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Appropriately or not, there were gale force winds and lashing rain the day the Government announced its far-reaching changes to the welfare system. Although any move to “make work pay” seems a good idea, the increasing sanctions for jobless people, particularly coming at a point when the economy is on a far from steady footing, seem worrying and the implications are not clear for working families. If, for instance, you are a single parent [who now has to seek work when their child reaches seven] and you are offered a 40-hour-a-week job in the neighbouring town, do you have to take it or risk losing benefits, even if you can’t get adequate childcare [the Daycare Trust says childcare availability for very young children is patchy and, in my experience, after school care is even patchier, not to mention the expense]? The White Paper says there may be mitigating circumstances and that a judgement will be made on whether a refusal to take a job offer is reasonable, but who makes these decisions and on what grounds are they based?
Then there are the cuts already announced to tax credits. The Resolution Foundation says these mean working families are the main losers in the comprehensive spending review. So is the Government merely limiting its help to getting people off the dole queue and “making work pay” for those moving into work while at the same time hitting those already in work by reducing tax credits?
One way around childcare costs is obviously to work more flexibly. However, this assumes that there are flexible jobs available and the Government is also cutting some tax credits for those who don’t have someone in the household working over 16 hours. This will impact single parents looking to work part-time during school hours to avoid having to pay childcare costs. The Government says it is in favour of flexible working, but is it not narrowing the flexible work options for people through these moves? Moreover, what is it actually doing to promote flexible working among employers? The cuts to the public sector will see many people losing their jobs, a large proportion of them women. Many of these will have gone into the public sector precisely because it is more likely to offer flexible working so they can balance work and family. This will create an increasing demand for flexible jobs.
Recent research shows, however, that despite realising the value of offering flexible working many employers think too much is expected of them in terms of supporting family friendly working. Part of the problem is that it is only sold as an employee benefit and many organisations have failed to grasp the cultural shift which flexible working requires and how it can boost business in a huge variety of ways, aside from providing employee benefits. Much more needs to be done to promote the benefits of flexible working and to include it in the mix in major discussions around the future of work in the UK.