Low earners miss out on flexibility

When ministers announce they are resigning to spend more time with
their family, it generally means that they are going before they
are pushed – or the wife has found out about the mistress and
issued an ultimatum.

In contrast, Alan Milburn, the former health secretary, appears a
genuine convert to work-life balance. Last week, he announced that,
“life feels a million times better” away from the Cabinet. It also
means he is free to point out that the “right” to flexible working
is denied to thousands on low incomes.

In a speech to the think-tank Demos he proposed tougher penalties
on employers who refuse requests, a legal right for women to find
out if they are paid less than male colleagues, longer parental
leave, and free child care places for the poorest.

“Families where mums are cleaners and dads are security guards have
to take on multiple jobs and work shifts to manage finances and
child care. Downsizing is not an option for them,” he argued.

Recently the Work Foundation produced research that indicates that
those on low wages have less than a one-in-three chance of getting
a request for flexibility accepted by employers.

Around 3.8 million people are eligible to make a request because
they have children under six or a disabled child. Among those, 1.55
million earn below 60 per cent of the median wage. If, for
instance, they are able to delay their working day by half an hour,
it could make all the difference to remaining in employment and
keeping their family above the breadline.

The cost of full-time child care averages almost £7,000 a
year. Chancellor Gordon Brown, was recently hailed as “the champion
of children” – yet the “national childcare strategy” is neither
national, nor is there yet any real evidence that it is a

Child care, like state education, should be free: liberated from
the market economy and especially available to all at the bottom of
the income ladder, not just to those living in the 20 most deprived
areas. If Brown can’t do it all at once, he should at least by now
be telling us if he plans to do it at all.

So, it’s good news that Milburn is prepared to challenge Brown a
little, while flagging up the importance of tackling unequal pay
and inflexible work. For everyone’s sake rather than just for that
of his own two sons, let’s hope his seduction back into the
ministerial fold doesn’t begin too soon.

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