Flexibility for working parents – at what cost?

Paid paternity leave and changes to
working time: the Green Paper’s proposals are far-reaching. The consultation
period ends tomorrow and employers are waiting to see whether the measures will
be voluntary or mandatory. Ben Willmott reports

Tomorrow marks the end of the
consultation on the DTI’s Work and Parents Green Paper, which could lead to a
drastic change in the way employers treat staff who have children.

The proposals include the provision
of paid paternity leave for fathers, an increase in the flat rate of maternity
pay and, most controversially, the right for both parents to work reduced hours
for as long as they wish when the maternity period ends.

Tony Blair has already pre-empted
the consultation period on one of the Green Paper proposals by announcing his
plan to introduce two weeks’ paid paternity leave (News, 28 February).

What is not clear is what stance
the DTI will adopt on the other measures outlined in the Green Paper.

Trade and Industry Secretary
Stephen Byers has stressed he is committed to providing parents with a more
flexible working environment, but he has not revealed whether the Government
plans to introduce the measures as legislation or a voluntary code of practice.

Speaking at an Equal Opportunities
Commission conference, Byers said, “Let’s be clear, this is an issue which
affects the bottom line. Businesses face high costs if they don’t help parents
to remain in the workplace.

“Typically, it costs £3,500 for an
employer to recruit a single employee, more if they are highly skilled, and
that’s without considering the management time involved or the investment in
training,” he said.

“That means that if only 10 per
cent of new mothers changed their minds about returning to work, the total
benefit to employers through reduced recruitment costs could be as much as £30m.

“Getting the policies right can
improve productivity and profitability.”

The CIPD says it is broadly in
favour of the measures outlined in the Green Paper – providing the Government
does not try to enforce the measures on businesses through legislation.

Mike Emmott, employee relations
adviser at the CIPD, explained, “A CIPD team met DTI officials 10 days ago to
discuss the various options in the Green Paper.

“We are wholly unpersuaded about
the argument for legislation. We think that legislation would be unlikely to
help in the present climate.

“This is a very subtle area and
involves a trade-off between employer and employee. Legislation would close
down the options.”

Emmott said that recent DfEE
research showed a high proportion of employers already allow part-time working.
“I think a statutory right would just as likely discourage the development of
good practice as it would bring employer and employees into conflict,” he added.

The CBI feels any introduction of
legislation would lead to an increase in the number of employment tribunals.

Katja Klasson, head of employee
resourcing for the CBI, said, “Virtually all our members are strongly opposed
to any right to part-time or reduced hours working, whether for a limited or
long-term period.

“They believe while they are happy
to consult on part-time work any statutory right would be unworkable and could
harm competitiveness.

“Not all jobs can be done on a
part-time basis. We think the government proposal of some sort of harm test
would lead to an increase in litigation.

“There can be a business case for
flexible working. The best approach is where employer and employee can sit down
together and form an agreement that suits them both.”

David Yeandle, deputy director of
employment policy for the Engineering Employers’ Federation, believes that
employers should be encouraged to improve family friendly working arrangements
by following existing good practice.

He added, “We don’t think that
statutory legislation in this area would be either helpful or workable. It
should be about sharing best practice ideas rather than trying to reinvent the
wheel.”

Yeandle is annoyed that Byers and
Tony Blair ignored the Green Paper’s consultation period when they announced
the Government’s intention to introduce paid paternity leave.

The Institute of Directors’
opposition to statutory intervention in this area is because of its potential
impact on business.

Richard Wilson, business policy
executive for the IOD, said, “I think the proposal is completely opposed to
business. It is quite wrong to have statutory intervention in this area.

“If the Government thinks that
there is such a strong economic case for businesses to embrace its family
friendly policies then surely there is no need to introduce legislation because
they will adopt this of their own volition.”

But Jenny Watson, deputy chairwoman
of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said a survey carried out by Gallup had
revealed that almost 80 per cent of respondents thought parents should be given
the legal right to work fewer hours.

“The findings of this survey really
do strengthen the case for the Government to push ahead with the key proposals
in the DTI’s Green Paper.

“It has already taken a vital first
step with its commitment to introduce paid paternity leave. But I urge it not
to rule out the right for parents to work part time.

“This proposal is an essential part
of the package if it really wants to help all parents to play a full part in
the care of their children and to enable women to choose to continue working
after having a child.

“Among younger people there is
particularly strong backing for changes in working practices. This sends a
strong message to the Government and to employers that parents will
increasingly expect flexibility at work.

“The success of individual
businesses and the economy as a whole will depend on whether that expectation
is met.”

Theo Blackwell, policy specialist
for the Industrial Society, agrees that legislation is the best way forward to
ensure employers embrace flexible working for parents.

He said, “The courts and tribunals,
using the Sex Discrimination Act have developed a right for returners from
maternity leave to request adjusted working arrangements to cope with family
responsibilities.

“We recommend that employees should
have a legal entitlement to have their request to change the terms of their
contracts for domestic or personal reasons considered seriously by the
employer.

“It should be recognised that it is
reasonable to make such a request and employees should not be regarded as
disloyal if they want to change their terms for these reasons. The employer
would be entitled to reject the request for a valid reason.”

Lucy Anderson, TUC equality officer,
said, “Good employers have nothing to fear from a proper legal framework and
would benefit from the increased certainty in comparison with current sex
discrimination law.

“Many parents desperately need to
reduce their working hours or work more flexibly. They should be entitled to do
so unless an employer can show a genuine and sufficient business reason why the
request cannot be met.

“But in the vast majority of cases
the situation will be dealt with by mutual agreement.”

The DTI hopes to have a set of
proposals based on the Green Paper’s recommendations ready for publication by
the end of March.

www.dti.gov.uk
www.eoc.org.uk

HR views on flexible
working

HR professionals think legislation
on part-time working is unnecessary because employers are already under
pressure to introduce family friendly working initiatives in order to retain
and recruit the best quality employees.

Robert Ingram, HR director for Cap
Gemini

Ernst & Young, told Personnel
Today that he supports the Green Paper, but he would prefer to see its
proposals introduced through a voluntary code of practice.

He said, “We have to attract
skilled people to work for us. If someone wants to work in an atypical way,
less than full time, or less than all the year round, or spend more time at
home, we try to accommodate that.

“It does not threaten us, but we
would prefer to do this through agreement rather than statutory entitlement. It
is much better to sit down like two adults and work out what is the most
effective arrangement.”

Marie Clary, HR manager for Poole
Hospital NHS Trust, added, “We always try to accommodate requests to work
reduced hours by both men and women, but this needs to be balanced by the need
to provide good services to patients. We are aware that staff rights are
changing.”

Mike Griffin, HR director for

King’s College Hospital NHS Trust
said the trust has introduced flexible working arrangements because of the very
competitive nature of the labour market.

“We have a scheme called Kingsflex,
which we introduced last year designed to enable people to vary their working
time commitments to better meet their domestic requirements,” Griffin said.

“We try to accommodate people
because we know that if we don’t, that person will choose to work somewhere
else and will drop out of the health service altogether.

“The over-riding caveat is that
this must be by agreement and take into account the needs of the service.”

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