General election 2019: What is Labour’s four-day working week plan?

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Labour has said it could introduce a 32-hour full-time working week, with no loss of pay, within 10 years. But the Conservatives have attacked the plan, saying it would “cripple the NHS”.

So what exactly is Labour’s policy and is the criticism justified?

What is Labour proposing?

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell initially set out the shorter working week policy at the Labour Party conference in September:

“The next Labour government will put in place the changes needed to reduce average full-time hours to 32 a week within the next decade,” he said.

In the accompanying press release, the party said trade unions would be at the heart of negotiating working pattern changes, eventually leading to a series of legally-binding agreements for different sectors of the economy.

Labour’s working hour policy announcement came after it commissioned a report by Lord Skidelsky. It found that capping hours nationwide, along the lines of France’s 35-hour working week, was “not realistic or even desirable”. Instead, the report said, any cap on hours would have to be adapted to the needs of different parts of the economy.

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Image caption

John McDonnell says the progress to reduce working hours has stalled in recent decades

What have the Conservatives said?

The Conservatives claim that the introduction of the four-day week will increase staff costs at the NHS by £6.1bn a year.

They claim that figures show the average NHS worker does 37.5 hours per week, and earns £32,257.

Reducing those hours to 32 would increase staff costs by 17.2%, they claim. Across a workforce of 1.1 million, that would come to a total of £6.1bn. This is because extra staff would have to be employed to cover the missing hours.

That would effectively wipe out the extra £6bn a year that Labour has pledged for the NHS by 2023-24, the Conservatives argue.

The 37.5 hours total is the standard working week for most NHS staff. But many of the highest-paid roles, such as doctors and top managers, work significantly more than 37.5 hours a week, so capping their hours at 32 per week could cost even more.

The calculation assumes that there is no increase in productivity associated with shorter working hours – ie getting more done in every hour worked.

They also assume that the 32-hour working week would be operational across the entire NHS workforce from the next financial year, which is not what the Labour Party is proposing.

How has Labour responded?

Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, has dismissed the Conservatives’ claim as “just nonsense”.

He says if it wins the election, the party would not immediately bring in a four-day week for NHS workers, which is the assumption the Conservatives have made.

However, the language Labour is using to explain the policy appears to have slightly shifted since September. Speaking on Wednesday, Mr McDonnell said that while the 32-hour working week would apply to everybody, it would only be implemented “over time as the economy grows”.

He added: “It’s not an overnight thing, but it’s a realistic ambition.”

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