Flexible working

Flexible working and unpaid leave key to getting underemployed back to work

The vast majority of new legislation in the UK comes from the government in power at the time. However, one mechanism – Private Members’ Bills – allows backbench MPs of any party to put forward new legislative proposals on issues not necessarily supported by or at least not being actively pursued by the government.

Most Private Members’ Bills fail. In the parliamentary session 2021-22, only 13 out of a total of 261 ever made it into legislation. But in the area of employment rights, just recently Private Members’ Bills have proven a remarkably effective means to push progressive legislation forward.

From the 6th April, workers in England, Scotland and Wales will have two new important rights – a right to request flexible working from day one, and a right to a week’s unpaid carer’s leave every year – thanks to Private Members’ Bills respectively from Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East, and Wendy Chamberlain, Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife. Each were encouraged and supported by expert organisations and campaigning charities like Carers UK, Timewise and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development.

These new rights are very important, if modest, developments towards opening up more good quality job opportunities to everyone, particularly women and people with caring responsibilities, health conditions and disabilities, and workers in their 50s and 60s. And in a country beset by persistently high rates of economic inactivity, even modest positive steps towards a more inclusive labour market that draws on the widest possible pool of talent and skills, can only be welcomed.

The Day One Right to Request Flex
This new right brings forward the right for a new employee to make a request for flexible working arrangements from six months of employment to the first day, alongside some other changes in the process.

Flexible working is an increasingly high priority for people of all ages, as we at Phoenix Insights have found from our own research into workers in their 50s and 60s in particular.

Many employers have already responded to this demand and started to take flexible working seriously. Flexible working experts Timewise have successfully worked with businesses from all sectors, from manufacturing to media, to make the practical and attitudinal changes needed to embrace flexible working throughout their organisations. The hope is that this new right begins to normalise conversations between workers and employers about flexible working arrangements right at the start of the working relationship.

The Right to Unpaid Carer’s Leave

This legislation introduces a new right to a week’s worth of unpaid leave to care for someone who has long-term care needs. At any one time, there is estimated to be at least five million unpaid carers in the UK, and research from Carers UK estimates value of unpaid care to the economy in England and Wales at £162 billion, greater than the entire budget for the NHS in England.

But we also know that around 600 people are forced to give up work every day to care for others, and carer’s leave can be a lifeline to enable carers, who are predominantly women, to keep their jobs and juggle the responsibilities of work and care.

Forward thinking employers thankfully already do more than the bare minimum being introduced by these new laws. But estimates suggest that millions of workers will be newly able to take up what the laws will now provide. I hope this leads to some of our currently underemployed workforce – those who would choose to work more hours if they had more flexibility, and those who need that flexibility to be able to work at all – returning to work that is good for them, and good for our economy.

Because this is a critical issue for the UK labour market at the moment, which continues to struggle with a working-age employment rate still well below pre-Covid levels, making us the only G7 nation to have failed to recover since the pandemic.