Flexible Working

– in the House of Commons at 1:41 pm on 30th June 2021.

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

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Education) 1:44 pm, 30th June 2021

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give workers the right to flexible working from the first day of employment except in exceptional circumstances;
to require employers to offer flexible working arrangements in employment contracts and advertise the available types of such flexibility in vacancy notices;
and for connected purposes.

Before the pandemic, about 60% of the workforce said that they had some flexibility when it came to working. Leading organisations in the field, such as the commercial law firm Hill Dickinson, and astonishing organisations in my constituency, such as Synergy Vision, have talked about bringing in flexible working for their employers and increasing happiness in the workforce. Synergy Vision has been recognised for that with a UK’s Best Workplaces 2020 award. When I asked its chief executive, Ffyona Dawber, what benefits had come out of introducing flexible working, she said that it was a win-win for the employers and the employees.

During the pandemic, things have changed and there has been a 6% increase in the workforce who work from home, but there is a myth that during coronavirus everyone had flexible working and everyone worked from home. Actually, that is not true. The truth is that people who were on higher incomes and earning more were able to work from home and work flexibly, but that was not the case for everyone. People on low incomes either did not have the flexibility at work or had to retain working from home and could not change their working lifestyle at all.

In fact, from March 2020, flexible ways of working other than working from home, including compressed hours, job sharing and part-time working, all declined gradually. The organisation Pregnant Then Screwed said that phone calls to its hotline from women who had been refused when they asked for flexible working had more than doubled, and about two thirds of requests for flexible working had been turned down.

Four out of five people want to work flexibly in future. There are organisations that are already doing that work; the Royal Air Force, for example, was recognised as a leading practitioner with an award for best practice in flexible working. There are other organisations that believe that putting the mental health of their employees first is important.

For those of us who were able to work from home and work flexibly during coronavirus, it was a life-changing experience. I spoke to parents who said that they had never felt more connected to their children. There were mothers who talked about the relief of not being the last to pick up their child from nursery—sitting on the step of shame, as we call it. I can relate to that. I spoke to disabled workers who said that it was such a relief that they did not have to commute to work in the morning and that they could sit in their own living room, log on and speak in Zoom meetings. I spoke to carers who said that it was such a relief not to have to worry about whether the pharmacy was closing and whether they could get to it in time to get urgent medication for the elderly relative they were looking after.

There were people who benefited massively. The truth is that flexible working disproportionately benefits people who are women, people who are disabled, people who are carers, people who are from low-income backgrounds and people from a black and minority ethnic background, because the intolerant office culture still exists. There are also massive mental health benefits from flexible working—in a survey, 96% of employees said that their happiness levels had risen since agile working was introduced—not to mention the benefits for retention and recruitment in the workplace. EY has said that the productivity of workplaces when they introduce flexible working is quantified at £15 million per year. Infrastructure and construction companies said that when they started talking about and promoting flexible working, 38% more people started applying to the jobs that they advertised.

There is also the benefit that there is a wider talent pool of people to pick from once employers have advertised flexible working, but overall the impact of flexible working is mostly on women—that is something that we cannot deny. In this country, the responsibilities for childcare and looking after children largely fall on women. The statistics show that if women can flexibly work and go back to their jobs, they are twice as likely not to quit their jobs after they have had a child, and to go back to their careers. Men can work flexibly, too, and the statistics show that women are twice as likely to excel in their career if their husband is helping them with childcare. McKinsey has pointed out that if we fully utilise women in the UK economy, by 2030 we would be adding £150 billion to our economy. A lot of that depends on widening flexible working and making sure people buy into it.

Despite the benefit to the economy, the impact on mental health, the benefit to disabled people, the benefit to people on low incomes and the benefit to people from BAME backgrounds, there still is not a culture of flexible working in this country. Since 2020, only 17% of jobs advertised have said that those who apply can work flexibly. A third of requests for flexible working are turned down. This problem is that companies can use a wide range of business reasons for not granting a request for flexible working. The problem is that companies are given a blank cheque. They are not told they will face some sort of legal restriction if they say people cannot work flexibly. There is no point saying that coronavirus has completely changed office work culture and that everyone will be able to work flexibly from now on.

I have a million case studies at my fingertips, but I will use just one. It is of a mother who looks after a five-year-old child, has a disabled husband and has caring responsibilities for her 80-year-old father. During the pandemic, she worked flexibly and her productivity increased, which was reflected in her bonus. She went to her employer when the pandemic sort of came to an end and they were all going back to the office, and her boss said, “You can’t continue working flexibly.” That goes to show that we cannot leave it up to offices to make their own decisions. We have to bring in robust legislation if we want to change the culture and if we want to make some amount of change.

I welcome the fact that the Government are consulting on making flexible working the default, but I have been in politics far too long and know that consultations can drag on. They may have the veneer of being true and that action will be taken in the end, but they drag on and nothing changes. We in this Parliament have the privilege of changing the law so that flexible working becomes something that everyone can enjoy and to which everyone has the right, not just the privileged few who have the perk of enjoying it.

I ask the Government to pay attention to the fact that I have cross-party support for my Bill. Members will have received numerous emails from constituents about flexible working. I also ask the Government to take this seriously, to bring in robust legislation and to make a difference to the way we work in this country.

I thank some of the organisations that have pushed for the change for years and have helped me with my Bill: Pregnant Then Screwed, the TUC, the Fawcett Society, Mother Pukka, Young Women’s Trust, Gingerbread, the Fatherhood Institute, and Working Families. I hope the Government will listen to me, to their colleagues who support this Bill and to voices across the House by introducing legislation that changes the way we work in this country once and for all.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Tulip Siddiq, Laura Farris, Layla Moran, Christine Jardine, Caroline Lucas, Dr Philippa Whitford, Claire Hanna, Jim Shannon, Mary Kelly Foy, Kevin Brennan, John McDonnell and Dawn Butler present the Bill.

Tulip Siddiq accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 November, and to be printed (Bill 136).