I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a pleasure to introduce the Bill, having come ninth in the ballot. I must begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), who is not currently in the Chamber. For some reason I saw him about three times during the day on which the ballots were being carried out, and on each occasion he asked me, “Have you put your name down for the ballot?” I have been a Member of Parliament for 12 years. In every one of those years I used to put my name down, and of course I never came anywhere near the possibility of getting a Bill through, so I really must thank my hon. Friend for all his encouragement.
I also want to thank the Ministers with whom I have been dealing over the last few months—the Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who is no longer present, and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell), who represents my old home town—and to welcome the new Minister, hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), to his post. I also want to place on record my thanks to the ministerial team at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for all their help and support. I want to mention two names in particular, Matthew Wootton and Tony Mulcahy.
I know that some colleagues today may have a personal interest in flexible working, and I hope that they will contribute to the debate. This is an important issue, because flexibility in the workplace is no longer just a perk or a “nice to have”. For many it is a lifeline, because it offers a much-needed pathway into the labour market and allows those with caring responsibilities to save on childcare costs by “flexing” their working patterns.
Let me start by talking about the importance of flexible working from the employee’s perspective. Many Members of Parliament, including me, were fortunate enough to be able to work from home during the pandemic, and we may appreciate the benefits of flexible working more than most. When we plugged ourselves into our online meetings each day, it meant that we could carry on, and fulfil the demands of our job, by being virtually connected to this Chamber; to our constituents in virtual advice surgeries, or to meetings with charities and other organisations. Even before the pandemic, however, many of us enjoyed a certain degree of flexibility in how we managed our diaries. Constituents have told me that working from home made them feel much more connected to their children. Many mothers—and fathers—were relieved not to have to be late collecting their children from school each day. Working from home also made life easier for carers who, like me, were looking after a chronically unwell family member.
During the pandemic millions of people benefited from flexible working, and I think we all recognise that this is a good position to be in. However, in many jobs there are still invisible restrictions that hold people back—for instance, the need to live in high-cost accommodation close to the centre of cities, or to maintain working arrangements that are hard to combine with family or other responsibilities. Recent research conducted by the charity Working Families shows that three in 10 UK parents are working in jobs that are below their skill levels because they cannot find the flexibility they need elsewhere. That is a massive waste of talent.
My hon. Friend is making an important speech on an issue that I am passionate about. She will know that we as a country are in the midst of a mental health crisis that, in addition to destroying lives, is costing the UK economy about £100 billion a year. The evidence, which I am sure she has looked at, shows that flexible working brings mental health benefits as well as wellbeing to employees. Can she elaborate on whether she thinks the Bill contains benefits not only for public health but for the economic development of our country?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I acknowledge the sheer amount of work that she has been doing on the issue for many years, and I thank her for that. I will come on to the economic benefit of flexible working and how much we lose out by not doing so. Mental health is an issue that is becoming more a feature of our daily lives and in society.
It is important to remember that flexibility is far more than hybrid working. It covers job shares, reduced or compressed hours, flexitime, and even phased retirement. Offering flexibility to balance work and home life can be key to ensuring progression in the labour market and to opening up employment and promotion opportunities to everyone, regardless of their gender, age, disability or location.
In the last few months, I have met a number of charities and organisations that represent thousands of members who are affected by flexible working—or rather, the lack of it. For example, the Multiple Sclerosis Society shared numerous cases of how flexible working has benefited people with MS. I learned about Trishna, who lives with MS and has found that having good, flexible working policies from her employer means that she is able to stay in work longer. Flexible working means that she can work from home with flexible hours and can manage her workload around her fatigue. She can start work early and finish early when she needs to, and can bank hours for days when she does not have the energy or strength to work.
Although more people have been able to work flexibly since the start of the pandemic, some have not been able to work in that way despite wanting to, even though there is often no good reason for the employer not to let them. That has serious consequences for women and families in particular, and for those with childcare commitments.
I recently met an organisation called Pregnant Then Screwed, which shared a large volume of shocking cases where women had been affected by the lack of flexible working opportunities. In one case, a mother shared:
“I had to leave my job after maternity…because my job didn’t support flexible working and I was unable to find another suitable part-time role in the company.”
She says that, to her detriment, it meant that she had to leave her career and it affected her mental health. She
“became a stay-at-home mum, putting huge pressure on my husband to pay for our household on one income”.
That is really unfortunate, because statistics show that if women can access flexible working, they are twice as likely to stay in that job and continue with their careers while having children and a family life.
Men’s ability to access flexible working is just as important. The statistics show that women are twice as likely to excel in their career if their husband is helping with the childcare. Younger families, single parents and lower earners were hardest hit financially during the pandemic and again now we have the cost of living crisis. In a recent survey, the charity Working Families found that 60% of those who took part said that it is financially harder to raise a family now than it was three years ago. That makes it more urgent than ever for people to have access to flexible working.
As my hon. Friend says, this issue is close to my heart and I am glad she has cited the work of Pregnant Then Screwed, which has done valuable research on this topic. She will know that one in three requests for flexible working is turned down. Will she elaborate on the fact that we need to change the legislation, but also the culture of the workplace so that employees, especially mothers who are trying to look after their children and go to work at the same time, feel they can ask their employers for flexible working?
My hon. Friend anticipates something I will touch on in my speech relating to the financial side. In fact, I was just about to come on to the point that flexible working is good not just for employees, but for employers and the wider economy. By removing invisible restrictions, flexible working fosters a more diverse workspace. The evidence shows that that leads to improved financial returns for businesses. McKinsey points out that by fully utilising women in the UK economy, we would be adding £150 billion to our economy by 2030. Therefore, widening flexible working is very important for employers, too. It has also been shown that workers who have more flexibility are more motivated at work and are more likely to stay with a particular employer.
The hon. Lady is making a very powerful and good speech, and I am broadly supportive of the measures in her Bill. She talks about the engagement she has undertaken with charities and a number of organisations representing employees. Has she engaged with the Federation of Small Businesses and other employer organisations? I am particularly concerned about the impact the Bill might have on small businesses.
Yes, and I have discussed the matter with Zurich Insurance Group, which is very keen on flexible working. I think that when I explain the Bill in detail, the hon. Gentleman will find that it will not place any undue financial consequences on small businesses if an employer is not able to offer flexible working. The idea is to think a bit more out of the box and more creatively. I do not think that small businesses are against flexible working either. When I talk about businesses and employers, I am including everybody in that. I am saying that it is a good thing for employers, whether they run a small business or a large business. Recent research from the charity Working Families found that half of all UK parents would leave their current job if they found one with more flexibility, so it would help an employer.
I have personal experience as an employer, and, even before the pandemic, I was a strong advocate for the benefits of flexible working. In my office alone I have accommodated staff with childcare needs, those who wished to study part-time, two employees who were job sharing and an employee who worked compressed hours so that he could fulfil his council duties. I have to say that it worked very well in my office.
Taking a broader perspective, recent figures show that there are almost 9 million economically inactive working-age adults in the UK, with 1.75 million citing caring for family as their reason for not working. Again, that is a huge reservoir of untapped talent and productivity that greater flexible working opportunities could help us tap into.
The Bill will introduce changes to the existing right to request flexible working. For those who are not familiar with the background to the legislation, the right was first introduced in 2003 for employed parents and carers of children under the age of six and disabled children under the age of 18. The legislation has been amended several times, most recently as part of the Children and Families Act 2014. The right currently allows all employees who have 26 weeks of continuous service with their employer to make one statutory application per year to change their working hours, working patterns or work location. When the employee submits such a request, they are asked to explain what effect, if any, the change would have on the employer and how that might be dealt with. Employers have to consider all eligible requests and can refuse them only on one of the eight business grounds set out in the legislation. They have three months in which to respond to the employee’s request.
The Bill, which I hope will pass through Parliament, would, along with the use of secondary legislation, give an employee a right to ask for flexible working hours from day one. An employer could decline that, but they would need a credible business reason to do so. While the day one right is not explicitly stated in the Bill, as I understand it, secondary legislation would be introduced to say that it is a day one right. I hope that the Minister will confirm that in his response.
The Bill is focused on setting the right conditions for employees and employers to have an open-minded conversation about what flexible working arrangements might be possible in any given context. It hopes to simplify and normalise the process of making and responding to flexible working requests, bringing benefits to employees and employers alike.
The Bill has four measures. The first is a duty on the employer to consult the employee before rejecting a flexible working request. I am aware that organisations such as the TUC and Working Families, who continue to lobby for stronger flexible working rights, have been making the case that, at present, it is too easy for an employer to refuse flexible working requests. Hopefully, this measure would prevent employers from just saying no without engaging with the employee as to why. We hope that that will bring on a culture shift. Of course, it requires both sides to discuss the matter properly.
Secondly, under the Bill, the employee could apply for flexible working hours twice in 12 months. That is understandable, because sometimes situations change unexpectedly. An employee could become a carer or diagnosed with a long-term health condition meaning that their work arrangements were no longer sustainable, so being able to request a change twice in a year would assist with that. Of course, in the end, all of these things benefit the employee and the employer, because otherwise good employees may well leave.
Thirdly, under the Bill, instead of a three-month period, the employer would have two months in which to respond. That would encourage responsiveness from the employer and ensure that matters are dealt with as soon as possible. With modern technology and the things that are happening, it is right that the Bill should update the current situation.
One of the final measures in the Bill is to remove the requirement for the employee to explain the effects that the changes they applied for would have on the employer and how they might be dealt with. That is quite hard for some employees. Some people are good at writing an articulate case and making a great submission, but many employees may not necessarily have the linguistic skills to make a beautiful case. New employees in particular may not have the confidence or experience to do so. It would therefore be helpful to remove that burden from the employee.
I hope this Bill will encourage more constructive dialogue about flexible working and will make employer and employee focus on finding ways that are acceptable to both. The Bill does not of course resolve all the issues concerning better flexible working, but it is a step in the right direction.
I thank bodies including Working Families, the TUC, Pregnant Then Screwed, the MS Society and other campaigning organisations, and Zurich Insurance Group, a big insurance company which continues to lead the way on flexible working. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn for her campaign over many years and her intervention. I again thank the Minister the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton for his support. The Conservative and Labour parties can work together on this and agree that it is good for our nation. I hope all hon. Members in all parts of the House share my desire to ensure that the Bill succeeds; as we know, there are certain fragilities that accompany the private Member’s Bill process and I would like to navigate past them with the support of Members across the House.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on introducing this important Bill, which we are pleased to support. Indeed, our Conservative 2019 manifesto commits us to
“encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to.”
The current flexible working access requirements are too slow, and are not available to employees at the start of their employment. I sit on the Work and Pensions Committee and this week we heard evidence on the importance of flexible working in enabling employers to fill vacancies. While acknowledging that not every job can be done from home or with as much flexibility as the employee may wish, employers must move to accommodate employees’ needs for flexibility in such a competitive jobs market.
More flexible working would increase opportunity in my rural constituency. As long as people are connected to broadband, which is still an issue, this will enable them to access jobs and opportunities they would otherwise have to move away for. We must recognise, too, that the lack of public transport in remote rural constituencies is a very real barrier to some people being able to get to work. Also, given the increase in fuel prices, for some the costs of getting to work now outweigh the financial benefits of travelling there. I should add that too many university-educated people leave North Devon because they cannot find a role close to their community that suits their qualifications.
This week I attended the ReWAGE event here at Westminster. It has produced a report on the importance of flexibility in the workplace, and indeed making it the default. As we recover from the pandemic, we should pick up some of the positives, and recognise that how we want to work has changed. Its report found that flexible working has benefits for employers, employees and society more broadly; it widens economic opportunity as it reduces barriers to entry and can help diversify economic growth away from urban centres. But many jobs still have invisible restrictions that hold people back, like the need to live in high-cost accommodation close to the centre of cities—or, I would add, to travel to work in a rural environment. Maintaining working arrangements can also be very hard to combine with family or other responsibilities. We want to enable a high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy that also delivers on our ambition to make the UK the best place in the world for people to work, whoever they are and wherever they live.
Workers who have more flexibility are more motivated at work and more likely to stay with their employer. The business case for flexible working is clear. We know there are particular times in people’s working lives when they may need a bit of extra flexibility to balance their work with other commitments or responsibilities. That is why the Government’s manifesto committed to build on existing leave entitlements by introducing two new leave rights, for working carers and those with a baby in neonatal care, and also to make it easier for fathers to take paternity leave.
However, it is clear that there are also many other occasions when people may need that little extra flexibility, for instance, as they approach retirement, when they need to care for an elderly relative, while they recover from a longer-term health condition or as childcare arrangements change. They might even need it just to get medical treatment or attend other appointments. Technological advances have also made it a more realistic prospect, with less disruption to business and to employees. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; legislation has to create a framework for employees and employers to have genuine, two-sided flexibility. That will help society build on the culture shift brought about by the pandemic.
As we look for our economy to become more productive, that is dependent on the workforce also becoming more productive. That is very much driven by an approach to employment that recognises the needs of individuals and their own complex family lives. The more flexibility that can be brought to that relationship, one suspects the greater the productivity, making it a mutually beneficial solution for the economy, the employer, the employee and their family. Work-life balance is a necessity, not a luxury, and we have the opportunity today to deliver that change.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on bringing forward this important Bill. Having had the privilege of guiding my own private Member’s Bill in this Parliament, I commend her on the efforts she has put in to bringing forward hers; it is a very rewarding process. I also wish to pay tribute to my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for taking his place on the Front Bench—it is long overdue. However, following his leadership of the all-party group on fair business banking, I have serious concerns about who is going to take over the excellent role he played in that organisation. I would also like to praise the hon. Lady for the way that she has approached this process, engaging with Ministers on this Bill, which is gathering support right across the House.
Flexible working can mean a number of things, including hybrid working, part-time working, compressed weeks, self-rostering, or even job sharing. This is a timely Bill. As a result of the covid-19 pandemic, flexible working has become commonplace for people up and down the country. As we entered lockdown, many businesses that previously had never adopted flexible working were forced to adopt new arrangements. Those new arrangements included remote working, using new technology for work, or finding new ways of working. I know that many businesses have continued these flexible practices, which has generated a greater appetite for remote and/or hybrid working patterns from employees.
That said, individual employers and employees have different perspectives about remote and hybrid working patterns, and about returning to offices or places of work. There are differences of opinion between those advocating a return to the office and those pushing for a more employee-oriented flexible post-covid-19 future of work. Research shows that employees experience a mix of benefits and risks from remote or hybrid working patterns, depending on their circumstances. There are often mixed outcomes, such as greater autonomy and discretion over work patterns coinciding with work intensification and the potential blurring of boundaries between work and life, something to which we can all relate.
Personally, I strongly support flexible working and firmly believe that only by championing a flexible and dynamic labour market can we grow the economy, I am pleased that that view is shared by the Government. Indeed, in 2019 I stood on a manifesto that included a commitment to encourage flexible working and to consult on whether flexible working can be the default, unless employers have good reasons otherwise.
Having been an employer before I was elected to represent the people of Darlington, I know only too well the benefits that flexible working can bring. I moved to enable my staff to work flexibly long before the pandemic made it a necessity for so many businesses, and I still embrace flexible working for my team now that I am an MP, with members of my team working part of their time from home.
Almost 10 years ago, I was approached by a member of my staff who, following the birth of her child and her partner suffering from a debilitating condition, was unable to manage without having her extended family nearby, necessitating a move out of the area, which would have made commuting impossible. To resolve this dilemma, arrangements were made to supply broadband, a laptop and a phone to my employee, so she could work from home and have the benefits, comfort and convenience of having her family nearby. I have seen at first hand how flexible working can have huge benefits for a business by increasing morale, improving employee retention and productivity, and ensuring a more diverse and inclusive workforce by giving access to greater talent pools than would have previously been the case.
This Bill is not the first time that legislation relating to flexible working has been brought before Parliament. The statutory right to request flexible working is an employment right under part 8A of the Employment Rights Act 1996, with section 80F setting out the statutory right to request contract variation. The Children and Families Act 2014 also includes such a provision. It is welcome that Governments of all colours have brought in legislation on flexible working, and I am pleased to see that this Bill has cross-party support.
I know the Minister is well versed in business and experienced in dealing with employment-related matters, and he will have heard the sentiments of the House today. I thank the hon. Member for Bolton South East for giving us the opportunity to talk about these important issues and wish her every success as the Bill continues its passage.
I am grateful for the chance to speak on this important Bill. I would like to thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). It is always nice to be able to work cross-party with a fellow Greater Manchester MP—although we are both from the bit that calls itself Lancashire, so let’s say Lancashire MPs.
The covid pandemic was an extremely difficult time for this country. However, some of the solutions that were necessary during those difficult times should be looked at as opportunities for the future, and flexible working is a prime example. Many people, especially in constituency, do not work in industries where practices like working from home are possible. We owe a huge debt to those workers in industries, such as food production, manufacturing or logistics who, even at the height of lockdown, continued to go into factories and warehouses to ensure that there was food on supermarket shelves and supply chains were kept running.
None the less, in many more industries than we thought possible, we found out how flexible working could refine our workplaces. Whether that was working from home or working different hours, we saw that work could still be completed to the highest of standards and that targets and key performance indicators could still be met, with many people being able to continue meetings and work in a productive way. It also added the possibility of some jazzy backgrounds and bookshelf competitions on all those many hours of Zoom meetings.
My team were able to continue working straight out of the box. Having just been made an MP, I had to assemble a team, but they could not get into the office, so we all had to talk on Teams or Zoom for hours a day. They managed to plough through thousands of cases and we got to our 5,000th case within the first 18 months. It was an incredibly trying time. If my team had not been able to work their hours around what was going on in their own lives, such as childcare and looking after relatives, it simply would not have been possible. In a real sense, flexible working stopped this country from falling over.
I am struck by the point my hon. Friend is making. As Members of Parliament, we are lucky to be able to use a laptop and work from home, but the vast majority of working people are not using laptops on a day-to-day basis. As my hon. Friend mentioned, they are going into their workplaces to use the equipment there. He is absolutely right that this legislation is not just about working from home; it is about the flexibility to ask for varying times and adjustments. It recognises that employers have certain requirements as well. Does he recognise that employers benefit from having those flexibilities?
My hon. Friend is entirely correct; fundamentally, it is about making sure that work is done by the best possible people in the best possible way. The reality is that not everybody lives a nine-to-five lifestyle any more. For example, often now both parents work, and people have childcare commitments or are carers. The option for someone to vary their working practices in a way that allows them still to make a good living and maintain a good home life is incredibly important.
Flexible working can be a lifesaver for parents of young children, single parents, those with disabilities and carers. Parents are now able to pick up their children from school regularly, and that relationship is good for the mental health not just of the parent but of the child. I am of an age such that I remember my mum being at home the entire time and dad going to work, and because of the nature of his work I sometimes would not see him for a very long time. It is really important to have that relationship with both parents.
I have heard about employees nearing the end of their careers but now feeling more able to continue to work because they have the option to work differently. That is really important for small businesses in particular, because there may be a bit of institutional knowledge that cannot be easily replaced, so it is a good thing to give somebody the chance to work differently, train somebody else up, cut back their hours and look forward to their retirement as part of a managed process.
I should also highlight the positive effect of flexible working on shrinking the wage gap. ONS figures for 2022 show that for those under 40 the gender pay gap for full-time workers is just over 3%, but for those aged 40 to 49 and above the pay gap jumps to 10.9%. For those over 40, there is a lower incidence of women being promoted into higher-paid positions and a higher incidence of women moving from full-time to part-time work.
That change from full to part-time work directly corresponds with a very difficult decision that a lot of new parents have to make: whether to return to the office or stay at home to look after the children. For most, the extortionate cost of childcare means there is only one viable option. This results in parents—still mostly mothers—leaving the workforce or taking up part-time roles, thereby stalling their career development and thus increasing the gender pay gap. But we now know that this is not necessary. Parents can, and should, share duties while working from home or by changing their hours, and they should have a right to request such flexibility from their employers. We must make sure that access to such a style of working is available to everyone.
The Bill will benefit not only employees but employers. Businesses and companies thrive when the best people are in the right position and are able to do the job they are trained to do. By tearing down the barriers that prevent parents, the disabled, carers and older people from remaining in the workforce, we will unleash a wave of potential into our economy. This is a win-win piece of legislation, so I again thank the hon. Member for Bolton South East for bringing it forward. I encourage colleagues to support the Bill and look forward to supporting it myself.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on bringing this pertinent piece of legislation to the House for consideration.
In 2003, legislation came into force that provided employed parents, and certain other carers, of children under the age of six or disabled children under the age of 18, a statutory right to request a flexible working arrangement if they had 26 weeks of continuous service. Such an arrangement could include, for example, a change to their work location, working hours and/or associated working pattern. The right was rightly extended to carers of adults in 2006 and of children under 17 a few years later in 2009.
The Children and Families Act 2014 extended the right to request flexible working to all employees with 26 weeks of continuous service. The current statutory framework is intended to help employers to secure the business benefits of flexible working; to enable employees to better reconcile their work and non-work lives; and to provide employees with access to contractual flexible working.
As a result of the covid-19 pandemic, many businesses that previously had never adopted flexible working were forced to take on new arrangements, primarily including remote working, as was the case in my private office—I am sure that other Members experienced exactly the same thing. This change required the use of new technology for work and the finding of new ways of working.
I am glad that the Government strongly support flexible working and believe that only by championing a flexible and dynamic labour market will we grow the economy while better supporting employees across the country.
In September 2021, the Government published a post-implementation review of the Flexible Working Regulations 2014. It found that 80% of employees and 96% of employers reported that flexible working was available in their workplace. Notably, it stated:
“In the vast majority of workplaces (83%), where a request had been made the request was granted.”
However, it also found that flexible working take-up has remained broadly flat since 2014, with an all-economy average of 59%, as well as highlighting differences in reported take-up and availability, spanning sectors, occupations and genders, as well as different sizes of workplace. In the same month, the Government published a consultation on proposals to encourage a better dialogue regarding flexible working opportunities; it aimed to increase the frequency of requests, as well as speeding up the administrative process involved in making them.
I welcome the amendments that the Bill will make to the Employment Rights Act 1996. Ultimately, it seeks to introduce a requirement for employers to consult an employee before they can reject a flexible working request. As a result of the pandemic, hon. Members present have first-hand experience of managing and working with staff on a remote basis. Although not without its initial challenges, particularly in relation to technology, it has proved both practical and successful. At its best, flexible working can provide employees with a better work-life balance, which in turn is to the practical benefit of employers. It also means that people born in my beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye can live and work in the community where they were born and grew up.
There is, I think, broad support among hon. Members for this Bill and for what it entails. That support is echoed by a whole range of interest groups, organisations and individuals. We have seen that remote and flexible working has been hugely beneficial for many people; I believe that ultimately the provision of flexible working, whether or not it is welcomed, is destined to be a key part of the make-up of business and employer-employee relations in the coming years.
If we want the British economy to grow in real terms and grow in dynamism, it is imperative that changes to the workplace are properly considered, evaluated and embraced. That will be to the benefit of employees, employers, the wider public and society more generally. Positive change in the workplace cannot and should not be held back, as we are here today to recognise. It is through that lens that I consider the hon. Member’s Bill. I know from speaking to residents of Hastings and Rye that it will be welcomed by many of my constituents. For all those reasons, I give the Bill my strong support.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a practising solicitor and a partner in a firm of solicitors.
I support the Bill, which I think is a perfectly reasonable Bill. I am pleased to support the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), a fellow Lancastrian MP. I do not know whether she would wish me to say this, but I remember the halcyon days at Bury magistrates court when the hon. Lady, an eminent barrister, used to prosecute my clients and I did my best to defend them, mainly unsuccessfully. The memories came flooding back when I heard her speech. It is good to support her with a good Bill, but I want to make some points that I hope are constructive.
Flexible working is not a panacea. Every speaker so far has talked about it as something that the economy has to go towards. For a huge employer such as Zurich International, with the right resources and in a business whose nature suits it, I am sure flexible employment is a good thing.
If you will indulge me, however, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to mention my wife Joanne, who is up in the Gallery. She is a small business owner—she runs a business in Bury North—and the opportunity for flexible working in her life is non-existent. As a self-employed person, she does not have the luxury of being able to do that. She works—I am not saying this because she is my wife—night and day to keep people in employment.
The nature of the business that Joanne runs—my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) ran a similar business for many years—means that it is incredibly difficult not to have employees in the office. It is a firm of conveyancing, will and probate solicitors. With the technology and interaction that is required, in the main employees have to be there to do the job. As MPs, we sometimes forget that. Colleagues have talked about experiences in the pandemic. For small businesses in constituencies across the country the thing that matters is making money. They make money in order to be able to pay wages, and if they cannot do that, flexible working conditions do not exist at all.
This is a reasonable Bill, because it does not place undue burdens on people in businesses of different sizes, but we have to understand how businesses work, including small businesses. The situation for a business in Bury that employs 10 people does not correspond to that of Zurich International. This is not a criticism of the Bill, and I know that the hon. Member for Bolton South East reflected this in her speech, but when we talk about self-employment—we should talk about the self-employed much more in the House and cherish them much more—we must understand the sacrifices that thousands of self-employed people make to ensure that others at least have the opportunity to work in a flexible manner.
I have another concern about flexible working—I would welcome the thoughts of other speakers on this—as Bury Council, laudable organisation that it is, has essentially encouraged all its staff to work from home. During the pandemic, we had to work at home—now that may be a good thing, or it may be a bad thing. One impact is that people are not in town centres. They are not going to a local shop to buy tea, coffee and sandwiches at lunchtime. There are hundreds fewer people in town centres. If we are going to encourage flexible working—again, I think that there is a lot of merit in that—we must accept that there are consequences. We have to look honestly at the issue of productivity, which blights the labour market and our industrial output.
During the pandemic, many of us had to work from home—that was true of the Passport Office and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency—but I remain to be convinced of the benefits of that step for such organisations, which need access to certain types of information, and there is also a need for interaction with colleagues. When we offer flexible working, especially in the state sector, we have to be mindful of productivity and what it means.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing time for interventions. He is making an excellent speech, and I agree with many of the points that he has made, which have prompted earlier interventions from me. One of my concerns, having run a small business, is that when teams are together in the office a culture is created, with a transfer of knowledge. If someone is working from home that does not happen, which is why it is incredibly important that businesses think carefully about how they can allow flexible working to take place. It is not one size fits all, and for small businesses with only two or three people, having everyone working from home is not necessarily right. They have to create the workplace culture that is right for them.
As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We have to be mindful of that. Again, the House has to understand the pressures on businesses. This is an extremely difficult time for businesses across the country. The concept of flexible working takes second place to being able to pay wages and bills, and making sure that people are employed.
Can I alleviate the hon. Gentleman’s concern? Under the Bill, if the employer says, “No, I cannot provide flexible working,” that will be the end of it. There is no ability on the part of the employee to take the employer to an industrial tribunal or any such thing. If the employer says no, that is the end of the matter, so I do not think that small businesses or any other employer have to worry about the consequences of the Bill.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. As I said at the start of my speech, that is the very reason why I support the Bill. It does not place burdensome legal responsibilities on employers, but, while I am not criticising the Bill or the good intentions that underpin it, it is right that we discuss the realities of small businesses and the pressures they are under.
I welcome the Bill. It is great to be able to support a fellow Greater Manchester/Lancashire MP in trying to change employment practice. Flexible working is a great concept, because we want to ensure that people are not locked out of the labour market. As the hon. Lady has rightly said, many people with childcare responsibilities, and others, need flexible working to help them into the market and to ensure that they have an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed. There are, however, other realities that we must always keep under consideration, and we must always celebrate the self-employed.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. May I start by welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) to his rightful place on the Front Bench? He will bring incredible expertise to his role.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on bringing this Bill to the House. I spent some time with her on a parliamentary delegation a few months ago and know from the conversations that we had then, not just with each other but with counterparts and other organisations, how much this matters to her.
The working world has changed fundamentally over the past two decades—not just the typical 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, but flexible working, too. What was once an exception is now very much a norm. Whether it is flex time, part time, compressed hours, annualised hours, working remotely, job sharing or sabbaticals, it is far more common for employers to offer it and for employees to accept. That only increased further during the covid-19 pandemic, when we saw lots of business rethinking how they do things and what they need from their staff, including many in Burnley and Padiham, who saw organisations for the first time adopt flexible working practices and do so rapidly.
That did not just mean employers in my constituency offering remote working. They also took a more flexible approach to childcare and the hours that employees could work. Some have sought to scale that back, but a great deal more have continued with those arrangements, even if with tweaks, because they have seen ways in which their business can adapt.
We must recognise, however, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) has said, that flexible working is not suitable for every company, every employee or every set of circumstances. We need to encourage employers to give greater thought to flexible working and to whether it is one way of getting a more productive workforce.
There are a host of brilliant manufacturing businesses in Burnley and Padiham. For them, flexible working may—I emphasise the word “may”—be more difficult to operate in practice. They may have shift patterns or they may need to keep the factory open 24/7. We saw how important that was during covid, when companies switched from manufacturing their traditional product to producing PPE and hand sanitiser. If flexible working, employees working from home and annualised hours do not fit a shift pattern, we in this place have to be mindful and respectful of that.
I wonder, therefore, whether there should be an option in law not just to say yes or no to a request for flexible working, but to give a trial period, where the statutory consideration period of three months—or two months, if this Bill is passed—would not be necessary and the employer could say, “It’s not a yes and it’s not a no; we want to see whether it works.” I think that would alleviate the concerns of small businesses and businesses that have never found a way to offer flexible working.
It is an interesting idea to consider how to allow a bit of flexibility both ways. Who would my hon. Friend see as the right arbiter for such a scheme?
Ultimately, that must be a conversation between the business—the employer—and the employee. I think most employers want to do the right thing for the people who work for them; that is how to have a productive and motivated workforce, and the employee often wants to do the right thing for the employer. Getting both sides together to say, “Is there a way of coming up with a trial period? It may not be exactly what the employee has asked for or exactly what the employer has offered for so long, but is there a trial period?”, while the employer knows that at the end of that period there is no obligation to say, “Yes, this definitely works.”, or, “No, it definitely doesn’t.”, but that there is the option to consider it, would help.
If the trial does not work out as planned and the employer does not think it is sustainable in the long term—something that is sustainable for four or five weeks might not be sustainable for four or five years—then that gives the employer confidence to say, “Not now, but I’m happy to look at it again.” It gives the employer a little bit more flexibility.
As I think about my constituency, an area with higher unemployment than some other parts of the country, flexible working offers an opportunity to bring people back into the workforce who might otherwise struggle, be it because of childcare issues or because they are not ready to take on full-time hours. In doing that, we must ensure that we address some of the points my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) made about building a culture: if we are bringing someone back into the workforce for the first time, they might want a greater propensity for working from home or doing annualised hours, but if the impact is that they do not properly get the opportunity to embed themselves in the organisation and get the benefits of learning from colleagues, the downsides outweigh the positives.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, but I want to touch on productivity, because that is the central point. It is great to offer people the chance to work in various different ways and by various means, but if that employee is not productive in that situation away from the office, it simply cannot happen.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. One of the great problems that has vexed our economy for at least a decade is lost productivity or the suppression of productivity growth. Any changes that we try to make to employment law and employment regulations must have at their centre, “What will this do for productivity?”. Ultimately, we have spoken for a long time about a focus on economic growth, but—particularly in an economy like ours, where unemployment at the national level is at 3.5%—the only way to have sustainable high growth in the economy is by increasing employee productivity. We must think carefully about how we do that.
This Bill provides a way forward and offers both employers and employees a balance of flexibilities. As we think through the Bill as it goes to Committee, we must consider whether there are further tweaks we could make to flexible working and the kind of options available to employers, so that they can say yes, no or offer a possible third option. Nevertheless, I look forward to supporting the Bill later.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on bringing forward this important Bill. It is a very worthwhile Bill and I am delighted to see that it has the support of all sides of the House—or certainly two sides of the House. I also welcome the new Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), to his place and look forward to hearing his summing-up.
This Bill is incredibly timely. Over the course of the covid pandemic, people’s working patterns and their expectations shifted dramatically. Many businesses that had never considered flexible working suddenly had to adapt to new ways of working, including remote working. Speaking for myself, I was rather overwhelmed initially by the advent of Zoom technology, chatrooms and Google Meets, but I found that I was not a dinosaur. I adapted and I innovated, as did many entrepreneurs and schools. We had fascinating insights into the workings of parish councils and discovered that the host was all-powerful, even though Jackie Weaver did not have the authority in the end.
Before I came to this place, I set up the Invicta National Academy, which is a charitable venture that provides an entirely online tuition service. I remain a member of its advisory council, as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is an archetypal flexible working enterprise: teachers came from all over the country to teach children who were stranded at home. The staffroom was always virtual, teachers could prepare their lessons whenever they wanted, and they could choose how many lessons and courses they wanted to teach, but the quality of what they produced in those Zoom classrooms was first rate.
Good organisations innovated and moved ahead, but of course, the world has now returned to normal. I cannot imagine working 100% remotely, particularly not in this place. I welcome the connection and the ability to discuss; I think we produce better legislation that way. A rigid working day does not necessarily suit everybody, however, particularly those with caring responsibilities or with disabilities, and we need to look after them and preserve their place in the workforce. I am delighted that the Government strongly support flexible working. We understand that the only way to grow an economy is to champion a flexible and dynamic labour market.
It has been interesting to hear stories from Members on both sides of the House of interesting and successful flexible working patterns in their constituencies, and of course Southend West is no different. The spirit of innovation and enterprise marks out Southend as an impressive city, however, which is why it should be considered for the UK city of culture in 2029. I will highlight two examples. First, the Southend citizens advice bureau offers a hybrid approach to every single employee and volunteer, which is taken up by between 30% and 40% of them. It offers a work-life balance that is designed to work for everyone involved with it. I am delighted to hear that that has been a huge success with staff very happy with the arrangements.
Secondly, I will highlight the charity Action for ME—myalgic encephalomyelitis—which contacted me before this debate. As I am sure all hon. Members know, ME is a chronic, fluctuating illness that is characterised by a feeling of extreme tiredness all the time. One in every 250 people in the country is affected by ME, including 740 in my constituency. Some 25% of them are severely affected, which often means being housebound. Less than 10% of people with ME are in full-time work, so the ability for them to work remotely and flexibly, and to build a schedule around managing their symptoms, is incredibly important and is a way to preserve their mental wellbeing as well as their financial stability and security.
I am pleased that the Bill will support those with ME, particularly the 740 in Southend West. It will help them to develop better employer-employee trust and open communication. It also opens the door for employees to request flexible working time more often.
I welcome four specific aspects of the Bill. First, the proposal to introduce a requirement for employers to consult the employee before rejecting their request for flexible working. That will make the process more open and transparent and also make life much easier for those with other responsibilities. It also seems to be civilised in 21st century Britain for employers to behave in that way.
Secondly, it is an improvement on the current situation that the Bill will allow an employee to make two statutory requests in any 12-month period rather than the current one request. It alleviates to some extent—not fully of course—the worry that an employee with disabilities or caring responsibilities will have about whether to use up their one request at a particular moment in the year, or whether to battle on. At least now, there will be two opportunities.
Thirdly, I welcome the fact that the Bill will force employers to make these important decisions in a timely manner. The proposal is to reduce the decision period within which an employer is required to make that decision from three months to two months. Three months is a long time to be waiting and worrying about whether a request will be granted.
Finally, removing the requirement that the employee must explain in the statutory request what effect the change would have on the employer and how that might be dealt with is good progress. We are moving into a world in which flexible working arrangements will be seen as the norm rather than the exception.
In conclusion, flexible working is now a fact of life. It provides people with the ability to manage their lives alongside their working arrangements. I am pleased to be here today to support the Bill and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton South East for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue in the House today.
I am pleased to be able to speak on this important Bill, and my congratulations and appreciation go to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for bringing it to the House. I am also delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on the Front Bench where he properly belongs. He will be able to see the Bill through the House and to honour our manifesto commitment, which said that we wanted to make flexible working the default option for employment. I am very much in support of that principle for the reasons that have been so well set out by colleagues across the House. My thoughts are with those who have caring responsibilities who need the additional flexibility that the Bill will bring them in order to stay in the workforce and continue to contribute to our economy, but also to put their families first, as we all do. I refer in particular to those with disabled members of their family, children at home and older people.
The Bill will also be helpful to those who have other responsibilities or interests that they want to discharge alongside their employment. One of the great needs of our society at the moment is for people to contribute in their communities at home, as so many would like to do and, indeed, as so many were able to do—if in a slightly strange way—during the pandemic when they stepped up to play a role in their neighbourhoods. For all the intense stresses and distresses of that era we did see something of the society that we would like to have in future where people are living and working closer to home, playing an active role in their community and being good neighbours to each other.
The new economy that is emerging is one in which we care less about balancing work and life as if those two things have completely different spheres and operate in different universes from one in which work and life are more blurred, where we could have a more local, more sustainable life in which our economic and our community activities are interlaced, which is a very good thing. I revere my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), the former Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but I do not share his fetish for office working at all costs. There is a great role for working from home, and it is really about negotiation between employers and employees about how to get that balance right.
The only aspect of the Bill that concerns me slightly—and I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s view on why we are supporting it—is the withdrawal of the obligation on the employee to explain to the employer what the effect of flexible working would be for the company. I wonder about that, because a successful employer-employee relationship is one of common interest. I think it appropriate to ask an employee who is seeking a homeworking or flexible-working arrangement what effect that might have on the company or other organisation and on that person’s colleagues, and I think that that was a good principle. I support the Bill and I recognise that it might be appropriate to withdraw that obligation, but I think—and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) made this point very well—that we need to consider what burdens we impose on businesses when we extend workers’ rights, and should always seek not to create an adversarial relationship between employers and employees, who ultimately share common interests.
That aside, I am happy to support the Bill, and look forward to hearing from the Minister later.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak in the debate. As a mother of four who has had to negotiate very different flexible working practices throughout those years of being a mother and carer, I can assure the House that this subject is close to my heart.
I would like to invite you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to my jobs fair on 11 November at the Roehampton leisure centre. I hope that plenty of people who want flexible-working jobs—and, indeed, many other jobs—will be able to come and find out more about employment opportunities in the Roehampton, Southfields and Putney area.
I also want to pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the Mother of the House, who marks 40 years in Parliament today, and who inspired me to get into politics. She has campaigned for flexible working throughout her time in the House. She was the architect of the Low Pay Commission and the Equality Act 2010, she has been a champion for women in the workplace in Parliament and at home, and she is a long-time campaigner for flexible working for parents, grandparents and carers.
I congratulate my hon. and brilliant Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on bringing this vital Bill to the House, on working with Ministers, many organisations, many employers and others to bring it this far, and on her powerful speech. Labour fully supports the Bill, and I am glad that so many Members who have spoken today have come together to allow this common-sense piece of legislation to progress.
As I said earlier, I have four children, and at different times during their early years and primary-school education I would have benefited greatly from these provisions—from knowing that I could ask for flexible working, knowing that I could ask for it for my team as a manager, and knowing that it would not just be up to a certain manager or senior manager or the culture of a particular organisation where people might say, “This just isn’t the way we do it here”. I have had two job shares. I have experienced various changes in working times and hours and locations, depending on when my children were at nursery or at primary school and when I had to pick them up. Every time I went back from maternity leave—four times—my children immediately fell ill and I had to ask for some kind of flexible working: it just seemed to happen that way. The “day one” provision is very welcome, meaning that people will no longer have to wait for six months or many weeks. I have job-shared in politics as well, as deputy leader of the Wandsworth Labour group, and I would welcome much more flexible working in our political systems too.
Covid showed how differently we can work, and was a huge culture-changer. That, I think, will enable this Bill to be enacted and make an even bigger difference. It does make a huge difference to be able to stay in work with caring responsibilities, and, as others have mentioned today, that will greatly increase the recruitment and retention of the best possible workforce for our country. Flexible working should have been the past for far longer, but it is certainly the future. It is crucial to achieving gender equality in the workplace and a fairer, growing economy, changing our economy and the world of work for the better.
It is disappointing that the Government have not made a pledge on flexible working in an employment Bill—such a Bill has still not been brought to the House—and up to now have repeatedly failed to follow through on their promises to promote flexible working. As Working Families showed, one in three requests for flexible working has been turned down, so we do need this legislation to lead a change in working culture. With rights enshrined in law for those conversations, working culture will catch up much faster. Flexible working is not just about working from home, it is also about the place in which people can work and changing hours according to needs. The changes that the Bill would make are straightforward and make complete sense.
As has been said, the Bill would introduce a requirement for employers to consult the employee before rejecting a flexible working request—or accepting it, as I hope will happen more frequently. It would also allow an employee to make two statutory requests in every 12-month period rather than the current one request. That talks to the realities of life, where people can have changes to their caring responsibilities, changes if they have a long-term illness—there could be a change to that illness during the year—or changes that may come about for their partner or other people with whom they are sharing caring responsibilities. There may be many changes, so two requests instead of one would be welcome.
The Bill would also reduce the period in which an employer is required to administer the statutory request from three months to two months—obviously, it would be hoped that a decision would be made more quickly—and remove the requirement that the employee must explain in their statutory request what effect the change would have on their employer and how that might be dealt with. That would be shifted so that the employer would have to look into it and think about ways in which it could make a request work.
A Labour Government would go further. As part of our new deal for working people, we will ensure that all workers have the opportunity to benefit from flexible working and that they can do so from day one as a default right, with employers required to accommodate that as far as possible. The right to flexible working would include flexible hours, compressed hours, staggered hours and flexibility around childcare and caring responsibilities. A Labour Government would support small and medium-sized businesses to adapt to flexible working practices and increase the uptake of flexible working. Labour would also end one-sided flexibility, with all workers having secure employment and regular and predictable working hours so that they can plan their lives around a stable job.
I want to spend some time reflecting on the impact of that on women in particular. The level of economically inactive working-age women rose by 124,000 compared to the year before. There are 1.5 million more women than men currently out of and not looking for work. In January to August 2022, the number of people—men and women—who were economically inactive due to having to look after family members increased by 79,000 on the year before, and one in five economically inactive people cite looking after family members as the reason for that. Those figures demonstrate the need for the Bill.
For too long, working women have been denied good quality, affordable childcare, proper parental leave and access to flexible working, and our country has been denied the opportunity for growth that they would bring. Gaps in employment because of a lack of flexibility and needing to leave work at times result in a loss of confidence to return to work, having been out of work for some time. They also result in reduced pension entitlement and reduced opportunities for career progression. Those, in turn, are a major reason for the gender pay gap. The changes that this flexible working Bill would bring about would transform many people’s work and go a long way to reducing the gender pay gap.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East as well as the TUC’s “Flex For All” campaign, Action for ME, Working Families, and Pregnant Then Screwed. Those groups have been right to call out the Government for their shocking track record and repeated broken promises on supporting working mums, dads, carers and people with ME, but the Bill will be transformative for working people and will address many of those appalling statistics.
This is an excellent and long-overdue piece of legislation that will transform the lives of hard-working people up and down the country. This place is at its best when it is united around common sense and a common cause, so I thank the Government for their support in letting the Bill progress through the House.
Order. Just before I call the Minister, it was a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) on the 40th anniversary of her election to this place. May I, on behalf of the whole House, send our congratulations to the right hon. and learned Lady, who, 40 years ago, was a trailblazer about to become not only a very young female Member of Parliament, but a mother? She has been a role model and a champion for women in politics these past four decades and the whole House joins me in sending her our most sincere congratulations and best wishes. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
I now have even greater pleasure in calling the newly appointed Minister, Kevin Hollinrake.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I associate myself with the comments made about those 40 years of service by our colleague, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). I would also like to pay tribute to my predecessors, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) and my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), who did great work in a disappointingly short time in office—perhaps not too disappointing for me, but he was doing a wonderful job.
I thank the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for bringing forward this very important Bill. I was struck by her words when she described it and similar legislation as a lifeline to many people, not least carers, parents and those living with illness or disability. I really appreciate what she has done with the Bill. The key point in her speech was, I think, clarification on the day one right. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), also raised that point in her speech. It is a key part of this policy package and we will respond fully when we bring forward the response to the consultation shortly.
I thank all hon. Members who spoke on this subject today. We heard some fantastic contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) talked about flexible working benefiting people in rural communities, which I am clearly very keen to support. She also pointed out that this is a very competitive jobs market. In fact, it is the most competitive jobs market since 1974, in that we have record low unemployment levels not seen since 1974, which I think we all welcome.
My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) talked about how he personally facilitated flexible working for his employees before becoming a Member of Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) talked about flexible working helping parents to manage childcare and decreasing the gender pay gap.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) talked about employees having a better work-life balance being beneficial to employers. I was struck that many contributions did not just talk about the benefits of the Bill for employees, but that it is also critical for employers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) talked about his own experiences and about those who run small businesses that are particularly affected by this kind of legislation and that they must always be in our thoughts. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), in his interventions, talked about concerns around productivity and the impact on town centres, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham), who raised the idea of a trial period—a very interesting point. That can be done under existing legislation by granting the right to flexible working for a certain period of time and then reviewing it subsequently, but it is a very good point. The key thing is that at any point, as the hon. Member for Bolton South East pointed out, any business can reject a request if it gives reasons for doing so, which is one thing specified in the legislation. A request can be rejected on the basis of cost to the business, quality or, indeed, the performance of the employee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) talked about how the Bill could help people with conditions such as ME, by bringing more people into full-time work, and my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) talked about how the pandemic has increased the ability of our communities to operate more effectively and about the importance of employers and employees having a conversation about whether changes to employee working patterns are appropriate. That is another key part of the Bill.
The Government are committed to ensuring that the UK is the best place in the world to work and grow a business. To do that, we need a strong and flexible labour market that supports participation and economic growth. The Bill formalises good working practices, so I am pleased to confirm that the Government will support it.
As has been discussed, flexible working has a key role to play in supporting the labour market participation of certain groups relating to disability, childcare, health and retirement. Many strategies seek to encourage workplace conversations. We know that with a good discussion and a bit of flexibility, working patterns can be adapted to benefit both parties.
As many Members outlined, it is hugely important that we consult employer groups and employee groups on legislation such as this. We did that through the flexible working taskforce, which involved a range of stakeholders from employee groups and employer groups, such as the Federation of Small Businesses.
The ability to vary the time, hours and place of work is key to the effective functioning of the flexible labour market in the UK. Research suggests that in the absence of suitable working hours or locations, groups of people are either not employed, have retired early, or are working below their potential. That is clearly bad for them and for the wider UK economy.
The Office for National Statistics recently published findings showing that older workers who work flexibly are more likely to be planning to retire later. Another of its studies looked specifically at older workers who have left work since the start of the pandemic but would consider returning to paid work in future. It found flexible working to be the most important aspect of choosing a new job among that group.
Once employed, those with a flexible working arrangement have been found to be more engaged and more likely to increase discretionary effort. A 2017 report published by HSBC showed that nine in 10 employees consider flexible working hours to be a key motivator to their productivity at work.
The right to request flexible working acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to work arrangements. It is designed to help employees and employers to find arrangements that work for both sides. In September last year, the Government published a review of the legislation that found that in the vast majority of cases—83% of them—in which a statutory request is made, it is accepted.
The review found the framework to be functioning adequately but highlighted some relatively minor areas for improvement, which the Bill seeks to address. The areas for improvement were the 26-week qualifying period before a new employee can make a request; how employers consider and refuse flexible working requests; and the administrative process that underpins the framework. One year on, the Government are pleased to see that this Bill reflects what we consulted on. Although, as I said earlier, I cannot go into the detail of our consultation response, we will bring it forward shortly.
The Bill will make important changes to the right to request flexible working, setting the right conditions for employees and employers to realise the benefits of flexible working. The Government are committed to building a strong and flexible labour market that supports participation and economic growth. It is great to see support for these measures across the political spectrum in the House, as has been evident from today’s debate. The Government look forward to continuing to work closely with the hon. Member for Bolton South East to support the passage of these measures.
With the leave of the House, I would like to thank all hon. Members for their contributions: the hon. Members for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), for Darlington (Peter Gibson), for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), for Bury North (James Daly), for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham), for Southend West (Anna Firth) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger), and, obviously, the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake).
I think we all agreed that this Bill is a good idea. It will benefit employers and employees. We are mindful of the fact that some jobs can only be done in person and so there may not be the opportunity for flexibility, but we also know that there are many, many jobs where there can be such an opportunity. This is just a question of drawing the attention of employers and employees to the fact that there are other ways of working, and the pandemic has really brought that home.
I seek clarification of one thing the Minister said about the day one right, to which I referred. I do not know whether I misheard, but I believe he said something about consultation on this. I may have misunderstood the discussion in question, but my understanding was that the reason the day one right is not in the Bill is to do with the statutory parliamentary draftsman saying that this is going to be introduced by means of a statutory instrument, secondary legislation, once the Bill is passed. I wanted that to be reconfirmed, because one of the most exciting things about the Bill is a day one right. I hope the Minister will be able to give confirmation on that. Finally, I wish to thank everyone again, particularly the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for being absolutely fantastic. I thank her for all her help in guiding and advising me through the passage of this Bill, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).