EDDIE BARNES: Four-day week will only widen chasm with public sector

EDDIE BARNES: The rise of the four-day week will only widen the chasm between the public sector and the rest of us who pay their wages

Wherever there is a trendy, ‘progressive’ and entirely unaffordable new policy doing the rounds, you can guarantee the Scottish National Party will be found nearby, praising its virtues.

So it is that the Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf is to propose a big new idea to boost his country’s flagging economy: give Scottish public servants an extra day off every week.

In his Programme for Government speech at (Holyrood’s equivalent of Westminster’s King’s Speech), Mr Yousaf is today expected to propose a pilot for a four-day working week — for those in the public sector.

The wheeze could be put into action by the end of this year and, if deemed a success, be rolled out to incorporate more of the Scottish Government’s 22,000 civil servants and 32 local councils.

Nice work if you can get it.

First Minister of Scotland Humza Yousaf during a visit to Rowantree Primary School

But this policy risks enraging the country’s private sector workers — many of whom, thanks to Mr Yousaf’s government, are already paying the highest income tax rates in any part of the UK.

They are hardly likely to look kindly on the prospect of public sector workers enjoying a day off during the week at their expense.

But the idea of a four-day week isn’t just a Scottish phenomenon: it’s been gaining ground in the English public sector, too.

Earlier this year, Liberal Democrat-run South Cambridgeshire district council became the first in Britain to move nearly 500 desk-based staff to a 30-hour, four-day week — all on full pay. It sounds lovely for the lucky few: who wouldn’t like to work one day fewer for the same pay?

But with the tax burden at its highest since World War II and councils set to raise rates throughout Britain, many with no choice but to work five days a week will be left scratching their heads. So concerned were locals in South Cambridgeshire that the Government ordered the Lib Dem council to end its trial of the four-day week on the basis that it may have been breaching its legal duty to provide value for money to taxpayers.

Inevitably, the scheme had been enacted at a time when roads were already scarred by potholes, bin collections being missed, phone calls going unanswered, and the council had increased tax by the maximum legally permitted.

Meanwhile, the council’s chief executive, Liz Watts, faced accusations of having a vested interest when it emerged she had been working on a PhD thesis examining the potential benefits of the four-day week.

For proponents, the idea is a no-brainer: a happier, less stressed workforce, with more time for family and friends, is more productive in the office or on the factory floor.

If we know we’re going to be rewarded with a long weekend, won’t we be more inclined to give the job our all, instead of killing time and browsing the internet?

Meanwhile, the council’s chief executive, Liz Watts, faced accusations of having a vested interest when it emerged she had been working on a PhD thesis examining the potential benefits of the four-day week

But while the low productivity of British workers is an acknowledged phenomenon, the jury is still out on the benefits of the four-day week.

Though it may be appropriate for some highly competitive firms, particularly in the technology industry, it is unlikely to work in the public sector, where many services require staff to be on call throughout the week.

Bosses also fear that as soon as a pilot becomes permanent, workers will soon go back to their less-than-productive ways, and spend as much time scrolling through Facebook as they did before.

It is true that there is some evidence to support the effectiveness of the new measure in the private sector. Last year, around 3,000 workers at over 60 UK companies worked four days a week on full pay, as part of a six-month trial study. At the end of the pilot, seven out of ten employees said they felt reduced levels of burn-out. And rather than reinstating the five-day week, most of the companies decided to continue the scheme.

But some dropped it, and others may yet do so. Unless the reform is first justified beyond doubt in the private sector, the case for the four-day week in the public sector will be considerably weaker.

First, there’s the price tag. The four-day week policy was included — where else? — in Jeremy Corbyn’s notorious 2019 Labour manifesto. Like pretty much everything else, it was entirely uncosted.

However, researchers at the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank concluded that the cost of recruiting the extra staff, all working only four days a week — who would be needed to man phones, sweep the roads and care for the elderly — could be as high as £45 billion.

That figure has been disputed by supporters of the scheme, but even they accept the cost of a four-day week would run into the billions, requiring 500,000 extra staff to be recruited across the UK.

Those jobs are used as if they’re a winning argument — as if here is a great way of creating new jobs. Yet adding more staff to the public sector pay bill would pile an even greater burden on the British taxpayer, while simultaneously reducing the number of people available to work for private sector firms.

The four-day week policy was included — where else? — in Jeremy Corbyn’s notorious 2019 Labour manifesto

This highlights the basic unfairness in the idea — and how it would only widen the private-public gap which already exists in Britain.

Post-Covid, it’s already an open secret that much of the public sector remains ‘working from home’, with government departmental offices still only half full.

As the Daily Mail reported yesterday, it’s now reached the stage where, over the past three years, town hall bosses have approved more than 1,000 requests to work abroad. If an extra day off a week is to be added to the bonuses that come from a public sector lifestyle, how appealing is a private sector alternative going to be?

Those who propose making life ever more cushty for those in the public sector forget that it will naturally always fall to the private sector to generate economic growth.

And all this would add to almost unprecedented tax bills. In Scotland, higher earners are girding themselves for a clobbering later this year when Mr Yousaf is expected to increase rates on those people earning over £75,000.

Is it really fair to land even higher taxes on people working five (or six, or seven) days a week, so that a lucky few can take Friday off?

In England, the Government appears to be having none of it. Local Government Minister Lee Rowley has written to South Cambridgeshire District Council to warn that ‘removing up to 20 per cent of the capacity to do those activities is not something which should be acceptable for a council seeking to demonstrate value for money for its taxpayers and residents’.

Meanwhile, north of the border, Scottish Conservative finance spokeswoman Liz Smith has begun the backlash, warning that ‘Humza Yousaf is living in fantasy land if he thinks this ridiculous plan is feasible at a time when our economy is lagging behind the rest of the UK’.

She’s right. Mr Yousaf’s pilot scheme may well go ahead, but, even in SNP Scotland, reality will have to intrude at some point. Rolling this out to everyone is both unaffordable and unwanted.

The truth is that with Britain’s economy chugging away in the doldrums, we need workers — in both the public and private sector — back at the office full time if we’re to get the country going again.

Fridays in the office look set to stay.

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