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Flexible Working

Volume 458: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend the right to request to work flexibly to parents of children up to the age of 18; to make provision for the encouragement of employers to offer flexible working arrangements; and for connected purposes.

As Liberal Democrat spokesperson for women and equalities and for small businesses, I often have to balance the needs of both groups when looking at policy. It might be thought that flexible working is a topic that would require such balancing. I introduce this Bill, however, in good conscience that I am serving the interests of equality and good business.

I am indebted to Mrs. Susie Ankrett, who is both a constituent and a small business owner, for suggesting this Bill to me. Mrs. Ankrett runs an award-winning recruitment agency, Plum Personnel, and is well placed to understand the issues from all sides—as indeed am I, having had my own small business and brought up my family at the same time. Even if someone is Superwoman, doing such things while developing a career is tough. That is the dilemma facing so many families today. Women begin their career with roughly equal status with men. I say “roughly”, because women graduates still earn on average 14 per cent. less than men at the start of their careers, and by the time they reach the age of 35 to 40 the gap has widened to 40 per cent.

What happens? It starts when children come along. For me, having my daughter was the most wonderful experience of my life bar nothing, and I am sure that many women feel the same. I am also sure that being a father carries the same sense of privilege for many men. Men want to exercise that privilege, but there is a problem. In many companies there is a long- hours culture—I call it “presentism”—under which someone’s worth is valued more by the number of hours that they are at work than by the economic contribution that they make. So when baby comes along, the option of both parents taking their share in the caring is often not feasible. One partner has to make a career sacrifice and take the lion’s share of the child care. That is often gladly and willingly done, but the trouble is that the parent who makes that sacrifice will pay the price in future career advancement—and, let us face it, that is usually the mother.

The mother will, therefore, often take part-time work far below her skill level to fit in with school hours and holidays, and when she wants to return to work full- time she finds that the boys have raced ahead. She still takes the main responsibility for the children, and she is unattractive to employers as a result. The equalities review published only a few weeks ago found that, in the recruitment stakes, women with children under 11 are 45 per cent. less likely to be employed than men. Employers are, therefore, missing out on a wealth of talent that they could be tapping into for fear that a mother will need time off to exercise her caring responsibilities. She has hit the glass ceiling, and they are losing real ability, loyalty and a much stronger economic contribution to their company.

In the home, the husband often sees too little of the children. He continues to work long hours because the economic responsibilities have fallen to a disproportionate extent on his shoulders. The inequality of the relationship is reinforced by the economic divide, but it does not have to be that way. Flexible working can rescue the situation for the employer and the family.

Research into flexible working by the Department of Trade and Industry in the 2003 work-life balance study discovered that employers who provided flexible working found that that had a positive impact on employee relations, enhanced employee commitment and motivation, reduced labour turnover, and had a positive effect on recruitment, absenteeism and productivity. Two thirds of respondents to a survey by the Work Foundation said that flexible working helped to reduce absenteeism, and research has shown that flexible working practices have enabled small businesses to recruit and retain higher-quality staff. DTI research in 2000 found that some small businesses saved up to £250,000 through reduced staff turnover, simply by adopting flexible working policies.

For businesses small or large, flexible working can bring benefits. Let us consider Microsoft, some 85 per cent. of whose UK employees work flexibly. Need I say more? In fact, I do need to, because there are many situations where flexible working would not work for some employees. There are good business reasons for companies to say no, and everyone understands that. Under the current legislation, no employer is forced to accede to a request for flexible working if there is a business case not to. I know that some small businesses feel that employment legislation puts them at a great disadvantage. Small business people want to put their energies into building their businesses, rather than getting bogged down in worrying about falling foul of Government legislation, or acting as an unpaid revenue collector for the Government.

Maternity leave is a bête noire for many small companies. When one employee constitutes 25 per cent. of the work force, losing them on maternity—or paternity—leave obviously causes a problem. How much better it would therefore be if such an employee could work flexibly, continuing to contribute—albeit in a more limited way—instead of being lost altogether for a period.

Employment legislation should act as a facilitator for a fair business relationship between employee and employer, not as a dictator. Flexibility works both ways; when there is appreciation of the needs of each party, the situation works to mutual advantage. I would therefore like to see more flexibility in the implementation of Government legislation, allowing mutual agreements that are in the spirit of accommodating the needs of both parties.

I have talked about businesses, but let us consider fathers for a moment. Again, research supports what is common sense: the more time a dad spends with his child, the less likely that child is to experience developmental problems. That is a benefit to society, as well as to the father. A more balanced home/work life also means that the father is less likely to suffer the stress that damages productivity and increases absenteeism. For women, flexible working could help to raise that glass ceiling, enabling them to enjoy a career and a family without having to be Superwoman to achieve both.

Existing legislation provides for parents of children up to the age of six to have the right to request flexible working. In my view, there is a business and a social case for extending that right to all workers, which the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Minister for Children and Families, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), have called for. I would like to see a definition of flexible working wide enough to accommodate the needs of all parties. However, before such a step is enshrined in legislation, I want to see a full economic impact assessment, and a pilot study to assess the effects post-implementation, as well.

Today, I want simply to pave the way for this enhancement, which extends the right to request flexible working to parents of children up to the age of 18. I submit that parents of children aged between six and 18 have just as important a parenting role, and just as many trials, tribulations and challenges—and triumphs—to face. How much better it would be if mum and dad could still be around, particularly at stressful times such as when their children change school, or at exam time?

I leave the last word to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the leader of the Conservative party, who in a recent speech to the Working Families charity said:

“Flexible working is good for families, business and society”.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Lorely Burt, Susan Kramer, Jo Swinson, Annette Brooke, David Haworth, Stephen Williams, Lynne Featherstone, Danny Alexander, Jenny Willott, Sandra Gidley and Dr. Evan Harris.

Flexible Working

Lorely Burt accordingly presented a Bill to extend the right to request to work flexibly to parents of children up to the age of 18; to make provision for the encouragement of employers to offer flexible working arrangements; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 85].