Thousands of parents across the West Midlands are set to benefit from new rules surrounding flexible working meaning local businesses need to act, a Birmingham employment lawyer has said.

More than six million people already benefit from a statutory right to request a change in their terms of employment to accommodate flexible working and this imminent extension to the legislation will see a further four-and-a-half million become potentially eligible.

Currently, employers are legally required to consider requests for flexible working from employees who have continually worked for the company (not through an agency) for at least 26 weeks and who are responsible for the upbringing of a child under the age of six, or under 18 if that child is disabled. This right to request flexible working also includes employees who have caring responsibilities for certain adults.

From April, the right to request flexible working will be extended to parents who wish to change their working hours to care for a child up to and including the age of 16.

Fergal Dowling, partner and head of employment law at the Midlands’ offices of law firm Irwin Mitchell said: “It’s fundamental that businesses in the region understand exactly how this new law may affect their daily operations and, if handled correctly, the positive effect it could have on their staff and their company.

“There is currently a huge gap for parents with children between the ages of six to 17. These new rules will make childcare arrangements for millions of parents of school-age children much easier to manage and will change the way thousands of people work.”

Flexible working patterns can include the reduction or variation of hours, a reduction in days worked each week or the option of working from home.

Once an employer receives a written request, they have 28 days to respond in which time they must meet with the employee to discuss their proposal and give them an answer within a further two weeks. If the application is refused, the employee has the right to appeal.

It should be remembered that the right is to request flexible working and is not a right to have the request accepted. Employers can refuse an application on recognised business grounds, which include the burden of additional costs on the business, an inability to re-organise work amongst existing staff or an inability to recruit additional staff to accommodate the desired change.

However, employers need to be aware that failure to properly follow the statutory procedure could lead to an employment tribunal awarding a payment of compensation of up to eight weeks’ pay to the affected employee.

He added: “We advise that employers seriously consider each application on its individual merits and only reject it if there are clearly justifiable business reasons. The focus should be on evaluating the new arrangements to find which ones the company is able to realistically accommodate.

“A trial period is often a good way to establish this and will help both parties to check if it is mutually beneficial. It is then advisable for the changes to be reflected in the individual’s contract of employment - it must address their actual working practices as there may be new health and safety considerations; for example, in the case of home-working or new IT arrangements.”