Why does the Government only seems to be interested in flexible working when it fits its own cost-cutting agenda?
This week saw the announcement of a consultation on getting those who are long-term sick or disabled back to work. It follows months of headlines about older people dropping out of the workforce since Covid, although dropping out for health reasons was increasing before Covid and NHS and social care issues, linked to Covid, but also to ongoing staffing issues, are making things worse for many.
The Government is proposing changes to the controversial fit-to-work tests. It calls its changes ‘modernisation’, saying it is bringing the tests in line with advances in flexible working. What it boils down to is that if someone can work in any way, from home, for instance, they may have their benefits reduced or face sanctions if they don’t take the work.
The argument is that work is good for people’s health, which it can be, but the bottom line is that the Government is keen to reduce its increasing benefits bill.
The Government talks about work coaches being trained to assess people, but we’ve heard that before and the evidence of good practice seems patchy. Just this week the think tank the IPPR published a report on Universal Credit conditionality which suggested that the threat of sanctions has not helped either employers or jobseekers get sustainable employment or get out of poverty. Instead, says the report, it forces people to apply for and take any job rather than one they are suited to.
The ironic thing is that the Government is making a lot of the benefits of flexible working in this instance. Yet, on the other hand, we learn this week that it may propose that civil servants get back to the office at least four days a week. It seems it only thinks flexible working is a good thing when it suits the Government and for people who can only work in that way. As such, it seems to be painting flexible working as a sort of last resort. One that the majority of people shouldn’t need. That two-tier approach can make flexible workers feel somehow second rate and is a continuation, in a way, of an earlier approach which saw it as some sort of ‘favour’ granted to parents and carers. Campaigners have long promoted the benefits of flexible working for everyone – there are so many reasons someone might need flexible working and so much demand for it all round. Plus a lot of the evidence, despite the right-wing focus on negatives, points to remote and hybrid working either maintaining or boosting productivity. And a recent study touted by some media as proof of falling engagement in remote workers actually showed hybrid workers were more engaged than wholly office-based workers and that fully remote workers were only slightly less engaged than office workers.
There was optimism at the start of Covid that the flexible working experiment would level the playing field, meaning flexible workers were more included and not sidelined career-wise. That is happening still because many employers know that it is both a talent attraction and retention tool, although in a volatile labour market, that could change. The problem is that the Government, despite all its modernising talk, seems to be very firmly stuck in the past.
The bigger concern about the current consultation is that those who are long-term sick or disabled will be forced back to work, making their health condition worse at a time when the NHS is struggling. The Government would do better to look more at supporting people and voluntary measures for getting people back to work rather than taking a punitive approach which could put vulnerable people at risk.