Flexible Working

– in the House of Commons at 1:55 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 2:40 pm, 16th July 2019

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require employers to offer flexible working in employment contracts and to advertise vacancies as suitable for flexible working unless certain conditions are met;
and for connected purposes.

Anna Whitehouse was on her way to pick up her daughter from nursery, but a bag got stuck in a tube door and made her 12 minutes late. The nursery staff sat her down in one of those tiny children’s chairs and sternly told her that she would be charged £1 for every minute she had kept the staff waiting. She felt like a failure as a parent, even though the delay had not been her fault.

She resolved not to let something as trivial as a bag stuck in a door upset the delicate balance of her work and family life again, so she asked her employer whether she could come to work 15 minutes early and leave 15 minutes early. That tiny change would have made juggling her career and her children work, but the request was denied. So she quit. For the sake of just 15 minutes, Anna left a job she loved, and her boss lost a dedicated member of staff.

Many women have similar stories. Every year, 54,000 pregnant women and working mothers are made redundant or are pressured to leave their jobs. That is why Anna, better known as Mother Pukka, is now campaigning, along with the Fawcett Society, Pregnant Then Screwed, the Young Women’s Trust and the Fatherhood Institute, for better access to flexible working. I am delighted to welcome some of those campaigners to Westminster today, and am grateful for the support of all those at home.

The Flex for All petition has received nearly 30,000 signatures so far, and one comment on it encapsulates its potential:

“Flexible means I can juggle family and work life without compromising one or the other”.

The 40-hour, five-day working week made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums, but it no longer reflects the reality of how many modern families want to live their lives. We no longer divide neatly into breadwinners and homemakers. Our lives are more complicated than that—and better for it. Although some employers recognise that and are moving with the times, many are not, so it is time to shift the dial on flexible working.

As we do that, we will create more opportunities for more people, especially women and those with disabilities. We will help close the gender pay gap, and we will strengthen families by helping parents share caring responsibilities more equally. It will be good for businesses, too. I am therefore asking the House to back this Bill and make flexible working the default.

A Conservative Government introduced the right to request flexible working, but in reality just 9.8% of jobs paying more than £20,000 are advertised as being flexible. Figures are not available for people who are paid less than £20,000, but the situation is almost certainly worse. Moreover, the grounds on which a flexible working request can be denied are vague. All the onus currently rests on the employee to make the case for why they should get special treatment, and many feel that they cannot even ask.

The Government recognise that the current approach is not working, and action is being taken to improve the situation. The Minister for Women and Equalities has set out her vision for gender equality at all stages, including support for organisations to introduce family friendly policies. The Business Secretary is reviewing the right to request flexible working and consulting on whether employers should be required to consider whether a job can be done flexibly. That includes homeworking, job sharing and working different hours during school holidays.

That is progress—I am particularly thankful to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend Kelly Tolhurst, who is sitting on the Front Bench, for everything she is doing—but it starts from a presumption against flexibility. What if we flip the question and ask whether a job cannot be done flexibly? How many more employers would find that actually it did not make a difference where or when a piece of work was done, as long as it was done?

We know how powerful the psychology of the opt-out is, compared with that of the opt-in. Pensions auto-enrolment has successfully reversed the decline in the number of people saving into a workplace pension— 10 million more people are now saving for their old age thanks to the policy. Let us apply that same principle to flexible working, and ask employers to opt out of flexibility.

Of course, I recognise that not all jobs can be done flexibly. Sometimes people need to be in a specific place at a specific time. Employers must be able to set out why a job cannot be done flexibly. This Bill, however, is about shifting the norm. The potential benefits to individuals, businesses and the economy as a whole are huge and backed up by evidence. Closing the gender employment gap could add an extra £150 billion to our GDP by 2025. Although female employment is at a record high, 42% of women are working part-time, compared with 13% of men. Women working fewer hours and accruing less experience over their careers is a major contributor to the gender pay gap.

How many of those part-time jobs could actually be full-time, flexible jobs? Although some jobs demand set hours in a set location, we are a long way from realising the full potential of flexible working. According to the Timewise Foundation, 1.5 million people are trapped in low-paid, part-time jobs below their skill level because they cannot find an appropriate new job with the working pattern they need. With superfast broadband coverage to reach 97% by next year, and a full-fibre network being rolled out across the country, it is now possible to do many jobs from anywhere, at any time.

Flexible working increases productivity. The average commute is 46 minutes a day—it can take much longer for people in rural areas—and that is time that could be better spent. Caring responsibilities are one of the top causes of short-term absence from work. Businesses that allow flexible working are less likely to report employees taking time off sick for family reasons.

Research by Pregnant Then Screwed found that 81% of people who work flexibly are happier, and happier staff, with a better work-life balance, can be more productive and more likely to stay in their job. Employees and managers agree that flexible working increases performance and is more motivating than a bonus. Looking to the future, we see that we must increase our productivity in order to stay competitive. We work longer hours than many other countries but we produce less. Flexible working is about making much smarter use of the hours in the day.

Being more family friendly helps employers recruit more women and enables more women to stay in work. That is good for women and good for business. For example, Gocompare has seen a significant increase in the number of female applicants—from 40% to 58%—since its job adverts started including positive messages about flexibility. Employees who work flexibly are more likely to stay in their jobs, with 70% of people who work flexibly saying that they would be reluctant to quit their job. The most gender diverse companies are more likely to enjoy above-average profitability. Underusing women’s skills is costing us 2% of GDP per year, so it is costing the economy billions of pounds.

Let us not forget about men. Forty-seven per cent. of fathers say that they would consider a demotion to a less stressful job if it enabled them to spend more time with their families. That would be a huge potential loss of productivity, but it could be prevented if more men could work flexibly. However, men are less likely to make a request for flexible working, and are more likely to have a request denied. The barriers to requesting flexible working can be even greater for men because of old-fashioned perceptions about the ideal worker and the idea that caring for children is a woman’s job. I spoke to a businesswoman the other day whose husband, a lawyer, had asked to work flexibly one day a week. His bemused employer responded by asking, “What’s your wife doing?” That just shows how ingrained these assumptions are. Making flexibility the default would change workplace cultures for the better. It is not just families who will benefit from more modern working practices, but disabled people too, many of whom would like to be working or working more. Flexibility helps anyone who finds the journey to work or rigid work hours a problem.

To sum up, the Bill builds on work that the Government are already doing. By allowing the Bill to proceed today, we can go a step further towards making all jobs flexible by default, which will enable more women to stay at work and advance their careers after having children, help to close the gender pay gap and unlock productivity for businesses, and help employers to recruit more diverse candidates—especially those with disabilities. It will change the way we think about the work-life balance, shifting the culture in favour of flexible work and equal parenting, grasping the power of new technology to free workers from the nine-to-five and giving people choice about how they live their lives. Flexible working is the future, so I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Helen Whately, Victoria Prentis, Rachel Maclean, Tracey Crouch, Vicky Ford, Eddie Hughes, Emma Reynolds, Tom Tugendhat, Tracy Brabin, Gillian Keegan, Kirstene Hair and Andrew Selous present the Bill.

Helen Whately accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 423).