Trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt talks to Personnel Today about
the effect she hopes the Employment Act will have in encouraging employers to
improve the work-life balance of their staff. The Act, which came into force on
6 April, gives the parents of children aged under six the right to request
flexible working arrangements
Q The legislation places a lot of responsibility on both employers and
staff to assess the potential for flexible working. Why is that?
A What we are 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 far 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, as they talk about the war
for talent. I think the majority of employers will offer family-friendly
Q Won’t some organisations and line managers just go through the motions
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 are 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. 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
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 that if we are 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 are 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
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 children with disabilities, because it is
important that children grow up well.
If we had tried to legislate for everybody, it would probably never have