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Four-Day Working Week

Volume 824: debated on Monday 5 September 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the benefits of a four-day working week as standard.

My Lords, the Government have assessed the costs and benefits of flexible working, but not specifically a four-day week. We do not believe that there can be a one-size-fits-all approach to work arrangements. That is why, rather than telling people and businesses how to work, we put individual agency and choice at the heart of our approach to flexible working. In this way, individuals and employers can work out the best arrangements for their particular circumstances.

I thank the Minister for this Answer, although I regret its emphaticness. I know the difficulty of any Minister giving assurances at the present time, but can the Minister assure me at least that the Government will look carefully at the results of the large, significant, global trial in which Britain is taking a large part? That is the trial being taken though by the 4 Day Week Global partnership with Autonomy and the UK campaign, which will be assessed by academics, including from Oxford and Cambridge. There are scores of different companies taking part. Will the Minister say that the Government will look at these results?

Yes, of course. As I said, we are committed to flexible working: indeed, we gave people the right to request flexible working in legislation. So we are committed to the principle, but the circumstances will of course vary from individual to individual and from organisation to organisation. What is good for one sector is not good for another—but of course we will keep these things under review.

My Lords, that is all well and good, but Jacob Rees-Mogg recently said that he wanted to crack down on flexitime, and he has also been very hard on working from home. I agree with the Minister’s point that it should be up to individual employers to assess the benefits of flexible working and, indeed, working from home. The Government are the employer of hundreds of thousands of people, so what is their assessment of flexible working and working from home when it comes to operational effectiveness, skills and recruitment and employee well-being? What data is being gathered and when can we see it?

The right to request flexible working applies as much in the public sector as in the private sector. Civil servants already have very good working conditions and many do work flexibly—there are, for instance, many job-share arrangements in my department. So we think it is a good thing, but it very much depends on the circumstances of individual organisations.

Does the Minister acknowledge that a reduction in the working week has been a trend overall—although there have been hiccups—in people’s working experience over the last 100 years? The previous generation would normally have worked a five-and-a-half-day week, not a five-day week. Is not the problem at present that those people who are lucky enough to be able to work from home are, in effect, having their working week shortened in any case, because they no longer have to spend time travelling to work? Is it not therefore important—in fact, essential—that, if there is to be any reduction in the working week, it applies as well to those people who cannot work from home, who are often in heavy, demanding and physical jobs? They are the ones who need to see their working week reduced.

The noble Lord makes an important point. Of course, there has been a general reduction over decades, and if that continues it is a good thing. But it depends on the individual circumstances and on the industry—the noble Lord made that important point. However, even during the pandemic, there was a maximum of only about 48% of people who were ever working from home, because many other people in essential industries and other service industries could not.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that are a number of mandated four-day weeks? We obviously have a number of bank holidays per year and there is an inequality between the nations as to the number of bank holidays that workers get. Can my noble friend undertake to look at those bank holidays? The schools have gone back today and the next bank holiday is in fact Christmas Day. For many workers who have a statutory holiday entitlement plus the bank holidays—not including them—this could be of real benefit to them.

My noble friend makes a very good observation. Of course, there have been a number of bank holidays recently and we keep these things under review. I do not think there are any immediate plans to introduce any additional ones, but I am sure it is something that the new PM will want to look at.

My Lords, the noble Lord of course will be aware that many four-day week working pilots are going on across the world, including one involving 3,500 workers here. The pandemic has proved, I think, that flexible working works and is an effective way of ensuring that we maintain levels of productivity, so will the Government commit not just to carrying out a review of the pilot but, when that pilot is complete, to publishing their own findings and then reviewing their policy? This is a very important policy direction for this country and it could unlock greater levels of productivity, which we are much in need of the moment.

Of course we will take any lessons that are learned through the different pilot studies that are taking place. I think I disagree with the noble Lord that the pandemic proved that flexible working is the norm: it worked in some areas and some industries, but of course the Government did pay huge numbers of people to stay at home during the furlough scheme, which is not something we could ever carry on doing. Of course, it can work in some industries: a number of private sector companies have adopted it and, great, if it works for their particular circumstances and their particular employees, good for them—but it does not work for every industry.

My Lords, is it not fantasy economics to pretend that most employers can afford to pay people the same amount of money for working fewer hours? The truth is that there is no simple answer, no quick fix, to dealing with the weakness of our economy: it requires hard work, serious policies to improve productivity and investment in education and skills. We have to invest in technology, innovation and green industries, so that we can create good new jobs, particularly in places such as the West Midlands that have lost their traditional industries and struggle to find new ones. There is no easy answer to this, whether it is reducing hours and pretending to pay people the same money or, for example, the universal basic income.

I think I was agreeing with the noble Lord right up to his last sentence. Yes, of course there are no simple answers, and it can work for one industry and not for others; I really doubt that a universal basic income is the answer to this, though.

My Lords, as part of the Minister’s work in assessing the benefits of flexible working and four-day working weeks, and all the many outputs from the pandemic in terms of much good work and much good production as a result of working from home, will he consider talking to ministerial colleagues in the devolved Administrations and seeking a view on best practice in other countries such as New Zealand, which has stated that there is much to be gained from a four-day week?

Of course, we have regular discussions with Ministers in the devolved Administrations: in fact, I spoke to one only on Friday. So, yes, of course we will learn any lessons that other countries can show us—but, as I said, there are no easy answers to this. It is a complicated area and can work in one sector but not in others.

My Lords, the Question talks specifically about four days a week, not about working from home. Bizarrely, this may have the effect of increasing productivity, only because productivity in this country is measured as output per hour. So, when the Government consider the devastating effect a four-day week would have, can the definition of “productivity” be refined to take account of the fact that it is total GDP we are interested in, not output per hour?

Again, my noble friend makes an interesting point. Of course, there are many different ways of defining it. He is right to point out that productivity is the key to this. If there is evidence that people will work smarter and harder during the time they are at work, of course that would be a good thing and it would help to bring it about.

My Lords, the Minister has quite rightly stressed the importance of businesses being able to decide this sort of thing for themselves—what is right for them. So can he give the House an assurance that, under this Government, there will be no return to a three-day week, whatever happens in the energy crisis?

Well, we have no plans for a four-day week; we certainly do not have any plans for a three-day week.

My Lords, it is all very well to say that the negotiation of working time should be between individuals and businesses, and I understand the Minister’s logic in saying so, but the reality is that employers have overwhelming power in relation to individuals. Is it not necessary to allow trade unions to speak on their behalf, and should the ministry not be encouraging collective bargaining on these issues?

In this country, we believe in freedom of choice. People are free to join a trade union if they wish and, as I have remarked before, only a minority have chosen to do so.

My Lords, your Lordships have heard from many noble Lords that working four days is not a good idea. I would like to hear some more detail from the Minister. Would it be worthwhile to have four working days in the week?

I did not really catch what the noble Lord said. If he was asking whether we will look at flexible working provisions, of course we will. We have responded to the consultation and introduced the right for employees to ask for flexible working. However, flexible working is a lot more than just a four-day week; it can involve a whole range of different flexibilities in the workplace.