Cabinet Office

Relationships are full of difficult conversations. It is clear that William Hague and Nick Clegg are two individuals in need of just such a conversation. The evidence is that they have come to that difficult moment where they need to ask whether they want the same things out of their relationship – only here the issue is not wanting to travel more or settle down it’s whether the government believes it should be an exemplary employer.

Nick Clegg has been committing the government to a right for all employees to request flexible working. Flexible working, says Clegg, is a key competent of the government’s economic agenda:

Ultimately this change is good for business: firms will be able to retain their best staff and it’s good for our economy. A modern workforce is a flexible workforce too.

Personally I don’t think these proposals go nearly far enough but it is nevertheless a positive move. Which brings us to William Hague. The William Hague I am referring to is not him of baseball cap fame but William Hague, Executive Director – Civil Service Workforce. On 28 September Hague wrote to every HR Director in the civil service instructing them to review HR policies and draft an implementation plan on the foregone conclusion of the review: less favourable terms and conditions for staff. I understand this instruction was leaked to the Public and Commercial Services Union and picked up by The Guardian. As the Guardian itself summarises the proposals:

By the end of this year, directors in every Whitehall department are expected to have examined the terms and conditions of their workforce and outlined plans to make their jobs more like those in the private sector.

The documents reveal several aspects of working life as susceptible to radical change, including employees’ annual leave, occasional days’ leave, sick pay, hours of work, the ability of employees to move from one job to another and probationary periods.

Managers have also been ordered to review policies including the family-friendly scheme of flexitime, travel and expenses, disciplinary procedures and performance management. The letter applies to staff below the level of senior civil servants.

Which brings us back to Nick Clegg’s difficult conversation.Hague’s instruction (which have the footprints of the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude all over them, simply does not stack up with the more family friendly approach of Clegg. So much so that PCS’ Mark Serwotka has talked of Clegg’s ‘hypocrisy’ in advancing the policy. That is probably a little unfair but Serwotka does raise a fair question.

At a time when he is publicly encouraging businesses consider flexible working for their employees his Cabinet colleagues are leading a ‘review’ of those civil servants’ term and conditions of employment which go against the grain of those Clegg is promoting elsewhere in government. At the same time as Clegg is extending the scope of what “a good modern employer” will provide Hague and Maude are travelling in the exact opposite direction on the basis of the same good modern employer grounds. No matter how hard they try the directions of travel are not compatible: hence Clegg’s and Hague’s need for ‘a difficult conversation.’