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Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: Working Parents and School Closures

Volume 809: debated on Monday 18 January 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the report published by the TUC Working mums: Paying the price published on 14 January, what action they plan to take to support working parents and those with caring responsibilities to access the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme who (1) cannot work due to the latest school closures and (2) were denied or not offered furlough.

My Lords, the furloughing of staff is a voluntary arrangement entered into at the employer’s discretion and agreed by employees. It is not for the Government to decide whether a firm should put its staff on furlough. However, the eligibility criteria are clear that an employee is eligible if they are unable to work, including at home, due to caring responsibilities resulting from Covid.

My Lords, I am sure it will not be lost on noble Lords that today is Martin Luther King Jr Day. It is in his spirit of fighting for social and racial justice that I make a passionate plea to the Minister that we confront head-on the findings from the latest TUC report that so many parents and carers—particularly mothers—often working for low pay, many of whom are black, Asian and minority ethnic, are being denied furlough. Can we have temporary legislation for these parents to be afforded furlough during this difficult time or, at the very least, give a clear direction to employers about their obligation? Like many, I am also very worried about the stress and impact on mental health this is causing for parents and their children, which will only get worse if we do nothing.

My Lords, the Government are acutely aware of the pressures faced by working parents, with schools shut. We do not intend to change how the furlough system operates; as I said, it is a voluntary decision by employers and employees. However, we have put in place far more support to parents during the current lockdown compared with when schools were previously closed; for example, they have the right to form a childcare bubble to help with their childcare demands, and there is a requirement on all schools to provide a minimum level of high-quality online learning to children while schools are shut.

My Lords, this TUC report is another excellent piece of work by my old organisation. It highlights the heavy pressures of the pandemic on working families, especially mothers, many of whom are juggling low pay, awkward hours, childcare and home schooling. How are the Government going to address these problems? Will they, as the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, asked, plug this gap in the furlough scheme after consideration? At the same time, will they address other gaps in support which have been highlighted in the recent report of your Lordships’ Economic Affairs Committee; for example, for the 500,000 self-employed?

My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, the Government consider that a voluntary arrangement for the furlough scheme is the appropriate one, while being very clear that the eligibility criteria allow parents and carers to be furloughed where they are unable to work, including from home, due to Covid affecting their caring responsibilities. We have put more support in place during this third national lockdown, including keeping childcare settings open for preschool children, to help alleviate the burden on parents.

My Lords, one group has definitely been left out. This report also calls for access to the furlough scheme for the clinically extremely vulnerable who cannot work from home but are required medically to shield. Currently, these individuals are entitled only to statutory sick pay; at just £95.85 per week, how are these shielding people meant to be able to support their families over many months? When will the Government correct this inequality and add them to the furlough scheme?

My Lords, the guidance for the furlough scheme is also clear that those required to shield because they are clinically extremely vulnerable are eligible for the scheme under its current rules. The other piece of hope for the clinically extremely vulnerable is the fact that we have sent out 5 million letters, starting today, to those over 70 and the clinically extremely vulnerable to start their programme of vaccination.

My Lords, since these difficulties for parents are caused by the inability of the local authority to perform its responsibility under the statutory duty of the parents to send their child to school and the local authority’s duty to receive the child, is there a legal responsibility on the local authority to deal with these difficulties?

I say to my noble and learned friend that the decision to shut schools in England was taken by central government. However, we have set out clear, legally binding requirements for local authority and academy schools to provide high-quality remote education, equivalent in length to the core teaching pupils would have received in school: from three hours a day for key stage 1 to five hours a day for key stages 3 and 4.

My Lords, the TUC report shows the difficulties faced by the parents of children unable to go to school in the Covid lockdown. It is not easy for some to work from home, reschedule work or incur the cost of reducing working hours. Does the Minister agree that we should urgently consider copying the initiatives in Germany and Italy of giving the parents of young children some additional paid leave to help in the present crisis?

My Lords, in international comparisons, our furlough scheme is actually more generous than many other countries’ and has fewer eligibility criteria than other countries’. But the Government completely understand the pressure that working parents are under. That is why we worked hard to keep schools open for as long as possible, and that is why we are working to get transmission rates down as quickly as possible so that we can reopen schools and get children back to the place where they are best off.

My Lords, it is vital that the Government respond swiftly and decisively to new developments in the fight against the pandemic. The impacts of school closures on parents were apparent during the first national lockdown, and yet the Chancellor did nothing to ensure that the furlough scheme would be fit for purpose in the event of further closures. The TUC has provided clear evidence that the scheme is not fit for working parents, so will the Government now build in the flexibility that parents so badly need? Further, will they finally extend the eligibility of other schemes to those who have thus far been excluded from desperately needed finance?

My Lords, the Government are clear that the furlough scheme can be used flexibly by employers—it can be used to accommodate those employees who cannot work due to their caring needs arising from Covid. They have extended eligibility in the extended scheme to account for employees who were taken on since the furlough scheme first operated. Learning from our first experience, we have put other measures in place to support parents, including childcare bubbles and the provision of high-quality online education.

My Lords, I have a suspicion that among Members of the House of Lords there are not many single parents who are home educating their young children. I am one of those, however, and I spent last week with my 11, 12 and eight year-olds, helping to home educate them and doing everything else that they needed. I do not have to choose between my job and looking after my children but many people are in that position. Surely, at the very least, there should be some rights for these parents to have support where the schools are not open. In addition, if employers are not prepared to support them, at the very least employers should be required to give them their job back at the end of this period.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that where parents need to take leave for caring responsibilities they have the right to do so, and if that is taken for under 26 weeks, they have the right to return to the same job when they return to work.

My Lords, following on from the previous question, might it be possible for the Government to consider extending the carers’ leave, given that the pandemic has gone on for so long, so that it is more akin to maternity leave and lasts for a longer period in these exceptional circumstances?

My Lords, the right to take parental leave is one of a number of options open to parents. We hope that employers will work with their employees to find the best solution in each circumstance, including the use of the furlough scheme where appropriate and where the eligibility criteria are clear.

My Lords, juggling childcare, home schooling and work is extremely challenging, with many facing the dilemma of choosing between home schooling their children or work, especially when they cannot work from home. Clearly, this serious issue needs addressing urgently. Can any legal obligation to offer furlough include backdating payments to allow payments to those who have already had to take unpaid leave and therefore lost valuable income because they did not have alternative childcare arrangements?

The Government do not intend to change the operation of the furlough scheme from a voluntary scheme for employers to use to a legal obligation for employers to offer it. We do not believe that that is the right way forward. However, we are providing additional support to parents facing a very difficult situation in juggling work and home schooling.

My Lords, the TUC report points out that financial insecurity is having a bad effect on the well-being and mental health of mums. This will affect family well-being, as well as poverty, inequalities and social mobility for children—which are perennial issues outside crises. Does the Minister think that it is high time for the Government to appoint a senior Minister totally focused on children and families to safeguard their rights, welfare and progress?

My Lords, I believe there is a Minister for Children and Families who has that responsibility in the department. However, I completely take the noble Baroness’s point on the pressures on parents, including with regard to financial security. That is why the Government have put over £7 billion more into the welfare system in this financial year to support people through the current crisis.

My Lords, the TUC has highlighted the challenge. Surely the only answer in the short term is to use the February half-term break to vaccinate all teaching and non-teaching staff and get the children back into school. Perhaps the Minister will take that back to her colleagues in Cabinet.

My Lords, I am happy to take that back, but as regards the vaccination schedule, we are following the initial first wave set out by the JCVI, which goes by clinical vulnerability and particularly by age. I know that we will consider further waves after that and that we will consider the latest evidence, including on transmission and the impact on workers and public services.

But is the Minister not aware that in an unprecedentedly large response, the TUC found that more than 70% of those who asked their employers to put them forward for furlough were refused? The Government are refusing to make this a legal obligation on the very same day that down the Corridor, in the Commons, they are refusing to continue the £20 increase in universal credit. They are being exposed yet again for the mean and heartless Government they are.

The support that the Government have put in place through the furlough scheme and other schemes during this pandemic is absolutely unprecedented compared to any time in our history. The Government are there for families and people struggling through very difficult times, and will continue to be.

Sitting suspended.