The Nanny state starts bleating about homework

Most office workers envy those who work from home, but the dangers that come with it make it a perilous existence. Iain Murray has survived so far, but only just…

As a home worker of long standing – or, to be precise, long sitting around making paper-clip chains – I am sometimes asked if it is a lonely existence. Well, it used to be, in the far off days when we housebound toilers were few in number and widely scattered and no one knew much about us. Not any more. To adapt the famous old cigarette slogan, you are never alone with this Government.

Last week, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) published guidelines for teleworkers such as myself. And not a moment too soon. As it is now some 30 years since I first exchanged office life and commuting for sitting at home and mooching about, I cannot believe how lucky I have been to get away with it without hurting myself. (Incidentally, when the then Times columnist Bernard Levin coined the phrase “Nanny State” all those years ago, even he could not have imagined that the current Minister for Children Margaret Hodge would introduce a helpline for parents having difficulties changing nappies.)

I have to confess that complying with the guidelines is going to cause me some embarrassment. For instance, under Health and Safety, the new code says that my employer must ensure all electrical equipment complies with safety regulations and that a risk assessment of work is carried out. I have yet to summon the nerve to ask the editor of Marketing Week to pop round sometime and check my wiring. Not that he is unequal to the task. He went to one of our better universities and is, I am sure, quite capable of casting a proficient eye over the spaghetti trail of wires that leads from my desk to God knows where, and assessing the risk.

But he is a busy man and I know from our past discussions that if I were to trip over a fax cable and break my neck he would take the news bravely and carry on much as before.

I am struggling with the section headed, “Allowances, taxation and expenses. For example, to allow claims to attend team meetings or travel to the office.” Since travel to my office involves a journey on foot of between 15 and

20 yards, either from the bedroom or the kitchen, am I entitled to a footwear allowance? This is tricky because I have been known to make the trip wearing nothing on my feet other than socks. Can wear and tear on a fetid blend of wool and nylon be offset against taxation?

Team meetings are a problem, too, because I am the team in its entirety. I do often talk to myself, which might at a pinch count as a meeting for tax purposes. I consider myself fortunate that I am not a smoker, otherwise every time I craved the solace of a cigarette, I should have to go downstairs and stand outside my front door in the rain just to make sure I wasn’t irritating myself.

Next in the code comes “human resources, such as recruitment, training and career progression”. This produced a hollow laugh from my wife, so by way of retaliation I stressed the following item headed “personal support, to ensure employees do not become isolated”. If that doesn’t mean a regular supply of tea and biscuits, I don’t know what does.

Behind all this is the nagging fear that now the Government has discovered me and is plainly eager to ensure my comfort, safety, and welfare, even as I stare out of my window in the hope that inspiration will materialise like an angel stepping out of the shadows, it might wish to extend to me the other benefits that it and the EC have showered, or rather hosed, on small firms.

These include the Data Protection Directive, Working Time Directive, National Minimum Wage, Time off for Studying/Training, Fire-precaution Regulations, European Works Council, Ordinary Maternity Leave, Additional Maternity Leave, Parental Leave, Time off for Family/Domestic Problems, Trade Union Recognition, Disputes or Grievance, Part-time Workers Directive, and EU Pollution Directive.

Many of these, you will note, involve time off, which is something we homeworkers hold dear and know much about. Some of the rules affect me directly: for instance family/domestic problems, disputes or grievance occur fairly frequently and usually come down to matters such as unmown lawns, things that need fixing, and other things that have remained unfixed for years. But do my working methods – such as feigning deafness or going down to the pub – comply with the EC requirements? It’s a worry.

To make matters worse, I am no longer clear as to the number of portions of fruit and vegetables I am permitted to eat each day. I had just about come to terms with the conventional wisdom that five was what the human frame requires, when new research said, no, three is enough. In Australia, however, the prescribed figure is six. This is very confusing indeed. To comply with official regulations and guidelines is demanding enough, but positively onerous when the target is constantly moving.

In the spirit of independence, for which we homeworkers used to be noted before the DTI discovered it could be bad for us, I have a good mind to stamp my foot and refuse to eat up my vegetables. That’ll show ’em.

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