Queen’s Speech 2012 analysis: diversity campaigners pleased with shared parental leave proposals but urge Government to go further

The Queen’s speech yesterday confirmed Government plans to introduce a the children and families bill, which will mean mothers in England, Scotland and Wales will be able to transfer maternity leave to their partners.

Denise Keating, CEO of diversity campaigner, ENEI, said: “Progressive employers will welcome the Government’s intention to propose measures to make parental leave more flexible so both parents may share parenting responsibility and balance work and family commitments.

“But this was only one part of the Modern Workplaces consultation that the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) launched last year. There was nothing in the Queen’s Speech on extending the right to request flexible working to all employees and this was a notable omission. We will be disappointed if the proposal is kicked into the long grass because it is seen as being too great a burden on business and we are awaiting the Government’s response to the consultation where it will announce its policy proposals.”

The CIPD study released this week shows that seven out of 10 employers report that flexible working supports employee retention, motivation and engagement. Almost two thirds of employers believe flexible working supports their recruitment activities and half believe it has a positive impact on reducing absence as well as on boosting productivity.

Helen Wells, director of Opportunity Now, the gender campaign from Business in the Community, said: “Two measures in today’s Queen’s speech could give significant impetus to the drive to create fairer and more successful workplaces in the UK.

“We anticipate that announcements will soon be made on the detail of the planned extension of the right to request flexible working. This will be a groundbreaking step on the path towards equality in the workplace in the UK. Opportunity Now has been campaigning for two decades to make flexibility a reality for all employees. From childcare considerations, caring for elderly parents to exhausting commutes, we hope that all employees will have the right to request ways of working that enable them to deliver to the best of their ability. This is not solely about working mothers or the employee; it is about enabling employers to get the best out of all of their people and leveraging this for commercial advantage. Not only that, but flexible or agile working is an essential component in creating the agile workforce that every business will depend on to be competitive in a 21st century world economy.

“The Government is also proposing significant changes to maternity leave that are designed to offer ‘flexible parental leave’ to either parent. This is a huge step towards gender equality as the ability to share childcare responsibility within a family is core to women’s success in the workplace. Yet it is vital that families are supported to make their own choices over how the leave is taken – neither parent should come under pressure to only take the minimum leave. Businesses will need clear guidance on what the parameters are for how and when leave is taken. The prize for getting this right is immense – fathers are involved in their children’s lives right from the beginning and women no longer suffer career penalties for having children.

“At best, these two proposals could drive real change. Too often women come back from maternity leave onto a “mummy track” where a lack of flexibility in job design or the impact of unconscious bias within the workplace means that many women are held back from reaching their full potential. This equates to poor progression and being paid less than male contemporaries. Shared parental leave and the right for all workers to request flexible working will be an important shift in perception over ‘flexibility’ – away from a pure benefit for working parents towards a mainstream way of working that delivers for all employees and for the economy.

“These are big changes that have real potential to enable big strides for women at work, narrowing the gender pay gap and building an economy based on the best of UK talent. Whether they succeed or not depends on how effectively they are implemented.”

“I encourage employers to see work as an activity – not a place, judge people on performance not “presenteeism” and use the change in law as springboard for creating cultures which are truly flexible and deliver maximum business benefit.”

But Working Families chief executive Sarah Jackson added: “We want to see more choice and flexibility for fathers to share the care, and more paternity leave would be a great step forward. But the Government consulted on cutting maternity leave to 18 weeks, which is a step too far. Pushing women back to work too soon will bring hidden costs to employers. There’s still time for the Government to change their minds and guarantee six months for mums.

“We’re disappointed that there was nothing about extending flexible working rights in the Queen’s speech. Good employers already offer flexible working to all their employees because they know that it leads to high performance and reduces costs. We urge the Government to include an extension of the right to request flexible working in their programme to boost economic growth and help everyone get the work-life balance they need.”

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