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A latest article in HR Magazine announces that the Government is planning to allow small businesses to win exemptions from flexible working regulations have made waves across the HR community.

Yesterday The Financial Times reported the Government was considering the option to exempt businesses with a small number of employees from the laws permitting the right to request flexible working, as part of efforts to make it easier for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses.

A spokesman from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills told HR magazine the Government was committed to deregulation in small businesses, but he refused to confirm or deny if the press speculation around flexible working was true. It is understood business secretary Vince Cable will clarify his position in a speech on Friday.

But the news comes only weeks after the Government announced a consultation to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees as part of its strategy to improve the mental health and wellbeing of the nation.

Business minister Ed Davey is lobbying the EU parliament to stop regulations allowing for 20-weeks full maternity pay to all employees. But, despite press speculation suggesting employers in small business could win exemptions from maternity and paternity benefits, experts claim it would be unlawful.

Richard Linskell, partner in the employment team at law firm Speechly Bircham, said: “It is unclear how the Government believes it can exempt smaller firms from maternity leave obligations, as it would be a clear breach of EU law. Maternity leave is a long established right and a key component of eliminating discrimination in the workplace and enhancing equality and diversity.

“Whilst the government may be able to reduce some aspects of the entitlement so that it aligns with the EU minimum, they would not be able to dispense with it altogether.

“There are critical issues for the government to consider if they go ahead with this. How such deals would be negotiated is a legal minefield: for example, would women be offered a job only if they contract out of their right to take maternity leave? The scope for abuse by employers is obvious and potentially hugely damaging to equality of opportunity, as well as work-life balance.

“In the long run, small businesses could actually lose out on key talent as both women and men seek better options at large organisations. “A substantial proportion of women work for small employers so any exemptions from maternity leave would also have a major impact on the population.

“The government is sending mixed messages about equality – it is puzzling why this proposal has been issued so soon after Lord Davies published his report for the Business Secretary recommending Boards increase their representation of women to at least 25%”

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