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Monday, April 05, 2004
Leave 'granny leave' out of our legislation

So soon after introducing so much regulation in the way of maternity and even paternity leave, the iciest woman in the Cabinet is on her latest venture to make life easier for those who just don't feel like turning up to work.

Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary, will today float the idea of "granny leave" for employees who want to work fewer hours so that they can look after their parents.

Well, elderly parents do sometimes need looking after, but one wonders why it must be in work hours, and why it must be our ever more regulated and over-burdened employers who have to be forced to pay.

I am reminded of a subtle point Theodore Dalrymple (or perhaps Roger Scruton) made about the right balance of freedom and responsibilities. That if one feels it to be an important part of one's identity to wear a nose-ring all the time, that is fine - as long as you don't then expect to work behind the counter in a bank. But in this modern age we have evolved the curious idea that one has a 'right' to do these things without any negative consequences, that choosing instead the presentable girl to work in a bank is unjust discrimination.

Similarly, it seems we have now come to the conclusion that one's family responsibilities should be something not to fit one's life around, but a perfectly acceptable burden to impose on one's employer. If you need to pop to see your mother before lunch, then it's your employer who needs to work out how to cope with it, not you. Rather than you consider looking for work that begins later in the day, or permits periodic breaks, he has to look for someone else to fill in for you - while paying you both, of course. Who is he to say any different? Look after your mother? Well, it's your right!

This culture isn't only bad for businesses, and especially small businesses. First of all it must be said that this is the wrong attitude to take to one's family. A truly pro-family attitude is that one's children and others come first and that work is something to fit around that. The reverse attitude - that work is central to life and family responsibilities should be met by time squeezed from one's employer - is a very different thing. I've had people who were far from touchy-feely types tell me that they really feel they have gained from having their mother around for them in their early years, so if a mother wants to stay at home to raise her children up to school age and perhaps beyond, she has my very keen support, and in the proper family environment her husband will be able to support this arrangement by going on working as normal. But this is a commitment for a mother to make, not an employer. If looking after your loved ones comes second to your job, then it's you and not your employer who ought to adjust.

Second, one cannot help but feel that such workers' benefits are being bought more and more without a thought for economic circumstances. Like a late 1990s dotcom millionaire pondering which yacht to purchase, we impose these regulations with a mindset rather isolated from prosaic economic reality by the fairly strong growth in Britain's economy since we left the ERM. It's all very well to make employing people more of a hassle, more of a burden and much more expensive at a time like this. But we will see the true fruits of such policies if and when the economy enters a downturn. I believe it was Patricia Hewitt herself who recently warned her party conference of the dangers of following the European economic model - making things wonderfully cushy and easy for employees but as a result ensuring that those who lose their jobs find it so very difficult to get another. She was right then, and she is wrong now: the United States created more jobs in January 1999 than high-tax, high-regulation mainland Europe did in the whole of the 1990s. It's something she should have kept at the back of her mind when she was considering all the red tape she has thus far imposed on business, and something that should motivate her to dump this 'granny leave' proposal now.

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