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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 June 2007, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
UK staff 'denied flexible work'
Stressed office worker

UK companies lag behind their European counterparts in offering flexible working, a report has suggested.

This has left many people stuck in a culture of fixed hours and office "presenteeism", the Equal Opportunities Commission study says.

Of 8,000 firms quizzed, 90% in mainland Europe made flexitime available, compared with 48% in the UK.

Conservative leader David Cameron and Labour deputy leader contender Harriet Harman are backing a change in the law.

"Creating a more flexible working environment for people is a real win-win situation for both the employer and employee," said Minister for Women Ruth Kelly.

"This Government has done more than any other to enable people to better balance their work and home life. 47% of new mothers work flexi-time compared to just 17% in 2002, and almost triple the number of new fathers."

But only one in five UK firms give staff chances to work away from the office.

Timelords: People such as writers and researchers who largely control their hours
Shift-shaper: Workers with shift patterns such as nurses
Time-stretchers:T hose who control their hours e.g. decorators
Remote-controllers: People with set hours but can control where they work
Source: EOC

This was half as many as in nations such as Germany and Denmark.

Mr Cameron, who is helping to launch the report, says all parents should have the right to request flexible working.

And he says that the Conservatives would extend the legal right for flexible working to all those who had children under 18.

The Liberal Democrats have also welcomed the EOC report.

Lib Dem Women and Equalities spokesperson Lorely Burt said that "workers in the UK deserve flexible working just as much as their counterparts in the EU."

Engaged staff

The EOC wants to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees.

Everyone from cleaners to top executives could benefit from more flexible working, according to the EOC's chairwoman, Jenny Watson.

But she said the reality for most workers was "still presenteeism and long hours".

"Flexible working is still too often seen as just a concession for parents and carers, and comes at the cost of poor pay and prospects," she said.

"Extending the right to request flexible working to everyone is a crucial step towards breaking this stigma and making a new culture at work a reality."

The burden of proof should be on the employer to show why flexible working is not practical
Harriet Harman

Tele-working, shift-swapping and interim management were being offered by trailblazing management, Ms Watson added, which produced more engaged and productive staff.

"The time has now come for this innovation to spread across the workforce to reach the UK's 29 million workers," she said.

'Employers have rights'

Justice minister and Labour deputy leadership candidate Harriet Harman said the report highlighted the need for tough laws giving the right to flexible work, especially to those bringing up children and caring for older people.

"It's not good enough just to ask employers to 'consider' a request. The burden of proof should be on the employer to show why flexible working is not practical," she said.

Director-general of the Institute of Directors, Miles Templeman, said 75% of his organisation's members had embraced flexible working and warned against regulation.

"Employers have rights too, but we want employers to be responsive so we need to communicate better the benefits of flexible working.

"Regulation has a poor record in both encouraging innovative practice and in producing solutions that do not have unintended consequences, discriminating against smaller businesses in particular."

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