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Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill

Volume 830: debated on Friday 19 May 2023

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, this is a modest but quite significant Bill that will take us a step closer to introducing the important changes that are necessary, I believe, for people to have the right to request flexible working. I thank my honourable friend Yasmin Qureshi, who is the Member of Parliament for Bolton South East—the Bolton connection will not be missed by some people there. I am very glad that she was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to introduce this piece of legislation.

Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the original legislation on flexible working—2003 does not seem that long ago in some respects. Some progress has been made but, when the legislation was first introduced, it was rather narrow in its effects. It was limited to parents, guardians and people who had care of young or disabled children. The legislation has evolved since then, and I think that most people acknowledge that there is a parental need for flexible working arrangements across a wide group of people.

It is right that, 20 years on, we consider where we should be now and the kind of approach that we should be taking. The right to ask for flexible working should be an entitlement for all employees, regardless of their personal characteristics. There was an interesting briefing from the MS Society, for example, which showed how flexible working can help quite a few sufferers from MS, and I am sure that that is the case for those with other illnesses as well.

The current situation regarding entitlement is that, since 2014, all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service have been able to make one statutory application per year to change their working hours, work pattern and work location. I hope that the Minister might deal with that point about 26 weeks; many people think that this entitlement should start from day one of employment. I know that Ministers have said things on other occasions, so perhaps the Minister can repeat some assurances that the Government will be moving in this direction in the future.

At the moment, when anyone submits a request for flexible working, they must explain to the employer how the change would affect them and how it might be dealt with. That is quite a surprising and burdensome stipulation. Employers must properly consider any requests that they receive. The progress that we have been making in our thinking about this leads us to need further changes to this legislation. I am glad that the Minister in the other place acknowledged general support for this legislation. The departmental officials have been very helpful in terms of briefing and making sure that the legislation is in order.

There are four measures in the Bill. The first will introduce a duty on employers to consult their employees before rejecting any flexible working request. This measure will give both parties the opportunity to explore alternatives that might be applied before the door is closed and before a pre-emptive decision has been made. There are employers who adopt this kind of approach already, but it is not universal. It is certainly best practice, but it is better that we make a change here so we can ensure that employers do not have a knee-jerk reaction to any request of this kind.

The second provision allows not just one but two requests in any 12-month period. I think this will make quite a difference to a lot of people because caring responsibilities can change very quickly, illnesses can develop very quickly, and other factors might come into a person’s life that mean that flexible working becomes a very desirable feature. The legislative framework needs to be sufficiently flexible to allow these realities to be taken into account and amending the Bill in this way will ensure that the right is more responsive to an individual’s needs and we can therefore avoid negative outcomes, such as when an individual feels that if they cannot have flexible working then they may have to finish working altogether.

The third measure is about getting a decision within two months. At the moment, a decision is required within three months. Two months may not seem a significant change, but I think it is. People’s circumstances can change very quickly and, if you have caring responsibilities suddenly thrust upon you, to have a quick decision about your employment situation might be very significant indeed. I think it will really help many people.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Bill is the final measure, which will remove the requirement for employees to have to anticipate what the consequences of the change will be. It will not always be the situation that the employee has the information necessary to provide that, and this measure changes the balance there. It is quite an important situation to remedy because people who have difficulty making written submissions, or difficulty knowing how the totality of a business works, could easily be at a disadvantage in the present situation.

This modest package of measures will help secure more flexible working, will meet the needs of individuals and businesses, and will create a situation where there is more constructive dialogue between employee and employer. This matters, and it could make a great difference. A recent ONS study showed that, if a person had flexible working opportunities, it really made a difference to whether they were able to stay in the labour market. The measures will also help employers who want to retain staff and retain skills. This is a situation where, generally, everybody will be helped, and I hope that those who are interested in this will give the Bill their support. I beg to move.

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness and the Bolton mafia. I studied carefully the contribution of the MP for Bolton South East and I commend her work. It is also a delight to hear the warm words of praise for the Minister, Kevin Hollinrake, and the officials. Too often, the public have the perception that politicians are locked in party-political tribes, arguing fiercely and rather negatively, alienated from Ministers and civil servants. This is a splendid case study of collaborative, constructive work. I am delighted to support it and very much congratulate all those involved.

The Bill comes at a timely moment. We have a real productivity paradox and dilemma in this country: we have to increase growth and we have to promote economic activity, but something like 500,000 people of working age have left the workplace since the start of the pandemic. It is essential that we understand why this is and find a way to bring back as many as possible. We need a flourishing, vibrant workforce. The pandemic had the most cataclysmic effect on working practices and people’s attitudes to work, in a way that none of us could have foreseen. Who would have thought that whole industries could work from home—banks, building societies and so on? The technology was there, but this gave a kick-start to people adopting it. We are left with a situation where maybe some people do not really want to return to the workplace, and this in itself is a quandary.

We know that many long-term health problems are around mental health. I cannot help but think that this may be associated with people working in isolated environments and not coming to the workplace for the companionship, the challenge and the debate, and for the fun and meaning that work provides for so many people. Having flexible working is surely a way forward, and we, government and enlightened employers should should welcome this. The best and most committed talent across industry, commerce and the public sector is needed.

Interestingly, when Stanford University did some research the other day, Nick Bloom, an economist, showed that hybrid models had no effect on productivity but boosted morale and retention. Increasing motivation is part of retention, and that can result in savings in recruitment costs, as was asserted by the impact assessment. That reminds me that I should declare my interest of 23 years in senior level executive search across all sectors of the economy. I have also sat on various boards.

Flexibility enhances employee engagement and well-being. As I have said, today’s employees have different expectations. The idea that you would go to the office and sit there from eight in the morning till six in the evening is not something that many young people tolerate with great comfort these days. People look for purpose in work, they want a work-life balance and the ability to support family flexibly, including elderly dependents. I have always said that, if you can provide a flexible package, particularly for a woman when her family is young, she will stay with you in the long term. That has been my experience: provide flexible working and you buy in loyalty. Of course, most of us in this place have very flexible arrangements, as do our offices and staff, so it is difficult to understand that there are still people in working environments that lack any comparable flexibility.

How pleased I am that we are debating this following the Carer’s Leave Bill, which precisely addresses the same issue from a different angle. For many years, I worked with the late Lady Seear, a Liberal Peeress, as her vice-chairman at Carers UK. At that time, people did not know what a carer was—they said, “Do you come from the careers organisation?” People were so unfamiliar with what a carer was. The bravest, boldest and most important step that the late Lady Seear and I ever took was to appoint a bright young woman, whom nobody had ever heard of, to become the chief executive. Of course, this was somebody we now know as our friend the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, and look what has happened during those years.

Just looking at the boardroom, over the years there have been different views about governance—we must have an audit committee, a remuneration committee and a risk committee. But who would have anticipated that, on a board, there is now a requirement for a non-executive director at board level responsible for employee engagement? It is a board matter. This is a transformation in the way in which the workforce is regarded. I have seen the way in which different people interpret their employee engagement responsibilities, but certainly flexible working must be part and parcel of that.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which I congratulate on having produced some extremely helpful briefing, points out that there are still negative attitudes in many workplaces from leaders and line managers towards flexible working. I think that this is reactionary—“It was not like that in our day: we had to work all the hours that God gave and so should people today”. Or they feel uncertain and unclear about how flexible working would work out in practice, which is why this requirement for the employer to consult the employee before rejecting a request for flexible working is so important, because it forces them to say how it would work in practice. But I agree with the noble Baroness that removing the employee’s requirement to have to articulate what the effect on the employer would be is completely right—this is the other way around.

The development of women in the workplace that we have seen has very much been about creating flexible employment. Every mentoring and training session to which I have contributed is about trying to help women to have flexible work packages to help them to progress—and they can move in and out of commitments as the years go by—and so also for others with diverse backgrounds, not only gender but ethnicity and disabilities. I see the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, is going to speak later, and he may have a valuable contribution in that regard.

We must embrace flexible working arrangements to prevent people from abandoning the workforce altogether. Once people have left the workforce, it is all the harder to entice them back. It has been estimated that 87% of people want to work flexibly, but only 11% of jobs are advertised as being flexible. A year ago, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggested that competition for talent in our country remains fierce. Up to 45% of employers reported having vacancies that are hard to fill. That is certainly borne out by wider commentary and observation, and certainly by my professional activity. If it is hard to fill vacancies, the onus must be on employers to provide as flexible an arrangement as possible and to listen to the expectations of staff, who will otherwise simply walk in the opposite direction.

As the noble Baroness said, there has been substantial progress. Since 2014, all employees have had the right to request flexible working after 26 weeks of service. This Bill, on the experience of earlier legislation, takes those opportunities further forward in allowing employees to request flexible working from day one, with two requests a year, reducing the decision time from three to two months. Reducing uncertainty is enormously important for people trying to organise their work-life balance. As I have said, flexibility can reduce staff turnover, enabling individuals best to cope with long-term health conditions and caring responsibilities. Nine out of 10 employees considered flexible working to be their key motivator—10% more than those who said that financial incentives motivated them most: 10% fewer say that it is financial incentives rather than flexible working. It is essential that employers listen.

As a former Health Secretary, I take a particular interest in health issues. Only yesterday there was a useful Question, which many will have heard, about economic inactivity and health. The Health Foundation has produced a valuable paper in this regard, as has the House of Commons Library. Economic inactivity is extremely serious. As I have said, much of this is to do with mental health; it is also about musculoskeletal conditions. But if flexible working enables people with long-term health conditions, as well as those with caring responsibilities and other requirements, to stay in the workforce, that must be valuable.

Rising economic inactivity occurred in all the G7 nations after lockdown restrictions were introduced, but this has largely been restored in most countries. In the UK, it is an ongoing problem, and that is what we have to address. While long-term sickness accounted for 28% of total inactivity in January this year, it was 23% in 2019. This is a worrying and serious situation, and I believe that the Government are doing all that they can to help people to return to work. Overcoming barriers is crucially important.

Facilitating flexible working has a central part to play. Sickness is not the only reason for people no longer engaging in the workforce; there are many others. Work matters to people; it gives meaning to life, gives enjoyment and creates wealth, while giving self-esteem. But people today have personal and family complications, involving their health and other matters. At the last election, the Conservative Party manifesto made a commitment to encourage flexible working, and I am delighted to see this contribution as committing to that manifesto promise today. I strongly support this Bill.

My Lords, I also strongly support this Bill and very much thank my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton for bringing it to this House. At the risk of sounding a slightly discordant note, I think it is a shame that a series of measures affecting employment law has been brought bit by bit through the legislative process, when the Government gave a commitment to employment law. It was expected to be in this Session’s Queen’s Speech, but it disappeared. Perhaps the Minister would be able to say something about whether we are actually going to get this overall employment law. I would welcome even more what I hope will sooner or later be a Labour Government’s employment law, when we can address all these issues.

Flexible working is popular among workers—figures suggest 80% of workers support the opportunity to have flexible working—and employers doubtless see the benefits as well in establishing a more diverse workforce, with the inherent flexibility of employment. It is concerning that, according to figures from the TUC, three in 10 requests for flexible working under the existing arrangements are rejected, but it is to be hoped that the requirement to consult will improve those figures. Perhaps the Minister could just say a little bit about what determines consultation. It is in the Bill, but ACAS has clear guidance about what consultation consists of, and I hope that the requirement will be enforceable and not just a token.

The one thing that I have a concern about—and it was discussed in the Common’s Committee when it considered the Bill—is the issue of making it plain when you are seeking and applying for jobs what the opportunities for flexible working are. There was a suggestion that job advertisements would have to include something about flexible working. That proposal was opposed by the Government, and the issue was not pushed, and I am certainly not intending to delay the progress of the Bill on those grounds in this House.

However, it is important to understand that it is a very brave applicant for a job who raises the issue of flexible working at an interview—you just do not do it. Really, there is an obligation on employers to indicate clearly to new hires what their policy on flexible working is, whether it is in the Bill or a question of good practice. Perhaps the department could say something specifically to encourage more openness about what opportunities there are for flexible working. It is a key element of the issue dealt with by this legislation, and the absence of any legislative requirement is a gap. Perhaps the Minister could say something about how the Government see that issue.

Finally, it is worth emphasising that the two key factors that would encourage more people to return to work are flexible working hours and working from home—both of which arise in and will be facilitated by the Bill.

So, the Bill is very much to be welcomed, and I thank my noble friend for it. I thank the Government for their support, but we need a more comprehensive approach on labour law. I look forward to that, in one means or another, over the next couple of years.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this Second Reading debate. I declare my technology interests as set out in the register. I congratulate the Boltonians in this House and another place on bringing this important Bill to Parliament. Similarly, I congratulate Kevin Hollinrake, the officials and all the team who have worked so hard to get it to this stage. I support the Bill. It does precisely what a Private Member’s Bill should do: it is simple, straightforward, clear, concise and will have such a positive benefit once it comes swiftly into statute.

We have over a million vacancies in the labour market, and well over 500,000 people who left work during Covid have not returned. The question for us this morning is, quite simply: flexible working—why would you not? Covid was something which very few generations will ever live through. It was a once-in-a-century—if that—cataclysmic set of circumstances, and for work it was similarly so. Coming out of that, we must take all of that experience into how we think about work and structure it, and how we fundamentally underline the essential truth of work and employment: that it is a relationship. It should never be seen as simply transactional; it is relational. That is why there is a lot of writing, understandably, around hybrid working and lots for all of us to think about. One thing must be clear to all of us, coming out of Covid: work or employment cannot mean five days a week, 8 am until 6 pm, in the office—but nor can it mean five days a week at home on Teams, on your tod. That is not what work is about. It is about relationships.

When we consider this whole question of flexible work, ultimately, what are we talking about? We are talking about talent. Would not any organisation want to try to secure the brightest, best talent for any role? Research shows that where flexible work is mentioned in job ads, 30% more applications come in. It makes sense. It is not about where work takes place; it is more about how we experience work, what it feels like, how it is structured and, fundamentally, how it is made human. That has to be one of the greatest things we can take from Covid: how to make work more human.

To my mind, the greatest champion of flexible working is probably still the great Dame Stephanie Shirley. At the time, she saw an opportunity in having female workers at home who would be able to contribute so fabulously to the technology business she was building while being able to run their family lives as well. That is still the most sensational example of the strength that flexible working can bring, both to the individual and to the business, if understood and gone about as part of a respectful conversation. The Bill talks about the consultation. Really, that is a respectful conversation between employer and employee, with no preconceptions being brought to bear before that conversation around the request takes place.

For disabled people, flexible working would make an immediate difference, because things change. Circumstances change. Many disabled people successfully manage fluctuating conditions, but flexible working would just be so helpful in the face of that. It would not mean that disabled people would be doing less or being given a free pass—not a bit of it. It is more about being able to fully contribute and give of their talents. Again, why would any business pay a 100% salary to somebody but have a workplace and practices, policies and procedures which enable that person to be only 70%, 60%, 50% or 40% themselves in that working environment? It just makes no economic, social or psychological sense.

In 2018, I was asked to undertake an investigation—a review—into public appointments and how we could make them more open for disabled talents. So many of the suggestions that came up in the sessions, conversations and round tables I had with disabled people up and down the country were about flexible working or a flexible approach. When I published the report in 2018, at times it was almost like I was speaking a strange language to some audiences. I hope that Covid has changed that for the better, and that flexible working is surely now more the norm.

When looking at other pieces of research out there—understandably, there is plenty of it—we see that where employees feel that they have more control, their stress is less and their feeling of connection to work and to their employer is increased. To that I say: flexible working. When people say that they feel they have a friend or a connection at work, productivity goes up, attrition goes down, and benefits for employee and employer alike are raised. Flexible working: why would you not?

While we have my noble friend the Minister on the subject of employment, it would be wrong of me not to give a slight note on unpaid internships, which are connected to this subject. As we are bringing a number of these small, discrete, specific pieces of employment relations legislation through, I ask my noble friend: is it not high time to bring forward a Bill to ban unpaid internships, particularly for our young people who are currently asked to give of their time for free for months? That cannot be right; it cannot be part of the society and economy that we want to build and be part of in this country.

Finally, the algorithmic elephant that is all too often in the room in so many of our discussions: AI, machine learning, LLM—whatever we choose to call it—is having a profound effect already, not least on work and employment. If we just look at this morning’s newspapers, we see the headlines screaming out: “Bloodbath of AI impact on employment”, with the BT decision yesterday. Should we accept that prophecy of doom: the sense that the bots are coming, our jobs are going, we are all off to hell and we are not even sure there is a handcart? I do not think so. We should be neither Panglossian nor terrified about the prospects, we should be evidence-based and rationally optimistic about what we as humans, individually and collectively, can do alongside AI and all the new technologies, which are in our human hands. They are incredibly powerful and certainly could do a lot of harm and damage, not least to the labour market, but we should conceive of them, in essence, as tools, incredibly powerful tools but tools in our human hands. If we do not make a success of AI and all the new technologies in our human hands, that will be a human failure on our part, not a failure of the technologies.

The opportunity is clear. If we get it right, we can have the augmented worker. The critical point for all of us to focus on is the transition—as some parts of the labour market get hollowed out, how we intervene to support and help to transition those individuals and communities to the new opportunities that I believe will come through. Transition, transition, transition is where government should be focused if we are to make a success of AI and all the other new technologies in our human hands.

I support this Private Member’s Bill: it is simple, straightforward, clear and concise. Flexible working is not for disabled people, although it is of great benefit to us; it is not for carers, although it is of great benefit to us. Flexible working is a benefit to all people at some stage.

My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond. Once again, I am impressed by his ability to translate his lived experience into persuasive rhetoric in your Lordships’ House. It is a distinct privilege that we regularly have the opportunity to hear from him on areas in which, sad to say, there are fewer people than there ought to be in your Lordships’ House who can speak with that lived experience.

It is also a particular pleasure to speak in support of this Bill, and I commend and congratulate my noble friend Lady Taylor on proposing it and introducing it with her characteristically informed and persuasive eloquence. While I am at it, we should recognise her Bolton colleague, my honourable friend Yasmin Qureshi, for her hard work proposing and sponsoring the Bill through the other place. From my reading of the debate at the various stages of the Bill in the other place, she was 100% persuasive. The Bill attracted support from all parts of that House and has been delivered to us in good condition.

As others have said, and as was said repeatedly in the Bill’s various stages in the other place, the Bill is not an attempt to change workplace culture but to give legislative force to changes that have occurred organically. In 2016, less than 10% of jobs were considered flexible. Since then, we have seen a 566% increase, with 58% of UK businesses now offering flexible working in some form. The Bill embeds this cultural shift into law. As we await the long-promised but yet to be seen government employment legislation in Bill form, perhaps we should thank Labour Bolton for giving us this opportunity to modernise at least this part of the labour law in the meantime.

Clause 1 is extremely welcome. It transfers greater agency to the employee and ensures that flexible working is seen as a right, rather than a favour that can be airily granted or refused at the whim of the employer. Despite the efforts of some to caricature flexible working as a charter for middle-class idleness, with stories of senior managers working from their Pelotons, it is something which is most important for those who are seeking to balance employment with very real challenges and responsibilities in their personal lives. It is particularly important for those who are neurodivergent, for those who have responsibilities as carers or as parents of young children and, as we have heard, for those who are disabled.

Before plunging into an analysis of any piece of legislation, I believe it is worth asking the most fundamental questions: is it necessary, does it engage a real as opposed to an imagined problem, and will its provisions do so effectively? I believe the answer to all three is yes. As your Lordships’ House will know, since 2014, all employees have had the legal right to request flexible working, but only 30% of those requests were accepted in the last year for which figures are available, while flexitime was still unavailable for almost 60% of UK employees. Given the need to tempt those who have opted in significant numbers for early retirement back into the workforce, embedding the right to flexible working will be critical.

In thinking about where the inequities in the current system lie, as well as strengthening the right to request flexible working for parents, carers and those suffering with a disability, there is also a need to address the problem of low pay. In the 2023 Flex for Life report, the researchers outline the current state of flexible working in Scotland. They found that while 51% of Scottish workers who earn less than £20,000 work flexibly, that figure is 80% for those who earn more than £50,000. One can adduce apparently obvious reasons for this—that lower-paid workers are more likely to work in sectors where flexibility is more difficult, such as hospitality and manufacturing—but the research shows this imbalance to be more deeply entrenched. This disparity is, in fact, true across all sectors. To quote the report directly:

“Frontline or not, the higher earners always have significantly more flexibility than lower earners”.

That is something we should think about in further debates on this subject and as we monitor the effect of this Bill once it receives Royal Assent, which I am sure it will.

I shall be supporting the Bill as it progresses through your Lordships’ House. It recognises and gives legislative shape to a cultural shift that has taken place over the last few years, and it seeks to empower employees and give them greater agency. For these creditable and credible reasons, I look forward to it reaching the statute book.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, very much for so comprehensively introducing the Bill. We on these Benches support the Bill, which in my view should have been a government Bill in government time, it is so important. However, we welcome the Government’s support for it. As has been made clear by all previous speakers, the Bill makes provision in relation to the rights of employees and other workers to request variations in terms and conditions of employment, including working hours, times and locations. This will benefit not only the employee but the employer.

I was particularly impressed by the submissions we received on behalf of people with MS, which were mentioned in passing by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and I will dwell on a bit longer. Flexible working can help people with MS better to manage their symptoms and stay in work longer. This could include later starting times, condensed hours and working from home.

People such as those with MS should have more confidence that they can work flexibly. As a legal default, everyone should have the flexible option from day one of employment. The onus should be on the employer to show that flexible working is not possible. I would appreciate the Minister’s assurance on this. We have been forced to adopt new ways of working during Covid. How can these new ways of working be embedded in our normal ways of working? If it is in any way practical, we should move to flexible working. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, mentioned very much that it should be in force from day one. I would like the Minister’s assurance on that. Also, when employers and employees are wondering about flexible working, they should explore the alternatives. There can be alternatives, and they should be explored.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, in a very wide-ranging speech, said that academics had said that there would be no effect on productivity. That is an important part of why some people are against flexible working—they believe it will have an effect. However, in practice the problem is almost the other way. Many people who are flexibly working, from home or in any other workplace, very often work harder than if they were working from nine to five. The problem is stopping people working in their leisure hours. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, made an important point about interns, who can be made to work harder than if they were just a normal employee. The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, went to my heart when she referred to one of my mentors, Baroness Nancy Seear, a wonderful parliamentarian and person, whom I was glad to count as a friend in all my years in the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats.

The noble Lords, Lord Davies and Lord Holmes, spoke about consultation being important. This is not a confrontation matter, but a matter of consultation between employer, employee and those advising them. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, spoke about how flexible the law should be, and that is really what we are talking about now. It should also be employee-led. The employer should not be leading on this, and there should be no unreasonable demands by the employers.

There is always the problem that I describe as “talking around the water cooler”. I have always thought that the real benefit of working in one place is that you can often deal with the problems by the watercooler, rather than by having formal meetings. In fact, we have moved so far from that now, because so much is done on the telephone and the computer, the internet, Zoom and whatever, that perhaps watercoolers are out of use.

Will the Government review the wider implications of home working on different groups of home workers, so that we have the best possible understanding of the economic impact of this shift in working practices? From these Benches, we heartily support the Bill. It is a move very much in the right direction and I hope that the Government will fully support it.

My Lords, I start by offering sincere congratulations to my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton on sponsoring this very important Bill, introduced by Yasmin Qureshi in the other place. I also thank her for her very clear explanation of the provisions within the Bill, and Members across the House for their very thoughtful contributions.

The Bill has Labour’s full support, and we recognise also the cross-party support. However, we still expect much greater action from the Government to enhance workers’ rights. As we have heard, the Bill will help many across the country to balance work with caring for loved ones, and the circumstances and the needs are various, as we have also heard. We know there are many statistics around this subject. I have seen estimates that at least 2.2 million employees are unable even to make requests for flexible leave. Indeed, some statistics suggest that only 11% can do so. So Labour welcomes the provisions in the Bill, which will begin to create the environment for a fairer and more equitable discussion between employers and employees about flexible working, with a very strong belief that this should be universally available.

The Bill also represents an important step towards ensuring that legislation reflects where we are as a society. We have heard a great deal about the need to take the lessons learned from Covid very seriously indeed. Remote working is one area, but there is also hybrid working, the ability for people to go to the workplace and work from home at the hours they choose, where that is possible. Surely this presents the best of both worlds for so many people, acknowledging that workers still need greater protections, and that flexible working should be an employment right, not a “nice to have” or a job perk. We need this Bill to be a very welcome starting point, not the endpoint. I was very struck by my noble friend Lady Taylor’s reflections on the needs of those such as the MS Society, and her very poignant explanation of the challenges that are faced by so many people.

As I have mentioned, in responding to this Private Member’s Bill and considering how we move forward, I have to say that it is a great disappointment that the Government have not taken the chances to bring forward comprehensive legislation in the form of an employment Bill, as was promised in the 2019 manifesto and the subsequent Queen’s Speech. I ask the Minister to reassure us of his full support for the provisions within this Bill going forward and a commitment to continuing the steps that need to be taken.

We on these Benches are of course proud to commit to strengthening rights at work. Labour’s A 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. From my own experience, talking to employers for many years around this issue, I know that matters have been heightened by Covid and the response—but this issue goes back many years. I was very struck by the employers’ comments that, when people are seeking employment, often one of their first questions now is whether the company, or the employer, will offer flexible working conditions. This is across many sectors. It is not limited to the high-end providers.

To their credit, many employers now understand that being responsive on flexible working leads to a happier workplace and a more stable workforce. It contributes to the building of loyalty to the employer and of course is a significant factor to consider when we are looking at the very vexed issue of staff retention. We have heard that we are in a climate where too many employers are struggling to recruit and retain staff, and this must be an important consideration.

Both men and women seek flexibility in their parental duties. I welcome this and I see it in members of my own family: both parents want to share the care of their children. We also have to acknowledge that many of these thoughts are driven by the prohibitive costs of childcare, which mean that too many parents are seriously struggling to balance and juggle the needs of caring for their children with returning to the workplace.

As we have heard, too many requests are still declined. We know from the evidence that too many people do not make requests for flexible working due to the fear of the consequences. Many people are sensitive about their personal circumstances and find it difficult to be open and transparent when they are afraid of the punitive consequences of disclosing their particular needs. If three in 10 requests are declined, we also know that too few jobs are advertised with flexible working as an option; I understand it is as low as one in four. If we are serious about closing the gender and disability pay gap, and recognising the challenges to the workforce whether due to personal health needs or caring responsibilities, surely this area is crying out for change.

I confirm our support for the Bill. I also note that the Government referenced flexible working in the Spring Budget, including that they

“will work with employers to demonstrate the benefits of offering flexible working, including through initiatives such as employer pledges and offering flexible working in job adverts”.

We welcome those statements. However, can the Minister confirm how the Government plan to evidence the impact of the commitments made in the Budget, in particular those on encouraging employers to include flexible working in job adverts, widening access to flexible working and improving the quality of flexible working?

It goes without saying that I am delighted that the Bill has made such good progress and I very much look forward to the Minister’s comments giving us the reassurance that we all need and deserve to make sure that this welcome first step is adopted, with a commitment to doing far more in future.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, for bringing this important Bill forward for debate today. It is an honour to be here to confirm the Government’s ongoing support for the Bill, and I thank all noble Lords who have spoken on this important matter.

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 individuals to participate in the labour market in a way that suits their circumstances. I see this in how flexible working plays a part in a host of cross-government strategies; whether it relates to disability, childcare, health or retirement, we know how important flexible working can be in helping people to stay in work doing jobs that they enjoy. Many of these 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 not only individuals but employers.

For employers, supporting flexible working could ensure the retention of an experienced worker, and all the skills and experience that they contribute, or create a more diverse senior leadership team, which studies have shown leads to improved financial returns. Furthermore, one of the key challenges for businesses today is finding good people to hire.

In this context, promoting and implementing flexible working can also make the workplace more attractive to potential applicants. This is supported by research conducted by the Behavioural Insights Team, showing that offering flexible working can, as has already been said, attract up to 30% more applicants to job vacancies.

There are also more fundamental structural issues to consider. More than 8 million people in the UK work part-time, representing a quarter of the working population. We need to make sure that the labour market continues to accommodate a diverse range of working patterns to ensure that everyone can participate and that businesses have the people they need. That is why the Government are pleased to support this Private Member’s Bill, which will help to facilitate better access to all forms of flexible working, whether that relates to when, where or how people work.

As set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, the successful passage of this Bill will introduce changes to the existing right to flexible working. This right was 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 since been amended several times, most recently in 2014 as part of the Children and Families Act. Currently, all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service can formally apply, once in any 12-month period, for a contractual change to the hours, timing or location of work.

In September 2021 the Government published a review of the legislation, which found that in the vast majority of cases—83%—where 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. In the same month, the Government launched a consultation that considered proposals in each of these areas. We published our response to that consultation at the end of last year. I am pleased to say that the measures in the Bill reflect what we set out in our response.

The new consultation requirement will mean that employees and employers are encouraged to have a broader conversation about what flexible working arrangements may be appropriate before a decision is reached, avoiding the scenario in which an employer rejects a specific request out of hand. Allowing employees to make two statutory requests every 12 months updates the legislation, so that the right-to-request entitlement operates more flexibly and can be used more frequently if people’s circumstances change. Reducing the timeframe within which employers must respond to requests, from three to two months, will simply speed up the whole process. Removing the requirement for the employee to set out the impact of the requested change removes red tape from the process and levels the playing field between employees who have been with the organisation for a shorter or longer period, as well as between those who are more or less capable of presenting a case for their application.

I will take a moment to highlight the other measure that was set out in the consultation response and will be implemented alongside the Bill to complete the package. We will remove the 26-week qualifying period and make the right to request flexible working available to all employees from the first day of their employment. This will not only encourage early conversations about the availability of flexible working but bring an estimated additional 2.2 million people into the scope of the legislation.

These changes represent a timely, sensible and proportionate update to the right to request flexible working, and reflect what many employers already do. The changes will particularly support those who need to balance their work and personal lives, and who may find it harder to participate in the labour market. From older workers to new parents to those with disabilities—the point about MS is extremely well made—or long-term health conditions, the Bill will be an important step in supporting their ability to remain and progress in work.

It is important to acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to work arrangements and there will be times when a requested pattern is unworkable. That is why the legislation leaves space for employees and employers to work out the right arrangements for their particular circumstances, and for employers to continue to decline requests for one of the specified business reasons.

I am pleased to reassure the House that the Bill contains only a single provision concerning delegated powers: a standard power for the Secretary of State to bring the provisions of the Bill into force by commencement regulations. That approach seems to have been accepted by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which in its report published on 2 March 2023 stated simply:

“There is nothing in this private member’s Bill which we would wish to draw to the attention of the House”.

I hope that is ample reassurance for noble Lords.

Before going into specific points, I say that I hope that my speech has addressed most of the points raised. On the wider question raised by the noble Lords, Lord Davies of Brixton and Lord Browne of Ladyton, it is true that the 2019 Queen’s Speech said that there would be an employment Bill. We then went into Covid, and the Government are taking forward many of their manifesto commitments on employment law by supporting this and other Private Members’ Bills.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, also raised the question of what determines consultation—a very difficult thing to put your finger on, I imagine. The issue of consultation will be dealt with in guidance; we want to encourage positive conversation about what flexible working may be possible which meets the needs of both parties. But we do not want that to be a burdensome bureaucratic process on whether the consultation requirement will be enforceable.

The question of advertising is an interesting one. There is a downside to advertising, because it gives employers the opportunity to say no from the outset. We consulted on advertising in 2019. Clearly there is a strong business case for employers to do this; to some extent, why would they not? The trials with Zurich have proved that 30% more applications are received. But the view is that rather than pursuing this through legislation, we will take a voluntary approach, as set out in the business case.

I agree with almost everything that my noble friend Lord Holmes said. On the question of unpaid internships, I never did not pay an intern. It is incredibly important to make people realise early on in their working lives that if they give the time, they get properly rewarded. His point about the challenges that AI is going to present us was extremely well made. I will turn briefly to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and I think he is absolutely right; what we are doing is turning a cultural shift into law. I think that is very good. The point about higher versus lower earners is another well-made point, and I hope that the consultation process will address that. To the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, I say that I also remember the water cooler. It is very important to have a little cultural place, where people can meet and chat freely, to drive the culture of a business and the ethics in any organisation.

Supporting the Bill is in line with the Government’s ongoing commitment to build a strong and flexible labour market that supports participation and economic growth. I observed a welcome degree of cross-party co-operation and support in the other place, and I think it is a testament to the strength of our system that we can work across parties, putting aside our rivalries to deliver change which will make a real and positive impact on people’s lives. With this in mind, I look forward to continuing to work with the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, as this Bill progresses through the House.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I also thank 10 women colleagues on the Front Bench, who are showing such support for this piece of legislation. I just hope somebody is able to take a photograph of this rather unusual occurrence.

It has been a very interesting debate, and probably longer than many Private Members’ Bill debates, which shows the level of interest. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for saying that this Bill is simple, straightforward, clear and concise. If only all legislation could meet those criteria, we would all be in a much better place.

My noble friend Lord Browne suggested that we should legislate only when it was necessary, and when there was a real and significant problem. The examples given today show that the Bill is necessary, and that there are significant issues that need to be addressed. It may be modest, but it will make a big difference for a lot of people, and will help the employment situation, as well as individuals with their work/life balance.

Mention has been made today of Covid and how it has changed our approach to working relationships, with work from home or flexible working. There are lessons to be learned there. As my noble friend Lord Browne pointed out, a lot of this change has been organic and now we are having legislation which is actually almost catching up with the mood of people in the workplace who want greater flexibility.

We have had a very constructive debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and others have made clear, this is not the last word on these issues. It is a small part of what is needed; it is an important part, but other things, such as consideration of advertising and the commitment that the Minister has given about day-one entitlements, are things we will come back to and will want to address in the future. I thank all Members for their contributions; I thank the Minister for his commitment to support this, and all those who have been involved, including his Bill team who, as I said earlier, have been extremely helpful. It is not the last word on these issues, but is a step forward. I therefore invite all Members to support this piece of legislation.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.