Patricia Hewitt: The Government needs to promote flexible working more

In the lead-up to the extension of flexible working,  former Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt tells WorkingMums the Government needs to promote its benefits more.

Patricia Hewitt is Labour MP for Leicester West. Before becoming an MP, she was women’s rights officer and then General Secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties in the 1970s and co-founded the Institute for Public Policy Research where she was deputy director from 1989 to 1994. She was elected to Parliament in 1997 and in 2005 was appointed Secretary of State for Health, a post she held until 2007. She has two grown-up children. WorkingMums put some key questions on the future of flexible working to her.

WM: Do you think flexible working will suffer in the recession? Workingmums is already seeing a number of women saying they are having flexible work requests turned down or altered, making it difficult for them to continue working or go back to work. Should the Government be doing more to promote flexible working as something which could bring benefits to both employers and employees?

PH: I’m very concerned to hear that women are finding it more difficult to get the flexible working they need – particularly when so many companies are themselves promoting shorter hours (and sometimes even imposing it) as a way of coping with the recession without losing valued people. I would certainly like to see the Government help by reminding employers of the benefits of flexible working.

WM: Do you see the extension of flexible working as an end in itself or a means to spreading flexible working more widely? Is there a danger that confining it to parents means it is seen as being part of the ‘mummy track’ and that those who opt for it are seen as less committed and therefore more likely to be sidelined?

PH: Ideally, everyone should have as much control as possible over their working hours. But it was essential, in my view, that government started by legislating for parents who have the vital job of bringing up children as well as earning a living. Because the right to request worked so well for parents of young children, it has already been extended to people caring for older or disabled relatives as well as to
older people wanting to work beyond the official retirement age. And it will shortly be extended to parents of children up to 16. The biggest challenge, in my view, is to make it easier for fathers and other men to take advantage of flexible working – and that requires those at the top of organisations to lead a real culture change.

WM:  Could the recession encourage more creative approaches to how we work? Do companies need more support to be able to think more long term about working strategies rather than merely adopting shorter weeks as a panic measure?

PH: Absolutely! Actually, I welcome the fact that so many companies have turned to shorter weeks or sabbaticals, rather than simply reaching for redundancies – as so many organisations did in previous recessions. But I think creative solutions are most likely to emerge when companies engage their people in finding the best way through this financial crisis.

WM: Is it right that people who work flexibly should be paid less pro-rata than those who work full time? We did a poll last year and it showed around 80% of women were being paid less pro-rata than before they had children. 

PH: Someone exercising the right to request flexible working, who continues to do the same kind of work but over shorter hours, shouldn’t suffer a penalty by being forced to take a lower hourly pay rate. I suspect the main reason why you found the great majority of women being paid less pro-rata than before they had children is that they are working part-time in a different job – and, as we know, part-time workers are
almost always paid less per hour. So we need part-time working accepted right up the seniority ladder (including job-sharing at senior levels), with equal pro-rata pay for those part-time workers. But we also need a re-evaluation of ‘women’s jobs’ to get fair pay for women generally.

WM: What can be done to encourage more men to work flexibly?

PH: We need more people at the top of organisations – private, public and not-for-profit sector – encouraging men to work flexibly and leading by example. We need more publicity given to those men who are already doing it – male role-models of this kind are far too few. We need far more public recognition of the vital role that fathers play in
their children’s upbringing – and that means actually being around at home (and not only at weekends)! But we also have to break through the Catch 22 families are now in – where most women’s lower pay means it makes more sense for her to work part-time while her partner works full-time, thus increasing the pay gap inside the family and society as a whole.

WM: Given that households now rely on dual incomes, does there need to be more of a shift in other services, eg, education, to accommodate this in the absence of, for instance, subsidised childcare over the summer holidays [unless you put your children in childcare for the entire summer holidays or use council-run holiday playschemes which mainly seem to end at around 3pm]?

PH: Many years ago, I wrote a book called About Time arguing that the whole way we organise working time needs to change to reflect the huge change in women’s roles as well as new technologies, globalisation and other forces. Some schools are
moving towards a four-term model, with much shorter summer holidays – better for children’s learning as well as for parents – and I’d like that to happen everywhere. But more flexibility at work, including annual hours contracts, make it easier for adults to accommodate the needs of children or other relatives as well.

WM: Does more need to be done to extend childcare provision for younger secondary school age children?

PH: I don’t think we can call it ‘childcare’ for 11 or 12 year olds! But we certainly need more support for secondary school students who may otherwise become latchkey kids. The Government has already done quite a bit to get secondary schools offering after-school homework clubs and other ‘extended school’ facilities, and new young people’s centres – which young people themselves will help to design and run – could make a big difference here.

WM: What is the Government doing to help women returners who are likely to be among those who face the hardest struggle to find work in the recession?

PH: The whole system of personal advisers – treating people as individuals and actively helping them find work, training or work experience – is helping women returners as well as others looking for work. But one group that particularly struggles to get back into employment are those lone mothers who stay out of employment, on
benefits, until their youngest child is 16. That’s why I welcome the steps the Government is taking to get lone mothers on benefit to take up ‘work-focused interviews’ before their child goes to school and then look actively for training or at least a part-time job.

WM: How have you been able to juggle work and family life? What have been the most difficult issues and how have you overcome them?

PH: It’s always been a struggle and I don’t think I’ve done it particularly well. When our children are young, we were lucky enough to have someone living in to help us – we couldn’t have managed otherwise. But I always felt it was much easier for my husband and me, doing well-paid jobs we loved, than for many of my constituents – such as the woman working nights as a cleaner, who came home to get the children’s lunches and walk them to school while her husband went off to work.

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