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Flexible Working Arrangements

Women and Equality – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 14th May 2009.

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Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West 10:30 am, 14th May 2009

What recent discussions she has had with Ministerial colleagues on awareness among parents and carers of disabled children and adults of their right to request flexible working arrangements.

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Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

We have been running a campaign since April to increase awareness among parents and carers of the right to request flexible working. This media campaign has been focused on regional radio, newspapers, parenting and lifestyle magazines and websites. We will evaluate the campaign and assess awareness in the light of its results.

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Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

Flexible working is both family friendly and business friendly. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that those requests should always fall on open ears?

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Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It helps families if parents of young children, or family members who care for an elderly or disabled relative, can continue to go out to work and choose their working hours, or the days of the week on which they work, to suit their caring responsibilities. She is right that it is important that employers respond positively to such requests when they are made.

I can tell my hon. Friend and the House that when such requests are made, employers respond positively to them. I have just looked at the figures that relate to her question. For people who care for an elderly or disabled relative, 96 per cent. of requests for flexible working are agreed. For working parents with young children, 95 per cent. of requests for flexible working are agreed. The problem is that people do not make the request because they do not know their rights. Only 10 per cent. of carers knew they had the right to flexible working. That is why most of them do not make a request. Only 19 per cent. of parents with children under six know that they have the right. The problem is not employers complying; it is that people do not know they have the right, so they do not ask.

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Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

While welcoming the campaign that the right hon. and learned Lady mentioned, and the very positive response from employers, is it not the case that an enlightened employer will not only have to agree to his statutory obligations, but within the flexible working time he has agreed, he will need to be additionally flexible because, unpredictably, those people will need to leave within the flexible hours that have been agreed? Employers will need to go beyond their statutory responsibilities if they are to give the entitlement referred to in the question.

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Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

That is true. However, once employers and managers move from a strict "everyone working nine to five, five days a week" system and start responding to such requests, they find it much easier to comply with them that they thought, and that they can be even more accommodating than the law requires them to be.

Over the next two decades the number of people over 85 is expected to double, and the care given to them by their families will be every bit as important as—if not more important than—the care provided by social services departments and health authorities. We do not want loads of people to have to give up their work because they are providing that important family care, so the question of their ability to work and employers' ability to respond flexibly is a huge one for the future.

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Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

My right hon. and learned Friend knows as well as I do that we owe a big debt to carers, who lift the burden from the NHS and social services. She has rightly drawn attention to the number of carers who are not aware of their rights. How can we help them to become aware of those rights, and also help employers through difficult times so that they do not punish carers?

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Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

My hon. Friend has raised many times in the House the question of what happens if people are made to work short time. There are a number of reasons why working practices are changing. According to recent research I have seen, most people who work part time—the majority of whom are women—would prefer to work full time. The position has changed. We have tended to assume in the past that women work part time because that suits them and their family responsibilities, but now most part-time work is involuntary: people would work full time if they could. Increasingly, employers are trying to make people work part time or short time in order to manage until the economy picks up. In that context, awareness of the availability of tax credits is essential. It is also essential for employers to know that they can defer payment of tax to help them with their cash flow.

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