Flexible Working Bill becomes law - here are 4 things that will be different for parents

 Blonde woman in ochre jumper working on laptop on dining table at home
Blonde woman in ochre jumper working on laptop on dining table at home

The Flexible Working Bill received Royal Assent and passed into law last week, granting employees across England, Scotland and Wales new rights when requesting flexible working arrangements.

Flexible working, which could include compressed hours or working from home, is particularly useful for parents with a new baby as it can make it easier for new mums to return to work.

High childcare costs mean many families are not sure is it financially worth returning to work after a baby. After having a baby, many mums will be keen to go back to work to not only progress their careers, but also because it can be tricky to balance a budget while on maternity pay, even for those who claim additional benefits while on maternity leave.

Employment partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell, Danielle Parsons, says: “The bill is good news for mums, particularly as it’s been recognised by employment tribunals that women continue to bear the bulk of childcare responsibilities.

“Achieving flexibility around working practices to accommodate childcare arrangements can be crucial to encouraging working women back to work after maternity leave and retaining them. Inflexible working patterns are also potentially discriminatory to women.”

What is the Flexible Working Bill?

The Flexible Working Bill is a piece of legislation that gives workers the right to request variations to particular terms and conditions of employment, including working hours, times and locations. Currently, all employees have the legal right to request flexible working, as long as they have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks. But changes have been made to help benefit even more workers, especially working mums

Changes include:

  1. Employers will now be required to consult with the employee before rejecting a flexible working request

  2. Employees will be able to make two statutory requests in any 12-month period (up from one request)

  3. Reduced waiting times for decisions to be made from three months to two months.

  4. Removal of existing requirements that the employee must explain what effect, if any, the flexible working option requested would have on the employer and how that effect might be dealt with.

Originally, the government stated that the new bill would also give workers the right to request flexible working from the first day in a new job – but this hasn’t been included in the legislation just yet.

Employment law expert Danielle Parsons, explains: “The government says it will introduce a day one right to ask for flexible working, however none of these changes will come into force until secondary legislation to implement them is introduced. According to the government, this will be approximately a year after Royal Assent, to give employers preparation time.

“Many employers now provide flexible working policies which are open to all, regardless of length of service. Even if you do not have a statutory right to request flexible working, you could still make a request if you wish to do so.”

Katie Hodson, partner and head of employment at SAS Daniels, adds: “There are only slight changes being made to the existing legislation. Employers are already required to deal with flexible working requests through a statutory process and are only entitled to refuse any such request using one or more of the eight statutory business grounds. That is not going to change.

“However, under the bill, employees will be able to make two flexible working requests in any 12-month period, instead of one, and the three-month time limit for employers to deal with the request will be reduced to two months.”

The new rules also remove the previous requirement that the employee must explain what effect, if any, the change applied for would have on the employer and how that effect might be dealt with.

Companies also now need to consult with an employee before rejecting their flexible working request.

Who has been campaigning for changes to the Flexible Working Bill?

Various organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the Trades Union Congress (TUC), and charities Working Families and Pregnant Then Screwed have been campaigning for the rules on flexible working to be changed. Individuals have also been lending their voices to the cause, including mum and journalist Anna Whitehouse (also known as @mother_pukka on Instagram).

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of charity Working Families, said: “This legislation confirms the fact that flexible working is no longer a nice-to-have: it’s a must-have, and it helps many people – especially those with caring responsibilities – stay and progress in work.

“But flexible working is not just good for people; it’s good for business. It can increase an employer’s talent pool, boost performance, and increase engagement and retention, and support EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) objectives.”

Do employers have to agree to flexible working?

No, employers don’t have to agree to flexible working, meaning not every request will be approved. However, an employer’s refusal must be reasonable and valid and the reason for refusing a request cannot be “discriminatory”. Under the new rules, employers will have to consult with their employee before refusing the request.

Workers also have protection from the Equality Act 2010, which legally protects workers from discrimination in the workplace, and it has been successfully argued that, because women tend to have more childcare responsibilities than men, insisting that women work long or inflexible hours can amount to indirect sex discrimination.

What are some examples of flexible working arrangements?

Flexible working is an umbrella term for types of employment that don't follow the typical 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday working week based in an employer’s premises.

Types of flexible working include:

  • Working from home: Doing some or all of your work from your home or anywhere else other than the normal place of work

  • Job sharing: Two people do one job and split the hours

  • Part time: Working less than full-time hours, i.e. by working fewer days or just mornings/afternoons

  • Compressed hours: This is working full-time hours but over fewer days. E.g. A 40-hour week split into four 10-hour days

  • Flexi-time: The employee chooses when to start and finish work, as long as it includes certain ‘core hours’, (e.g. 10am to 4pm every day)

  • Annualised hours: The employee has to work a total number of hours over the year but has some flexibility about when this is

  • Staggered hours: A staff member might have different start and finish times from other workers

What does this change mean for mums?

More flexibility at work will make it easier for women to return to work to maintain or progress their careers after having kids. This could help close the gender pay gap.

Speaking in Parliament in October 2022, Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi explained that statistics show that if women can work flexibly, they are twice as likely to remain in the workforce after having a baby. If their partners or husbands also work flexibly domestic and caring responsibilities can be more evenly split between the couple, instead of the female partner doing the bulk of work within the home. Families can also reduce commuting and childcare costs if one or both partners work flexibly.

But Angela Brumpton, employment partner at professional services firm Gunnercooke, warns that there can also be downsides of flexible working for mums and families. She says: “Employees may find it challenging to find a healthy work/life balance, particularly if they are working from home and there is a blurring of the lines between home and work.

“They may find themselves checking work emails into the evening, because their computer is in the kitchen or living room. It is not unusual for part-time workers to feel pressure to work additional hours to ‘keep up’ or be drawn into working on days off. They may also worry about a negative impact on their career progression and access to workplace opportunities, all of which can be stressful.”

However, with new rules coming into force, working mums might feel more secure in their flexible working requests and find additional support from their employers to help them maintain a healthy work-life balance.

If you are looking to return to work after having a baby, it's a good idea to be well versed in average childcare costs and how much nursery costs, as when as the 30-hours free childcare scheme