As from 6th April 2003, parents and others (such as guardians) who are responsible for looking after eligible children i.e. those who are at under 17, (or under 18 if the child is disabled), have the legal right to ensure that requests they make for flexible working arrangements, (such as part-time work or work at home), are taken seriously by their employers. Only employees can request flexible working and the request must be to enable the employee to care for the child. To have the right to flexible working time arrangements, an employee must have at least 26 weeks’ service at the date the application is made.

At one time it was suggested that the right would simply be a right to request flexible working time arrangements. The final legislation however also provides for requests to work from home instead of from the employer’s place of business and gives the DTI power to make regulations extending the categories of terms and conditions of employment to which changes may be requested.

There are various grounds on which an employer can lawfully refuse such a request. Otherwise the employee will have the right to apply to an employment tribunal (within 3 months) for compensation and/or an order that the employer reconsider his refusal to allow flexible working.

Up to 8 weeks’ pay is available as compensation if the employer fails to consider the request, hold a meeting and give reasons for refusing flexible working.

There is nothing in the “flexible work” provisions noted above to alter existing sex discrimination law under which in recent years it has frequently been possible for employees, especially for women returning to work after maternity leave, to negotiate flexible working arrangements with their employers. This is a complicated and sensitive area where expert advice is likely to be essential in any particular case.