New right to 'flexitime' for 4.5 million parents

The government is to encourage more fathers to work part time or flexible hours so that they can spend more time with their children.

Ministers will promise to extend the right to request flexible working to an extra 4.5 million people in talks with trade unions and Labour activists this weekend. It is currently available to parents with children up to the age of six, and will be extended to those whose children are up to 16.

Senior Labour sources told The Independent yesterday that ministers want to rebalance the party's "family-friendly" policies to recognise the importance for children to see more of their fathers. "The key is to be modern and fair," one said. "Many mums want to work and dads to see their kids, rather than work crazy hours."

Ministers believe that, as well as enabling parents to juggle work and families, the move will help society by ensuring that boys in particular have more contact with their fathers. They hope that over the long term this will reduce problems such as knife crime, which some experts have attributed partly to the absence of male role models in many families.

Under the changes, fathers could also be allowed to take up a larger proportion of parental leave after a baby is born. Labour has announced that the period of paid leave will be raised from 39 to 52 weeks by 2010. The first 26 weeks would have to be taken by the mother, but the other half could be taken by the father if the mother went back to work. The system may now be made more flexible than originally planned.

The moves follow criticism last week that the current system of parental leave has reinforced the equality gap between the sexes in the world of work. Nicola Brewer, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, asked: "Has policy on maternity leave made too many assumptions about the choices families will make and as a result entrenched the stereotype that it is women who do the caring and men who do the earning?"

The commission declined to comment last night but is expected to give the Labour plans a broad welcome.

Labour sources say the pressure for a new package on flexible working came from constituency Labour parties as well as the trade unions. The new rights are partly intended to placate the unions because ministers will reject other demands on their "shopping list" for Labour's national policy forum at Warwick University – such as allowing a return to secondary picketing during strikes and a 50 per cent tax rate for people earning more than £100,000 a year.

Other possible sweeteners include a pledge to create "green jobs" by expanding renewable energy and nuclear power and having "green representatives" in the workplace like health and safety staff. Ministers hope to reach a broad consensus over the "work-life balance". Unions are also seeking the right for parents to take up to a week a year off work when their children are sick or taking exams, without it counting as holiday.

Some of the proposals may be opposed by business. Kieran O'Keeffe, senior policy adviser at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "It seems that the unions are intent on legalising every element of life at work, which leads many of our members to believe that they're deeply out of touch. The vast majority of businesses already make every effort to accommodate reasonable requests from staff.

"We see no need to augment this with further rights to time off. The Government needs to resist union pressure to heap yet more legal obligations on employers, particularly as economic conditions deteriorate."

Who will benefit

About six million workers, those with children aged six or under, have the right to request to work flexibly – such as part-time, flexible hours or some days from home. Labour plans to extend this to a further 4.5 million parents – those with children aged 16 and under.

It has not yet decided when this would happen, and business groups are urging ministers to phase it in to give firms time to prepare. So far, 90 per cent of requests to work flexibly are already granted – a sign that employers want to keep staff happy.

Parental leave, currently 39 weeks, is due to rise to 52 weeks by 2010, when the first 26 weeks would have to be taken by the mother but the rest could be taken by the father.

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