Why not scrap the weekend as well?

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The Independent Online
JUST as I was savouring the lighter evenings and the prospect of Easter, along comes the Institute of Directors with a killjoy statement that could have been penned by Scrooge.

Britain's business leaders, facing the annual parade of Easter, May Day and Spring bank holidays, called for our traditional bank holidays to be scrapped. These enforced shutdowns, when motorways are reclaimed by bumper-to-bumper family cars rather than lorries, get in the way of modern industrial society. Companies should be entrusted to set substitute holidays to suit their production needs.

I suppose this reform, if adopted, would send a signal of sorts to the outside world. We could market Britain as a kind of sweatshop of Europe. The Continent would continue to have its collective periods of regeneration while we took commercial advantage.

The baffling aspect of this strange attack is that the institute is so half-hearted about it all. Why ask for half a cake? Is there not also a strong case for abolishing weekends, as two- day breaks, including the observance of the Sabbath, are equally outmoded and certainly inconvenient for the demands of continuous production?

Sunday has already slipped into the demi-world of commerce, and the family life of thousands of female shop assistants is already adjusting to the new reality. Perhaps the Institute of Directors - some of whose members work in the City - could also suggest that the Stock Exchange stays open at weekends so its well-heeled members can trade stocks and shares seven days a week.

What has brought this latest round of bank holiday bashing to a head, of course, is the Government's determination to abolish May Day, with all its International Labour Day connotations. Introduced in 1978, just before the onset of Thatcherism, it has only shallow roots, especially when compared with the other bank holidays legislated for in Victorian times.

The argument is that the concentration of these four public holidays in two months is unnecessary. I would have preferred a more vigorous public debate about the abolition and replacement of May Day, for I rather liked it - because the spring and early summer are such lovely times, it seems right that celebration days should be concentrated at this season.

The Government is apparently committed to switching the holiday to autumn, probably to the last Monday in October. The advantage is that it could be tied to half-term, allowing working parents to spend time with children on school holidays.

But if Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Employment, were to consult me I would ask her to think about, say, the first Monday in July. I would love a high summer bank holiday. Institute of Directors members who own hotels might also note that such a break would surely stimulate trade at British seaside resorts.

But the holiday issues that bother me and my contemporaries most are frankly different. For a start, I would like to see a bit more regimentation in the setting of school holidays. Anyone who has children at different schools will know that holidays are almost perversely out of kilter. This week two of my children broke up on Wednesday, the third breaks up today, and they go back at different times.

I've also been spending the past few days trying to book an August summer holiday. I must report that there is real daylight robbery at work when it comes to holiday rates during the high summer season. Whatever you decide to do, rates double and concessions for children dwindle to almost nothing.

This goes a long way towards explaining the practice I see growing all around me. Families are opting, or being forced, to take their main summer holidays at Whitsun, and are often taking their children out of school for a two-week break simply because of the economics of it. The trend for schools to start back at the very beginning of September - a change that most say is down to the pressures of the national curriculum - adds to the problem.

If any entrepreneurs from the Institute of Directors are reading this they might note the opportunities presented by this flight from August holidays: a boom in cheapish activity and sports courses during August, as parents try their best to muddle through at home.