Flexible hours should be available to every worker, says minister

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The Children's minister will call today for all workers, including non-parents, to be given the right to demand flexible working hours.

Beverley Hughes hopes the move will help staff to tailor their working patterns to the demands of home life. Her call has won support from trade unions and groups representing women and children.

Only about one in eight members of the workforce - 3.6 million parents with children under six or disabled children under 18 - have the right to ask for flexible working. Companies that refuse a request must explain the reason in writing and employees can appeal to a tribunal.

The right will be extended in April to another 2.8 million people who are responsible for caring for relatives or partners. But Ms Hughes calls for a dramatic widening of the entitlement to all 29 million employees in Britain, whatever their personal circumstances. She argues the step would particularly help parents to balance work around their children, rather than children around work, and make it easier for mothers and fathers to share their responsibilities.

"Many working people feel time-squeezed," she said. "With more women at work, an ageing population and many people aspiring to volunteer or to further develop their skills, government and employers need to recognise that balancing work and life is an issue that's not going away. We need a step change.

"The growing number of women at work has, in practice, often resulted in women having two jobs - a new professional one plus the old domestic one. We need to help families negotiate the balancing act between care work and paid work, avoiding negative trade offs between time and money."

Her call comes in a collection of essays for the centre-Left thinktank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, to mark the 10th anniversary of Labour's 1997 election victory.

Ms Hughes argues: "Everyone has a life outside work, not just parents. We must redefine the 'ideal worker' and accept it is a fantasy to expect people to have none other than work commitments. Many people make valuable contributions to their communities in their non-work time.

"It is unacceptable for family-friendly employment to be an option only for those parents - often women - who downshift in pay and status. Work-life balance is still unobtainable for many low-income families."

She recommends doubling the length of paid paternity leave to a month and progressively increasing the rates of maternity and paternity pay - currently only around two-thirds of the minimum wage - so that caring for young children is a realistic option for all parents.

A move to universal flexi-hours is likely to be resisted by some employers, who could be hit by the cost of contesting tribunal appeals brought by their staff. But Anne Longfield, the chief executive of the charity 4Children, said such a step could transform the quality of life for millions of families.

She said: "The need to balance work and family responsibilities doesn't stop when children start school, with most parents saying they would benefit by being able to continue to work more flexibly."

Gaynor Anderson, research manager, 30: 'I didn't want to give up work, it's part of who I am'

Neither Gaynor Anderson nor Richard Pates wanted to give up work when they became parents - not that they could have afforded it in any case.

So they have negotiated arrangements with their employers allowing them more time with their 15-month-old son, Matthew, while maintaining their income. Luckily, both had employers willing to accommodate the demands of family life.

Ms Anderson, 30, still works a 36-hour week at the Rail Safety and Standards Board, where she is a research manager. But instead of spreading the hours across five days, she works four nine-hour days, with every Wednesday off.

Mr Pates, 35, puts in the same number of hours, including weekend work, as a duty manager at a DIY superstore, but is guaranteed Thursdays off.

As a bonus, the couple, from Wimbledon, south-west London, save on nursery bills.

Ms Anderson said: "I don't lose any of my money and I am still considered a full-time member of staff. I didn't want to give up work - it's part of who I am.