stopped work for one day a week for rest, relationships and relaxation?

My Lords, the concept of one day’s rest a week has a long historical antecedent. The right reverend Prelate is right that in order to enhance family life and improve the upbringing of children it is helpful if parents are at home as often as they can be. But it is for parents to make that judgment—and it may be decided that in order that one partner can stay at home for a very lengthy period the other works slightly longer than 48 hours a week. It is really for families to make that decision.

My Lords, with regard to family life, does the Minister believe in the saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”?

My Lords, could my noble friend confirm that the most recent survey in 2006 showed that despite the fall that he has referred to, 3.3 million still work more than an average of 48 hours a week over a 13-week period? In pursuit of their programme for family-friendly policies, what measures do the Government intend to take to reduce that figure of some 3.3 million, and will they consider making it possible for complaints over excessive working hours to be pursued through employment tribunals?

My Lords, workers cannot be compelled to work more than 48 hours a week because they have this protection. They can exercise their own choice and opt out—and, as my noble friend indicated, very many do. We recognise that the pressures on some workers to opt out may not be wholly healthy but a reflection of their very low earning power per hour. The Government emphasise that we need to strike a work/life balance that guarantees that sufficient leisure and time at home are available to bring up children. We are concerned that excessive hours can interfere with that. However, workers who are unfairly treated have recourse to tribunals, as my noble friend indicated.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the problems inherent in this Question is that there is no definition of the term “work”? Does he also agree that those of us who find that our paid occupation gives us great pleasure would consider that any move to legislate too fiercely in this area would make the Government appear to be killjoys?

My Lords, I recognise the right reverend Prelate’s point. I have met one or two noble Lords who share his enthusiasm for work. However, there is a difference between work and hours at the workplace that are entered into voluntarily and contract work. As regards a limitation on hours, we are talking about the worker’s contract with the employee. It is important that we recognise that we need to reinforce that position.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there may be a different perspective from that of the right reverend Prelate; namely, that employers are very often the reason why many people in all sorts of jobs work very much longer hours? Do the Government think it appropriate to encourage employers to recognise that employees—particularly fathers—may also be parents?

My Lords, that is certainly necessary. I believe that in a changing society employers are becoming more aware of family obligations, particularly given the massive increase in recent decades in the number of mothers who work. That is important. However, I emphasise that the contract is governed by the working time directive. Relationships between employers and their workforce vary widely but enlightened employers have always recognised that they get more productive work from happy and contented workers.

My Lords, I am extremely pleased with the Answer that my noble friend gave about reducing working hours in the National Health Service to less than 48. However, could he advise the House on the extent to which workers in the National Health Service who work less than 48 hours but may do a second job outside are taken into consideration?

My Lords, I have difficulty answering that question because the whole House will appreciate that the big issue for the health service was the European Court judgment that looked as if it would greatly restrict the hours that junior doctors could work. That threw the health service into considerable difficulty. My noble friend’s point is important but it is a less salient feature than the one to which I have referred.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the Government’s stated objective of making primary health services available in the early morning and evening will not conflict with the 48-hour directive?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise the extent to which the Government’s increased resources for the health service have enabled us to make demands on it to provide much more accessible opportunities for people at work to avail themselves of the requisite services of primary care and GPs. However, we have to take into account her point regarding the danger that some health service workers could be asked to work excessively long hours.