Universe Column for October 12th 2003
By David Alton
The Catholic Peer, Lord Northbourne, has recently been leading a brave attempt to force the Government to provide families with more time together. Although Ministers have resisted his attempts to amend the Local Government Bill – so that at least local authorities have to make proper provision for family time – he has nevertheless sparked off a long overdue debate.
This is a profoundly important issue because most people understand that if every unremitting minute is pressurised it leaves no space to form and build up relationships – especially with children as they grow up. Christopher Northbourne is absolutely right to insist that family life and family time should be a key priority in our national life.
There is clear evidence that family life is under increasing pressure from the 24-hour society. Children need time with their parents and parents with their children. Parents always want more time with their children, but the rapid rise in atypical hours, especially weekend working, is making this more and more difficult. There is an increasing consensus that parental time off, especially at weekends, is an issue that needs to be properly addressed.
The incidence of weekend working has increased significantly in recent years. An estimated 10% of parents with children under 14 now work regularly on both Saturdays and Sundays. 78% of mothers wish they did not have to work on Sundays, but feel they have to do so, either because of economic necessity, or because the employer offers no alternative.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published a series of important studies in this area over the last 4 to 5 years, culminating in a summary report ‘Families and Work in the 21st Century’, published last month:
- The main message from mothers and fathers in typical households where the father works full-time and the mother part-time, is that family comes first.
- Parents of both sexes – and their children – dislike weekend working, especially Sundays.
- The Government’s target of tackling family poverty through work can send a signal that only paid work is important. This reinforces the low value placed on unpaid work and care. The overlapping implication – that paid childcare is better than parental care – runs contrary to the instincts of many parents.
- There is a doubt as to whether the case for widespread legislation is strong but a strong suggestion that long hours – breaching the EU Working Time Directive – and Sunday/weekend work are two areas where legislation deserves further consideration.
The study concludes that both quality of work and quantity of work, and the time of day when work is carried out, matters a lot. Working when children are at home, especially at weekends, was seen as a problem and created considerable dissatisfaction. Parents identified the following negative day-to-day effects from such work:
- Lower quality of relationships at home.
- Irritability and impatience.
- Insufficient energy to respond to children’s requests.
- Time with children squeezed.
All this provides compelling and up to the minute new evidence, yet there is no corresponding political will.
The Government are understandably defensive about their record in introducing and promoting family friendly policies. Their commitment and drive in advocating such policies and to flexible working is not in dispute. However, they seem to be over-sensitive about their commitment to business only to regulate by legislation where absolutely necessary. The Labour party has traditionally stood for the interests of the needy and disadvantaged in society and it would be a great pity if a desire to please business stood in the way of needed social reforms. Statistics show that employers take more and more of our available time; there must come a point where the interests of families and children come first.