Extending flexible working rights

In its 2010 pre-election manifesto, the Conservative Party stated: “We will make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe. We will… extend flexible working and improve parental leave.” Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats also committed to extending flexible working to everyone and promoting shared parental leave.

Given the similarity between their pre-election positions, it was no surprise when the coalition agreement, published on 12 May, underscored the new government’s commitment to flexible working, stating: “We will extend the right to request flexible working to all employees, consulting with business on how best to do so,” and “We will encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy – including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave.”

As one of the most prominent features of the parties’ plans, the flexible working message also featured in the Queen’s Speech, when she announced her government’s commitment to “remove barriers to flexible working and promote equal pay”. The government is now set to enter into consultation on how to best extend the right to flexible working.

Criticism and concerns

The legal right to request flexible working has been widely criticised in the past for various reasons. Employers have expressed concern at the potential bureaucracy introduced by the legislation. The statutory procedure is very detailed and formulaic in nature. The relevant timescales mean that a single request could take in excess of three months to conclude, with a corresponding drain on management and/or HR resources. Following the Queen’s Speech, the Institute of Directors reiterated previously voiced concerns that the government’s proposals could be very costly – concerns which have been echoed by the British Chamber of Commerce.

Key points

  • The right to request flexible working was introduced in 2003 for parents of children up to the age of six, and disabled children up to the age of 18.
  • In 2006, the right was extended to carers of dependent adults and, in 2009, to parents of children up to the age of 16.
  • It is available to staff with at least 26 weeks’ service.
  • The coalition government plans to extend the right to all employees.

Increasing popularity

However, there are clear signs that employers and employees are making increasing use of flexible working practices, and that access to flexible working is commonly extended beyond just those employees who are covered by the legislation. The third Work-Life Balance Employer Survey found that 92% of employers would consider a request to change a working pattern from any employee.

In its 2009 report on employment trends, the CBI emphasised that a number of employers have used flexible working practices to manoeuvre the recent challenging economic landscape – noting that flexible practices can assist with reducing labour costs, both making better use of existing staff resources and enabling staff to achieve a better work-life balance. Survey respondents indicated that flexible working was the most popular response to the economic downturn.

Support and benefits

A number of organisations have shown significant support for the government proposals to extend the right to request flexible working to everyone. Such an approach has been recommended in the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Working Better report. It cited the benefits of flexible and alternative working as including, among other things, innovative approaches to managing people, time and rewards in the recession, as well as promoting the retention of staff and a more efficient workforce.

It remains to be seen exactly how the government will flesh out its ambition to achieve access to flexible working for all employees and, indeed, how quickly this can be done. What is clear is that the government recognises the value of flexible working, and the increasing support for more innovative working practices. Barring unforeseen political mishaps, the most significant extension of this legal right appears to be on its way.

Karen Waddell, associate, Brodies LLP

Frequently asked questions

Which employees are eligible for the statutory right to request flexible working?

Can an employer safely ignore a request for a flexible pattern of working made by an employee who does not qualify for the statutory right to request flexible working?

In what circumstances can an employer reject a request for flexible working?

Can an employer withdraw from a flexible working agreement if the arrangements are no longer in its interests?

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