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Carers and Employment

Volume 522: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2011

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for carers’ rights to flexible working; and for connected purposes.

Carers play a vital role in our society. Not only do they care for friends, family and others and provide support that would otherwise be provided by the state, but many—3 million—also work either full or part-time. A further 1.3 million carers of working age are not in paid employment—some out of choice. Many of those carers want to work but recognise that they would have to juggle work with their caring responsibilities. Financial concerns are by no means the only problem that carers face, but balancing care and work is clearly a significant challenge. A survey of 3,000 Parkinson’s carers showed that a quarter of them were worse off financially since taking on a caring role, with 14% having had to leave work and 8% having reduced their work since starting caring.

The Work and Families Act 2006 gave carers significant rights to request flexible working, but my Bill would simplify the definition and make legislation easier for carers and employers to apply. In bringing forward the Bill, I do not criticise that legislation, which was in many ways groundbreaking and was a significant step forward; rather, I hope to build on and improve it. The coalition agreement between my party and the Conservatives states that the Government will

“extend the right to request flexible working to all employees, consulting with business on how best to do so.”

I warmly welcome that commitment and I shall set out some of the areas it would be helpful for the Government to consider in relation to carers. Flexible working is a goal we should be achieving for all workers, but my Bill focuses on the particular circumstances of carers.

Currently, the definition of carers provides a long list of those eligible to request flexible working, including those caring for a spouse, for a partner with whom they live, for a civil partner or for a relative. Relatives include parents, parents-in-law, adult children, adopted adult children, siblings, including siblings-in-law, uncles, aunts, grandparents and step-relatives. Also eligible are those caring for and living at the same address as the adult in need of care. Despite that extensive definition, certain groups of carers are still excluded, such as those caring for people to whom they are not closely related or who do not live in the same accommodation, which could amount to as many as 75,000 carers nationwide. We often talk about numbers, but let me put that figure into context. Carers UK has told me about a man who cares for his ex-wife and is not covered by the definition and about a single man who has fallen out with his family and is cared for by a friend who does not live at the same property and, again, is not covered by the definition. Those are real people who have experienced difficulties in making requests and fulfilling their work and care responsibilities because of the definition, which, although broad and significant, excludes many people.

During the consultation on the regulations in 2006, some groups said that the burden would be too onerous and argued for a more prescriptive definition, but many employers said that the definition was overly complex and that they wanted something simpler, even if that meant a broader definition or, indeed, no definition at all. A 2006 survey of four major employers found that they operated lighter-touch policies than required under the regulations and that none of them asked for any information about the relationship of the carer to the person being cared for. The most important thing for any employer is the impact that the policy has on their work, whereas the definition of who is being provided with care is of little concern to them.

Answers to parliamentary questions in September 2008 on the acceptance of requests for flexible working did not include figures for carers, but they showed that employers are increasingly responsive to the needs of those who wish to work flexibly, with 78% of requests being accepted. Not all employers will be able to accommodate requests, but those who do often recognise the importance of supporting their employees. It is key that when a request is made, an employer should reject it only where there is a clear business reason to do so, that they must explain their reason to the employee and that there should be an appeals process. Many employers have found that rather than being a burden, flexible working can help them to extend working hours and spread out work.

In 2009, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a report, “Working Better”, which recommended changes to the regulations on flexible working. Its research found that awareness of those rights was low and that they were still widely perceived as being the preserve of mothers with young children. For those who care, there are additional barriers to flexible working, as is borne out by the figures in the 2005 report “Ordinary lives: Disabled children and their families”, which found that only 16% of the mothers of disabled children are able to work compared with more than 60% of mothers generally.

I hope that the Bill will also address the issue that many carers face of their commitments changing, sometimes quite rapidly, in relation to the kind of care they deliver. I recently spoke to a man whose wife had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease. His experience with his employers was very positive: when she first became ill, he was able to fit his hours around hospital visits, but he then had to reduce his hours to a nine-hour week for three months before asking for a care break of 12 months which was later extended to 15 months as his wife’s condition deteriorated. Not long after, she died. His company told him that although they could not guarantee to hold his job open, he could return at the same grade and not lose out. It is worth quoting what he told me:

“This removed so much strain for me, as I knew I had a future to look forward to after my wife had died and I would not suddenly have to start job hunting the day after.”

He has now devoted himself to the work of the Motor Neurone Disease Association and chairs a local branch of MND. He reports that, regrettably, many people in similar positions are not so fortunate as he was. There is a real need to ensure that employers recognise the importance of this policy and that examples of good practice can be extended.

Much of the responsibility for carers’ issues in Wales is rightly devolved to the National Assembly Government, but the issue of flexible working remains with the Government in Westminster. In Wales, more than 150,000 people are in paid employment and have unpaid caring responsibilities. Some 60% of male carers and 32% of female carers in Wales combine caring with full-time employment, and 6% of male carers and 27% of female carers combine caring with part-time employment. There are examples of good practice, however: Carers Wales has highlighted the carers’ policies produced by Cardiff council and the Velindre NHS trust. Carers Wales has also worked with other local authorities and the Welsh Assembly Government on developing policies in support of caring.

The final point that my Bill would address is the fact that employees currently have to wait six months until they can request flexible working, although many employers provide these rights from day one. People with significant caring responsibilities need to work flexibly from when they start and the regulations might make it difficult for them to find a job that accommodates their caring responsibilities. The Employers for Carers leadership group has suggested that the Government should consider that as part of their consultation on flexible working. Many employers would welcome that being settled when an employee first starts working for them. I hope that the Government will seriously consider the issue of day-one rights. As was stated in the EHRC report, the current regulations do nothing

“to reach people who are unemployed, moving in and out of insecure employment, or returning to work after a career break.”

The Bill is about cutting the red tape associated with requests for flexible working and simplifying the process. It is about identifying the many examples of good practice in large and small workplaces across the UK and about ensuring that this good practice is supported and emulated by all employers. One million carers give up work to care, and there is a real need to encourage good practice on flexible working to ensure that carers can stay in work. My hope and aim in bringing forward this Bill, with the help of Carers UK and Carers Wales, is that the Government will consider these matters very carefully as part of their consultation and that they will introduce rules that will ensure comprehensive rights to flexible working for carers in the many different situations in which carers find themselves.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Mark Williams, Dr Hywel Francis, Jonathan Edwards, Lorely Burt, Annette Brooke, Jessica Morden, Roger Williams, Tony Baldry, Laura Sandys, Malcolm Wicks and Albert Owen present the Bill.

Mark Williams accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 17 June, and to be printed (Bill 36).

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will recall that at lunchtime the Prime Minister indicated that the hon. Member for Belfast West (Mr Adams) had accepted an office of the Crown. However, it is our understanding from press reports coming out of Belfast that Sinn Fein is denying this. Clearly, this is a matter that will continue to trouble the House for some time. Has the Speaker’s Office received notification from the Government that Mr Adams has indeed accepted a paid office of the Crown?

I have no knowledge of the matter. If and when the Speaker receives notification from the Treasury, he will cause it to be included in the Votes and Proceedings of the House. That is as much as I can do to help the hon. Gentleman on his point of order.

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand that a Member must apply for an office of profit. If there is any departure from that procedure, may we have a statement to the House? Will the Speaker inform the House of any departure from the accepted conventions, traditions and procedures of the House so that we are clear about the circumstances in which such a bizarre resignation is happening?

Although I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has a great interest in the matter and that other Members may well have the same interest, it is not a point of order for me or for Mr. Speaker. If notification is received, the Speaker would place it in the Votes and Proceedings of the House. That is as much as I can help the hon. Gentleman with the matter.