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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 17, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 17 November 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Flexible Working Practices, Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, Innovation, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Flexible Working Practices

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-01852, in the name of Gillian Martin, on celebrating flexible working practices. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I ask those who are leaving the public gallery to do so quietly.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament commends Family Friendly Working Scotland and the other groups across the country that promote flexible working practices and encourage employers to prioritise employee wellbeing; believes that flexible working contributes to a more inclusive and more productive workforce; considers that family-friendly workplaces can help Scotland reach its full economic potential by allowing women to stay active in the economy, and welcomes the introduction of flexible and agile working practices in Aberdeenshire and across Scotland.


The reason why I put together a motion for a members’ business debate on flexible working was to highlight how it can improve not only the lives of many workers but the productivity of businesses and organisations.

Everyone is entitled to ask for flexible working arrangements and, by law, every organisation must consider such requests, but they can do more than that. In recent research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 66 per cent of Scottish women felt unable to ask for flexible working arrangements for fear of a negative response, and 29 per cent of that number said that they were afraid of their colleagues’ reaction. Others cited fear of employment discrimination, such as having responsibilities taken from them or not being considered for promotion, as if asking for flexible working would mark them out as not having the same work ethic or commitment to the job as their colleagues.

I reckon that it is even harder for men to ask for flexible working and they probably worry even more about facing those attitudes because of traditional, old-fashioned expectations on them. I strongly want to make the point that flexible working is not just for mums. If we want a truly equal society, a change in attitudes to fathers’ needs for flexible working so that they can fully share in their parenting responsibilities is key. More than that, someone should not have to be a parent or have caring responsibilities to make a case for flexible working. It has benefits for everyone—not just the employees, but the businesses, too.

Nearly 20 years ago I worked in a company that was undergoing its investors in people assessment. Quite a few of us employees decided to ask the managing director if he would consider implementing flexible working practices. All we wanted were flexible start and end times to the working day. Core office hours were 9 am to 5.30 pm, but we could opt to start our day any time between 7 am and 10 am and to end it between 4 pm and 6.30 pm. As long as we worked our monthly hours and did not miss any scheduled appointments or meetings, we had that flexibility.

The MD was very sceptical. He was convinced that the system would be abused, that folk would swing the lead and that it would adversely affect the productivity of the company. In absolute fairness to him, however, he said that he would allow a six-month pilot. At the end of the pilot, he called an all-staff meeting and announced his thoughts after he and his management team had done an analysis. His top line was this: “I thought I would lose out, but you are all actually working harder for me, and you all seem happier.”

Here is what happened in that six months. The productivity of staff rose. It seemed that staff managed their time better. People did not swing the lead. No one did less than their contracted hours. In fact, many staff actually did more. There was a drop in the frequency of staff taking time out of the day for appointments, at the doctor’s or dentist’s, for example. It turned out that they were using their flexitime for that. Sick leave halved. People were less stressed. For one thing, they were not battling through the rush-hour traffic every day or spending as long in their cars if they could choose to journey in at a time when the traffic was not so heavy. All the work did not just get done; it got done faster. Someone coming in at 7 am would be delivering work ahead of schedule. It turned out that the earlier start was the preferred option of most of the staff.

Those were just the short-term effects. Studies have shown that employees are less likely to leave a job with flexible working hours to find alternative employment. Employees feel more trusted and, as a result, more valued, so they stick around. The studies also show that flexible workers are less likely to call in sick. In the world of work, one of the major overheads is recruitment and retention. Another is time lost due to sick leave.

Flexibility is not just about start time; it can also be about working from home. If the work is of such a nature that it matters not where it is done, then what is the harm of working from home? What might that mean when it comes to opening up the world of work to people with mobility issues or caring responsibilities? How might their productivity be increased as a result of the availability of that time and location flexibility?

I want businesses to think of this. I ask them, do you advertise your vacant positions as being flexible? If not, do you realise how many more people would apply and what a larger pool of talent you would have to choose from? Highly qualified people who might be finding it hard to find a job that fits in with their caring responsibilities might prioritise a flexible working schedule over some of the more costly perks that you might otherwise offer to entice the best of the skills market to your door.

I would encourage businesses and organisations that already have flexible working in place to shout about it more. They should tell the world how it has benefited their organisations and encourage others to adopt their successful practices.

The entries for the Scottish top employers for working families awards closed this week, and I am told there has been a record number of entries this year. I will be watching closely to see which organisation wins the best for innovation in family-friendly and flexible working category. Here’s betting their staff turnover figures are the stuff that dreams are made of.

I am proud to say that, as an MSP, who, like everyone else in the chamber, is an employer, I offer flexible working. My wonderful parliamentary assistant, Judith, works flexibly around her university teaching commitments. You see—you offer flexible work and you get smart people. My two office managers job-share and can work from home if they wish. Do not tell them this, but I reckon I get more out of them by having these arrangements, which fit in with their busy lives. Claire and Gwyneth work tremendously hard for me, as does Duncan, who does not feel the need to work flexibly, but might one day. By offering flexible working I get the best out of my staff, and so could other employers if they took the leap, just like my cynical old MD all those years ago.

I am sure that your staff enjoyed those compliments. They may look for wage rises now that you have said that they are so good.


I thank Gillian Martin for bringing the debate on the motion to the Parliament. I come at the motion first as a Scottish Conservative, so core to my personal philosophy are productivity, a healthy economy, the retention of talent and the promotion of the family, however individuals choose to compose and formalise it. Therefore, I am pleased that the motion talks of encouraging “a more productive workforce” and suggests that family-friendly workplaces can help Scotland to

“reach its full economic potential”.

It is not news to groups that promote flexible working practices, such as family friendly working Scotland, that many studies show that a good work-life balance is one of the most important aspects of work to the British workforce. Other studies show that flexible working environments attract, motivate and retain employees, increase employee satisfaction and maintain employee productivity. Therefore, I am comfortable that to promote flexible working and prioritise employee wellbeing is to promote productivity and the realisation of economic potential.

Secondly, I come at the matter from the other aspect of the motion, which is to

“help Scotland reach its full economic potential by allowing women to stay active in the economy”.

That is true, but let us not restrict it to women. Gillian Martin made exactly that point and I endorse her comments on that entirely.

I will tell a story. A few years ago, a constituent—in inverted commas—approached his employer: a law firm for which he had worked for a number of years at a senior level, delivering considerable value, winning internal and external awards and consistently exceeding targets for billing and client wins. He had a small child and felt that it was important that his child got as much time with both parents as possible, that his wife had as much right to resume her professional career as he did and that there was no compelling reason why she should be required to play the greater role in childcare. Those are not choices that everyone would or could make but they were right for his family.

He requested a simple change in work pattern: to start half an hour later to allow the nursery drop-off, to finish an hour earlier to allow the nursery pick-up, to work from home in the evenings to make up the time and to work from home on the Friday when the child was not at nursery. The employer shut down the conversation: “You are not getting flexible working. This discussion is not going further,” and it did not. That day, the firm lost that lawyer.

Fortunately—and perhaps unusually, as what follows is not an option for many—our lawyer was sufficiently skilled, experienced and confident to resign and set up on his own, delivering the same services to clients but under the pattern that he had suggested. The new company was extraordinarily successful. Clients preferred it, as response times were quicker and more 24 hour. Technology meant that he could work anywhere at any time. Productivity rocketed. The wife was able to commit fully to her own career again and re-enter the labour market. Family life was happier, healthier and accorded with their values.

All for the sake of an hour and a half’s flexibility and trusting an employee enough to work from home, the firm lost talent in which it had invested a lot of money. That employer had failed to appreciate that, facing a choice between work and family, not everyone will be forced to choose work.

Thus, it is my view that flexible, family-friendly practices are good for productivity, the economy, the promotion of family values and allowing everyone to remain more active in the economy. Any group that promotes such practices is to be commended, as Gillian Martin’s motion calls on the Parliament to do.

The question that is on all our lips is, was that you?

I could not possibly comment.

That is an even better answer.


I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate and I thank my colleague Gillian Martin for bringing it to the chamber. As she articulately outlined, flexible working is fundamental to Scotland’s economy and is the key to helping our society flourish at every level. It is also the key to establishing a healthy work-life balance for families.

That is why I am delighted that the Scottish Government, whose transformative changes to childcare are due to be trialled in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders early next year, recognises that a free, high-quality and flexible childcare system helps children, parents and families the length and breadth of the country.

Of course, flexible childcare ties in with flexible working. For parents it means making it easier to juggle their time between working and looking after the children, and it means that they no longer have to turn down a job offer because they cannot meet the 9-to-5 timetable. We have come a long way from the days of my mother’s generation, when women had to give up work when they had a baby.

We only have to look to our Scandinavian neighbours for examples: Sweden, like Denmark and the Netherlands, has adopted a policy to improve the work-life balance for its citizens. The Swedish Government has taken the initiative to reduce the work-life conflict, experienced mostly by women, by promoting men’s participation in housework and the upbringing of children. Parental leave is structured so that it encourages men to stay at home more with their newborn babies, as Gillian Martin and Liam Kerr mentioned in their speeches. It is no coincidence that the Danes have just been voted the happiest nation on the planet due to their progressive work-life balance employment structure, and who does not envy the wonderful Spanish tradition of siesta time? Those are examples of flexible working practices at their best.

The Scottish economy is one that is adapting to a modern world, as Gillian Martin outlined. Advances in technology have made it possible for us to work anywhere at any time. With a laptop, tablet, or phone we can access the files at work and pick up from where we left off. It has been proved beyond all doubt that giving employees the option of flexible hours is hugely beneficial, both to employees and to the employers. For employers it means a happier staff who can work in the hours when they feel most motivated, instead of sitting in front of a desk when they are tired and cannot focus. For businesses, it means a more efficient workforce that increases overall productivity.

I recently spoke at a chamber of commerce meeting and was asked by one member what financial help he would get from the Scottish Government to enable him to pay the living wage, about which I had just been talking. I had to be diplomatic in my answer and explain about the expansion of the small business bonus scheme and so on, but I really wanted to ask him why he thought it was acceptable to call himself a businessman and pay less than the living wage to his employees.

Like the living wage, flexible working is about respecting employees and trusting them to give 100 per cent to the job without having to compromise their family life. In short, flexible working motivates a happier workforce and has the result of benefiting everyone in society.


I thank Gillian Martin for lodging the motion for debate. It is good to hear of employers who set a good example, but I have to point out just how far behind we are and how much further forward we would be, in my view, if we had greater democracy at work.

Too many people swipe in to work and swipe away many of the rights and freedoms that they take for granted outside work. Employment law in this country is still framed by the master-servant relationship, so until we tackle that we will be relying on the benevolence of a few enlightened employers—so we need greater industrial democracy.

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers as a trade union has among the highest number of lower-paid, part-time women members. It produces some excellent information for its members on maternity rights, paternity rights and flexible working. Its website says that anyone who has worked in the same job for 26 weeks or more can ask their employer for a change in their working hours, and the employer is obliged to consider the request carefully. That is an important right, but it is not a right to flexible working; in the end it is merely a right to request flexible working—and it does not apply to agency workers.

Anyone who has worked in industry or who has had the privilege—as I have—of representing working men and women, knows that many such requests are turned down for “business reasons”. Even when they are hard won, there is often compromise. We need to take a fresh look at those rights and, in my view, to tilt the balance more in favour of the worker selling their labour and less in favour of the employer buying that labour. There should be much greater self-organisation of working time so that people can collectively come up with shift patterns and a work-life balance that suits them, as well as the business or service that they are providing.

The answer lies, in part, not in weakening trade unions but in strengthening them. We can have all the laws in the world around flexibility, but if we do not have a trade union to enforce those laws and give life to those rights, they exist only on paper. That is why I am determined that whenever we talk in Parliament about the economy, jobs and fair work, trade unions are regarded not as an optional extra but as an integral and necessary part of the debate.

Today is world prematurity day. I pay tribute to Bliss, which does a tremendous job of advocating for change and in giving practical support to families who have faced the challenge of the premature birth of a baby. There is still no legal right for a mother to split or defer her maternity leave on the ground of premature birth. Some women who have gone through the experience of prematurity would have liked the option of returning to work while their baby was in special care and taking the rest of their maternity leave when he or she came home from hospital. At the moment, however, mothers have no right to do that. I hope that today, as part of world prematurity day, we can call for greater flexibility and more family-friendly policies, especially for that group of families.

Our failure to end such injustices and our failure to transform the way in which workers are treated at home and the way in which women, especially, are treated at work and in society, diminishes not just them but all of us. I will conclude with a short quotation from Robert Tressell’s “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” that sums up the mood and tone that I think we need to adopt.

“Every man”—

or woman, I add—

“who is not helping to bring about a better state of affairs for the future is helping to perpetuate the present misery, and is therefore the enemy of his”—

or her—

“own children. There is no such thing as being neutral: we must either help or hinder.”

Thank you very much, Mr Leonard. That was an erudite ending, as usual.

I call Jeremy Balfour, who will be the last speaker in the open debate. I am sorry. I am being too flexible. I have just ditched Ruth Maguire. I am needing my calories.


I congratulate my colleague Gillian Martin on bringing the important topic of flexible working to the chamber. As we have heard, when we talk about flexible working we can mean a number of things. It can be about the place of work—homeworking or a choice of locations—or about other arrangements including part-time working, flexitime, job sharing or shifts. Such arrangements undoubtedly make an organisation an attractive proposition for a more diverse range of employees.

When asked by Gingerbread to identify the top three features of their ideal job, one in three single parents chose the opportunity to work flexibly. However, opening up more avenues of employment does not just help to level the playing field for jobseekers like single parents and those with caring responsibilities: we know—and we have heard in a number of speeches—that diverse workforces are more creative and more innovative. Their having a wide range of skills and experience means that organisations are more likely to design products and services for a broader customer base. For business, that is good for the bottom line.

Organisations that have fair and flexible working practices are more productive, because happier staff who feel valued are more likely to be engaged and on top of their work. Given the opportunity to work flexibly, they can make sure that they are working at the times when they are most productive.

There are also the matters of health and work-life balance. Working life does not come without its stresses—not all of which are limited to the workplace. For people who have caring responsibilities—parents or grandparents, for example—simply getting to work can be a bit of a battle after dropping off the kids at a childminder, or having a school or nursery run to complete before they even get to the joy of the daily commute. There are also the unscheduled joys in home life: parents, children or partners being ill, burst pipes, dental appointments and so on. Flexible working cannot take away all the worry and annoyance of life, but it can alleviate it greatly.

A healthier and more relaxed workforce is good for business as well as for society, as it leads to reduced sickness absence and to healthy and motivated staff performing well.

It is perfectly feasible for organisations to offer flexible ways of working in jobs at all levels, which brings benefits for both them and their employees. Although it is often offered as a retention tool for existing staff, flexible working is most successful when employers embed it at the heart of an organisation, so that it is designed for everyone and central to the way the organisation operates, with managers leading the cultural shift that is needed to make it work.

When organisations achieve that, as well as making the world of work more inclusive, which is good for society, there are benefits to employees, their families and the business or organisation. That is a good reason to have flexible working at the heart of our fair work agenda.

I apologise again, Ms Maguire. Your face was a picture—it told me exactly where I had gone wrong.

Now it really is Jeremy Balfour.


I, as other members have done, thank Gillian Martin for bringing the debate to Parliament and allowing us the opportunity to explore the important issues that it raises.

Everybody everywhere seems to be busy. That feels like the effect of modern-day society and it seems to be getting worse and worse. Interestingly, research on family-friendly working revealed that only 12 per cent of parents in Scotland felt that their work-life balance was just right, 44 per cent were unable to participate in school or nursery activities and 40 per cent said that work got in the way of their spending quality time with their family, which resulted in families not eating together at dinner time and pressures being placed on relationships between partners.

There are, of course, advantages for employers and employees when a flexible scheme is available. Flexible working practices remove pressure on working parents to improve their work-life balance, as members have said. It is good not only for the employee but for the employers.

We should look not only at mums and dads who have children, but at other employees. A couple of weeks ago, a constituent contacted me. I was surprised, because she works full time, when she said that she could meet me at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. She said that her employer offers completely flexible hours: there is not even core time in the workplace. As long as she does the work that is required and attends the meetings that she must go to, she can go in at any time, then go away and come back. That gives her flexibility.

Such practices must also be good for people who want to be engaged in the third sector and voluntary organisations. To give people flexibility and trust them in that way should be encouraged and should be practiced by more companies.

As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Research shows that employees who work for a flexible family-friendly employer are more motivated to stay with that company, are more productive in their work and—as we have heard—will often go the extra mile. They are also more likely to recommend that employer as a good place of work when other people are looking to change jobs.

I am very happy to support the motion, the groups that promote flexible working practices and the employers across Scotland that are embracing the change. It is clearly playing an important part in providing parents, and others who want to do other things, with a healthy work-life balance, which has a positive impact on family life, work and the economy.


Not least because of Jeremy Balfour’s reference to pudding in his speech, I will try not to delay members’ calorific intake for too much longer.

I join others in thanking Gillian Martin for bringing forward today’s debate. I thank those who have taken part in the debate, which has been very useful, if somewhat consensual. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. This agenda is one to which we are all signed up.

I am very pleased that Gillian Martin’s motion refers to the family friendly working Scotland partnership and commends it, rightly, for the work that it undertakes. The Scottish Government is delighted to fund and be involved in the partnership, which was established in 2014, working alongside Working Families, parenting across Scotland, and Fathers Network Scotland.

The Minister for Childcare and Early Years and I met the family friendly working Scotland partnership as recently as 27 October. It was a productive discussion that focused on how the partnership can continue to support employers, families and a range of Government policies, to which I will turn in the course of my contribution. I left the meeting with my conviction reaffirmed that supporting flexible working is the right thing to do. Everyone has made the point that it is right for employees, for employers and for our wider economy.

Gillian Martin and Liam Kerr were correct: I agree that this is not an agenda for women only. We must also support men, and fathers specifically, in the flexible work agenda. A key reason why we are working with Fathers Network Scotland in the year of the dad campaign is to support that equality agenda, not only in the workplace but at home. I do not know whether it is necessary for me to do so, but I declare an interest as a dad myself. We have a range of measures in our fair work agenda that are focused on everyone in the workplace.

I will stick to the issue of flexibility for parents, which has been a recurrent theme in the debate. Finding the right balance between responsibilities at home and at work is increasingly challenging for parents. Last year, the family friendly working Scotland partnership published the “Modern Families Index 2015: Scotland”, which stated:

“forty-one per cent of parents said that work life is becoming increasingly stressful”.

The index also found that:

“More than a quarter felt constantly torn between work and family, and over a third felt that this affected family life and their relationships with their partner.”

It is essential that we support parents to thrive. The family friendly working Scotland partnership makes a vital contribution by working alongside employers and their representative bodies to deliver high-quality part-time posts. A key way in which this Government is supporting parents is through early learning and childcare. We will be expanding provision to 1,140 hours a year, which will make it easier for parents to find a solution that suits their specific needs. We are also engaged in work to ensure that childcare provision can be flexible to support families.

It is not just parents who need support for caring responsibilities. The modern families index Scotland found that almost 30 per cent of respondents already provided care for older people, and almost 70 per cent expected to do so within the next decade, while still in the work environment. Family friendly working Scotland has partnered with Carers Scotland to deliver a best for carers and elder care award. In 2016 West Dunbartonshire Council won that award, and Standard Life was highly commended.

As a Government, we are supporting carers, alongside excellent initiatives such as carer positive. In my previous role as Minister for Sport, Health Improvement and Mental Health, I was pleased to see examples of that scheme in effect. I recall very clearly visiting Scottish Gas, which had wholly endorsed and got behind that initiative. The clear benefits for those with caring responsibilities who worked in that organisation helped to take the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016 through Parliament. The provisions, which will commence on 1 April 2018, will make a meaningful difference to unpaid carers and ensure that they can continue to care while also having a career and personal life.

It remains the case that more women than men undertake caring roles and therefore need to work flexibly. There are still inequalities between male and female employment, with women more likely to be in low-paid work and to be underemployed in hours worked and skill levels. That is why we are committed to tackling the pay gap and occupational segregation. That is why we are legislating for gender balance on public sector boards. That is why we are trialling a women returners programme.

There are a number of commitments towards that agenda. We have asked Skills Development Scotland to look very clearly at making improvements in the modern apprenticeship frameworks, in which there is a clear gender imbalance. There are a number of commitments in our labour market strategy. I mentioned the women returners initiative. I was delighted, a few weeks ago, to announce funding for Equate Scotland to take forward the first tranche of that work to support women back into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sector.

Earlier this week, in Jackie Baillie’s members’ business debate on supporting women in enterprise, in which Gillian Martin took part, I was happy to announce funding of £200,000 for Women’s Enterprise Scotland and its partners to support women entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and to support other women to become involved in enterprise.

We are also tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination, following the shocking finding last year that one in nine mothers in Britain reported being dismissed, made compulsorily redundant or treated so poorly that they felt that they had to quit. I will chair a working group on that issue, the remit of which will include developing guidelines for employers. The group will meet for the first time next month and I will be happy to keep Parliament abreast of the work that it undertakes. We have invited a range of members on to the working group and I am happy to say that Nikki Slowey, the director of family friendly working Scotland, has accepted an invitation to be a member.

Our commitments are underpinned by the labour market strategy that I mentioned earlier. The strategy sets a clear direction for how we will tackle inequalities for women and other underrepresented groups. We will continue to work closely with the fair work convention to promote its framework to employers, with a focus on engaging directly with particular sectors to promote the benefits of paying the living wage equally to men and women.

We provide funding to the Poverty Alliance for the accreditation scheme for the living wage. There are now 600 or more living wage accredited employers in Scotland—some 20 per cent of the United Kingdom total. That allows me the chance to urge all MSPs to sign up to become a living wage champion. We have the business pledge, too. Earlier this year we added two explicit references to family friendly and flexible working to the Scottish business pledge.

It is clear from the debate and from what we hear out there that employees are increasingly seeking out employers that provide flexible working options. That is why, given that we do not have control over our employment law, we need to reach out to employers. Richard Leonard was right to say that, in many ways, we now rely on enlightened employers to offer flexible working. As a number of members pointed out, we need to explain to employers why it is in their interests to get behind that agenda. We know that flexible working is good not only for employees but for employers, because it results in more motivated staff, staff who feel valued, better retention rates, reduced absenteeism and increased productivity. It is good for the employer and it is good for our economy, and that is why it is an agenda that the Scottish Government takes very seriously indeed.

13:18 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—