A bill that seeks to enhance employees’ right to flexible working has received broad support from MPs during its second reading in the House of Commons.
Its sponsor, Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi, said that the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill aims to get organisations to “think out of the box and more creatively” about how and when work can be carried out.
She noted that while a day-one right to request flexible working is not explicitly stated in the Bill, secondary legislation would be introduced to establish this right.
If the Bill is passed, an employer would need to consult with their employee before rejecting a flexible working request. The period within which an employer would have to respond to a request would be reduce from three months to two.
Employees would be able to make two flexible working requests within a 12-month period, and they would no longer be required to explain how to the employer how it might be affected by the change in working arrangements, or suggest how they could deal with it.
Qureshi said: “During the pandemic millions of people benefited from flexible working, and I think we all recognise that this is a good position to be in. However, in many jobs there are still invisible restrictions that hold people back – for instance, the need to live in high-cost accommodation close to the centre of cities, or to maintain working arrangements that are hard to combine with family or other responsibilities.”
She cited research from charity Working Families that showed three in 10 UK parents are working in jobs that are below their skill levels because they cannot find the flexibility they need elsewhere.
Quershi said: “It is important to remember that flexibility is far more than hybrid working. It covers job shares, reduced or compressed hours, flexitime, and even phased retirement.
“Offering flexibility to balance work and home life can be key to ensuring progression in the labour market and to opening up employment and promotion opportunities to everyone, regardless of their gender, age, disability or location.
“Men’s ability to access flexible working is just as important. The statistics show that women are twice as likely to excel in their career if their husband is helping with the childcare.”
Business minister Kevin Hollinrake said the government would soon be publishing its response to the flexible working consultation it ran last year.
He said: “The government are committed to building a strong and flexible labour market that supports participation and economic growth.
“It is great to see support for these measures across the political spectrum in the House, as has been evident from today’s debate. The government look forward to continuing to work closely with [Qureshi] to support the passage of these measures.”
It is important to remember that flexibility is far more than hybrid working. It covers job shares, reduced or compressed hours, flexitime, and even phased retirement.” – Yasmin Qureshi
Chris Clarkson, Conservative MP for Heywood and Middleton, said more older workers now felt they could continue working for longer because of flexible working opportunities.
“That is really important for small businesses in particular, because there may be a bit of institutional knowledge that cannot be easily replaced, so it is a good thing to give somebody the chance to work differently, train somebody else up, cut back their hours and look forward to their retirement as part of a managed process,” he said.
However, James Daly, Conservative MP for Bury North, questioned the impact increased employee rights around flexible working would have on smaller businesses. He also noted that increased home working could have a detrimental effect on town centres.
“This is an extremely difficult time for businesses across the country. The concept of flexible working takes second place to being able to pay wages and bills, and making sure that people are employed,” he said of small businesses.
Danny Kruger, Conservative MP for Devizes, said he was concerned about the withdrawal of the obligation on the employee to explain how their flexible working arrangements could affect the organisation.
“I wonder about that, because a successful employer-employee relationship is one of common interest. I think it appropriate to ask an employee who is seeking a homeworking or flexible-working arrangement what effect that might have on the company or other organisation and on that person’s colleagues, and I think that that was a good principle,” he explained.
Selaine Saxby, Conservative MP for North Devon, said more flexible working would increase opportunity for people in rural areas.
She said: “As long as people are connected to broadband, which is still an issue, this will enable them to access jobs and opportunities they would otherwise have to move away for. We must recognise, too, that the lack of public transport in remote rural constituencies is a very real barrier to some people being able to get to work.”
The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill would need to complete three more stages in the House of Commons and pass through the House of Lords, before coming law.