Flexible working doubts grow as government fails to commit to Walsh Review

The government has been urged to stop dithering and make a quick decision on the new flexible working laws as employers look for grains of certainty about 2009.

The consultation on the government’s response to the review of flexible working by Sainsbury’s HR director Imelda Walsh closes today (Tuesday), but officials were unable to confirm whether a decision would be made this side of Christmas.

Neil Perry, HR director at insurance firm Legal & General, told Personnel Today the government should implement the Walsh Review in full.

“There are significant issues for HR departments with the amount of restructuring and change that will be required during 2009. It would be helpful to implement the review in full rather than make a number of changes over time,” he said.

In May, then business secretary John Hutton accepted Walsh’s recommendation that the right to request flexible working should be extended to parents of children up to the age of 16.

However, in August the government launched a consultation into how this could be done, which as of last Thursday had received just 50 responses.

The confusion was compounded last month when new business secretary Peter Mandelson announced that he was listening to arguments that the extension should be postponed in light of the economic crisis.

Mary Mercer, principal consultant at the Institute for Employment Studies, said the government needed to make its mind up fast.

“The government needs to clarify whether it believes what it said when it accepted the paper in May,” she told Personnel Today. “Failing to do so would see a loss of confidence at a most inopportune time.”

“You either implement flexible working because it’s good for business, or you don’t – tweaking the edges won’t do anyone any good,” she added.

Elizabeth Gardiner, policy officer for charity Working Families, warned that a proposed amendment to remove the need for employers to send confirmation letters of new arrangements could see a rise in tribunal claims.

“Employers could end up with an increase in claims and complaints from confused staff who don’t have the flexible working promises in writing,” she said.

A Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform spokesman said it was unable to rule out lowering the age cap from 16, or delaying the implementation of the review until 2010, and said a follow-up report may not emerge until next year.

A penny for your thoughts, Imelda

As the clamour grows for the government to adopt the recommendations of the Walsh Review, one voice is notable by its absence.

Sainsbury’s HR director has been largely silent on the issue of flexible working as the debate she started has rumbled on for the past six months.

In May, Imelda Walsh’s government-commissioned report caught everyone by surprise when it recommended the right to request flexible working be extended to staff with children up to the age of 16 (the right is currently available to parents with children aged six or under, as well as to registered carers).

Walsh was widely expected to take a conservative approach and plump for an extension only to parents with children up to age 12.

However, her report said the change should be made in one go, as “phasing causes more confusion for the majority of employers”. She added that she did not think the extension would “add significantly to business costs”.

Despite this, Walsh has been unavailable to give her opinions on the possible amendments or delays to her original proposal. Personnel Today would love to hear your opinions, Imelda.

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