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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, this has been a very good debate. We are at one in recognising the pressures on many families, particularly where both parents are at work, and the already great success of flexible working. I cannot accept the amendment, because I believe that flexible working has been so successful up to now as a result of the consensus that has been reached with stakeholders, employees and employers. That general support has meant a great deal of encouragement and success in the way in which flexible working has actually operated. It is very important to keep that consensus. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, calls it a piecemeal approach. I prefer to call it a step-by-step approach that has been very successful and will, I think, be very successful in the future. The main ingredient of its success has been employers' ability to support it.
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The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, quite rightly quoted several employers, but I could also regale the House with quotations from employers who support what is being done and what we are going to do. Equally, she is right that many employers have extended to employees flexible working that is over the current statutory limits. That is very much to be welcomed, but this policy is much more firmly based on a proposal that receives support from all those concerned and for those who have to operate such a policy.

The evidence that it is working is quite clear. The introduction of the right to request flexible working commenced in April 2003. A survey by the Policy Studies Institute, which was published on 30 March, showed that 47 per cent of mothers now work flexitime compared with 17 per cent in 2002, and that almost triple the number of new fathers now work flexitime; that is, 31 per cent report that they now work this way compared with 11 per cent in 2002. These figures surely tell us that the right to request flexible working has been very successful, but it has also been very successful with employers. I would definitely argue that this has been because of our targeted, light-touch approach to legislation. We deliberately took this approach as the best way of striking a balance between the parents' desire for more flexible work patterns and the needs of business. The result is legislation that has proved to be clear, and easy to understand and adopt for employers. As a result, they have embraced it wholeheartedly.

The second reason for success is what one might call the halo effect, although I am not sure that this House would ever say that legislation has a halo effect. However, legislation can sometimes be used to cause a change in behaviour. I believe that, in this instance, there is again very persuasive evidence that that has occurred. The original legislation has had the effect of making businesses focus their minds on the business case for flexible working, which is why we are seeing such an encouraging response from businesses when they have been asked to comment to noble Lords on this legislation. Very innovative approaches to the provision of flexible working arrangements are coming forward.

It is not very fashionable to commend McDonald's these days. However, only a few days ago, I received a letter from it enclosing its family contract. It enables two people from the same family who work in the same McDonald's restaurant to cover each other's shifts with no prior notice. I understand that that is very helpful to employees—and there are other great examples of that. The evidence seems persuasive that this light-touch, step-by-step approach to legislation is having a very powerful impact, but it is also encouraging employers to do more. That is just the kind of legislation which this House in particular has wanted to encourage and advocate in the years that I have taken legislation through it.

In this Bill, we are extending the right to carers of adult persons, which has received warm support. The consultation document Work and families: choice and flexibility asked what more the Government could do
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to help families find working hours to match their caring responsibilities. There was strong support, including from employers, for the idea that carers should receive the priority in any extension of the law. We have listened to that and have followed suit. Extending those rights to carers increases entitlement to 1.5 million employees. Already we reckon that 3.6 million parents are covered under current legislation. Accepting the amendment would mean that another 4.6 million people would be entitled.

Of course, I understand the arguments. The noble Baroness would say that such a large number is the reason to support the amendment. But, from the point of view of employers, one has to consider that very large number. She is right to suggest that there are safeguards. None the less, this has been outstandingly successful legislation, which has encouraged a wholesale change in culture among employers. The step-by-step approach is the right one to take. Having the support of employers in this approach means that it is much more likely that it will come to a successful fruition.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I thank all noble Lords who have supported my amendment, including the right reverend Prelate. I am of course disappointed that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, was unable to do so. As I understand it, her reason was concern for other workers who might have a greater burden because of the flexible working arrangements that might be given to a parent. However, the other workers probably are or have been the parents of young children and would understand the pressures on the parent asking for flexible working arrangements at that time. If it is not too hard for companies which are already implementing flexible working policies to bring other workers along with them in the consensus that the Minister mentioned, it probably is not too hard for new companies to do the same.

The Minister objected to my amendment on the basis that the current success is due to a consensus that has been developed. I do not see why that sort of consensus could not apply just the same if the right to ask for flexible working was made statutory for parents of all children up to 18. We must remember that this is not a right to have flexible working; it is just a right to ask for it. I reiterate the safeguards that I mentioned. I did not list them deliberately because I did not want to weary the House, but they are considerable for employers to give as legitimate reasons for not granting flexible working.

The figures that the Minister quoted for those who are taking part in flexible working are welcome, but we need to go further. I wonder whether the Minister is worried that employees who ask for flexible working and are turned down on some of those grounds would feel resentment, and that that would interfere with their relationship in the workplace. Similar resentment may be felt by workers who would like to ask for flexible working but do not feel that they have sufficiently strong rights to be able to get anywhere.
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The Minister also talked about the halo effect. I hope that he is right that such best practice will trickle out among the industry and the workforce. I worry about the power of inertia, because businesses have a great many things to worry about without worrying about something like that. It takes a visionary employer to implement some of those best practices in relation to family-friendly working policies.

The Minister mentioned that this was a step-by-step policy. I welcomed hearing him say that, because before I withdraw the amendment I would like to ask him whether he is considering another step after this one; for example, will he consider the step that would give the statutory right to ask for flexible working to parents of children up to say, the age of 11, when they go from primary to secondary school? That is a natural change of life for the child and the family and it would be the logical next step if we are thinking about a step-by-step arrangement.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I cannot give a commitment to the noble Baroness, but we will monitor the introduction of the new provisions and continue discussions with stakeholders. We will also pick up the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, about children with mental health issues to see how that is working. This matter is not set in stone. Equally, I will not say that we have a target in a few years' time that the provisions will be extended, but it is an act of faith that we will keep the matter under review and continue to discuss it with stakeholders.

We all want to make flexible working successful. We want to see it embraced by as many parents as possible, but we want to do it in a way that does not place huge burdens on British business at a time when we face many challenges. We want to do it with the support of employers. I am convinced that this is the way to do it.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I am slightly reassured by what the Minister has said and I thank him. If we are to believe the many reports that tell us about the enormous economic benefits for businesses of adopting those practices, we should not withhold them. I hope that businessmen reading our debates today who perhaps have not thought about such policies will be stimulated to do so and to consider many of the good examples cited in your Lordships' House. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

6.15 pm

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