The Government encourage all types of flexible working by providing guidance, promoting the benefits, and sharing best practice. Employers are already required to consider seriously requests to work flexibly, including home working for mothers of young children.
I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on her new position.
This week, I spoke to women entrepreneurs at the Hull business expo. Does my right hon. Friend agree that encouraging more women to take up businesses for themselves would allow them maximum flexibility in the place where they choose to work—from home or from an office?
I do. That is an option that should be seriously encouraged when women are looking for opportunities in wanting to go back to work having spent some time at home. If we could encourage women entrepreneurs so that the rate of female entrepreneurship increases to that of male entrepreneurship, there would be 500,000 new businesses, which would make a major contribution to economic growth and productivity.
I welcome the Minister to her new post. I am confident that she will show commitment to every aspect of the equality agenda. I am pleased by what she says about encouraging home working, which is an important part of flexibility in employment. However, does she agree that, in discussing these matters, we must consider not only women with small children but women with wider caring responsibilities for elderly, disabled or ill people, as well as—we are talking about equality here—men with family and caring responsibilities?
I agree with the hon. Lady and thank her for her kind words. She knows of my commitment to this agenda; I am certainly committed to all aspects of it. I draw her attention to the fact that, since we brought in the right to request flexible working in 2002, the number of fathers taking up that right has increased threefold. She is right that we have to extend that in stages to a greater range of the population. That has been considered during the passage of the Work and Families Bill, which is progressing through its stages in this House. From 2007, the right will extend to carers—a good next step that will be widely welcomed up and down the country.