Hewitt’s thoughts on the Employment Act

The
Government’s new Employment Act comes into effect on 6 April. As HR directors,
employers and workers look to ascertain exactly what the new legislation will
mean, Personnel Today speaks to Patricia Hewitt, secretary of state at the
department of trade and industry, about the effect she thinks the legislation
will have.

Q.
The legislation places a lot of responsibility on both employers and employees
to assess the potential for flexible working. Why is that?
A. What we’re trying to do is use legislation in a new way. When creating
new rights, the law can create an adversarial situation. We wanted to avoid
this by getting the manager and the employee to sit down together and agree on
something that will work for both of them. It’s a different use of legislation
and I believe it will work.

Q.
Do you think many employers will comply with the legislation?

A. Getting a better work-life balance is becoming much more important for all
employees – men as much as women. The best businesses are already switched on
to this and are using flexible working policies to attract and retain the
people they need. As I go around the country, I am struck by the number of
employers that raise the issue with me themselves as they talk about the war
for talent. I think the majority of employers will offer family-friendly
working.

Q.
Won’t some organisations and line mangers just go through the motions though?

A. There are still some employers who will say they’re not interested, you
can’t work here if you want to work hours like that. There might be others who
look at the form, tick the boxes and are perfunctory about the whole procedure.
I think they will be in the minority and tribunals can look at that.

Q.
How will you know if the legislation is a success or not?

A. What we’re doing is running a benchmarking survey at the moment. That will
tell us what employees feel now, if they have satisfactory hours and how happy
they are. Then we intend to monitor it over the next three years. We will
monitor calls coming into the helpline, tribunal cases, unions, employers and
employee organisations to give us a picture of whether the law will deliver for
individuals.

Q.
Some say the legislation could create divisions within the workplace, with
childless workers feeling that parents have access to better employment rights.
Do you think that will happen?

A. I think a lot of employers are actually saying if we’re doing this for
parents, we don’t want people who don’t have young children to feel left out,
so let’s make this work for everyone.

Q.
Are you saying that the legislation could have a wider effect on the way
companies operate, re-assessing the way all of their staff work?

A. I think we’re moving into a completely different system of organising work,
instead of the old nine-to-five standard working hours, full-time life work for
men. It will help people get thinking in much more radical ways.

Q.
Do you not think it would have been fairer to extend the legislation to cover
all employees?

A. As far as the law is concerned, we were right to say it’s about parents with
young children or with disabilities, because it is important that children can
grow up well. If we had tried to legislate for everybody, it would probably
never have happened.

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