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Carer’s Leave: Government Departments

Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many government departments offer (1) paid, or (2) unpaid, leave to their staff who have caring responsibilities.

My Lords, the statistics are not centrally collected but all government departments have policies on special leave. These enable managers to give paid and unpaid special leave to support employees in a variety of circumstances, including where they have caring responsibilities.

My Lords, I am glad to hear that many government departments make special arrangements for carers, as do many private sector organisations, but the situation is still far too patchy, discretionary and dependent on employers’ good will rather than the rights of the carers concerned. When will the Government fulfil the promise that they made in their 2019 manifesto to introduce rights to unpaid leave for carers, and recognise that there are sound economic reasons for doing this in terms of retaining carers who would otherwise have to give up paid work—something that the nation can ill afford at this time of severe staff shortages?

My Lords, we remain committed to legislation to deliver on our commitments on employment, including on carer’s leave, as parliamentary time allows. We are aware in this context of the Private Member’s Bill on carer’s leave in another place; we will look closely at whether we can support it in this Session.

My Lords, every day, many of us walk past a poster asking if we are a carer on our way into the House. ParliCare offers support to those staff who work in both Houses. Can the Minister tell the House how many carers are supported on this scheme and what form that support takes?

My Lords, if the question is about arrangements in Parliament, I remind the noble Baroness that I am answering for the Executive here. As I have told the House, there are supportive arrangements in the Civil Service, but I am afraid I cannot answer specifically on the numbers in the parliamentary system.

My Lords, after looking at today’s Question, I looked up the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto. Page 12 is full of ambitious pledges for carers but the one referred to by my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley is a modest proposal:

“We will also extend the entitlement to leave for unpaid carers, the majority of whom are women, to one week.”

I wonder how much parliamentary time it would take to get legislation through to give one week of unpaid leave to carers. May I let the Minister know that, on this side of the House, we will offer our support to give a fair wind to such a Bill? We have seen the online harms Bill delayed but surely, with a new Prime Minister in place, there will plenty of parliamentary time as the legislative programme gets juggled around.

My Lords, I have indicated that the Government will look at the Private Member’s Bill on carer’s leave, which relates to five days. The original Question was about government departments. Obviously, managers in government departments have case-by-case discretion to give as much leave as they deem necessary within the special leave limits.

My Lords, we are all aware of the huge contribution to the nation’s health and economy made by unpaid carers, including those who combine caring responsibilities with other paid employment. This issue is currently being explored by both the Select Committee of your Lordships’ House and an Archbishops’ Commission. Does the Minister agree that, whenever possible, as well as paid or unpaid leave, flexible working arrangements for those with caring responsibilities are in everybody’s best interests?

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate. Flexible working is widespread in the Civil Service. Civil Service carers are able to discuss their needs for flexible working and have them recorded in a carer’s passport. Like all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service, they have the statutory right to request a change to the hours, timing or location of their work. The Government recently consulted on measures to reform the right to request flexible working; we will publish a response to it in due course. I assure the right reverend Prelate that we take this matter seriously.

My Lords, in evidence to your Lordships’ Adult Social Care Select Committee, we have heard that carers are exhausted, unable to get any respite, face poverty and struggle to juggle care and working. Yet these carers take a huge weight off the National Health Service and provide care that would otherwise have to be paid for at taxpayers’ expense. Some good employers, including some of the Civil Service, recognise the pressures on them but many do not. Carers are forced either to reduce their working hours or to leave work altogether. Will the Minister acknowledge the urgency of this and introduce legislation as soon as possible to at least begin to sort this out?

My Lords, as I indicated, we are looking at the Private Member’s Bill in the other place. I agree with all noble Lords who pay tribute to the extraordinary work done by carers—those in employment and those not in employment. I remember my beloved mother in those circumstances and what she did for my father. We in government are human. We understand the immense sacrifices made by carers and will do the best that we conceivably can.

My Lords, when the Government consider the Private Member’s Bill on this issue, will they take full account of the huge savings to the taxpayer enabled by unpaid carers? If they will, does the Minister agree that they are bound to agree to the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley?

My Lords, I am responsible for the Civil Service, but obviously I hear the sentiment of the House. I have indicated the way forward. Some of the things that the great legion of carers does you cannot place a monetary value on. You cannot cost love. However, I take very firmly the points that the noble Baroness has made.

My Lords, I was heartened by what the Minister said about the Private Member’s Bill, but what criteria will the Government use to decide whether to support it? Carer’s leave should not be thought of as special leave. Caring is fundamental to human life, particularly the lives of many women. Under what circumstances would the Government not support the Bill?

My Lords, that is a matter for colleagues across the Government. I have reported to the House the current situation. It may be no accident that the Bill has come forward but I undertake, as far as I can on behalf of my colleagues, that we will be as accommodating as we can be to that Bill.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the reason we see ambulances stacked outside hospitals and people unable to get ambulances is that there is inadequate provision of care for people at home, whether from their family or from elsewhere? Would it not be a good idea for the Cabinet Office to look at how we resolve this problem, which is resulting in people not being treated, blocking beds and not being able to access emergency services?

My Lords, I think the Government should give attention to that. Regarding my being responsible for the Civil Service in this respect, it is a collective responsibility. The problem my noble friend refers to is one of which too many people are all too aware.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that one of the problems with the national insurance hike, which was allegedly to pay for social care, is that most of that money in the first few years will go to the National Health Service and very little, if any, will support carers, who are doing such a great job?

My Lords, it remains to be seen how that policy goes forward. Obviously, as the noble Lord said, the Government are implementing a comprehensive reform programme and investing £5.4 billion over three years from April 2022. He has expressed a certain cynicism about it, but I hope it will lead to improvements in social care more broadly.

My Lords, there is one particularly difficult issue. If people are working and take time off, they expect their remuneration to be reduced accordingly. However, equally, if they were unable to be part-time carers, someone else would have to do the work. Care, particularly mothers’ care, should be provided and not rationed according to the jobs that people do.

My Lords, I am not responsible for the degree of enlightenment or otherwise of employers, but I am sure that many people will have heard the words of my noble friend. The Government, in all humility, want to be a good employer and act as a model to other employers. That is why providing paid special leave for carers is part of a wider suite of employee benefits which helps us attract—and, more importantly, retain—good people in our great Civil Service.