Leading article: Wanted: a cultural shift

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The Independent Online

It was probably not the best time to promote employment reform. Just a day after the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, admitted that Britain's recession would be both deeper and longer than he first predicted, his colleague Harriet Harman announced that the right to request flexible working hours will be extended to all parents of children aged 16 and younger.

Yet while the timing is unfortunate, flexible working, as a principle, is welcome. Greater flexibility allows both parents to spend more time with their offspring, something studies have found to be important in children's development.

There are also tangible benefits for businesses. In February, a study backed by small business groups found that both staff retention and productivity increased in those firms that allowed their workers some flexibility over their hours.

Furthermore, both the Confederation of British Industry and the Federation of Small Businesses recognise that, though Britain's service sector economy is well suited to flexible working, we lag behind Europe in implementing such practices.

There is concern, however, that these new rules will do more harm than good. Ms Harman, the Minister for Women and Equality, has been fighting a lengthy battle with Cabinet colleagues – Business Secretary Peter Mandelson among them – who argue that it is unreasonable to further burden firms with regulation at a time of recession.

One size does not fit all in the business world, and nor does one policy. Though it might be reasonable to expect larger firms to allow flexibility now, smaller firms are unlikely to thank the Government for the higher costs it imposes.

So, for many employees, the Government's plans might end up offering little. Few workers in the present climate will seek flexible working hours without their bosses' full support.

What we really need is a cultural shift away from "presenteeism" and towards working practices that respect the needs of families. For our society to achieve this, we will need substantially more than a few new regulations.