Flexible Working

– in the Scottish Parliament on 28th September 2017.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Good afternoon.

The next item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-07560, in the name of Ruth Maguire, on flexible working, maximising talent and driving inclusive growth. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the Timewise report,

Flexible Jobs Index Scotland: Maximising talent and driving inclusive growth

; understands that the research and report were commissioned by the Scottish Government working in partnership with Family Friendly Working Scotland; further understands that the report represents the first time that the ratio of quality jobs advertised as open to flexible working options in Scotland has been researched; acknowledges the key finding of the report that demand for flexible jobs massively outstrips supply, with only 11.9% of quality jobs, paying at least £20,000 FTE, being advertised as flexible, while 34% of people seeking employment in Scotland are looking for part-time or flexible vacancies; considers that companies in Cunninghame South and across Scotland with family-friendly and flexible working policies reap the benefits of more loyal, motivated and productive staff and a happier and healthier working environment, making flexible working positive not only for workers and families but also for businesses and the economy; believes that the findings of this report demonstrate that companies that do not offer employees flexible working are failing to recruit and retain the best talent, and also highlights the huge potential for growing the flexible jobs market across Scotland; commends the work of Timewise and Family Friendly Working Scotland; notes the calls for employers to read this report and consider what positive actions they can take in the future, and further notes the calls on MSPs to promote family-friendly working practices to local businesses in their area.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

I thank colleagues from across the chamber who signed the motion, allowing this debate to take place, and I look forward to listening to their contributions.

Colleagues will note that the family friendly working Scotland partnership was involved in the production of the report that is cited in the motion. I am grateful to Lisa, Nikki and their colleagues for their tireless work to promote flexible working practices, and I extend my personal thanks to them for their support in organising a breakfast briefing for local businesses that I held in Irvine earlier this month, which I will speak about a little later.

First, I will focus on the Timewise report. As the motion states, the report is, in and of itself, groundbreaking, as it represents the first time that the ratio of quality jobs advertised as open to flexible working in Scotland has been researched. The report’s findings are just as remarkable. It sets out how demand for flexible working far outstrips supply, showing that, although just over a third of people in Scotland seek part-time or flexible vacancies, only about 11 per cent of quality jobs are advertised as such—I say “advertised as such” because the report highlights the frustrating fact that many employers who would be open to flexible working, and who provide it for existing employees, do not advertise that in their recruitment ads.

We have a twofold problem: the low availability of quality flexible working jobs and the poor advertisement of those that exist.

The flexible jobs market deficit has many negative consequences for individuals as well as for our wider society and economy. It means that there is a talent bottleneck, particularly for women. It means that a significant number of well-qualified people become trapped in low-paid and part-time work, because they need flexibility but cannot find a quality part-time or flexible job. Again, that has a particular impact on women, many of whom have caring responsibilities, which is an issue that Graeme Dey will speak about in his speech. It also means that employers are missing out on hiring the best and the most diverse talent to grow their business, including women returners, older workers, disabled people and those simply seeking to work differently.

Addressing that deficit and expanding the availability and the promotion of flexible working would help to create a fairer Scotland and a stronger economy founded on inclusive growth and greater gender equality.

The “inclusive” in inclusive growth is crucial—it means economic growth that takes everyone along with it and jobs with good working conditions that pay at least the living wage. I know that many of my colleagues are registered living wage employers and ask that they encourage companies in their constituencies to join them.

Flexible working can provide a better balance between home and work life for families across the country. It would allow more women to progress in their careers while balancing work with family life; it would allow qualified and motivated people to thrive and to contribute in a way that is right for them; and it would deliver benefits for businesses and the wider economy, with more loyal, productive and motivated employees who feel valued and supported.

The good news is that positive strides have been taken to normalise and to reap the benefits of flexible working. Along with the living wage, flexible working is a key ask of the Scottish business pledge. It was central to the report that the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee published in June, “No Small Change: The Economic Potential of Closing the Gender Pay Gap”. My friend and colleague Gillian Martin will speak to that later.

Organisations such as family friendly working Scotland and Working Families already provide excellent guidance and resources for employers to adapt their recruitment practices, in particular by using the

“happy to talk flexible working” strapline.

Many employers, from big global corporations to small local businesses, and everything in between, have discovered the benefits of fair and flexible working, which has led to great results. As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, I recently held a breakfast briefing event for local businesses, and I will conclude by sharing some concrete examples of flexible working and the benefits that it has brought to local businesses in my constituency.

One of our speakers was Victoria Edwards, who is the chief executive officer of Irvine-based call centre Voca. I first came into contact with Victoria when I was promoting the living wage, and I could not have hoped to have a better employer in my constituency. Voca is the first call centre in Scotland to pay the real living wage. The company does not use exploitative zero-hours contracts and it supports flexible working and a good work life balance for its employees. As Victoria explained to us at the briefing, call centres normally have a terrible reputation for working conditions and can be very difficult to recruit for. However, thanks to her flexible and fair approach to her employees, she no longer has to use recruitment agencies in her business and she has a loyal and hard-working staff.

We also heard from Jim Gallagher, director of Ayrshire-based Gallagher Healthcare, which comprises eight community pharmacies. It is another customer-facing business. He told us about an employee who started with his company as a Saturday girl, earning money as a school student. She went to university, got qualified and then came back to the business as a qualified pharmacist. She worked her way up, which included taking two lots of maternity leave, coming back to work flexibly in different ways as she raised her family. Jim explained that she was a trusted employee and the company wanted to support her and, crucially, to keep her talent.

Now that the founder of the company is working flexibly to look after her grandson, she has given up her superintendent pharmacist position to Gillian, who is now leading in the most senior pharmaceutical role in the business. She went from being a member of Saturday staff to superintendent pharmacist. She stayed on throughout as she was given flexibility during the times that mattered, and now the business benefits from her experience and her knowledge of the customers at a time when the founder wants and needs to flex her role.

Where flexible working is already practised, the benefits to individuals, families and businesses are clear. What is also clear is the huge potential for growing the flexible jobs market even further. All that we have to do is seize it.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I thank

Ruth Maguire for bringing to the chamber this important debate on an issue that affects many working families. I include my own in that.

As a member of the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee, I was keen to have the causes of the gender pay gap investigated. The result was an inquiry into the reasons why many hard-working, talented and highly qualified women do not earn the same as their male counterparts and do not have the same access to high-earning positions or career progression throughout their career. Over our six weeks of evidence gathering, one phrase kept on cropping up, and that was “lack of access to flexible working arrangements”. We found that that single issue pushes able women with caring responsibilities into lower-paid work, shift work, zero-hours work and work that is under their skill set.

I always tell this personal story when I talk about flexible working. Nearly 20 years ago, I worked in a company that was undergoing its Investors in People assessment, and quite a few of us employees—not just women, but men and women throughout the company—decided that we would ask the managing director whether he would consider implementing flexible working practices. Core office hours were 9 am to 5.30 pm, but we wanted the option to start our day at any time between 7 and 10 am and end it between 4 and 6.30 pm. We reckoned that, as long as people worked their contractual hours over the period of a month and did not miss any scheduled appointments or meetings, we could have flexibility.

The MD was really sceptical. He was convinced that flexible working would be abused and that it would adversely affect productivity and his bottom line but, in fairness to him, he said that he would allow a six-month pilot. At the end of that period, he called a staff meeting and announced his analysis. Staff productivity had risen. It seemed that all staff had managed their time better. People did not take advantage. No one did less than their contracted hours—in fact, he found that many did more. There was a drop in the number of staff taking time out of the day for appointments with, for example, doctors and dentists, because people used their flexitime for that, and sick leave had more than halved.

He also said that people seemed happier and less stressed. They were not battling through the rush-hour traffic every day to get there on time, and they were not spending so much time in their cars—useless time when they could do nothing. They could avoid the traffic and get to work a lot more quickly.

The work did not just get done; he reckoned that it got done more quickly and better. If someone came in at 7 am, they delivered work ahead of schedule. He had taken on the pilot reluctantly, but he became almost evangelical about the benefits of flexible working. In that six-month period, he discovered just the short-term effects. During our gender pay gap inquiry, the companies that talked to us about how they had tackled the gender pay gap and were positive about flexible working arrangements told us that employees were less likely to leave a job that had flexible working hours to find alternative employment to fit in with caring responsibilities. Employees felt more trusted and, as a result, more valued, so they stuck around. Flexible workers were less likely to call in sick. In the world of work, a major overhead is recruitment and retention, and another is time lost due to sick leave.

Flexibility is not just about start and finish times; it can also be about location and whether it is possible to work from home. The issue affects not just women; it affects all family members, because flexible working can be an advantage to anyone, regardless of whether they have caring responsibilities. Highly qualified people who might be finding it hard to find a job that fits in with their caring responsibilities might prioritise a flexible working schedule over more costly incentives that might otherwise be offered to entice the best people into a workplace.

I do not just give speeches about flexible work; my office in Parliament and my constituency office are flexible working environments. If it works for me and my staff, it might it work for an awful lot of other employers.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I congratulate Ruth Maguire on securing the debate. I welcome the support that the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments have shown for flexible working in recent years. Other members have spoken about the benefits of flexibility in the workplace, and I am sure that others will do so as the debate continues. It is positive that we are discussing the subject today.

A step change in the political approach to flexible working was made in 2014 when the UK Government granted all employees a right to request flexible working. Since then, we have seen considerable steps forward in shared parental leave and free childcare—the latter has been expanded across the United Kingdom by its various Administrations.

As well as legal entitlements, cultural change has to follow if flexible working is to become commonplace. Incorporating commitments to flexible working into the Scottish business pledge and the Scottish Government’s fair work programme represents a positive contribution to change. However, it is clear that we still have a considerable way to go to embed that cultural shift. Earlier this month, the Trades Union Congress pointed to a survey of young parents in low-paying jobs in which two out of five saw themselves as “penalised”, with fewer hours and worse shifts, for requesting flexible working. The aspiration of both Governments must be to create long-term and enduring change in working practices if the benefits are to be realised.

The Timewise analysis noted that the Highlands—my region—had a slightly lower-than-average level of flexible jobs that pay more than £20,000 a year, at 11.6 per cent. In many rural areas around Scotland, there are challenges for businesses to deliver flexible working. Last year, the Institute of Directors survey noted that half its members would be more inclined to offer flexibility in working arrangements if there was a greater availability of fast, reliable broadband. We know that jobs in parts of the Highlands and Islands region are comparatively low paid and that parts have lower-than-average levels of professional jobs available. Flexible working could well prove to be a benefit to a region such as ours by making it an increasingly attractive place to live and work in, but the infrastructure to support it must be in place.

The Timewise analysis showed that 58 per cent of jobseekers were seeking part-time work only, while noting that transitioning to part-time work was often accompanied by a drop in status and hourly pay. In addition to the human cost, that represents a waste of an economic resource, as individuals who seek shorter hours in place of flexibility are being pushed into lower-skilled, lower-paying jobs. That benefits no one.

Members will be aware that I sit on the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee and that flexible working arose during its recent gender pay gap inquiry, which happened before I became a committee member. Among the committee’s findings were that flexibility can be valued as much as employee benefits or salary increases. It concluded that, ultimately, flexible working can promote people staying on in work and returning to the workplace after breaks such as parental leave.

In its report, the committee made a number of recommendations; it would be interesting to hear the minister set out where any progress has been made. The first recommendation was that the Scottish Government should collect data across the public and private sectors on requests for flexible working and how many have been successful. It would also be welcome if we could hear more about how the public sector is leading more widely on flexible working and the uptake of flexible working arrangements, not only directly in the Scottish Government but across schools, the police and the national health service.

We are still in the early stages of building flexibility into working practices. With the correct support from the Government and businesses in the coming years, change can come, and it has the potential to be substantial. I thank Ruth Maguire again for securing the debate.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I, too, commend Ruth Maguire for securing the debate. I commend family the friendly working Scotland initiative and, in a departure for me, the Scottish Government for commissioning the report. I see that I have shocked the Minister for Employability and Training. It is only with evidence that we can start to understand not just the nature of the challenge but the nature of the opportunity, because flexible working is an opportunity that we should exploit in the interests of the economy.

I pay tribute to family friendly working Scotland and to one of its directors, Lisa Gallagher. I used to know her in a different context, when she worked with the International Network of Street Papers. I am pleased that she and her organisation are all about encouraging employers in Scotland to engage in flexible working practices and that FFWS leads by example by offering such working practices.

Like others, I draw the Parliament’s attention to the recent report from the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee, “No Small Change: The Economic Potential of Closing the Gender Pay Gap”. Tucked in there are recommendations about flexible working. Committee members considered flexible working very much as part of our inquiry. With all due respect to Conservative members, I say that the committee noted that employers are obliged under the Employment Rights Act 1996 to consider flexible working requests. That is the minimum position; the situation is very different when what is needed is a change to a culture in which people feel supported. Companies may have the right flexible working policies, but they must have a positive work environment, too.

The committee recognised that flexible working needs to be available career long. There are clear benefits for parents—men and women—who share childcare responsibilities and for people who share other caring responsibilities, too. There are also benefits for people who are getting older and who, as they approach retirement, want to work less. The benefit for the employer is that it retains the knowledge in the organisation.

A lack of flexible working costs our economy. Women—it could be others, too, but let me just say women—are underemployed and their skills are underutilised. They end up working in positions that are well below their level of qualification, which does not benefit our economy.

The Scottish Women’s Convention told the committee that many women

“are unable or unwilling to work the same hours they did before they had children, however this does not affect their ability to do their job”.

Others told us about the positive impact of flexible working on the economy and growth. It is also positive for people who want to engage in flexible working. It is good for workers, good for business and good for the economy—what’s not to like?

The committee aimed some of its recommendations at the Government and, indeed, the Parliament—I say that while the Presiding Officer is here. We asked the Scottish Government, its agencies and the Scottish Parliament to ensure that all jobs are advertised as flexible, agile or part time, that they all collect data about what is going on in the public and private sectors and that all job application forms contain a commitment to flexible working.

We know that there is a long way to go. Only 11.9 per cent of jobs are advertised as flexible, and demand far outstrips supply. That poses a barrier to progress. Something like 128,000 well-qualified people—mostly women—work part time. Many of them work at a level that is well below their qualification level and earn less than £20,000 when they could probably earn double that, if not more. That is an opportunity lost.

I ask the Scottish Government to bed in a commitment to flexible working in everything that we do or that the Government can influence. Whether it is the Government, the Parliament, the public sector and our colleagues delivering in local government or the private sector, through procurement or the Scottish business pledge, flexible working is not just a nice thing to do; it matters to our economy and it matters so that we as a society make use of all our talents.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

As is customary, I congratulate Ruth Maguire on bringing the matter to the chamber. The Timewise report raises important issues. Among other things, it identifies an important distinction in the availability of flexible working in noting that the majority of employers offer it to employees they “know and trust” and see it as a “retention tool”, but that many employers fail to use it to attract people when recruiting. The report states that employers seem to have a default position of advertising jobs as full time even when they seek to replace someone who was working part time and, similarly, of failing to note flexible working as an option even when the previous occupant of the post was able to work flexibly.

There is a lesson to be learned by us all, including MSPs in our role as employers. Put simply, if employers do not change how they advertise, they run the risk of missing out on excellent staff. People need to know that they can ask for flexible working. Spelling that out in adverts helps prospective employees to identify that flexible working is on offer, and it might make the difference between them applying and not applying.

The Angus area, which I represent, performs relatively well on advertising—13 per cent of adverts for jobs with salaries of £20,000 or more note flexible working opportunities. However, low-skill and part-time roles are being taken by overqualified staff, who are pushed into those roles to get the flexibility that they need. We may well have the makings of a vicious cycle, as people with appropriate skills become unfairly locked out of the labour market.

I will highlight a good-practice example of flexible working for a significant sector of our community: carers. Although it is not focused on advertising by employers, the carer positive initiative seeks to provide carers with a degree of flexibility so that they can manage their employment and caring responsibilities. At the beginning of the year, I was delighted to host an event here at which the Scottish Parliament received its carer positive accreditation. There are now 81 accredited employers across Scotland, with 272,255 staff between them. They range from councils and health boards to large companies such as Scottish Gas and Standard Life.

Carer positive highlights not just obvious things, such as accommodating part-time working, flexitime, job sharing and granting emergency leave when it is needed, but things such as ensuring that carers know that they are allowed to take a call at work and that there is somewhere private for them to do so. Fife Council allows carers who wish to access its counselling service during work time to do that. Carers should feel comfortable making their employers aware of their responsibilities, but they should not feel under any obligation to do so. A carer positive logo on an advert might make people aware that a prospective employer is willing to listen to people’s needs. Voluntary Action Shetland lets new starts know, through its staff induction pack, that carers are welcome to identify themselves to the executive team or their team leader, but that they do not have to.

Why should organisations become carer positive? What is in it for them? Caring responsibilities impact people across the working-age spectrum but tend to hit a peak when people have gained valuable skills and experience. Carers leaving the workforce might not only have a negative impact on those carers’ wellbeing and financial circumstances but damage employers and the wider economy. The impact is cumulative, and it will only increase as the population ages and the number of carers rises.

Supporting carers to remain productively in work delivers benefits to employers. Evidence shows that it increases morale and productivity, reduces stress and sickness absence, and helps employers to attract and retain experienced staff. Without support, combining employment and caring can lead to stress, exhaustion and people not performing to their full potential. Losing valuable members of staff can result in a loss of skills, knowledge and experience, and it leads to increased recruitment and training costs.

I recognise that becoming carer positive is not without its challenges for small businesses but, where it can be implemented, the flexible working that the carer positive initiative delivers is quite simply a win-win.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I, too, congratulate Ruth Maguire on securing this important debate. Its timing is particularly apt as next week is national work-life week, which is an opportunity for employers and employees to focus on wellbeing at work and work-life balance.

It is important to stress that both employers and employees can gain from flexible working opportunities, as they allow both parties the flexibility to arrange work in a way that suits them.

Flexible working allows employees a better balance between their home life and their responsibilities at work. In today’s society, men and women both want to find a balance between work, family and caring responsibilities, which are shared more equally—perhaps not fully, but more equally than they were when I was growing up.

Flexible working can help businesses to retain staff, including experienced and skilled staff. Offering flexible hours when recruiting can also open up a new pool of talent with more skills. A month ago, I employed a new person to work for me at the Parliament. She was keen to have flexible hours, as was another member of my staff. Together, they now have flexible hours that suit them, and I have the best talent in the Parliament.

However, we know from the Timewise United Kingdom flexible jobs index that fewer than one quality job vacancy in 10 mentions the option to work flexibly at the point of hiring. If people do not see that on the job advert, they will simply not apply for the job. Jobs that are advertised with the option of flexibility are so scarce that 77 per cent of part-time workers feel trapped in their current roles. A report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2016 found that mothers and older workers are particularly disadvantaged by the lack of quality flexible jobs.

As convener of the cross-party group on disability, I know from having listened to many individuals that disabled people who are in work feel that flexibility would give them more opportunity to find the job that they want. Most disabled people want to contribute to society, maximise their ability to live independently, reduce their social isolation and build friendships. A report by Disability Agenda Scotland about what life is really like for disabled people in Scotland today identified that some disabled people are not able to work. That needs to be recognised and those people need to be supported. However, for others, the focus needs to shift from what they cannot do to what they can do so that they can take advantage of their talents and skills.

The evidence demonstrates that, at the age of 16, disabled people have a similar level of career aspiration to that of their wider peer group. However, by the time they are 26, they are nearly four times more likely to be unemployed. We need to foster that early aspiration and reinforce it with support that enables young people to take control of their own journey towards and into employment. I was fortunate that, when I got my first job after leaving university, my employer asked me what help I needed to be able to do it. There was flexibility, which allowed me to start off in my career.

I welcome the fair work convention’s vision of creating an environment that enables people in Scotland to have a working life where fair work drives success, wellbeing and prosperity for all individuals, businesses, organisations and society. To achieve that vision, we need to encourage more employers to take a proactive approach and use flexibility as an employee benefit that will attract talent. I urge the Scottish Government to champion the business and social benefits of flexible hiring to employers in Scotland and to make a concerted effort to reduce the disability employment gap by ensuring that flexible working is key to how not only the Scottish Government and the Parliament but local authorities and businesses throughout Scotland work.

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

I add my thanks Ruth Maguire for securing the debate. From the contributions that we have already heard, it has become clear that flexible working can do a great deal of good for Scottish businesses and working families.

We are in challenging times, and that requires society to be more creative and open to new ideas to ensure that Scotland’s workforce and economy do not suffer. On top of Brexit casting shadows of uncertainty, the average age of Scotland’s population is projected to increase. Couple that with the unknowns around EU nationals’ right to continue working in the UK and there is no doubt that attracting more working-age people to Scotland must be a top priority. Flexible working is one such creative strategy that can help Scottish businesses attract and keep more talent.

The numbers speak for themselves. Just over a third of unemployed people looking for work in Scotland are seeking part-time or flexible vacancies. Those people are better qualified than their counterparts who are looking for full-time work, yet only 11.9 per cent of quality jobs in Scotland are advertised with flexible working options. Although that is above the UK average, we should push—where we can—for that number to be higher to meet the demand that exists for flexible working. Such demand is further exemplified by the fact that 92 per cent of millennials rank workplace flexibility as a top priority when they select jobs. That is the prime demographic that Scotland should be working to recruit as our current population ages.

Research has also shown that flexible working boosts employee productivity and retention and reduces absenteeism. The Glasgow-based company, Pursuit Marketing, for example, has instituted a four-day working week for all its employees, which has helped it achieve a 500 per cent increase in job applications as well as a 32 per cent boost in worker productivity and a 98 per cent staff retention rate.

It is clear that flexible working can help foster the three main drivers of economic development: participation in the labour market, productivity and population growth. Therefore, the promotion of flexible working should have a defined place in Scotland’s economic development strategy.

As we have heard, the benefits of a flexible job are not merely financial. A report commissioned by the Scottish Government and family friendly working Scotland found that 77 per cent of part-time workers feel “trapped” in their current role. People might take on a part-time job that enables them to attend to other priorities in their life, such as caring responsibilities, but that is often at the expense of their career progression, and sometimes such workers drop out of the labour market altogether.

That phenomenon causes what the report calls a “talent bottleneck”, which has been known to have a particular impact on women. In addition, the report cited a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that states that mothers, older workers and disabled people are particularly disadvantaged by the lack of good-quality flexible jobs.

No one who wants to work should be kept from doing so. It is not about a lack of skills but a lack of opportunities. Parents should not have to choose between raising their children and advancing their career. Somebody with a disability, health issues or a caring responsibility should not be held back professionally. Indeed, I do not believe that they need to be held back, because flexible working offers a solution that could end the divide between quality of life and quality of work. We should all be talking about that as much as we can. We should continue that conversation with businesses and in our constituencies.

I see that I am running out of time, so I will finish by saying that flexible working makes sense for employers and for the country.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I join other members in thanking Ruth Maguire for leading this debate. I am happy to respond on behalf of the Scottish Government.

I heed the call that is made in the motion that we, collectively and individually as members of the Scottish Parliament, should do all that we can to promote flexible working in our respective areas.

I echo Ruth Maguire’s thanks to family friendly working Scotland, a fantastic organisation of which the Scottish Government is a funder and an active partner. She said that she has difficulty uttering the term “business breakfast briefing”. I should say that I often have difficulty uttering the name “family friendly working Scotland”, which I have written down in front of me, because we always refer to it in the context of flexible working, which makes me want to throw in the word “flexible”.

I am delighted to speak in this debate because it has allowed me to reach the pinnacle of my political experience: I have heard Jackie Baillie speak in a debate in which she praised the Scottish Government. That is a seminal moment in the history of this Parliament.

This is a timely debate because of three upcoming events. First, tomorrow’s business in the Parliament event is an opportunity to hear about the benefits of flexible working practices at one of the workshop sessions that I understand have been set up. Secondly, as Jeremy Balfour said, next week is national work life week. Thirdly, as has been mentioned quite extensively, there is a debate next week on the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee’s report on its gender pay gap inquiry. I look forward to responding in that debate on behalf of the Government.

As the Timewise report highlights, the gap between flexible working and flexible hiring is causing a talent bottleneck, particularly for women. Gillian Martin set out that issue very clearly when she talked about her own experience and she and Jackie Baillie both mentioned that the committee inquiry had picked up on that issue.

In particular, the underutilisation of skills and low-paid, part-time work are—as the committee inquiry heard—contributing factors to the gender pay gap. We will of course debate that matter in greater detail next week but I put on the record now the Scottish Government’s clear commitment to closing that gender pay gap.

Without a flexible jobs market, people become trapped in low-paid, part-time work, not because of a lack of skills but because they need that job flexibility. The skills of those workers are being underutilised by employers, and many workers drop out of the workplace altogether. Graeme Dey rightly highlighted that point. He also spoke about the carer positive initiative. I thank Mr Dey for being a champion for unpaid carers and for championing the carer positive scheme. I have seen the difference that the scheme makes, both in my previous ministerial role, when I had responsibility for the carers policy, and in my current role. Of course, the Government will continue to promote that scheme as a valuable part of the promotion of the flexible working agenda.

The Timewise flexible jobs index also highlights the potential and the need for an expansion of the flexible jobs market, which will benefit employers, employees and their families, and our overall economy.

Forward-thinking employers already understand the business case and are using flexibility as a key tool to attract a diverse range of talent into their organisations. Ruth Maguire made that point and it is a necessary point to make. Ash Denham was quite right to pick up on it as well. Against a welcome backdrop of a strong-performing labour market at this moment in time, there are concerns about certain skills gaps emerging and about the ability of employers to fill those skills gaps from elsewhere. If we are going to respond to those concerns, we need the new thinking that Ash Denham spoke of. We need to harness the talents of all our people, and part of the new thinking that we need employers to engage in is about flexible employment.

The greatest asset to any business in being able to carve out its competitive edge is its workforce. Reports published by a range of organisations have reached the same conclusion—a diverse workforce leads to greater innovation and ultimately business growth. To attract top talent, we need employers to actively discuss flexible working practices with their employees. I set out clearly that where the Scottish Government is advertising externally for a post, we use the “Happy to talk flexible working” strapline.

Flexible working helps employers to retain their top talent. We want to move flexible working into the labour market mainstream. The benefits to workers and to employers do not just apply to those with specific needs; flexible working can benefit all the employees in a particular workplace.

Flexible working, including part-time employment, can help people with disabilities or long-term health conditions to access and sustain employment. Jeremy Balfour spoke about the need for more effort to tackle the current employment gap for people with disabilities. That is something that this Government is clearly and firmly fixed on taking forward in the years ahead.

The benefits of flexible working for employees are self-evident. There is a better chance to strike a balance between work and other commitments. We also know that there are benefits for employers. The evidence supports the view that flexible working feeds into better employee engagement, motivation and retention, and ultimately productivity—all important wins for employers. That is why it is important for employers to be willing to engage with this agenda.

It was very telling to hear about Gillian Martin’s experience of having a somewhat reticent employer who was at least willing to experiment with flexible working and ultimately moved from being sceptical to being evangelical about its benefits. We need to get all employers into that space.

Many of the recommendations of the report that we have debated today encourage us to maintain our direction of travel. We will continue to do that, and we will continue to use the fair work agenda and the business pledge to develop a shared vision across Government, business and all sectors, to embed flexible working and the fair work agenda, with the goal of boosting productivity, competitiveness, employment, fair work and workforce engagement.

I am very serious about that agenda. All the evidence shows that flexible working is good not only for workers but for employers. In that sense, it makes smart business practice, and we will continue to promote it.