Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire, the Chair of the Conservative backbench Treasury Committee and a member of the Treasury Select Committee.
Today, the Liberal Democrat councillors of South Cambridge District Council (SCDC) will make a decision of national significance. Government and politicians should take notice. For a new left-wing horror show that could sweep the country.
SCDC is the only local authority to allow its staff to work part time on full pay. They have been trialling a four day working week experiment for the past three months. Today, they will hail the experiment a great success, and vote to extend it for a year.
What starts in South Cambridgeshire could easily spread nationwide. Cambridge City Council has many shared services with South Cambs district, and it is difficult to see their officers happy to work five days while their colleagues work four days on the same pay. Once it is entrenched in Cambs, unions will campaign to bring it to every local authority in the country, and after that every public body. It is because of this significance that national groups such as Taxpayers Alliance and media such as the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph are paying attention.
The trade union-funded campaign for the four day working week has been gradually gathering pace, but was restricted to a handful of small private companies until it hit South Cambs. Private businesses are obviously free to do what they like. If it leads to higher prices and worse services, their customers can go elsewhere. If they can make it work, great.
But in the public sector, taxpayers have no choice of provider of essential services and are sent to jail if they don’t pay. Unions are also in a far stronger position to push the agenda of part time work on full pay. At heart is a real philosophical political difference: those on the left tend to believe that the interests of public sector workers trump the interests of taxpayers; on the right, we tend to believe the public sector should serve the public rather than serve itself.
In the Victorian age, most jobs were six days a week, and gradually a five day week became the norm. There were very good social and economic reasons for it. But there is no evidence that moving to a four day working week has the same justification – it is a step too far.
But although it is dressed up as evidence-based, the campaign is essentially an ideological front by activists who failed to bring in socialism through the front door. The Four Day Week Campaign is lead by a former adviser to the self-declared Marxist, John McDonnell, and funded by the GMB union and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, named after the revolutionary Marxist who was idolised in the Soviet Bloc for her attempts to turn Germany into a communist paradise after the First World War.
In reality, what is happening in South Cambs is a travesty for residents, who have to pay the extra costs, and put up with poorer services. The Lib Dems insist that there has been no reduction in service levels, but they have to torture the data to reach that pre-decided conclusion. Public bodies are meant to do evidence-based policy making, but the Lib Dems are doing policy-based evidence making.
Their own data shows that between January and March this year the percentage of phone calls from residents that are answered fell below target. For those phone calls that are answered, the time taken to answer jumped by a third from 139 seconds to 178.
When they were answered, the percentage where issues were resolved first time dropped below target. The number of days taken to process new housing benefit or council tax support claims more than doubled from 6 days to 14 days. There will be families waiting longer not knowing if they can afford to eat. The percentage of invoices from SME suppliers where it is taking the council more than 30 days to pay has more than trebled, starving small businesses of cash flow. The planning department has been particularly badly hit, with a dramatic reduction in the number of planning decisions referred to the planning committee.
The only area where they have clearly improved performance is taking money from us – collection of housing rents, business rates and council tax have all miraculously improved over the past three months. The Taxpayers Alliance have shown that of the twelve metrics that the Council use to judge their own performance, only four met their targets for all three months.
The LibDem leader claims that it saves money, as they will need fewer agency staff. They estimate that they could save £300,000 a year – but they take the figures from August 2022, not year on year. When you go and look at what they are paying to suppliers from January to March 2022 compared to the trial period, it turns out their spending on agency staff actually increased by 15 per cent. On top of that, they admit that they will have to spend well over £100,000 on recruiting more binmen, because they can’t expect physical workers to do five days work in four days.
The council justified the experiment by saying staff are happier, which is not that surprising. But nor is it particularly true. Many are stressed trying to do five days work in four. Those that can’t and end up working a fifth day are resentful. Many feel insulted that the Lib Dems think they were so inefficient they can do a week’s work in four days. Having virtually no staff in the office is terrible for young people, who need to learn from their more experienced colleagues.
I suspect that in creative industries, where people can have great ideas while sitting in the bath, a four day week could have little impact on productivity. But it is simply doesn’t apply to process-driven jobs, such as housing benefit claims or planning applications, when you need to be at your desk to do it. But also this is not about staff being more productive if they have three days off each week – even part-time staff are having their hours cut without cuts in pay.
There are huge conflicts of interest that have driven forwards the travesty of South Cambs. In 2020, the CEO of South Cambs District Council started doing a part time PhD into the four day week, and only afterwards did the Lib Dem politicians approve the decision for the council she ran to become a subject for her PhD thesis. It is common for senior officials to do part time academic study, which can bring new knowledge to their jobs, but it would not be usual for them to change the entire working practice of the organisation they run in order to provide a case study and data for their own PhD. The residents of South Cambs are part of an academic experiment to which they have not given informed consent.
The leader of the Lib Dems, Bridget Smith, was informed about the PhD, but failed to inform all the councillors of the oversight committee which approved the four day working week trial. The CEO is collecting and approving the data to justify her own experiment – marking her own homework. But the political failure lies with the Lib Dems, who allowed this conflict and coverup to happen
There are serious issues raised by all this, which I am raising with ministers. Have national pay scales been broken? Do the rules on declarations of interest by Council CEOs need to be changed? Should national government set the benchmarks for data collection and verification when councils undertake such experiments, rather than just let them declare their own projects are a success?
But if there is one lesson from this so far, it is that the whole country should look at South Cambs. And learn by example what not to do.