This speech was given by Theresa May on 16 May 2011. This version is as written, not as spoken.
I’m delighted you are all able to join us to launch the Modern Workplaces Consultation.
Today marks a significant step in the government’s drive to transform and modernise our workplaces to meet the demands of the 21st century workforce.
Current system outdated
All of us here in this room will appreciate in some way or other how much we need truly modern workplaces.
And you will all realise that the current system has failed to keep up with the demographic and economic changes of the 21st Century.
People are working longer. More women are entering the workforce. There are more families with both parents working or single parent families where that parent is working.
Right now, most people simply do not have the choice or flexibility they need to meet the demands of the modern workplace.
A new approach
We want a new approach - one where the state has less of a controlling hand over the way parents take their leave.
Where employers and employees can sensibly discuss their plans and find a pattern of work that suits the family and the business.
And where equality in the workplace is seen as critical to a successful business and a balanced economy.
Flexible working and parental leave
Take flexible working. Introducing the right to request flexible working for some was a positive step. But by limiting that right to parents and carers, it perpetuated the idea that flexible working is some form of special treatment.
We want to extend the right to request flexible working to all. We want it to work for older people and people with disabilities or chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis - helping to shift behaviour away from the traditional nine to five model of work that can act as a barrier to so many people and that often doesn’t make sense for many modern businesses.
Our new system of flexible parental leave will also allow parents to make the right choices for their family. And it will help end the state-endorsed stereotype of women doing the caring and men earning the money when a couple start a family.
So if fathers want to take more of a role, they can. If mothers want to return to work earlier, they can. If parents want some time at home together at the birth of their child they can. What matters is that they will have a choice.
But crucially, employers would have the ability to ensure that the leave must all be taken in one continuous period if agreement cannot be reached.
Our programme for modernisng our workplaces also tackles the injustice of unfair pay. Four decades after the 1970 Equal Pay Act, it is a travesty that women in full time work still earn over twelve percent less than men, or twenty two percent less if part-time employees are included.
So it’s clear that legislation alone is not enough. We have made equal pay a vital part of our agenda, and we believe transparency is the key tool for achieving it.
The Equality Act 2010 made gagging clauses that prevent employees discussing their pay unenforceable.
Building on this we are currently working with employers to encourage voluntary, non-legislative action to improve transparency on pay and on equality more generally.
Employers have made great strides in ensuring equal pay, and we must recognise and build on that progress.
We also know that unequal pay is not just down to employers paying women less.
The picture is much more complicated than that, and a proper approach to this issue needs to reflect this fact. That is why for example, we are improving careers advice - so that young people are aware of the financial consequences of the career decisions they make.
Of course, tough action is needed where employers have not taken adequate steps to ensure they pay men and women fairly, and have clearly broken the law.
So we will be requiring pay audits for firms that are found guilty of pay discrimination - unless they can show a good reason why one is not necessary.
Changes will bring benefits to business
I know there will be some who will question this focus on fairness and flexibility in the current economic climate.
We disagree. This is not a burden, it’s an opportunity.
And some of the most successful companies in the world are leading the way. They are trailblazers, changing the culture of work.
Of course, their not just doing this because it makes moral sense; they’re doing it because it makes good business sense.
Look at BT - 80 per cent of their staff now work flexibly and as a result the company has saved £500 million on property costs. They’ve seen productivity up 20%, a marked decline in absenteeism and 97 per cent of mothers returning to work after maternity leave.
So it is clear that a modern approach can really benefit modern businesses.
We are of course aware of the need to avoid unnecessary burdens, particularly on SMEs. But I believe this approach does offer business what they need - access to a larger and more flexible pool of labour. In these tough economic times, companies need to be able to draw on all available talent.
This matters to us all.
That’s why we are starting this consultation - because we want to listen to what you have to say. We want to make sure we find the answers that work for everyone - from board room directors, to entrepreneurs running small firms to parents worried about fitting in the school run.
I hope all of you here today will contribute to that conversation, and will encourage others to do the same.’