The Prime Minister has urged South Cambridgeshire District Council to “reconsider” its decision to introduce a four-day working week for staff.
Rishi Sunak was speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday (May 24) after South Cambridgeshire’s Conservative MP, Anthony Browne, brought the trial to his attention.
Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire. Picture: Keith Heppell
As reported by the Cambridge Independent, the Liberal Democrat-controlled council’s cabinet has agreed to extend the trial of a four-day working week, with no reduction in pay for staff, until the end of March 2024 after assessing results from an initial pilot period.
The change, involving 450 desk-based staff, is designed to improve staff retention and recruitment efforts, reducing the council’s spend on temporary agency workers to plug gaps, and aid wellbeing.
Mr Browne told the Commons: “Liberal Democrat-run South Cambridge District Council is the first in the country to put its staff on a four-day week without any reduction in pay.
“It’s led to a reduction in services and an increase in costs and yet last week the Liberal Democrats decided to increase the trial to a year why because the staff were happier and now unions are pushing to spread the four-day working week across the public sector something that the Taxpayers’ Alliance estimates will cost £30billion.
“Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the public sector are here to serve the public and that the Liberal Democrats aren’t working?
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in South Cambridgeshire. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
The Prime Minister replied: “Public servants should rightly focus on delivering for the public and taxpayers and it is disappointing to hear from my honourable friend that his local Liberal Democrat council is not doing this, reducing, as I heard, staff contact hours and costing residents more. I urge the council to reconsider their decision because his residents and constituents in South Cambridgeshire District Council clearly deserve better.”
But the Liberal Democrats in charge of the council argue services have been maintained or improved in the trial period.
Cllr Bridget Smith, the leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, told the Cambridge Independent: “The priority for our council is to make a positive difference to the lives of all of our residents, many of whom we know are struggling to make ends meet, to secure a GP appointment or to find public transport to access training and employment. The Conservative government has continued to reduce funding for public services for over a decade, leaving councils to find innovative ways to balance the books whilst maintaining services in the face of one crisis after another.
“Despite these crippling cuts, council staff have stepped up amazingly to help residents during the Covid pandemic and more recently in the face of the cost of living crisis.
“Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister and Anthony Browne are wrong on three counts. First, the hours the council operates have not reduced. Our contact centre has actually increased its opening hours. Second, if successful, the trial could save the taxpayer money as we reduce the £2million we are currently spending on agency staff. During the initial three-month trial we have already seen our annual wage bill drop by £300,000.
“Third, the independently verified evidence from the University of Cambridge shows that ‘the four-day week increases workplace productivity and maintains, and in some services improves, council performance’ .
“We have said all along that if performance or resident satisfaction drops the trial will stop but the evidence thus far confirms the success that is being seen in the private sector.”
Data released by the council showed that £918,842 was spent on agency staff in the three months before the launch of the trial.
In the first three months of the trial – January to March – the authority spent £744,985 on agency staff.
The performance over the three-month pilot period was analysed by the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy in 18 key areas, covering performance in planning, housing, transformation, human resources and corporate services and finance.
Cllr Bridget Smith, the Liberal Democrat leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council. Picture: Keith Heppell
The institute found nine out of the 16 areas monitored show substantial improvement when comparing the trial period from January to March to the same period in 2022.
The remaining seven areas monitored were at similar levels compared to the same period last year or recorded a slight decline.
Cllr Heather Williams (Con, The Mordens), the Conservative opposition leader on the council, has raised questions over the accuracy of the data, given that not all staff are on a four-day week.
She noted that some staff had reported that they were working over their hours, while some agency staff were still being employed five days a week.
Cllr Heather Williams, the leader of the Conservative opposition on South Cambridgeshire District Council. Picture: Keith Heppell
The trial has also courted controversy after it emerged that the council’s chief executive, Liz Watts, was studying for a PhD in her own time on the subject of four-day working weeks, which have been adopted by a growing number of businesses in the last year.
Mr Browne has argued: “It is not a council’s job to make vast policy changes ‘for’ the chief executive’s PhD thesis, but for the benefit of residents.”
But Cllr Smith, who has acknowledged the PhD should have been mentioned in an original report on the subject, has told councillors: “Just to be perfectly clear, our chief executive’s studies were never dependent on the council trialling a four-day week.”
Cabinet members have also agreed to begin a trial for bin crews this summer, providing Cambridge City Council – with which it jointly runs the waste collection service – agrees.
Politics South Cambridgeshire Paul Brackley