The government has backed two new private members’ bills which aim to increase flexibility around working and improve protection from redundancy for employees taking family-related leave. The Employee Relations (Flexible Working) Bill has received broad support from MPs in its second reading in the House of Commons. On 21 October 2022, the government also announced that it was backing the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Bill.
How would these bills change things?
The Employee Relations (Flexible Working) Bill
This would require employers to think more creatively about how and when staff perform their duties. If the bill becomes law:
- employers would have to consult with their employees before rejecting flexible working requests;
- employers would only have two months, rather than three, to respond to a flexible working request;
- employees would be able to make two flexible working requests within a 12-month period, rather than being limited to one; and
- employees would no longer be required to explain to their employer how they would be affected by such a change in working arrangements, nor would they have to suggest how the employer could deal with that change.
Whilst not a significant change from the current law, the bill would make it more difficult for employers to properly reject flexible working requests and is likely to encourage more flexible ways of working.
The Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Bill
This bill would enable regulations to be made widening the protection offered to those taking various forms of family related leave who are at risk of redundancy.
Under the Employment Rights Act 1996, the Secretary of State currently has the power to make regulations protecting employees “during” maternity, adoption or shared parental leave. For example, Regulation 10 of the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999 stipulates that, before making a woman on maternity leave redundant, an employer must offer her a suitable alternative vacancy where one is available. This protection does not apply before the maternity leave starts or after it ends. If the bill becomes law, regulations could be made extending this protection to cover a “protected period of pregnancy” and a period “after” maternity, adoption or shared parental leave ends.
The bill itself does not define the “protected period of pregnancy” and instead gives power to the Secretary of State to do so in regulations. During consultation on this measure, it was expected that the period of protection would start when the employee informs their employer that they are pregnant.
In order to protect those who miscarry at an early stage, the bill specifically allows the protected period to start after pregnancy ends.
Similarly, the bill does not specifically state how long protection should apply after maternity, adoption or shared parental leave ends. That too is left for the regulations to determine.
The policy intention behind these amendments is to ensure that women on maternity, adoption or shared parental leave, or those who have miscarried, are protected from redundancy not only during the protected period, but also afterwards.
Keeping the momentum going
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, employees have placed great value on a healthy work-life balance, family-friendly policies and flexible working practices offered by their employers. These are not limited to hybrid working practices, and can include shift-swapping, compressed hours and part-time working. These bills seek to recognise this shift and to address a gap in protection from redundancy for staff taking family-related leave.
To demonstrate a proactive stance, employers could implement similar policies prior to legislative changes. This year, the Working Families charity’s annual campaign called National Work Life Week suggested that CEOs and senior leaders should demonstrate support from the top. Please read more in our blog.