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News: Impact of flexible working extension will be "limited", says lawyer

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12th Nov 2012
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Government plans to extend flexible working rights to all employees in a bid to stop women being “locked out of the workplace” and boost GDP may have a “more limited” impact than expected, a lawyer has warned.

The government estimates that the forthcoming changes will bring a net benefit of £222.5 million to employers as a result of increased productivity and savings in reduced sickness, absenteeism and recruitment alone.   But Nick Clegg, when he announces the plans on Tuesday, will also point to the important effect that the move should have in enabling women to become more economically active.   According to the Guardian, the deputy prime minister’s speech, which is heavily based on research from the Resolution Foundation think-tank, will point out that, if the UK is compared with the world’s best performing countries in terms of female representation in the workforce, it has about a million fewer women.   The study indicates that the UK ranks only 15th in the OECD in relation to female economic activity, largely due to high childcare costs. It also claims that, if the country had the same proportion of women entrepreneurs as the US, it would see a huge £42 billion lift to GDP.  Limited practical consequences  Despite these figures, Clegg will state that the average UK female is now better qualified than most men, performs better at school and is more likely to go to university. As a result, he will expound on how keen he is to “sweep away the clapped-out rules that make no sense for modern families in a modern economy”.   The new rights will not be introduced until 2014 at the earliest, but will apply to all employees having more than 26 weeks of continuous service with their employer.   But Catherine Wilson, a partner at law firm Thomas Eggar, said that “the practical consequences of any extension may be more limited than expected” for a number of reasons:  

  • There is currently no proposal to compel employers to accept flexible working requests. They can refuse applications on a variety of grounds ranging from having to take on additional costs to a detrimental impact on customer service, quality or performance.
  • Many employers have already gone further than the statutory scheme already. For example, a CBI survey of London employers during the Olympics found that more than 50% intended to permit their staff to work flexibly during the Games.
  • It is becoming increasingly common for employees who have reduced their hours to find that there is no automatic entitlement to increase them again if they need the money.

  On the other hand, many employers are likely to still find it difficult to justify in objective terms that they must operate a “full working week” model, especially if they have failed to introduce a temporary trial period, Wilson said.

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