Government plans to extend right to request flexible working threatens to cause divisions among staff

Plans to extend the right to request flexible working to parents of older children will create workplace divisions among staff with and without children, business groups have warned.

Sainsbury’s human resources director Imelda Walsh will lead a review into when and how the government should extend the right to request, under proposals set out by the government in last week’s Queen’s Speech.

Walsh will work with business representatives, unions and parent groups to consider options that include raising the age limit to parents of children aged nine, 11 or 16. She will report back with recommendations to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) next spring. Following that, a formal consultation will be launched to gather views.

But Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: “The danger with ever-larger groups of people entitled to request flexible working, and a smaller number not entitled to do so, is that divisions will grow in the workplace. Many enlightened employers already allow staff to work flexibly regardless of their family status.”

British Chambers of Commerce policy adviser Kieran O’Keefe added: “If you formalise negotiations [on flexible working], employers create the possibility of forming distinctions between staff [with and without children] doing the same roles.”

O’Keefe also warned that extending the right to request may not be effective for the estimated 10% of employers that do not offer flexibility to staff. “Those that don’t offer flexible working don’t feel confident about maintaining a profitable enterprise with a restructured workload and resources. If you just simply extend the right to request, then are you actually tackling the issue for those employers who aren’t flexible already? Probably not.”

A DBERR spokeswoman confirmed the government had already decided it would extend the right to request, and the review was simply to determine what the cut-off age should be. “Extending the right to request to all staff is outside the scope of this review,” she added.

The facts and figures

  • 6 million – the number of employees who currently have the right to request flexible working.
  • 1.4 million – the extra number of staff who would benefit if the age limit was raised to nine.
  • 2.6 million – the extra number of staff who would benefit if the age limit was raised to 11.
  • 4.5 million – the extra number of staff who would benefit if the age limit was raised to 16.

Feedback on the plans

Brendan Barber, general secretary, TUC: “For most parents, the right to request ceases to exist the minute their child turns six, yet parents of school-age children are perhaps those most likely to need some flexibility.”

Sarah Jackson, CEO, Working Families: “Parents of older children, often working long hours in low-paid jobs, can’t make their jobs fit around their families. Extending the legal right will mean their employers must consider their requests seriously.”

John Cridland, deputy director-general, CBI: “The CBI welcomes the government’s plan. It should beware of increasing numbers eligible to request too far too fast, however, as this could jeopardise the future flexibility of those currently eligible.”

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