Profits, not laws, will bring flexible hours for parents

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The family-friendly New Labour lion roared yesterday and brought forth a task force.

The family-friendly New Labour lion roared yesterday and brought forth a task force. After a year-and-a-half of consultation on a green paper on "Work and Parents", the new Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, has answered the central question of whether parents should have a legal right to work flexible hours in the negative. But she managed to dress it up by saying that parents should have the "right to ask" for flexible working hours and to have their request "seriously considered" by employers. And she appointed a task force to "examine how a right for such parents" can be introduced.

Bill Morris, the leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, saw through the flim-flam at once. "I am amazed that in the 21st century the Government is portraying the right to ask as a major breakthrough," he said. On the contrary, however, we should be grateful that Ms Hewitt has resisted the temptation to play to the feminist gallery and will instead use her credibility as an advocate of the rights of working parents to defend a sensible, pragmatic approach.

The vital point about flexible working is that it is overwhelmingly in the interests of employers themselves. Many studies have shown that employers who practise family-friendly policies benefit from lower staff turnover and higher productivity. The role of government, therefore, should not be to add to the burden and cost of regulation, but to do what it can to influence attitudes in the private sector and to be an enlightened employer itself.

Ms Hewitt's main achievement has been to resist the pressure from the trade unions for legislation. That might have been the easy course, especially at a time of economic growth and full employment, when most employers can afford it, but it could turn out to be an expensive mistake in harder times.

For once, a typically New Labour initiative – lots of symbolism and little substance – is just what is needed. The law on indirect discrimination against women provides much of the protection that working mothers need, while attitudes towards working fathers are changing remarkably fast. The Government's proposal for a statutory right to two weeks' paid leave for fathers on the birth of a child is welcome, but generally it is attitudes rather than laws which need to change.

The last thing Britain's relatively flexible and successful labour market needs is more regulation, however well intentioned.

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