EHRC flexible working request kicks off ‘tinkering’ with employment law debate

The debate about whether to allow all workers the right to request flexible working has erupted once again after the equality watchdog called for the law to be changed on Monday.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said the flexible working right should be extended to everyone, not just carers and parents of children aged up to 16. The call comes less than a year after the right was extended to parents of children aged 16 and under, bringing a further 4.5 million employees within the scope of the legislation.

In its report, Older Workers, Employment Preferences, Barriers and Solutions, the EHRC called for a legislative change to happen as soon as possible, but ruled out tabling an amendment to the Equality Bill currently going through parliament.

But Gill Hibberd, HR director of Buckinghamshire County Council, said the public sector already allowed employees to work flexibly and warned that cracks were beginning to appear between employers and staff.

“On the one hand there is more demand from individual employees to have access to flexible working plans, on the other there’s a real sense that people are resisting any changes that the employer wants to make,” she told Personnel Today.

“Nowadays people are prepared and want to work seven days a week. When we try and introduce new rates of pay that reflect that Saturday and Sunday are normal working days we get a lot of resistance from unions.”

Sam Anthony, Fenland District Council’s head of HR, said she was mindful that the EHRC proposal may prove challenging for many other organisations to implement, but supported the recommendation.

“We already offer the opportunity to request flexible working practices to all employees, and this has been favourably received by our staff, a fact reflected by our recent staff satisfaction rates,” she said.

But business groups scoffed at the proposals. David Yeandle, deputy director of employment policy at the EEF said: “We think the situation is already working quite well. Any further extensions would create real practical problems for companies. There’s a limit to how much flexibility you can provide and you have to make choices between those you can offer flexibility to and those you can’t.”

Katja Hall, CBI director of Employment Policy, said: “Our surveys show that more than 9 in 10 employers offer at least one form of flexible working and 93% of requests are accepted – but a universal right to request would inevitably cause these acceptance rates to fall. She added that not all jobs could be done on a flexible basis.

Abigail Morris, employment advisor at the British Chambers of Commerce, said the vast majority of businesses already offered flexible working and added: “The constant threat of tinkering to employment law must stop.”

However, Andrew Fishleigh, employment lawyer at Keystone Law, said employers should not be frightened by the proposal.

“Both employers and employees have, for some time, had genuine concerns about the unfairness of allowing parents and carers flexible working rights and denying them to the remainder of the workforce, so making this a right available to all should reduce certain work place tensions,” he said.

“Employers will still have the ability to decline a request using the defence mechanisms which are currently available to them, including the burden of additional costs, inability to reorganise work etc.”

In the same report the EHRC also called for the government to scrap the Default Retirement Age.

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