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The Women and Equalities Committee heard from ministers this week that the Government is waiting to see what the longer-term impact of Covid is on flexible working before changing the legislation.
Changes to flexible working legislation may take some time as the Government is waiting to see what the impact of Covid might be, according to ministers speaking at the Women and Equalities Committee this week.
Baroness Berridge, Minister for Women in the Government Equalities Office [GEO], said the Government is waiting to see how people’s behaviour changes after Covid before legislation is changed. “It’s essential that we don’t act pre-emptively,” she said, emphasising that flexible working covers a wide range of work options. “The pandemic has given us so much more evidence that will be helpful.”
Justin Tomlinson, Minister for Disabled People, said there was “exciting potential” for flexible working post-Covid and that it would benefit some disabled people. However, he added: “We need to be careful that we do not allow employers to get out of making reasonable adjustments to the workplace because it is easier to say work from home or at different times.” He said this could “inadvertently undermine” equality in the workplace so it was important to “legislate well”.
Asked if it was not precisely for these reasons that the Employment Bill should be brought forward, Tomlinson said: “We do not want to rush things. We do not want to fix something badly. We need to formalise the best way to take advantage of the benefits of flexible working.
Mims Davies, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment, said she had previously thought working from home meant “watching Home and Away” and “raiding the fridge”, but during Covid she said homeworkers had often felt like they were living at work due to the long hours they were working.
Asked whether the right to request flexible working should be possible from day one in a job, Kemi Badenoch, Minister for Women in the GEO, said that there should be a “presumption in favour of flexible working”, but that “creating a right without looking at the circumstances would be difficult”. The current right to request legislation is a negotiation whereby an employee requests a certain work pattern and their employer considers it and can reject it on any of eight grounds, depending on different circumstances. Campaigners are asking that this process should be allowed on day one in a job rather than after six months so that those who need to work flexibly can change jobs more easily.
Baroness Berridge said research showed that stating in job adverts that jobs were open to flexible working increased the number of women applying and showed how flexible working could apply before day one in a job.
Campaigners have been calling for changes to the flexible working legislation for some time, including a day one right to flexible working and for flexible working to be the default with employers having to justify not granting it rather thane employees having to request it. They say that now is the time for change, given debates about returning to the workplace, hybrid working and other forms of flexible working are raging and some workers are concerned about being forced into work patterns that might not suit them.
Ministers were also asked about the announcement that the 20 pounds a week uplift in Universal Credit introduced during the pandemic will not be continued after September. Tomlinson said it was brought in to reflect the sudden change in many people’s circumstances at the start of the pandemic. It was always clear, he said, that it and the furlough scheme were temporary measures and ministers said other support was available to help people back into jobs. “We are at a positive roadmap stage and expecting to return to normality,” he stated.
For those who are claiming UC while in jobs, ministers said the tapering system within UC would allow them to increase their hours and earnings. Tomlinson also said that it was too complicated to increase the support for those on legacy benefits and said other emergency measures, for instance, on housing benefit, were applicable to those on legacy benefits.
Other issues discussed during the sessions included problems with employers not granting furlough for childcare reasons. Baroness Berridge said many women had been furloughed, but didn’t answer the specific question about childcare and Davies said DWP had made clear to employers what support was available. Badenoch said the Treasury had not been able to help everyone, but had offered “a significant package” and that furlough and flexible furlough had been extended through to September when schools are back which could help to support people with children.
Ministers were also asked about the publication of equality impact assessments related to Covid. Badenoch said there was no legal obligation to publish and that it was important the assessments were drafted “with candour”. Ministers, she said, were worried about the “chilling effect” publication could bring. Davies mentioned the Kickstart EIA had been published. Badenoch suggested publication could seed division. “We would not want to encourage a narrative of pitting groups against each other,” she said. Badenoch has faced criticised in the past for herself promoting division in connection with previous statements against anti-racist initiatives as well as her role as chairman of the recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ report which rejected the idea that there is institutional racism.
Baroness Berridge was asked if the Government’s plans for recovery were focused more on male-dominated sectors. She said she was looking at the Women’s Budget Group report on a care-led recovery. She said the gender pay gap is in part due to women being in lower paid jobs in lower paid sectors. The Government was focusing on getting more women into STEM-related sectors.