Deborah Orr: Corporate Britain should stop bleating

'Workplace parental rights aren't designed for parents. They are there to facilitate better childhoods and, eventually, better adults'
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The Independent Online

Ruth Lea is against it. And so is Susan Anderson. A recent Mori poll showed 87 per cent of adults to be in favour of the right to flexible work for parents with young children. So it is nothing short of amazing that both of the major groups representing employers' desires can so effortlessly recruit female mouthpieces to rail against practices needed to improve family life.

Ms Lea, of the Institute of Directors, "would like to see flexible working remain as a voluntary arrangement". Ms Anderson, of the Confederation of British Industry, insists that "most employers offer family-friendly working without being forced to". What they're both saying is that if parents have sympathetic employers, then that's jolly nice. But if they don't, well, that's tough.

Employment legislation should always be about protecting the weak from the rapacious. This pair, and their organisations, work hard to ensure that the opposite is the case. Of course, they generally win. In the case of the new legislation on work-life balance they've definitely won.

Instead of the right to work flexibly, parents of children under six and disabled children under 18, have been granted the right to ask to work flexibly. Their employer must follow a formal process, potentially leading to a tribunal if the reply is "No, you can't". Hard-pressed parents who can't face such a battle will be left to do what they have always done – put up or shut up.

But for Ms Lea and Ms Anderson, this "light touch" isn't quite light enough. It's still an unfair burden on poor corporate Britain. Maybe these women think they're being tough and iconoclastic post-Thatcherites. Instead they're just sad old clichés – women who are only too pleased to pull up the ladder behind them, currying favour with the big boys while the au pair gets on with the kiddies and housework (minimum wage specifically waived for the purpose).

And after a Green Paper, one and a half years of consultation, an election manifesto promise, another task force, a brand new piece of legislation, plus endless initiatives, surveys, working groups, reports, roadshows (remember Listening To Women?) and screeds of political rhetoric, the law of the land has pretty much bowed to the wishes of Ms Lea, Ms Anderson, and the great big bully of "business interests" that they choose to represent.

The Government would like parents to have the right to work part-time. Being a mere government, though, its powers are limited. It can declare wars, rebuild foreign systems of governance and create gleaming new societies far away (fingers crossed on those last two). But it can't deliver simple legislation that is popular with the population and popular with itself. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering why we need Westminster at all.

Certainly not to set a good example. After years of wittering on like an old Cat Stevens album about children being the future and parents being the Ones Who Are Called, Gordon Brown is still insisting that he won't be taking paternity leave.

Not that he should take it for the sole purpose of "setting an example". But why doesn't he want to? He clearly hasn't grasped what it is to be a parent if he thinks there's anything more important for him to do in the days after his baby is born.

This hardly sets him apart. Few people without children really do grasp their full significance, while the amount of people who do have them and still don't is mind-boggling. Nevertheless, the claim of the Ms Leas and Ms Andersons of this world – that further legislation upholding the rights of parents would inspire a dangerous backlash among resentful members of the workforce without small children – is still laughable.

Certainly there are some people who think this way. But they are mean-minded and mean-spirited; either their own childhood was rather miserable, or they just have terribly short memories. Children need their parents around. And not just their mothers, like the bad old days. They need their fathers too. Workplace parental rights aren't (and shouldn't be) designed with parents in mind. They are there to facilitate better childhoods and eventually better adults. Those who can't see this truth need to be made to see it, not pandered to by bosses whose own interests coincidentally align with their point of view.

And talking of such bosses, let's take a brief look at the other group who are supposedly so threatened by parental rights in the workplace. Small businesses are always cited by the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors as being the organisations most at risk from the extension of workers' rights. This time around there was even a claim that there wasn't enough representation of small businesses on the task force.

These people, who are portrayed as plucky entrepreneurs building an exciting new economic future for us all, are the ones we must apparently bend over backwards to nurture, even if their nurture comes at the expense of the nurture of babes in arms. But I'm getting rather fed up with hearing about them, or at least this sort of portrayal of them.

When they were bleating about the imposition of the minimum wage, I found myself wondering whether people who couldn't scrape up £3.90 an hour for their staff could be considered entrepreneurial at all, and whether businesses that couldn't manage to exchange the services provided by people for the subsistence of those people were actually worthy of the name. Businesses? I don't think so. Such organisations aren't businesses – they're special charities for people who want to be their own boss. (It's the flexibility that attracts them ... )

Likewise, in this situation, I can't really see what the big problem is. Can employing two people to work 38 hours a week really be so much more expensive than employing one? Doesn't it actually protect small businesses in times of holiday and illness to have a couple of people with the necessary skills on call? And what are these jobs that only one person can do, for only so many hours and no fewer, at only certain times of the day or the night? I simply can't think of any.

I can understand that complex tax arrangements and extended paid absences are a problem for small outfits, and that there are too many of those around already. I'm all for cutting red tape rather than inventing more, and I do believe that this Government too often favours the complex over the simple.

It is easy to see through the gestation of the "right to ask" rules alone that this Government spends a lot of time and money on developing the obvious using complex systems and consulting with the world and his wife (who were hard to track down due to their complex rota of flexible life-work duties).

But what the business world (though not Ms Lea and Ms Anderson) is finally waking up to is that it brings heavy-duty legislation on itself. Plenty of employers understand that if they treat their staff well they will get better work out of them, as opposed to assuming that it is better to give as little as possible to employees under all circumstances.

Most decent small businesses will bend over backwards to accommodate a valued worker, and larger businesses are improving in this area too. It is the inefficient and unethical businesses that are increasingly hiding under the sheltering arms of the CBI and the IoD. And they are the ones who are creating all the legislation against which Ms Lea and Ms Anderson are railing.

It's a full-time job, girls. But that's what you'd prefer everyone to have, wouldn't you?