Flexible working extension to right to request unlikely in near future

The right to request flexible working is unlikely to be extended to all employees “anytime soon”, despite recent comments from the work and pensions secretary, experts have said.

Under current legislation, flexible working requests are limited to parents of children under 16 and carers. In a newspaper interview last week, Yvette Cooper hinted that she wants to extend this to all employees, as well as allowing staff to make requests from day one of their employment.

However, a Green Paper on family policy published last month by schools secretary Ed Balls – who is also Cooper’s husband – pledged only to ensure that the law around flexible working remained “fit for purpose” in the future, casting doubt over any extension.

Mary Mercer, principal consultant at the Institute of Employment Studies, said this confusion within government was highlighted by the 2008 Walsh Review into flexible working.

“There were some confusing arguments with the government’s consultation document outlining the considerable business benefits of extending the right to request, but other arguments from government suggesting the extension should be delayed because of recession,” she told Personnel Today.

“So people were left confused, wondering which is it – does flexible working help business cut costs and become more competitive (and therefore ideal in a time of recession), or does it not?”

Given that the right to request was extended just last April, following the Walsh Review, Mercer said it was unlikely to be changed “any time soon”.

Dalia Ben-Galim, senior researcher at think-tank Ippr, suggested Cooper’s comments should be viewed in the context of the forthcoming general election, especially in light of the Conservative commitment to extend the right to request to parents with children up to the age of 18.

While Ippr supports an extension of the right to request to all workers, Ben-Galim said the business case for flexible working has been helped by the number of employers that have increased flexibility as a result of the recession.

“We have started to see that lots more employers are introducing flexibility, making a business case for both employer and employee in many cases,” she said. “There is now a more mature debate – instead of government versus business.”

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