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Carers: Unpaid Leave

Volume 822: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they intend to introduce a right to one week’s unpaid leave for those with caring responsibilities.

My Lords, we recognise the important contribution of carers across the country who give their time to look after others. The Government are determined to do all they can to support those balancing work and caring. Legislation to deliver our commitment to introduce one week of unpaid leave for unpaid carers will be brought forward when parliamentary time allows.

I thank the Minister for his response, but he will not be surprised to know that I am somewhat disappointed. It is now almost three years since the Conservative Party manifesto pledged to give carers five days’ unpaid leave per year—a modest enough request, I think your Lordships will agree. It was seen as a very important component of helping carers deliver social care while staying in paid work. It is very much supported by employers, who see it as helping their bottom line because it helps with recruitment and retention, and 90% of the public think it is a good idea. Here is a policy that costs nothing, supports social care and is hugely popular. Why are the Government delaying?

Well, I said that we are committed to this, and we will of course act when parliamentary time allows. To be fair, if employers are supportive, they can do it anyway; they do not need legislation. I give the noble Baroness an assurance that we will work with parliamentarians to see whether there is an alternative vehicle that could deliver this legislation.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that it is a good investment to allow people unpaid leave when they are under enormous pressure? Without doing that, you end up having people with mental health disorders and an ongoing cost to society in the future through sick leave and so on. I hope that the Government will recognise that and, when it comes to those eligible for SR1 benefits, make it one month of unpaid leave.

We certainly recognise the value of carers, and indeed they have a substantial package of support. As I said, we are committed to this policy and to legislating on it.

My Lords, research has shown that the average person has a 50/50 chance of caring by the age of 50—that is, a long time before they reach retirement age. However, on average women can expect to take on caring responsibilities more than a decade earlier than men. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of not legislating to introduce carers’ leave on women in particular, and what plans do they have to publish that assessment?

The noble Baroness is certainly right. We know that many carers experience considerable challenges in balancing work with their caring responsibilities, which is why we consulted on the policy in the first place.

Would my noble friend recognise that there is a significant labour shortage? Part of the problem has been with the Great Retirement or Great Resignation. A number of older workers have withdrawn from the labour market during the pandemic, partly because of the problems experienced in care homes. With an ageing population and increasing numbers of people who are going to need to look after older relatives, would the Government consider leave along the lines of maternity leave for those in later life who need to organise some care for loved ones, so they do not leave the workforce and never return?

Of course, we want to see people supported in the workforce as much as possible, which is why we introduced a right to request flexible working, and many employers have been able to work with their employees to grant that—but my noble friend makes an important point.

My Lords, I think that the Minister probably knows what I am going to ask him, but I shall have another go. How much parliamentary time does he estimate that it would take to put this very modest measure through? Is parliamentary time in such short supply that it cannot be found?

Well, I suppose the answer to the noble Baroness’s question is that it depends on how much time Parliament chooses to spend on particular legislation. Obviously, we were committed to an employment Bill. The Queen’s Speech set out a packed and ambitious legislative programme, with a comprehensive set of Bills that will enable us to deliver on priorities such as growing the economy, and so on—and I am sure that noble Lords will spend a large amount of time on studying those Bills. We are committed to that legislation, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, and we will look for alternative vehicles and work with parliamentarians to try to deliver what is a manifesto commitment.

My Lords, can the Minister explain whether the Government have considered how many carers might be able to return to work if this provision were available to them, and whether secondary legislation could be used to introduce this simple measure?

My Lords, it would not take very much parliamentary time—it could be done as a handout Bill to a keen Back-Bencher in the other place—so I do not think that the Government need to worry too much about that. However, when it is introduced, will the Minister make sure that measures in it include people caring for those who are suffering from a terminal illness?

The noble Baroness makes an important point. As I said, we will look for alternative vehicles to deliver this policy. For the details, we will of course look at any proposals in potential legislation.

My Lords, further to the deeply committed remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, how can we, as a nation, more generously and more widely acknowledge the magnificent contribution of carers—perhaps more than 1.5 million of them in Britain? Is it not a great army that is low paid and yet works so hard every day? Is not caring in a home very demanding of skill and application? Why not institute some form of national awards, perhaps decided by the centre, to encourage and help carers to give even more for those who need?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. Certainly, that is a good suggestion, and I shall take it back for the department to have a closer look at. It would seem like a good idea. I remind the House that we have a substantial programme of support in place—as we saw only recently in the crisis—for carers and others. Low-income households benefit from a means-tested benefit cost of living payment of £650. Those living in the same household as a disabled person for whom they care get £150. Families with a pensioner in the household benefit from a pensioner cost of living payment of £300—and that is just in the latest package of support offered by the Chancellor. So of course there are always other things that we can look at, but we are fulfilling our responsibilities to the caring community.

My Lords, if we can spend a whole day on 5 July discussing our sitting hours, could we not spend that day bringing forward a Bill that could complete all its stages instead?

The business managers would point out that it probably takes a lot more than a day to deliver important legislation such as this, which includes going through the proper and appropriate scrutiny and procedures. My noble friend has been critical of me in the past when we have brought forward emergency legislation without the appropriate scrutiny.

My Lords, if parliamentary time is really the problem, I suggest to the Minister that we scrap the rest of the Schools Bill —which is being trashed from all sides, not least from his own Benches—to give us at least another two and half days in which to debate this important measure.

My Lords, there is also a Northern Ireland Bill which the Government might reconsider, but I want to ask a serious question. It is well known and researched that carers, in general, suffer from worse mental health issues than a comparative population. Will the Minister’s department discuss with the Department of Health and Social Care more programmes to support carers on mental health issues? This will have a positive impact on the world of work as well.

On the noble Lord’s first comment, I am sure that the Opposition have a long list of Government Bills they would rather drop in favour of this one; let us take it as read that we can agree on that. The noble Lord makes a sensible suggestion, and I will certainly take it back.

My Lords, will the Minister take this back to the department and say how strongly the House of Lords feels about it?

My Lords, in response to an earlier question, my noble friend the Minister said that employers were free to grant one week’s unpaid leave already. Is it the case that government departments do this?

That is a good question to which I do not know the answer; I will get back to my noble friend on that.

I invite the Minister to consider, within his department, whether this change could not be brought about by a tweaking of the Working Time Regulations, which are secondary legislation?

No, as I said in response to an earlier question, my understanding is that this needs primary legislation. I will certainly check that, but I do not think the noble Lord is correct.