Flexible Working

Women and Equality – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 22nd February 2007.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland) 10:30 am, 22nd February 2007

What rights parents have to request flexible working; and if she will make a statement.

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government

In April 2003, we introduced the right to request flexible working for parents of young and disabled children. Finding working hours to match caring responsibilities is a crucial issue for many families. Some 3.6 million parents have that right; almost 25 per cent. of them have asked to work flexibly; and about four out of five requests are accepted.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree with her colleague the Minister for Children and Families that all parents should have the right to request flexible working? Indeed, given that there are so many reasons other than caring responsibilities for people wanting to manage their work-life balance differently, does she agree that there would be benefits for all of society if the right were extended to everyone?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families was giving her personal view on how we might build on successful policies to try to make work much more flexible for millions of people. For example, the right to request flexible working has led to 47 per cent. of new mothers working flexi-time, compared with just 17 per cent. in 2002—a massive change. From this April, as the hon. Lady is, I am sure, well aware, we are extending that right to carers. I have sympathy with the view that we should go further, build on that and extend the right to other groups in due course, but we have to try to take the business community with us because the key to our success so far has been culture change and the fact that we have been able to maintain a consensus. We will of course keep the position under review.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed PPS (Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo, Paymaster General), HM Treasury

I welcome the progress that we have made on flexible working, but would my right hon. Friend take the policy even further and consider a reduction in the number of hours that we work in this country? That would assist not only those who have requested flexible working, but those hundreds of thousands of families who struggle to maintain their work-life balance simply because of the length of working hours and the inflexibility of the working week.

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. This is not just an issue for new mothers or, indeed, new fathers; it is about the number of hours that we all spend at work every week, sometimes as a result of a long hours culture in which one's presence at one's desk is seen as a sign of success. There is an important cultural issue there about how employers recognise the contribution that employees make, how they recruit and retain employees, which is desirable for pure business reasons, and how quality of life is valued as part of our social discourse. If we get this right, there are huge potential gains. One thing that we are doing is working with a group of exemplar employers to promote flexible working and quality of life, for sound business reasons.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality)

I welcome what the right hon. Lady says about the extension of flexible working not only to parents but to carers and others with family responsibilities. She has shown some understanding of the business community, but will she confirm also her understanding that businesses, especially small businesses, are very apprehensive about the duties that will be imposed on them and about the problems of flexible working? Will she undertake to publish guidance for business aimed particularly at small businesses, to reassure them that flexible working, properly implemented, is likely to be not a hindrance but a benefit to families and businesses alike?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government

I am delighted to welcome the hon. Lady back to her place. I am sure that she had fun while incurring her injury, but I hope that she is recovering.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we have to take the needs of the business community into account. I think that there are good, sound business reasons for allowing employees to work flexibly, although of course there may in certain circumstances be very sound business reasons for turning down approaches to work flexibly. That is why we have a right to request, and in the vast majority of cases, those requests are approved. As we go forward, it is important that we maintain that consensus. The Equal Opportunities Commission has done specific work not only on the transformation of work, but on how the small business community can implement and make more possible the take-up of the right to flexible working. We in Government will work closely with the commission as we extend the right to other groups, to ensure that it is done in a sensible and proportionate way.