UKIP Wales Home Working Debate

May 9, 2019Assembly Business0 comments

Plenary 9th May 2019

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Gareth Bennett AM

Gareth Bennett AM

Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

Thank you. Diolch again, Llywydd. Today’s debate is on the subject of working from home, which hopefully Members will agree is an interesting topic and worthy of some Chamber time in which to investigate it. We in UKIP think that, in general, allowing more employees to work from home is a good objective, as long, of course, as that is what the employees themselves want to do. So I think we need to look at the levers we have here in the Assembly to see what we might do to facilitate a higher level of homeworking in Wales.

That is in essence what today’s motion is about. It isn’t particularly a partisan subject that needs to divide people along party lines. Today’s motion is more about trying to find a consensus between the different parties here, as of course we always attempt to do in UKIP. So, I am approaching the amendments today with that in mind.

The Government seem to be in broad agreement with our objectives. Their amendments only delete part of one of our four points. However, while that much is true, it does delete our wish for a specific Welsh Government strategy for homeworking within the successor project to Superfast Cymru. We do need Welsh Government ultimately to commit to specifics if we are to get anywhere with this mission. So, we don’t agree with this amendment, although we recognise that it is the only bit that the Government is looking to amend. They aren’t doing a ‘delete all’ on us on this occasion. So, that much is promising.

The Conservative amendment raises the point that there can be disadvantages to homeworking. I’m not denying that homeworking won’t necessarily work for everyone. So, the aim isn’t to push people into homeworking against their will, but rather to make it easier for those people who would prefer to work from home to be able to do so. In fact, the point that is quoted in the Conservative amendment is from one part of a report that is generally favourable to the idea of homeworking. But, of course, we have to be mindful that we don’t want to push people into something that they don’t want to do. So, we accept the logic of the amendment and we will support the Conservative amendment today.

The driving force behind today’s motion is new technology and the changes in lifestyle that may be enabled by new technology. The UK Government is currently mired in a very expensive transport project—I refer to HS2—which has been extremely controversial and which has been an albatross around the neck of the Westminster Government for almost the entire time it has been in office. Interestingly, although we may have almost forgotten this now, HS2 was actually the idea originally of the last Labour Government. It was first proposed in 2009 when Gordon Brown was still in office. Here in Wales, the Welsh Government has been in a similar muddle over the M4 relief road. This scheme has also had spiralling costs, which will inevitably impede other areas of spending if the project does ever actually get the go ahead.

The reason I mention these transport schemes is that, in a way, they may be almost redundant. I know that sounds strange when we have so much traffic congesting the roads, but a point to bear in mind is that, in some ways, investing in roads and railways is investing in old technology. It is investment that is predicated on a notion that countless millions of people will forever be needing to travel physically from one place to another on a daily basis in order to undertake their work.

When you think about it, if we were to develop a reliable, fast broadband network throughout the UK, we wouldn’t need so many people to be travelling on trains or cars or even on buses. We wouldn’t need so many people travelling into an office every day if all of the work that they did in the office they could equally well undertake at home. Admittedly, of course, homeworking won’t have much effect on manufacturing, processing or agricultural sectors. But of course administrative jobs have become a large part of the economy and homeworking could have a big effect on that sector. If contact is needed between the employee and the manager or middle manager, this can be facilitated these days by telephone, including by conference call or by Skype, by e-mail including via e-mail chains involving many people, and by other methods of electronic messaging.

I’m not suggesting that all office workers can work from home all of the time, but if we can cut down on the number of people travelling into work each day, that would help to ease the pressure on road and rail networks. However, currently, there may not be much incentive for companies to move towards more homeworking. For company bosses, introducing more homeworking might be regarded as something of a nuisance. That’s why we have to think about using tax incentives and/or contractual processes to try and get companies to think more along these lines.

I have made some inquiries of the Welsh Government as to what they are doing precisely to encourage more homeworking. I have done two First Minister’s questions on this subject, for instance. The responses I have received have been thus far, although broadly in agreement with the aims, somewhat vague as to the specifics. We do realise in UKIP that there is a big Welsh Government project going on to improve the quality and speed of broadband throughout Wales, and obviously that project will have a major effect on how far we can usher in an era of more homeworking. So, we do acknowledge that. But, as for specific schemes incentivising companies in Wales to introduce or extend homeworking, I haven’t been able to locate any. Of course, I’m interested in the Minister’s response today and, if I have overlooked important work that the Welsh Government is doing specifically in this area, then I will of course admit the error. But, certainly, I haven’t been able to locate any Welsh Government work specific to this area.

I know that there is a business exploitation programme, which aims to highlight to Welsh small and medium-sized enterprises the advantages of using the better broadband connectivity once it exists in their area, and there is recent academic work that also highlights the commercial benefits of doing so. There is also a connection with the work being done by the Fair Work Commission, part of which is to try to get companies to think about outputs, rather than hours worked. This is another lever that might help companies to think about more homeworking, although, again, neither angle is specific to the precise issue of homeworking.

So, are there other things the Welsh Government could be doing? In the past, we were told that they would be facilitating the appointment of travel plan co-ordinators, who were supposed to be working with employers across Wales to encourage sustainable travel, and they would be encouraging things like car sharing, but also, more to the point for today’s motion, video-conferencing and working from home. I’ve struggled, though, to find much information on these travel plan co-ordinators, and it may be an idea that is in danger of slipping through the cracks.

We are, in today’s motion, asking for some specific measures, such as calling on the Welsh Government to ensure that all public bodies in Wales have a duty to include homeworking in the design of jobs and how those jobs are advertised and how people are recruited. We’re also calling on the Welsh Government to develop a specific strategy for homeworking within the successor project to Superfast Cymru, to ensure that people who wish to work from home are not impeded by a lack of broadband access.

I mentioned the benefits to the transport system of encouraging more homeworking, and that isn’t the only benefit, potentially. There is also the fact that one of the problems afflicting British industry is productivity. If people are working in an environment that is more pleasant to them, it may well be that output does go up, as long, of course, as homeworkers are properly trained to do the job and kept in the loop as regards ongoing training. There are also advantages for those with childcare or other caring responsibilities, who tend to be more likely to be women, and also those with physical disabilities of bringing in a work environment in Wales that is more receptive to homeworking.

These points have also been made by the Trades Union Congress general secretary, Frances O’Grady. She pointed out in May 2018 that the number of people regularly working from home in the UK the previous year was still only 1.6 million, a figure that had remained unchanged from the year before. She identified two reasons why homeworking has stalled. One was the UK’s extremely variable broadband speeds, the other was that too many line managers still believe that workers can’t be trusted without constant supervision. So, there is a bit of a cultural battle to be won with regard to the second point.

To some extent, people working in management also need to be convinced of the benefits of homeworking. Interestingly, though, 12 per cent of managers work from home on a permanent basis, but only about 2 per cent of employees do. Another startling statistic is that, in the UK, only 6 per cent of administrators work from home, even though many of their tasks could surely just as easily be performed remotely these days. So, throughout the UK, there is obviously a lot of work to be done on this issue. Perhaps we can try to lead the way on that here in Wales.

Thanks, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thanks to the participants in what was an interesting debate. Thanks to Russell George, who said that the Conservative group broadly supported the aims of today’s motion. And as I said in my opening remarks, I understood the logic of their amendments and we were supportive of their amendments. Now, Russell did raise some of the potential difficulties of homeworking that we should be mindful of. They were points that were also taken up by Michelle, and more fulsomely, I would say, in Michelle’s case; she certainly was not so enthusiastic.

Now, we have to appreciate there are potential downsides, of course. Issues that have been mentioned, even by advocates of more homeworking, have included potential social isolation and lack of camaraderie of employees and feeling out of the loop. Conflict with other workers was a point that Russell raised specifically, and Michelle also—well, she mentioned a number of things. Now, these are all very valid issues, and we do have to be mindful of them, but the point of the motion today was that people should be enabled to work at home if they want to do so. It wasn’t about people being forced to work from home. And I did make that clear in the opening remarks and I’d like to reassert those points.

Now, the Government response—thank you for your broad support, and I accept that you feel the need to amend it for the reasons that the Minister gave. Now, we do accept that Superfast Cymru has been a good programme. There are considerable difficulties with the physical geography of Wales, and providing a very good broadband speed and a reliable broadband speed is, of course, probably the major issue that will allow us to move forward with more homeworking. Lots of general things from the Government to do with equalities and fair work practices, which, of course, are good objectives, but we would like some more commitment, if possible, to the actual specifics of working from home in future. So, hopefully, we will get that and we can move forward with this and develop some specific measures to improve homeworking, but thanks for participating and diolch yn fawr iawn.