Opinion: Cross-Party Support for Job-Sharing

What do Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives’ Peter Bottomley and our own Jenny Willott have in common? They’ve all signed up to this Early Day Motion tabled by Liberal Democrat MP for Ceredigion, Mark Williams.

Mark’s motion welcomes a recent report, Job-Sharing at Senior Level: Making It Work, highlighting that job-sharing can stem the ‘female brain drain’ by enabling more women to progress into senior roles while combining work with family. It notes a striking finding that 80% of highly qualified women wish to work part-time and calls on the Government to consider the implications of this in the context of female parliamentary representation and the wider political and constitutional reform agenda.

Mark’s motion is in tune with the zeitgeist. Last year Lord Davies’ Women on Boards review found mid-career work-life balance issues to be a key driver of female under-representation at Board level. A couple of months ago Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke applied Lord Davies’ logic to the judiciary, arguing that high quality part-time career tracks are needed to build a critical mass of senior women judges.

One of the barriers often cited to flexible working at senior levels is the need for round the clock commitment. This is precisely where job-sharing comes in, giving job-sharers the reduced hours they want whilst offering organisations the responsiveness they demand. Job-shares have a track record of success at senior levels in business, the civil service, medicine, law and teaching. It’s high time they were tested in politics.

Research I undertook three years ago as Vice-Chair of Campaign for Gender Balance made it clear that too many experienced prospective women candidates in their 30s and 40s rule out standing for Parliament because they see it as incompatible with family life. Our party is good at getting women in their 20s and 50s into Parliament; the problem is the period in between (which, incidentally, is when most men are first elected).

Westminster is still designed around the assumption that there will be someone else at home looking after your children. This only works if the non-MP parent is willing to scale back career ambitions or if both parents are financially able and emotionally willing to outsource most of their childcare. Yet many highly skilled professional women, and growing numbers of men, are rejecting all-or-nothing models of work. Instead, they gravitate towards careers which can offer them high quality flexible work.

Mark Williams, himself a father of four, brings substantial insight not only into the dilemmas faced by parent-parliamentarians, but also into the viability of job-sharing. As a Deputy Head teacher before entering Parliament he managed job-sharing colleagues. Mark hopes his motion will promote wider discussion of how job-sharing could work at Westminster:

After meeting with Dinti, I was happy to table this EDM and bring the issue to the attention of Parliament. There is often concern that the people representing us in Parliament are not a true reflection of society, and are not as in touch with the so called ‘real’ working world after years spent in Parliament. A job share enables people who have other commitments in their lives, such as a family or a business, to have the opportunity to work in politics too. This can enrich our democracy.

One opportunity to pilot job-sharing could be just around the corner. Why not allow candidates who wish to do so to put themselves forward for election to a reformed second chamber on a job-share basis? If they can persuade the electorate of the merits of a political job-share then Liberal Democrats will have championed a policy that is truly radical, as well as liberal and democratic.

* Dinti Batstone is a member of WLD and Acting Co-Chair of Campaign for Gender Balance.

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  • I’m not entirely sure I like the idea of two-half MPs. When it comes to voting they’ll inevitably be disagreements, so how do you decide who votes, and would that be democratically acceptable? When it comes to the public writing to their MP, do both halves read and respond, or do you have the situation where the half you’ve communicated with isn’t the one who votes on the issue? Will job sharing insulate infective MP’s because people will end up voting for the good half and putting up with the rotten half?

    And perhaps most importantly will both halves be able to claim expenses?

  • Dinti Batstone 29th Jan '12 - 12:49pm

    Thanks for airing these questions Charles.

    I’ve writen about job-sharing on LDV before, if you search under my name you’ll find articles which give more background and information about how parliamentary job-sharing could work in practice. You can also find a link here (http://genderbalance.org.uk/en/article/2011/529957/family-friendly-working-will-mps-practice-what-they-preach-fringe-event-at-autumn-conference) to videos of a job-sharing fringe event I chaired at Autumn Conference (Lynne Featherstone is one of the speakers).

    But meanwhile here are brief answers to your questions:
    1. Being from the same party, you’d expect that most of the time they’d agree and vote with the party whip (taking it in turns so you don’t get double counting). If they don’t agree, they can either abstain or take it in turns to have the final say. There are precedents for trade union job-sharers doing this.
    2. Much of the legwork in dealing with correspondence etc is done by MPs’ staff. Job-sharers would share the same staff so they would establish protocols to avoid duplication and/ or casework falling through the net. This could be as simple as dividing casework by postcode, by contact date, or even alphabetically. Councillors in multi-member wards already do this so it’s nothing new.
    3. Prospective job-share partners would vet each other carefully to ensure they bring complementary skills and that one does not ‘carry’ the other. It’s a partnership and ultimately they’re jointly accountable to the electorate.
    4. The expenses allowance would be the same as for a solo MP and the job-sharers would decide between them how to allocate it. There may well be savings because if each job-sharer is only spending a couple of nights a week in London they won’t need a permanent second home – just a budget hotel room or lodging arrangement.

  • Richard Swales 30th Jan '12 - 7:36am

    I once saw a good discussion on Lucy Kellaway’s page about this. Someone said “Ask yourself the question, if you had amnesia and could only remember 5 out of the past 10 days, would it impair your ability to do the job?”

    The answer is different depending on the job. I am happy for my own employees to work part time because of the nature of the job they do (private English lessons for foreigners – anyway not divided into 40 hour chunks). With appropriate timetabling it shouldn’t have much impact on secondary school teachers. In jobs where the employer is expected to fund the employees training then it is different.

    Would it work with MPs though? If the local steelworks is in trouble, don’t both MPs have to attend the meetings?

  • Dinti Batstone 30th Jan '12 - 5:42pm

    Thanks for your comments Richard.

    It would be up to the job-share partners to exercise their judgment as to which meetings they both need to attend vs issues which can be wholly delegated one or other (again, there is an analogy with Councillors in multi-member wards).

    If you have a look at the video of the Fringe event (link posted in my comments above) as well as “Job-Sharing at Senior Level: Making it Work” (the report referred to in the article above) you’ll see that these challenges are not insurmountable.

  • Richard Swales 30th Jan '12 - 8:53pm

    Yes, some things (like keeping up with news, party policy, very important meetings) they would both have to do, so it could end up with more like 60 percent work each rather than 50 percent work, but with only 50 percent pay. Fine if they don’t mind themselves. Do you think the public would vote for a job share MP though?

    Job sharing is definitely workable. Not all jobs are 40 hours anyway, there are lots of 80 and 120 hour per week jobs operating machines that are shared as a matter of course. We call it shift-work and we never say “it can’t be done”.

  • Kay Vincent 31st Jan '12 - 2:20pm

    I don’t think the analogy of “having amnesia for 5 out of the past 10 days” applies to all jobs and all situations. There must be thousands of examples where people share jobs or responsibilities and still maintain continuity in service. If GPs/midwives/nurses etc can share jobs and still keep patients alive and healthy, then surely MPs can work out a ‘handover’ system where they can maintain consistency when dealing with constituents.

  • Dinti Batstone 31st Jan '12 - 2:23pm

    Great to hear of your experience of job-shares working in practice. The point you highlight is important, in that some flexibility will be required from the job-sharers but in my experience people in politics (most of whom spend years beavering away as volunteers before they get anywhere near elected office) are the opposite of clock-watchers. So provided the commitment is there I think it could work very well, and “two for the price of one” resonates pretty well when I’ve tested it on voters!

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