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Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his full reply, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for her support. She talked about a wet towel. The Japanese have a saying about a "1,000 aspirin job"; this was definitely a 1,000 aspirin amendment. I have a wonderful mental picture of the Minister hiding behind the Pregnant Workers Directive; that was very funny.
This is a complex situation, and I understand that there needs to be a simple method of calculating statutory maternity pay for employers. I do not doubt that for a moment; I am the last person to want to increase the burdens on industry. However, there is an injustice here, and not just between two women on the same remuneration package. The Minister talked about pregnant women on low earnings whose bonus boosts their earnings, but there are also lots of women who do not have any bonus at all.
The Minister said that only 1 per cent receive more than £1,000 per week, but he and I both know that some of those women receive considerably more. That was not the idea of statutory maternity pay. That money could be put to much better use. However, I understand that, because this is a complex issue and
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the Minister will need to look at legal adviceparticularly on the Pregnant Workers Directivethis cannot be resolved now. Therefore, in good faith and knowing that the Government will continue to look at this issue, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 9, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 10. Together the two amendments extend the right to request flexible working to all parents of children under the age of 18. In contrast to that, the Government have stated that they intend to prescribe the current age limits for that right, which is parents of children under the age of six or a disabled child under the age of 18. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child prescribes 18 as the age under which parents have parental responsibility for their children.
I believe that it is up to parents to decide how much time they need or want to spend with their child and how they need to organise their working arrangements to enable them to do that. Some children will need more time with their parents than others. Children who go through life and school without major problems may not need quite so much time with their parents as those who are perhaps a little more troubled, have more difficulties or are having problems at school. Parents of such children may want to rearrange their working arrangements to enable them to spend more time with their children.
I believe that there is a very strong case for extending the right to request flexible working further than that which the current Bill proposes. Of course, I welcome the Bill's extension of that right to request flexible working to carers of disabled adults, but I believe that the Government's intention to continue restricting the right to request to parents of very young children fails to address the difficulties that many families face in balancing their work and caring commitments.
In Committee, the Minister argued that the right to request flexible working needs to be extended slowly to allow employers time to adjust to new groups of workers making such requests. However, I believe that this piecemeal approach makes the right to request unnecessarily complex. Of course, we have to remember that, anyway, many employers will have to introduce new policies following the passage of this Bill to take account of the new rights of the group of carers of disabled adults who happen to be their employees. A wider right to request for the parents of all children would allow employers to assess the needs of their entire workforce all in one go once the Bill has Royal Assent. If we do not change the Bill to extend the right to parents of all children, I think it will happen later, but I would rather it happened now.
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Many good employers already offer flexible working to more groups than the law currently requires and often to the whole workforce. The economic case for doing so is very strong. I shall turn to that in just a minute. First, we need to consider why parents want the right to request flexible working. I believe it is because the need for flexibility in working arrangements does not stop when a child reaches school age. Finding childcare that fits around the school day can be more complex than arranging full-time childcare for pre-school children. The fact that wrap-around childcare is available does not mean to say that all parents want it. Some parents prefer to look after their children themselves. The Government need to do everything they can to enable parents to make that choice for themselves on the criteria that exist within their own families, about which they know a great deal more than any of us in your Lordships' House.
Flexible working incorporates a wide range of working patterns, including flexi-time, working from home, part-time working, job-sharing and so on. Many parents want only very small changes in their working arrangements. They do not necessarily want a complete upheaval in their working week. They may simply want to start half an hour later to enable them to take their children to school or finish half an hour earlier to enable them to collect their children or they may want to work only on weekdays so they can have time off to be with the family at weekends.
The Minister argued in Grand Committee that any employee now has the right to ask to work flexibly, regardless of whether they have a statutory right to do so. But without a statutory right to request, parents in low paid or low status jobs have limited ability to negotiate with their employers. They are the underdogs in those negotiations. They may ask for changes, but their employer has no duty to consider their request unless they have that statutory right.
I shall give one example, which is different from the ones that I gave in Committee. A single parent of a 10 year-old child called the Working Families helpline. She worked in a hostel for homeless people, and her shift work included working nights about once a week. She had childcare arrangements to take care of that, but those arrangements broke down and she asked her employer to change her to day shifts. The employer refused to do so because much of the work took place at night and he preferred to recruit somebody to do the lighter workload during the day than somebody to do the heavier workload at night. Her child was too old to enable her to use the statutory right to request, so she did not have the support of the law in the good case that she was trying to make.
There are many benefits for employers and many employers know it. They know that allowing their employees to work flexibly brings them business benefits. The DTI's report Success at Work notes that:
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"Employers who have introduced family friendly working policies report improved morale, commitment and retention of staff, leading to financial savings, improved customer service and the ability to react more effectively to changes in demand".
The CBI agrees. It stated that 87 per cent of businesses surveyed by it reported that the existing law had either a positive or no impact on their business. Additionally, evidence from the Government's former Work-Life Balance Challenge Fund reveals that workplaces with flexible working policies have reported financial savings, reductions in staff turnover, reductions in absenteeism and improved productivityas much as a 50 per cent improvement in that area.
In Committee, the Minister argued that he is concerned about the impact of extending the right to request to small businesses whose resources to meet an increase in demand for flexible working are limited. This led the Government to be cautious about widening the scope of the law. But the Employment Act 2002 already sets out many reasons that small employers can give to turn down a request to work flexibly. They can do that quite legitimately. There are nine reasons: eight specific ones and one catch-all;
If this amendment is accepted and the Secretary of State finds that a lot of small businesses were being disadvantaged by it, the Employment Act 2002 already gives the Secretary of State power to introduce more legitimate reasons why small businesses could turn down such a request. The power is there. Small businesses unable to meet a request for any of those reasons can legitimately turn down a request. Given that safeguard for small businesses and all the evidence that we have from the CBI, the DTI and other organisations of the many economic benefits of having a flexible working system within the workforce, I wonder whether the Minister has thought again about the arguments he made in Committee. I do not think that they hold water. There are sufficient benefits and safeguards. It is the intention of the Government to give parents the opportunity to look after their children, avoiding the need for parenting orders or ASBOswhich are used for young people far too muchand to exercise the responsibilities they have as parents, balancing their caring and employment responsibilities. The Government would be in line with their own policies if they accept these amendments. I beg to move.
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