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Right to request flexible working may be extended

The government plans to strengthen employment rights for employees from their first day in a new job and unpaid leave for working carers.

The move to a more flexible, hybrid working environment has been fast-tracked following lockdown rules requiring people to work from home. The new rules, if approved, will come into force from April 2023.  

 

The proposals will now go out for public consultation, with the centrepiece of the reforms proposing that every employee will be given the right to request flexible working – regardless of time served – under government plans to modernise working arrangements.

The current system requires employees to have worked at least six months before they can make a request for flexible working, while they can only submit one request a year.

The consultation also looks at cutting the current three-month period an employer has to consider any request as well as reviewing the eight reasons to refuse flexible working.

If an employer cannot accommodate a request, as can be the case, they would need to consider what alternatives they could offer – for example, if they could not change their employee’s hours on all working days, they could consider making the change for certain days instead.

The consultation looks at a range of flexible working methods such as job-sharing, flexitime, compressed, annualised and staggered hours, as well as phased retirement – not just working from home.

The CBI Employment Trends survey found that 99% of all businesses surveyed believed that a flexible workforce is vital or important to competitiveness and the prospects for business investment and job creation.

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said: ‘Whilst the introduction of flexible working as a day-one right might change the timescales for making requests and could see an increase in the number of new staff making a request, the underlying principles will still remain the same.

Employers should keep in mind that they don’t automatically have to accept employees’ requests for flexible working; they have the ability to decline requests if it is not a viable option for the company, as long as they give one of the eight prescribed reasons for refusing.

‘Similarly, employers are already expected to deal with flexible working requests without any unreasonable delays so should be familiar with the process and its requirements. Even if the government introduce tighter timescales for responding to requests, it’s likely it won’t have a significant impact on existing practices.

‘However, employers should make sure they are prepared to manage requests in line with the time requirements and have the resources available to achieve this. This might involve training managers and reviewing current contracts and policies. The government have begun their consultation which is set to run until the beginning of December 2021. We await the outcome of this to see if any legislative changes will be confirmed.’

The government has also announced that it will give unpaid carers, who are balancing a job in addition to caring for a dependant with long-term needs one week’s unpaid leave, as a day one right. The leave will be available to take flexibly (ie, from half day blocks to a whole week).

The decision to extend support for carers was welcomed but could be costly for smaller businesses. Moira Campbell, senior associate in the employment team at Kingsley Napley said: ‘The introduction of a day one right to one-week’s unpaid leave for carers is a bolder step and whilst welcome by many, will no doubt be a difficult one for smaller employers to stomach. Again the risk of discrimination claims will need to be carefully considered when hiring new staff with caring responsibilities.’

The consultation is open for comment until 1 December 2021.

 

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