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Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill

Volume 728: debated on Friday 24 February 2023

Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am delighted that we are here today to take a further step towards introducing important changes to the right to request flexible working. The changes will help to set the right conditions for employees and employers to realise the benefits of flexible working.

Throughout the passage of the Bill, I have spoken of the importance of flexible working in helping to remove some of the invisible restrictions that hold people back in the workplace. These can include the need to live in high-cost accommodation in city centres or the need to maintain working arrangements that are hard to combine with caring responsibilities. Offering flexibility to balance work and home life can be key to ensuring participation and progression in the labour market and to opening up employment and promotion opportunities for everyone, regardless of their age, gender, disability or location.

The Bill is for the mothers who have to leave their jobs because those jobs do not support flexible working. The Bill is for those with chronic long-term conditions, the disabled and the most vulnerable in our society, who desperately need the flexibility so that they can continue to work while managing their health conditions and the toll that it can take on their mental health. The Bill is for working families—those with young children—who are working hard and trying to make ends meet in a cost of living crisis.

Throughout the Bill’s passage, Members from across the House have been keen to point out the business benefits associated with the take-up of flexible working arrangements. By removing these invisible restrictions, flexible working fosters a more diverse workforce, and evidence shows that this leads to improved financial returns for businesses. Furthermore, workers who have more flexibility are more motivated at work and are more likely to stay with their employer. Of course, there is a strong and unmet demand for more flexible jobs; research conducted by behavioural insight teams shows that offering flexible working can attract up to 30% more applicants for job vacancies.

The successful passage of this Bill would introduce changes to the existing right to request flexible working. That right was first introduced in 2003 for employed parents, and carers of children under the age of six and of disabled children under the age of 18. The legislation has since been amended several times, more recently as part of the Children and Families Act 2014; that was when the right was extended to all employees with 26 weeks of continuous service.

The right allows employees to request changes to their work arrangements and requires employers to properly consider those requests, although—and this is important—they do not have necessarily to agree to them. I recognise that not all organisations will be able to accommodate all forms of flexible working, so this Bill makes some changes to the legislation while retaining the fundamental approach of balancing the needs of both parties. It focuses on setting the right conditions so that employees and employers can have an open-minded conversation about what flexible working arrangements might be possible in any given context.

The Bill contains four measures. The first is to introduce a duty on employers to consult with their employees before rejecting their flexible working request. Put simply, the measure will prevent employers from defaulting to “no” without first engaging with the employee when responding to individual requests.

As the hon. Lady has just said, the word “consult” will be in the legislation; as a fellow lawyer, she will recognise that the matter will be litigated at great length before the employment tribunal. Will she go into more detail about what “consult” specifically means and about the requirements on the employer? Will it simply be a conversation or a formal meeting? What does “consult” mean if employers are to act in line with statutory requirements?

I think that in this context “consultation” means having a proper discussion with employees.

For many employers, what I have been discussing will already be a standard practice but the measure is an important step to ensure that we have consistency across the board. More positively, it will give both parties the opportunity to explore whether alternative workable options may be available before the conversation is closed and a final decision is reached.

The second measure will allow employees to make a second statutory flexible working request within any 12-month period. We all appreciate that a lot can happen in a year. Someone could unexpectedly become a carer or be diagnosed with a long-term health condition, meaning that their working arrangements are no long sustainable. The legislative framework needs to be sufficiently flexible to account for those realities. Amending it in this way will ensure that the right is more responsive to an individual’s needs and helps to avoid negative outcomes. The worst case scenario is when the individual feels that the only option is to drop out of work.

The third measure will reduce from three months to two months the statutory time frame in which employers are required to respond to a request. That is partly about encouraging responsiveness and partly about bringing the legislation up to date. In the event that an individual’s circumstances change unexpectedly, they will be likely to need a quick response so that they can adapt to the changes as efficiently and effectively as possible. More broadly, it is a fact that technology, processes and our understanding of flexible working have all advanced over the last decade and the legislation should be updated to reflect those changes.

The fourth measure will remove the requirement for employees to explain what effect the change applied for would have on the employer and how that effect might be dealt with. It seeks to make sure that the legislation does not unfairly favour those with more experience or who can better articulate themselves in written submissions.

I am pleased that, alongside the Bill, the Government have stayed true to their commitment to me and made the right to request flexible working apply from day one of employment. I am therefore grateful to Government Ministers for the position that they have taken on the Bill. As a package, these measures will help to secure more flexible working where it meets the needs of individuals and business, and will encourage a more constructive dialogue about different ways of working. The changes will also speed up the administrative process and, ultimately, provide more employees with better access to a diverse range of working arrangements.

I thank the organisations that have been a great support in the last few months, including those that have written to me and met me. To name a few, they are: Working Families, the MS Society, the TUC, Pregnant Then Screwed and Zurich Insurance. I especially thank the team in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—the Department for Business and Trade, as we now call it—who have been tremendous in their support throughout the process. All three Ministers whom I have had the pleasure to deal with about the Bill have also been very supportive.

This is a policy area in which both the Labour party and the Conservative party have made commitments. We agree that more can and should be done to help people and businesses to find work arrangements that allow them to participate and prosper in the labour market. I hope, therefore, that hon. Members on both sides of the House will share my desire to ensure that the Bill succeeds.

I rise in support of the Bill and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for her incredible work to ensure that it reached this stage. I also thank the Minister and his team for their work to ensure that it happened.

I am slightly biased, because I was a Minister for a short period and worked on the Bill with the hon. Lady. Its importance goes beyond politics and party lines, so I am pleased that hon. Members have come together to ensure that it goes through to the next stage. I hope that, when it reaches the House of Lords, the Lords realise how important it is to this place and to society. During the pandemic, and in the lead-up to it, society changed and flexible working became much more important to us, because the technology had finally caught up with where society wanted to be.

The challenge is that we live in a fast-paced, 24/7 world where it is easy to be switched on all the time. Sadly, some workplaces expect us to be switched on 24/7, which can be challenging for families, parents and everyone. It also means, however, that we can be switched on to work from home, when it is beneficial to be at home or to be flexible in the hours that we work, and so fulfil our duties as family members, parents, siblings and carers while delivering on the job at hand. Flexible working is often seen through the lens of workers, and that is absolutely right, but it is important that businesses know that it is also beneficial to them. Some employers already have lots of flexible working opportunities, and they do that not only for the right reasons, but because it is good for them, as it is good for employees, for productivity and for morale.

I want to raise several points about the Bill. First, it introduces a requirement for employers to consult with the employee before rejecting their flexible working request, which facilitates a more open and constructive dialogue between employers and employees. That is important, because to have that conversation in the first place enables action to be taken, but if the request cannot be achieved, the Bill would ensure there is an understanding of why, which ultimately may enable a future request. That is important because it opens employers’ eyes to the importance of flexible working to the employee.

Secondly, the Bill allows an employee to make two statutory requests in any 12-month period. That is important, because at the moment it is just one, and the problem is the stress on the individual. It is quite a moment when someone needs to go in and ask for time to be flexible within the workplace. For many, even asking makes them worry and fear that they will then be judged and that ask will be seen as negative. The Bill makes a level playing field by ensuring that both employee and employer are aware of why the flexible working request is important and what the benefits are, and ultimately what difference it will make to the employee.

Thirdly, the Bill reduces the decision period within which an employer is required to administer the statutory request from three months to two months, reducing undue delay for the employee, who is balancing multiple commitments. I have had a family member have to go into hospital, which all of a sudden throws everything out. It throws up the challenges of picking up one’s child from school and the worry about one’s family member—it picks up so many different issues that can affect someone within the workplace. It can affect what they are thinking about and where they can physically be at certain times. Making that request and knowing that one can get a response within two months rather than three makes a big difference. That could perhaps be even shorter, but I appreciate that for many employers, making a change within two months can be challenging in and of itself.

Fourthly, this important Bill removes the requirement that the employee must explain the statutory request, the effect the change would have on the employer and how that might be dealt with. That is crucial, because previously the employee had to explain to the employer how the request for time and flexible working practice would impact on the business. The challenge for employees is that they might not know the full context. They might not be able to make that argument. Someone working as a cleaner in a business might not know why the request has an impact on the wider business, but that does not mean the request is not still crucial or that it will have an impact on their ability to do their job.

Fifthly, it was pleasing to see in Committee that the amendment tabled on the entitlement to make flexible working applications from day one was accepted by the Government. That took a lot of time and effort to get right, because for some businesses the concern was that if they are doing it on day one, how can the person be judged on doing their job when they are not physically in work, and how can the impact of the request be judged? The amendment would enable any employee on day one to go in and say, “I’ve got a need to be flexible, but I can still offer something positive to the business and make sure that I am delivering.” This is about productivity and flexible working in the best possible way, but it is ultimately about ensuring fairness at the heart of workers’ rights and within businesses.

With the Employment (Allocation of Tips) Bill that I have been working on with my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), the key thing is workers’ rights, but it is also about fairness. In the workplace, we often go to work to make a life. We work to live or we live to work. Many of us in this place often live to work and we all love what we do 24/7, which is why we do what we do; it is about community and civic service. However, many people go to work to get a wage in order to go home and look after their family, and flexible working is a key part of that. When we are looking at this Bill, we have to make sure we are delivering on that part.

Order. We shall now observe the national one-minute silence to mark the one-year anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A one-minute silence was observed.

Slava Ukraini. I pay tribute to all those in Ukraine at the moment, and to those with family here in the UK and around the world who are thinking of their loved ones and those who were lost.

I will finish my speech shortly. I just want to make a few comments about why this Bill is so important. Flexible working is not something people request for the sake of it. They often ask for a reason, be it a family reason or about being able to do their jobs better. It might be about enabling them to work at different hours from some of their colleagues but still be productive. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bolton South East for bringing this Bill through. It will be transformative for this country, because it makes us competitive; it makes businesses competitive; it makes employees feel wanted and makes sure they are supported; it brings fairness into the workplace; and it makes sure that workers’ rights are at the heart of what we do, just as we have seen with many of the Bills that have been going through, especially the private Members’ Bills. I wholly support this Bill. I hope the House of Lords will make sure it passes quickly and can come into force as soon as possible.

It is a pleasure to follow that excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell). I rise today in support of this Bill because I believe it is right that we, in this place, should lead the modernisation of working regulations in our country. That is what the Bill intends to achieve and I welcome it, so I wish to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on bringing it to the House.

Of course, as a Conservative, 1 believe that free markets and competition in the supply of services are vital in order to ensure the best market prices for consumers. Indeed, our 2019 manifesto committed to

“encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default, unless employers have good reasons not to.”

Conversely, in a healthy economy, free of monopolies, employers must compete for employees by offering better salaries and better terms of employment than their competitors. Indeed, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, as of May 2022 competition for talent in our country remains fierce, with up to 45% of employers reporting having vacancies that are “hard to fill”. The report states that organisations are already exploring the prospect of offering flexible working to attract talent. None the less, there is a strong argument to be made in favour of the provisions in this Bill; its new provisions would further cement the progress we have achieved in the past two decades.

It is worth mentioning that since 2014, thanks to Conservative Governments, all employees have the right to request flexible working arrangements after a sensible period of 26 weeks of continuous service. As my hon. Friend the Member for Watford pointed out, the Bill would add to that by requiring employers to engage with their employees before rejecting a request.

Another important change is the reduction in the time available to an employer to respond to a request. I think that these are reasonable measures. We should not forget that employers need time to consider and prepare to implement changes, especially to ensure that staff are available when needed. Likewise, employees need to be able to plan their life. Reducing from three to two months the time available to an employer to respond will ensure that requests are dealt with in an appropriate timeframe.

We must be clear about what the Bill does not seek to do. It would not compel employers to agree flexible working arrangements with their employees. That is important, because I think that mandating such an agreement would be a step too far; it would put employers in a very difficult position. However, by requiring employers to engage properly with their employees before rejecting an application, the Bill seeks to strike the right balance.

The new regulations could help employers and employees to find mutually beneficial arrangements. The impact assessment considers that

“flexible working can result in increased motivation and productivity from employees…reduced absenteeism, reduced vacancy costs”.

Those are evidently hypothetical and non-monetised benefits, but the cost to employers arising from the new regulation would be low: approximately £2 million annually. That makes the considerable potential benefits very attractive indeed.

I would like to draw attention to a contribution made on Second Reading. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the debate, but in preparation for my speech today, I read Hansard to find out what colleagues had said. Among the numerous contributions from colleagues on both sides of the House, I noted an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter). He rightly pointed out that the Bill aims to help the vast majority of people who cannot use a laptop to work from home, as we can, and to make it easier to request varying times and adjustments, especially when someone’s job cannot be done from a desk at home.

If the Bill is passed, it will help those to whom access to flexible working arrangements will make the greatest difference. It will even prevent many people from abandoning the workforce altogether. That is why I will support the Bill today.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), who represents the constituency where I went to school. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on introducing the Bill and on successfully getting it through Committee and back to the Floor of the House. May I also congratulate the hon. Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick) on his Co-operatives, Mutuals and Friendly Societies Bill, which we passed a few moments ago? On a day on which we are showing solidarity with Ukraine, it is good that in the best traditions of this House we are working together to pass legislation that will make a difference to our constituents across the country.

I do not intend to go into too much detail on the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill, because I would be repeating what other hon. Members have already said. It would introduce a requirement for employers to consult before rejecting a flexible working request; allow an employee to make a second statutory request within any 12-month period; reduce the decision period; and remove the requirement, which is currently a bit of a burden, for the employee to explain the effect that the change would have on the employer. Those are all sensible, proportionate changes. I am conscious of the need not to burden businesses unnecessarily, and I know that the Minister addressed in Committee the fact that there will be small administrative costs to business as a result, but I think that these proportionate changes reflect the reality of the modern workplace.

A lot of changes have come about as a result of covid. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), who is not here today—I am sure he is in his constituency—was right to note on Second Reading that a lot of us were able to work well during covid because we have laptops and we do a job in which we can use them. Even in this place, which can sometimes be a pretty inflexible workplace, we showed a great deal of flexibility.

Many of our constituents do not have that flexibility. They have jobs that require them to be in the office or on the job at a particular time, but they also have complicated lives—they may be single parents or have caring responsibilities for their own parents or elderly relatives—and we really need to make life better for them. That is what the Bill will achieve, so again I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East.

Does my hon. Friend agree that amid fierce competition for labour, employers that can offer flexible working are more likely to hang on to existing staff and attract new staff?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will address why the day one right, which was introduced in Committee, is so important. We all want a dynamic labour market. Although we believe in free markets, they are not about benefit for the employer; they are about benefit for both sides. As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington said, employees have the right to seek the best price for their labour, professional development and circumstances that work for them. My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) is absolutely right: employers need to recognise that, and those that do will see their businesses grow and thrive.

The lack of flexible working imposes barriers on everyone, but especially on women, the disabled, carers and older people. On that last point, I was contacted last month by a constituent in Chesterton asking what job opportunities with flexible working arrangements were available in the area. That person was 82—an 82-year-old inquiring about what we can do to support people like them back into the workforce in some way. In my view, it would be beneficial to do anything we can to help people after retirement age—or those who have just retired but may not be at retirement age—back into the workforce should they so wish.

I know that my right hon. Friend Chancellor of the Exchequer has been keen to boost economic activity in that area. A number of people have dropped out of the workforce since the covid pandemic. Getting those people back into the workforce—even on a part-time or flexible basis—would be of great benefit to the country, because they have stores of knowledge, experience and wisdom that can be added to the productivity of our businesses and public sector. That is why the Bill is so important.

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), for overseeing the Bill and for engaging with it in Committee in December. If I may, as it is germane to the Bill, I thank him for meeting me and businesses from my constituency in a Committee Room on Monday. We had four exceptional firms from Newcastle-under-Lyme: Incap UK, Langley Alloys, Mondrem and GivEnergy.

It is worth noting that one of the people who came down to meet us is the chairman of one of those companies and is in his 70s. That goes to illustrate the point that I just made about the importance of retaining the wisdom that is out there among people who have run businesses in the past. We do not want that wisdom on the golf course; we would like some of it back in our boardrooms, informing our businesses about how they can grow, particularly our manufacturing businesses. We have a great deal of manufacturing in Newcastle-under-Lyme, as the Minister heard on Monday.

I pay tribute to the Minister for what he is doing. I worked in the private sector—as did he, setting up businesses—before coming to this place, and I think it is important that we have an understanding of business and of how it can benefit from the legislation introduced by the hon. Member for Bolton South East. We also spoke about the planning system, about apprenticeships and, most of all, about the need for productivity.

We have a productivity puzzle in this country. The question of why we have not been able to get as much growth as we might is all wrapped up not just in the way that our public sector works—indeed, Mondrem is working on making our public sector and councils more productive in the planning sector—but in how we can improve private sector productivity. Flexible working is a big part of that, for exactly the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup set out in his intervention.

In the Children and Families Act 2014 the coalition Government introduced the right for all workers with 26 weeks’ service to request flexible working, as we discussed earlier. The provision was reviewed by this Government in September ’21, and 80% of employees were aware of it in their workplaces. I am sure that the true figure is higher and that it is available in more workplaces, because 96% of employers reported that it was, so there is clearly still work to do on awareness, and the Bill—as well as the associated coverage in the press—will help with that. Eighty-three per cent. of flexible-working requests were granted.

The Bill, as amended, provides for the day one right to make a request. That is absolutely correct. To refer again to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, we want a dynamic labour market, and employees must be free to move around to seek better opportunities, professional development or simply a higher salary. Someone who has a flexible working arrangement that works for them should not feel tied to that employer because they feel that they would not be able to get that arrangement on day one with another employer. Obviously, they could discuss at a job interview whether such an arrangement might be possible.

We do not want to put people in a position where they feel tied to an employer that has given them a flexible working arrangement because they might not be able to port that arrangement over, from day one, to a new employer. That could put people off, including women who are bringing up children, people who are looking after their elderly parents, and all the other cases that we have mentioned, such as people with disabilities who need adaptations. That would put people off moving between jobs when doing so is frequently a way to advance in one’s career, make a better life for one’s family and get oneself a more fulfilling job and life. It is a Conservative principle to support both sides of that negotiation, and we do that not by tying people to an arrangement—essentially a closed-shop arrangement— but by giving them the flexibility to duplicate what they have with their current employer from day one with a new employer.

I am conscious that I have been speaking for a while and that a number of Members wish to speak, so let me conclude by saying that this very positive Bill builds on the work of the coalition Government and private Members’ Bills that did not make it this far. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East, and I thank the Minister for his engagement. I look forward to the Bill passing its Third Reading shortly.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a practising solicitor and a partner in a firm of solicitors, which may be relevant to some of the comments I make.

I remember those halcyon days when the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and I were in Bury magistrates court together. I tended to be defending the cases, and she tended to be prosecuting. How time goes by, because that is well over 10 years ago now. One of the things I have always known about her is that everything she does, as she has in the Bill she has put before the House and in the speech she made today, comes from a desire to change things for the better, and I congratulate her on that.

The reason I support the Bill—and I think any employer must accept the deficiencies within the system we have at the moment—is that, since before coming into this House, I have had an interest in young people on the autistic spectrum. One of the great scandals, apart from generally the support and treatment for young people who have conditions and challenges in their life, is lack of access to the labour market. Certainly, people on the autistic spectrum, who have so much to offer, not only have challenges getting into the labour market, but in many cases will need flexible working to be able to contribute by working.

My hon. Friend mentioned young people with autism and employment opportunities. Would he agree with me that, before employment, there needs to be a significant improvement in educational standards from primary right through to secondary?

Absolutely; that is clearly correct. We have to recognise that there are individuals in our country who are being excluded from the labour market, and ways have to be found to ensure that they have an equal opportunity.

On that point, does my hon. Friend applaud the Watford inclusive jobs fair, which took place just this week? Step2Skills, Hertfordshire County Council, Watford and West Herts chamber of commerce and many other organisations came together to make that happen. When I visited, it was amazing that it had had over 500 people apply to join and over 30 business were attending. Does he think that would be a good way forward for every other constituency?

Obviously, I applaud everything Watford-based, but my hon. Friend makes a very serious point—it was also made by the hon. Member for Bolton South East—which is that in order to make a difference, we must have such events. We must ensure that employers and others involved in the local economy, whether in Watford or elsewhere, take these issues seriously.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because many Members are seeking to intervene on this for some reason. I just want to draw the House’s attention to a veterinary practice in Rackheath in my constituency, where the building itself has been constructed to be flexible for people with autism to work there, both as veterinary practitioners and in the support services. Does that not go to show how, with foresight, we can make accessible for people with autism those areas of employment that were previously inaccessible?

I must raise this point because I know that my hon. Friend has visited the institution concerned. May I take this opportunity to praise the work of John Caudwell, the founder of Phones 4u—the 4u group is based in Newcastle-under-Lyme—and the Caudwell Children centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, which works with children with autism, and which I know my hon. Friend visited the other day? As a private sector entrepreneur, John Caudwell understands all too well the need for employment opportunities for those with autism. That is exactly the point my hon. Friend is making, and I could not let this opportunity pass without raising it.

My hon. Friend only has himself to blame for this: he has opened up a rich vein, because this is important. Only this week, I had the opportunity to sponsor an event in the House with the charity Hft, which works with people with learning difficulties, particularly on such simple issues as addressing obstacles to the workplace. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the work equation we all make, and that as employers we need to make as well, there are important things such as dignity and meaning attached to work, and reducing barriers and improving the flexibility of working arrangements is key to unlocking that for so many people?

I agree. As has been said in relation to the importance of flexible working for family and all sorts of other reasons, it is important that a statement is made in law. Flexible working is already in the legislation that has been referred to, but we must make it very clear that this Parliament supports it if it can happen.

One of the things that concerns me about flexible working is the definition. We have already discussed the best form of flexible working, and there are sectors of the economy and parts of the workforce that are currently enjoying it, but I want to make this serious point. During the pandemic, flexible working was a necessity. My local authority decided to allow the vast majority of its staff to continue working from home. That may be a good or a bad thing—who knows?—but that was its decision.

However, there are considerations to be made. I have serious concerns about the impact of taking a huge sector of the workforce out of Bury town centre because the money that those people bring in to the urban centre is very important. I support flexibility in the sense that the hon. Member for Bolton South East set out, but it is not an open invitation to local authorities simply to continue arrangements that were put in place during the pandemic. What we are looking for is not flexibility for flexibility’s sake, but a system that allows proper access to the workforce for people who are being excluded and gives flexibility to people who have very good reasons to request it.

We often talk in the generality about a lot of things in this place, but the vast majority of the workforce in this country work in small and medium-sized enterprises of nine employees or fewer, such as in the sector that I worked in all my life. We must not underestimate the requirements on small businesses. Politicians can stand up and say words that make them feel good about themselves, but people still have to pay wages. There has to be a business there to allow flexible employment. Flexible employment cannot be imposed upon a business that cannot afford it. In vast sectors of the economy, it is simply impossible because people need to be in an office.

In my sector—this is why I mentioned my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—the challenges during the pandemic of being a conveyancing solicitor working from home were incredible. I would argue strongly that people in my sector need to be in the office. There needs to be that team environment, because it increases productivity. I am sure that it would work very well in other sectors of the economy, but we have to be open and honest about this. We cannot just impose principles on business if they cannot afford to pay the bills.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a balance between the needs of the employer and the perfectly fair needs of the employees. Does he agree that this Bill seeks to get the balance right by imposing a duty of consultation, not an absolute right?

That is the exact reason why I can support it. The administrative burden that it would place on employers would not concern them. Essentially, the law is changing very little from the current position, so I completely agree with that point.

We always talk about big employers with thousands of employees that can put in place all sorts of work models, but the self-employed and small businesses cannot take advantage of this. Too often, we miss those people out of the conversation when we talk about employment rights and other things that are crucial to those sectors. To be able to pay the bills in this place, we have to ensure that small businesses and the self-employed are not burdened by over-regulation. They must be able to flourish and support employees.

The other thing that is quite clear from my sector and, I suspect, most sectors of the economy is that, although we talk about flexible working, if an employer does not allow a skilled solicitor to have flexible working, they will get a job elsewhere in about five seconds. The question here is not simply about having flexibility for flexibility’s sake; it is about skills and the sector. With the market we have at the moment—there are the best part of a million vacancies—employers who do not take advantage of employees with the correct skillset for their area of work will lose them, and they cannot be replaced in the modern employment market. In many ways, the employment market is addressing this problem internally, but skills are absolutely essential to this discussion as well.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) for what he has just said, which I will build on. I will restrict my comments to those sectors that are unable to offer the level of flexibility that this Bill might suggest.

Stoke-on-Trent Central has a very large manufacturing base, a very large logistics base and engineering works, and these are sectors in which it is quite difficult to provide the flexibility for homeworking. As is the case across the country, they also have a challenge with recruitment. I welcome the Bill and the work that has been done by the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), because flexibility is not just about hybrid working and homeworking; it is also about looking at working patterns. With manufacturing, for instance, shifts may have been established a long time ago, when the circumstances for employees were different. In order to attract new talent to those industries now, sometimes flexibility is hugely important.

There is a slight concern that we may be creating a two-tier system, whereby some people can work flexibly and some cannot. Analysis during the pandemic showed that more than 38% of workers earning £40,000 or more had hybrid working arrangements during a week in 2022, and that people in higher income brackets were more likely than those in other income brackets to work from home exclusively. Financial managers, directors and programmers were able to work from home, whereas those in occupations with lower average earnings, such as gardeners, carpenters and mechanics, were far less able to do so.

There is also something else to be aware of. I am not saying that we should be less flexible, but young people need to have the ability to learn from more experienced workers when they come into the workplace—the water cooler moment, the sharing of ideas and the innovation. If we have too many people working from home for too long, we run the risk that our ability to learn on the job and to innovate might be somewhat reduced.

My hon. Friend mentions the ability to learn on the job. I suggest that what we have learned from the pandemic is how to use technology such as Zoom and Teams meetings. Does that not compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact?

During the pandemic, we all experienced the fantastic tools that are Zoom and Teams. We in this place continued to work, with some of us dressed appropriately all the way down and some of us maybe only from the waist up—I hear rumours. It showed a more human face to many people, because we saw babies, dogs and all sorts of things in the background. It rendered people much more than their profession, which was good.

For apprentices, however, nothing beats the ability to be next to somebody who has done the job for a long time and who can show them and help them. I agree with the point raised by many that the impact on disabled people, with the flexibilities they require in the workplace, will be enormously helpful. Only 52.3% of disabled people are in employment, compared with 82% of the general population, and this legislation surely will be an enormous help.

The other benefit of flexibility is that if people have less time in the workplace, they can spend more time on education. In areas like mine, the importance of upskilling to get the new high-tech jobs that we hope to have in the future cannot be overstated. I fully back the Bill; we need to reflect on some of the issues that may come up incidentally, but that is not a reason not to be more flexible.

For the second debate running, it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon).

Over recent years, not just since the pandemic, flexible working has revolutionised the way people go about their employment, their business and their day-to-day lives. That is visible in my constituency on the daily commute: getting on the train at Haddenham & Thame Parkway on a Monday or a Friday, the car park is noticeably emptier. When people get to Marylebone and try to get on the tube, they can get on the platform at the first time of asking; if they try it from Tuesday to Thursday, they have to wait four or five tube trains before they can get on one to get wherever they are going. On the trains, on the underground and on public transport generally, the sheer volume of people who have gone on to a more varied working week is clearly visible—the days of nine-to-five are well and truly gone, and people are working in much more flexible patterns.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on her Bill. As others have said, it seeks to provide greater balance by giving everybody—no matter who they are, no matter how senior or junior they are, and no matter what their station within their particular business—the ability to better engage to get a working pattern that is right for them and for their business and that ensures we have a buoyant, growing economy. The growth of technology such as Zoom, Teams and all the other video conferencing software has, to a great extent, enabled the ability to work remotely that others have spoken about—to do three days in the office and two days at home, or whatever it might be.

However, I have considerable sympathy with the view expressed by my hon. Friends that we cannot just take that technology to be a replacement for the office. We cannot say that Zoom and Teams mean that everybody should always be able to work from home and never go into the office, because that brings many disadvantages—not least, from my perspective, for people starting out on their careers and trying to get up the ladder in their places of business. I would argue that it has always been the case that graduate entrants, apprentices or people starting off in whatever business or profession they have chosen do not learn the most from textbooks, from university or from whatever degree they have done, or by some process of osmosis; they learn from the people further up the ladder. They learn from going to the next rank up and saying, “I’m struggling with this particular bit of work, I’m struggling to get my head around this.” They learn by asking for the advice of more senior colleagues.

In encouraging flexible working, although I am a huge fan of it, we absolutely must not throw the baby out with the bathwater by going too far. I say that without any technical interest to declare, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I do have three small children at home. Without flexible working—particularly for my wife, because we all accept that being an MP is not particularly flexible and that we absolutely have to be here at certain hours—our childcare arrangements would be an absolute nightmare, and that would certainly be to the detriment of my children.

I will focus most in my comments on the issue of childcare. Enormous steps forward have been made, not least by Governments since 2010, in supporting families with childcare—the 30 free hours that the coalition Government brought in is one example. However, I know from my own constituency that lots of parents struggle with childcare and with being able to pursue the careers that they want. They find that difficult within the confines of many working practices and set-ups around the country. Everything we can do to ensure that working parents are able to pursue their career of choice and fulfil their professional dreams, while not being punished for having, loving and wanting to bring up children, is to the good.

When the Minister responds to the debate, I urge him to look beyond the Bill, which is a strong starting point, and to ensure that we continue to lock in family-friendly practices, where necessary through regulation—although I am generally sceptical about whether we have to regulate for everything to get the best result—so that we are as family-friendly as possible.

Another point that came up earlier highlights or double-underlines the need for there to be a balance—a balance that, as I said a few moments ago, the Bill does support. I am thinking of the impact that flexible working can have on localities and geographies: towns, villages and cities where business plays a big part. Think of the impact on hospitality during the rail strikes in December, when no one was able to come into London—on the cafés, pubs and bars, and all the businesses set up over the years to support workers who buy their cups of coffee and get their lunches on their way into work and socialise with colleagues or friends after it. We cannot allow too much remote working to undermine our towns and cities and the businesses set up within them.

To conclude, I would like to briefly commend the comments made earlier, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly). We can use flexible working not just to support those with childcare needs or the other things I spoke about earlier, but to ensure that there is a clear path into employment for those who, as my hon. Friend mentioned, suffer with autism or other disabilities—to break down those barriers and ensure that there is a place of work, a career and a professional path for absolutely everybody in our society. That might mean slightly different hours or some days at home and some in the office, but we have to be certain that the Government, the state and this Parliament have made things as accessible and open as possible for everybody with a particular need, in a way that the old system—if I may call it that—did not allow. The Bill goes a very long way towards redressing the balance and opening up much greater flexibility.

It strikes me that the argument my hon. Friend is making is that such flexibility must be inherent in our response to the changes we are seeing in society. There are changes in personal circumstances, such as the points he made about caring for his children—I was glad to hear that he would not throw them out with the bathwater. There are changes in the marketplace and, indeed, in the travel patterns of consumers—I think of my constituency of Aberconwy, which has a tourism-based economy that relies heavily on seasonal working. Is that the thrust of his argument?

As ever, my hon. Friend puts it far more eloquently than I could. He has hit the nail on the head, certainly on the seasonal aspect of some businesses and the changing times that we have all seen, not just through the pandemic but in recent years. If we want to have the most dynamic, growing, buoyant economy, we have to ensure that the paths into employment and by which people hold down employment—seasonal, permanent or whatever it might be—are allowed for in regulation. It is important that we do not dictate too firmly to businesses how they must go about their practices, but we must ensure that they are fair and open with their employees, so that nobody feels left behind, unable to enter the workplace or held back in some other way.

Indeed, that principle goes beyond business and into the public sector. To back up an argument I made a few moments ago, I am a member of the Transport Committee, which has looked at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. All right hon. and hon. Members probably grappled with delays in the issuance of driving licences and heard nightmare stories from their constituents. One of the causes of those delays, stemming from the pandemic, was the inability of DVLA staff to access the weight of documents that people had posted to Swansea and to process them from home.

This is a multidimensional issue, but my hon. Friend has put his finger on a real problem that we have to address and to be honest about. Productivity is the blight of the British economy and, as my hon. Friend rightly says, we must do everything we can as a Parliament to ensure that people can access careers. If somebody on flexible working in the private sector is not working to a high standard, that business will go bankrupt. What is my hon. Friend’s view on productivity in the state sector and these working requirements?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. As we look at this legislation, it is important that we do not just think about it through the lens of the private sector, but talk about public sector jobs as well.

I can only highlight the point I made a few moments ago about the challenges involved in getting driving licences issued in the time that our constituents wanted them to be issued. The problem in that example was an inability to do the job from home. Not only had the original documents been posted as good old-fashioned snail mail to Swansea; even when staff in the office scanned those documents and transferred them to a digital format, so that other staff could process them and judge whether a driving licence could be issued, the files were so enormous that they were not necessarily able to get through to the person working from home. We have to ensure that productivity is included in this debate. As others have said, certain jobs simply cannot be done from home. The technology is not necessarily there for absolutely everyone to receive hundreds of megabytes and gigabytes of data in order to do their job, so I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North.

To conclude, Madam Deputy Speaker—

As someone who sometimes gets stuck on the motorways and gets delayed, it is important to note that the Bill is not just about working from home; it is about time as well. Sometimes, getting into work an extra half-hour or hour later and then working an extra hour at the end of the day can make an immense difference, especially to people who need to take their kids to school or who have caring needs. It is important to frame the debate so that we are clear on that. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. This is the point that I was attempting to make earlier about childcare—that it is not about working from home or working from the office, but about timings and the ability to drop the kids at school at 9 am and not be penalised for going into the office at, for instance, 9.30 or 10 am. Similarly, many parents need to pick up their children from school at 3, 3.15 or 3.30. Employees, whether in the private or the public sector, need the ability, indeed the right, to negotiate with their employers something that works for them when it comes to picking the kids up from school and making sure they are looked after before and after school. Many schools offer some wonderful after-school clubs, but it is not possible for everyone to attend a breakfast club or an after-school club every day, so those timings are very important.

To actually conclude, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Laughter]—I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East on taking her Bill to its Third Reading with cross-party support, and I look forward to its gaining Royal Assent very soon.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on bringing her Bill to this stage of the parliamentary process. Having introduced a private Member’s Bill myself and, thankfully, succeeded in getting it on to the statute book last year, I know what a difficult job it is, and that it only works with the co-operation of many other people.

Like every other Member, I experienced flexible working myself during the pandemic. As many will attest, it was not without its challenges and required a degree of getting used to. It is fair to say some people enjoyed the experience rather more than others. Perhaps I am showing my age when I say that I struggled a little more than some of them! From a practical perspective, however, although many people thought it would be a difficult scramble to enable the majority of the nation to begin working from home for the first time, what we actually saw was a much smoother transition than had been expected. According to a report published following the pandemic by Buckinghamshire Business First and Chandler Garvey, a firm of commercial property consultants in my constituency, more than three-quarters of those surveyed in Buckinghamshire found the transition to remote working simple; so it can be done.

The fact is that working practices change over time. The incredibly late nights and unpaid overtime that I considered entirely normal when I started my career are today roundly rejected. Indeed, many people embarking on their careers, often fresh from university, see the work-life balance and the ability to work flexibly as a top priority, and in surveys it is frequently placed above salary expectations. The Bill will help in that regard. In particular, requiring employers to consult employees before refusing a flexible working arrangement will allow greater transparency in the working environment, and will hopefully result in an outcome that suits both parties. I emphasise the words “both parties”, because employers’ needs and businesses’ requirements must of course be properly recognised, and I think that the Bill achieves the balance that is necessary for that to happen.

As we know and as has been pointed out today, individual circumstances can change at any moment, and the Bill provides a framework to accommodate that. It will doubtless be helpful that staff will be able to make two flexible working requests in a 12-month period, as opposed to the one that is currently permitted. It would be rather odd if someone’s circumstances changed immediately after they had been refused permission and they were then not even entitled to ask for a reconsideration, so I think that this measure is entirely reasonable. Employees will also benefit from the reduction in the deadline for an employer to make the decision on requests from three months to two.

As the hon. Member for Bolton South East has said during earlier debates on the Bill, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to flexible working. On Second Reading, many Members spoke about the importance of flexible working arrangements in helping to remove some of the invisible barriers that can hold people back in the more traditional working environments. They could include living in high-cost accommodation close to the centre of cities—flexible working might well enable people to live further away from work if they come in less often—or suffering in increasingly crowded commuter trains, an experience that I know my constituents in Aylesbury would be grateful to avoid. However, I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) when he emphasised that the impact of working from home can be broader than the impact on the individual employer’s business. Aylesbury town centre is undoubtedly seeing much less footfall and lower spending now that fewer people are required to go there to work. It is important for us to consider that in the round as the economy grows and develops in the years to come.

When flexible arrangements are agreed between employees and employers, the benefits can work both ways. From a business perspective it can be an opportunity to retain the skills and expertise of experienced workers. Hon. Members have already suggested that there are some people, perhaps in their 70s, who could perhaps spend a little less time on the golf course and more in the office, boardroom, or potentially on the production line. I am not expressing exactly where any particular arrangement should work in an organisation, and it is important that there is that flexibility. We know that at the moment there is a challenge with the over-50s having perhaps left the workforce, and we must do everything we can to get them back into the workplace. If I may stray a little from the narrow confines of the Bill, we may want to look at pension arrangements to encourage them to do so. Flexible working practices can also lead to a more diverse and senior leadership team, which again can be welcome. There are societal benefits in other circumstances, such as parents spending more time with their children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) highlighted. Having met his three children I can well understand why he would want to spend as much time with them as he can.

One point that bears repeating is that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), which is that flexible working does not mean purely working from home. It can mean doing a week’s hours in four days rather than five, or starting and ending the working day at times that allow an employee to fulfil other commitments such as caring for an elderly relative. I welcome that type of flexibility and look forward to its being appropriately used, hopefully as a result of the Bill making its way to the statute book.

It is important to strike the right balance between the rights of employees and employers. There will always be some businesses and organisations where it is much more difficult to work flexibly. Much has been said about parents needing to pick up their children from school, but for teachers in that school flexible working will be much tougher, and it will require a good deal more imagination to enable that when they need to be in front of their class during the day. Both employers and employees need to approach this challenge with a flexible mindset so that there can be benefit to all—a win-win, if you like, Madam Deputy Speaker. In conclusion, I again congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East, and wish her well as the Bill continues its passage to the statute book.

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate from the Opposition Front Bench. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for bringing this important Bill to the House, and for working with Ministers, employers, trade unions and other organisations to get it to this stage. She made an excellent speech, and I commend her for her tireless campaigning for unpaid carers. She knows that the Bill will help many across the country to balance work with caring for their loved ones. Recognition must also go to the TUC for its Flex for All campaign, as well as to other organisations from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, to Working Families and Pregnant then Screwed for their campaigning on this issue and for holding the Government to account.

I reiterate what has been said at previous legislative stages of the Bill. The Bill has Labour’s full support, but we still expect much greater action from the Government to enhance workers’ rights. The data tell the story: there are currently 1.5 million more women out of and not looking for work than men. The number of economically inactive working-age women rose by 124,000 last year, compared with the previous year. Gaps in employment because of a lack of flexibility can cause a loss of confidence to return to work, as well as resulting in reduced pension entitlement and barriers to career progression, not to mention the gender pay gap.

Labour welcomes the provisions in the Bill, which will begin to help create the environment for a fairer and more equitable discussion between employers and employees about flexible working. The covid-19 pandemic has changed how we work, with both employers and employees recognising the business and personal opportunities created by flexible working. The Bill represents an important step to ensuring that legislation reflects where we are as a society.

Many Members have spoken on this common-sense Bill, particularly from the Government Benches, and we heard from the hon. Members for Watford (Dean Russell), for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), for Bury North (James Daly), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), for Buckingham (Greg Smith), and for Aylesbury (Rob Butler). We also heard interventions from the  hon. Members for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood), for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) and for Aberconwy (Robin Millar). Far be it from me to point out that they are all—as I am—from the 2019 intake, and therefore are the Conservative MPs with the most recent experience of the world of work. Perhaps they are getting their bids in early for when they return to the world of work in a year and a half or two years.

Improving access to flexible working will help the parents of young children, single parents, women, carers, older people and people with disabilities or health conditions. Accessing flexible work is not equal for all: a TUC poll found that one in three flexible working requests were turned down. People want to stay in work and earn a living, but too many are being forced out of the labour market. At present, one in five economically inactive people say that the reason they are economically inactive is that they are responsible for other family members. We know that many women are disproportionately affected by barriers to accessing flexible working, which are compounded by poor access to affordable childcare and to adequate parental leave.

The Bill will contribute to breaking down barriers to the workplace and will help employers to create stronger, more diverse workforces. I stress that flexible working is about not just working from home, but a fundamental change to working practices to improve the lives of all working people. The ability to work flexibly is crucial to achieving gender equality in the workplace and a fairer, growing economy to change our economy and the world of work for the better.

The Bill is a step in the right direction, but workers still need greater protections. Flexible working should not be a nice-to-have or a job perk, but an employment right. We need to see the Bill as a starting point, not the end point.

Following years of dragging their feet on their pledge to make flexible working the default, the Conservatives have agreed to back only these watered-down proposals. They pledged to include regulations on flexible working in their long-awaited employment Bill. That Bill was announced in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, and it was stated that it would

“make flexible working the default”,

but it was seemingly shelved in last year’s Queen’s Speech.

Beyond responding to this private Member’s Bill, the Government have repeatedly failed to follow through on their promises to promote flexible working. Labour is proudly committed to strengthening rights at work. Although the Government are willing to allow workers the right to request flexible working, Labour’s new deal for working people will ensure the right to secure flexible working for all workers, as default from day one, with employers required to accommodate that as far as is reasonable.

Will the hon. Lady clarify that point? Is it the case that if, for good reason, a small or medium-sized employer cannot afford to accommodate flexible working, because of the nature of their business, a Labour Government would legislate to say that that is unlawful and that it had to, no matter the financial consequences for the business? [Interruption.]

The Minister chunters from a sedentary position. I beg to disagree: Labour is the friend of small businesses. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the end of my sentence before jumping to his feet, he would have heard me say, “as far as is reasonable”. There is a better balance to be had, but there is still a requirement to have a discussion and for it to be as far as is reasonable for the business.

I am bit confused about the hon. Lady’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly). How, then, does Labour’s position differ from what the Bill seeks to achieve? It sounds identical.

This gives day one rights at work, compared with—[Interruption.] We would like to see a greater ability for employees to secure flexible working as a right from day one through discussion.

In response to the hon. Member for Bury North, I want to build on the point that the right to flexible working includes flexible hours, compressed hours, staggered hours, and flexibility around childcare and caring responsibilities. There are examples of its being a win-win-win, such as in Luton when, following cuts to budgets, the refuse operatives came up with a new working model that resulted in the same productivity in four days rather than five. It not only met their needs but supported the needs of the business and—sadly—met an objective to make savings.

We know that allowing working people to ask for flexible working is one thing, but ensuring that all workers have the opportunity to benefit is another.

We are committed to ending one-sided flexibility, so that all workers have secure employment and regular and predictable working hours, enabling them to plan their lives around a stable job. We want to ensure that businesses can truly maximise the talent of their employees by creating thriving working environments. Evidence shows that that will greatly increase recruitment and retention. Research by Working Families found that only three in 10 UK parents would be likely to apply for a job that did not list flexible working options in the advert, yet eight in 10 UK parents would be likely to apply for a job if it did list flexible working options in the advert.

I am confused as to why the hon. Lady’s position seems to be that employers would not want to provide more flexible working and need a labour law to enforce them to do so. That is not my understanding of business. I know that the Labour party claims to be the friend of business, but I am not quite sure how we can be a friend to business and assume that businesses do not have the interests of their employees at heart.

I take the hon. Lady’s point. However, not all employers operate as effectively as the ones that she has experience of, because many people have not had the opportunity to secure the flexible working they need and have had requests turned down.

Importantly, Labour would ensure that businesses can truly maximise the talent of their employees by creating thriving working environments. We would support small and medium-sized businesses to adapt to flexible working practices and to increase the uptake of flexible working, which is good for people and good for businesses. It would boost productivity, employee engagement and staff retention.

In closing, it is right for me to refer to my personal experience. In my career, before having the privilege of being the Member of Parliament for Luton South, I enjoyed the benefits of flexible working arrangements at first hand, both as an employee and as a manager of people. As an employee, I flexibly balanced my working hours both when studying part-time for a Masters degree as well as when I was a local councillor carrying out my duties. While working in human resources, I saw how flexible working—whether it be hours or location—can suit different people’s lives and commitments, especially women, and help to retain expertise and talent in the workplace when people’s circumstances change.

I end my remarks by reiterating that we wholeheartedly welcome the introduction of this Bill. It is a long-overdue and positive step that will help hard-working people across the country, and I am pleased that it has the Government’s support.

I thank the shadow Minister for her very positive comments at the end of her remarks. I shall pick up one or two of the other points, if I can, as I go through my remarks.

First, let me thank the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for all her hard work and engagement in bringing forward this important legislation at this time. It has been a pleasure to work with her. It is always a pleasure and an honour to introduce a private Member’s Bill. I have had that opportunity twice—both were successful—in my career as a Back Bencher. I know that she will feel a great deal of pride at today’s events.

The Government have been very pleased to support the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill through its various stages, and, of course, that will continue today. It has been heartening to observe the support for the Bill across the House, and I was pleased to hear that reflected in this debate.

The ability to vary the time, hours and place of work is an important element of the flexible labour market in Great Britain. Having access to flexible working arrangements enables employees to participate in the labour market in a way that suits their circumstances. Indeed, it brings people back into the workplace. Let me illustrate that point. There are more than 8 million people working part-time in the UK. For many of those people, such flexibility is a need rather than a choice.

The shadow Minister raised the fact that we want to attract more women back into the workplace, and I absolutely support that aim. I reiterate that this is one of six private Members’ Bills that the Government are supporting and those include some very important other measures, such as carer’s leave, neonatal leave, and pregnancy and return to work protections, to make sure that women feel more comfortable and protected in the workplace.

Crucially, for businesses, this Bill supports a diverse range of work arrangements, which can be key in retaining people and keeping them productive. We know that one key challenge for business is finding and retaining the right people. Crucially, the Bill provides a right to request, not a right to insist. I, too, was a little confused about Labour’s position, because the Bill provides a right to request, which is a right to be granted flexible working subject to reasonable measures; there are eight grounds on which a request could be refused. Crucially—I was pleased that my Conservative colleagues were keen to point this out—this is not a right to impose flexible working on businesses, as that would be the wrong thing to do. We know that there are many burdens on businesses at the moment, not least some of the challenges associated with the cost of living, and adding further burdens would be a mistake if they would be an imposition.

The post-implementation review of the Flexible Working Regulations 2014 found that employers have seen improvements in staff motivation and employee relations because of flexible working. That point was made clearly by the hon. Member for Bolton South East. Reduced absenteeism and lower staff turnover was also found. Research indicates that flexible working can unlock opportunities for growth and, indeed, access to the station platform, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith). It suggests that in the absence of suitable working hours or locations, groups of people are not employed, have retired early or are working below their potential. Some 500,000 people of working age have left the workplace since the start of the pandemic and it is crucial that we bring them back into the workplace, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bolton South East and by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon). He rightly pointed out that the costs and burdens of these measures are relatively limited, at about £2 million. It is always right to look at the cost to business of these kinds of measures.

These measures are supported by a recent Office for National Statistics study, which showed flexible working hours to be the most important factor in determining whether older workers who have left the workplace since the start of the pandemic will return to the labour market. Again, that point was made succinctly by my hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), who talked about a lady of 82 returning to the workplace, which was very impressive. Sadly, my mum passed away when she was 84, but she was proud to work every single day until then. He also talked about the stores of wisdom of people who have left the workplace but whom we are trying to attract back into it, and I could not agree more with that position.

From running my own business, I know that accommodating a particular working pattern can often be the difference between losing and retaining a valued member of staff. The right to request flexible working is very good enabling legislation. It acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to working arrangements, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon). It is designed to help employees and employers find arrangements that work for both sides, and it is functioning well. The post-implementation review of the legislation found that in 83% of workplaces where a request is made the request is granted, with only 9% of workplaces reporting turning down such a request. That is why our 2019 manifesto committed to consult on ways to improve access to flexible working. That consultation was primarily focused on adjustments to the right to request flexible working. We published our response to that consultation at the end of last year and I am pleased that the measures in this Bill reflect what we set out in our response; most importantly, this becomes a day one right. I wish to pick up on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), who did such fine work in Committee and as my predecessor in this role. That day one right did not come as a result of the amendment, which was withdrawn in Committee; we made the commitment, in consultation, that that was our intention and it was what we confirmed later that week.

These important changes will facilitate better access to all forms of flexible working, whether it relates to when, where or how people work. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and the shadow Minister both mentioned the importance of childcare to getting people back to work. One note of caution, of course, is that childcare is very expensive for the taxpayer, around £3.5 billion a year. We would all like to expand childcare provision, but all hon. Members, certainly on my side of the political divide, are keen to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely.

I reassure the Minister that my point was less about needing more taxpayer subsidy than about ensuring that all employers are aware of the needs of working parents so that their businesses and enterprises are able to gain their skillset, for their own good and that of the wider economy, by allowing them to work flexible hours.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I agree entirely. As an employer, we were very keen to get people back to the workplace who had gone off on maternity leave, and we would be as flexible as possible in facilitating that. I think all good employers do, as indicated by the fact that 83% of employers agree to requests for flexible working.

The consultation requirements will mean that employers and employees are encouraged to have a broad conversation about what flexible working arrangements may be workable. This will avoid the scenario in which an employer rejects a specific request out of hand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford explained very well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) asked what “consultation” means, which is a good question. ACAS will update its code of practice to make sure that employers are clear on the requirements. The current code of practice requires only a discussion, which could be over the telephone or face to face, and the update will explain what it means in practice.

Allowing employees to make two statutory requests in 12 months will mean that legislation is better able to respond to changing needs and requirements; reducing the timeframe within which employers must respond to requests will speed up the whole process; and removing the requirement for an employee to set out the impact of their requested change will level the playing field and remove red tape from the process.

I thank my predecessors, my hon. Friends the Members for Watford, for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) and for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully). I also thank the civil servants in my private office who do such a fine job and who have done so much legislation in recent weeks and months with such great care and expertise: Matthew Wootton, Tony Mulcahy, Roxana Bakharia, Jayne McCann, Ana Pollard, Bryan Halka, Dan Spillman and Cora Sweet.

Supporting this Bill is in line with the Government’s ongoing commitment to building a strong and flexible labour market that supports participation and economic growth. Our 2019 Conservative manifesto committed to encouraging flexible working, and this Bill is a positive development for individuals and businesses alike. I wholly support the passage of this Bill as it moves to the other place, and I commend it to the House.

With the leave of the House, I am truly grateful to all parliamentary colleagues who have come to the House today and who were here on Second Reading, and particularly those who agreed to sit on the Public Bill Committee. I genuinely felt humbled when I saw them all turn up in Committee, because they did not have to do so. There was no three-line Whip, so they chose to be there. I am truly grateful to all of them for attending.

Before I conclude, I would like to tell the House a little story. I have been a Member since 2010, and every year I used to put my name forward for the ballot. Last year, when we were sent the notice, I thought, “I’ve never been successful in the previous 11 years, so why should I even bother?” It just so happened—I do not know why—that on that particular day I kept coming across my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), and every time he saw me, he asked, “Have you put your name in the ballot box?”, and I said no. After the third reminder, I went and put my name in, and I was successful. I suppose that is a lesson for all Back Benchers: it is possible for them to get their own Bill.

As a Front Bencher, I have been involved in Public Bills, but this is the first time I have dealt with my own Bill. It was not only a pleasure but a steep learning curve as I discovered how to take the Bill through. Of course, it is the first time I have had the chance to work directly with Ministers and civil servants in the Department. I thank the Ministers I have been working with: the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Watford (Dean Russell) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). I also pay enormous tribute to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), the lovely Whip, who has been instrumental in guiding and helping me, so I thank her for that.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, including the hon. Member for Watford, who was one of the Ministers, and the hon. Members for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), for Bury North (James Daly), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), for Buckingham (Greg Smith) and for Aylesbury (Rob Butler). I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) for responding on behalf of the Labour party, and the Minister for signalling the Government’s support for the Bill.

I am glad that Members on both sides of the House agree with the Bill. It is an important piece of legislation that will have an impact on millions of people. I commend it to the House. I am glad to say that the noble Baroness Taylor has agreed to sponsor it in the House of Lords. I wish it a speedy journey.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.