Flexible working plan ‘ignores realities of caring’

The Work and Families Bill will give carers the right to request flexible working. But campaigners are concerned that the government’s definition of a carer is restrictive, writes Gordon Carson

BT’s commitment to flexible working has been vital in enabling PA Lisa Crowley to combine work with caring for her elderly mother, who is disabled.

Lisa is able to work at home when required, and says her manager and colleagues are aware of her situation and don’t mind if she has to use office time for personal matters.

But not all employers are so understanding, which is why the Work and Families Bill, which would entitle people who care for adults to request flexible working, is such a significant piece of legislation.

However, some of the optimism that greeted the bill, which is currently going through parliament, has been diminished by the way the government wants to define the carer role (Thousands excluded from flexi-working, 4 May).

In a consultation on guidance on the bill, the Department of Trade and Industry proposed that a carer should be defined as someone who cares for an adult who they are married to, is their partner, or is their civil partner; a relative; or someone who falls into neither category but lives at the same address.

Controversy centres on the two proposed definitions of a relative: either one of “immediate” relative, which would include a parent, guardian or son-in-law; or “near” relative, which would also cover a brother, uncle, aunt or grandparent.

Consultation on the two options has now closed, but many feel the definitions fail to recognise the realities of life today with its broader kinship networks and increased caring by friends or neighbours.

Employers for Carers, a group chaired by BT that promotes support for carers in the workplace, says the important issue for employers is not the nature of a caring relationship but the effect the caring responsibility has on the carer’s working life.

The government’s definitions could also face legal challenges over infringements of the human rights of unpaid carers, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission.

To address this, the EOC says the definition of near relative should be widened to include step-parents, siblings and cousins. And it says the government should adopt the definition of carer in the Employment Relations Act 1999, which classes a carer as someone caring for a person who “reasonably relies upon the employee for assistance”.

Carers UK says this would add only another 76,500 carers of working age, who care for more than 20 hours a week, to the 1.5 million people covered under the “near relative” definition, so would not place a major added burden on employers.

Rebecca Gill, policy officer for women’s equality at the TUC, says the government has started from the wrong premise. “The government’s emphasis is on who the carer is caring for, rather than that they are doing the job of caring,” she says.

Caroline Waters, chair of Employers for Carers and BT’s director of people and policy, says the government needs to pay more attention to demographic realities.

“There are very complex migration patterns and many people are living a long way away from people they would traditionally have cared for,” she says. “Those caring relationships are being replaced.”

For example, she says she lives more than 100 miles away from her elderly mother, who is helped by her neighbours. In turn, Waters also helps older people in her area.

Sarah Pickup, the Association of Directors of Social Services lead on carers, points out that the Work and Families Bill will only give carers a right to request flexible working and not to receive it, meaning it is unlikely there will be a huge additional pressure on businesses because they can refuse requests.

A report published last month by Carers UK, Who Cares Wins: The Social and Business Benefits of Supporting Working Carers, states that flexible working practices reduce stress and sick leave among staff with caring responsibilities, and increase productivity.

The number of carers in the UK is expected to grow from six million to nine million in the next 30 years, and Waters says: “As there are more carers and the available working population is ageing, then that pool of employees [carers] will become more and more important.”

See Should all unpaid carers be entitled to flexible working arrangements?

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