Saturday, 13 November 2010

When part time becomes 'workshy'

THERE can't be a part timer alive who hasn't come across someone convinced they are taking the easy way out: that doing 'only' two days a week means you're slacking, not serious, or spending the rest of your time watching Trisha.
But whatever people's private prejudices, until now the state has not ruled on whether and when we 'should' be working more hours. Is that about to change?
There's a strange little clause buried in last week's welfare reform plans which suggests it might be. The headlines were all about taking benefits away from dole claimants who won't take a job, but the small print of the white paper's chapter on conditionality suggests in future, ministers might also target people working limited hours.
It's technical and complicated but would basically involve raising the threshold for intervention to include people who are working but not earning much, and so still get some benefits intended for the lowpaid - like, for example, housing benefit. These people could then presumably be told to increase their hours or risk losing some of that state help. As the paper explains, the government could then 'encourage people to increase their earnings and hours in a way that we have never been able to do before', until they're weaned off benefits all together.
In other words, if you're a part-timer not earning much (and many jobs that fit around school hours are badly paid), you could be forced to try and work more.
There's very little detail about this will work, so perhaps it wouldn't apply to parents of young children. Perhaps it's just about ensuring people don't keep a black market job on the side, while doing the minimum in 'official' work to keep the JobCentre happy. But it sets a dramatic precedent.
Mothers who work part time often face the rather bitter comment that it 'must be nice to have the choice', as if we were all the pampered wives of rich spouses. But part time work exists in all income brackets and sometimes it's not a banker husband but the state that makes it feasible to spend time with your children.
Perhaps ministers think it's no longer fair for taxpayers who may themselves be doing long hours to subsidise other people's family lives. But if so, they should start a public debate about whether that's what we really want - preferably without reinforcing the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong, or lazy, about working less than five days a week.