On 23 September 2021, the UK Government published its response to the consultation on carer’s leave confirming its intention to introduce an entitlement to five working days’ leave for employees who are unpaid carers from day one of their employment. The proposals form part of wider reforms to allow greater flexibility in working habits (a theme which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic) and to address the lower levels of participation by carers in the labour market – an issue that tends to disproportionately affect women. The response recognises the particular challenges faced by a large number of people who provide unpaid care for elderly or disabled relatives and friends, as well as the likelihood of this number increasing in the future as our population ages.
Responses to the consultation
The consultation, launched in March 2020, sought views on a new right to time off from employment for unpaid carers. There was strong support from all types of respondent, including individuals, businesses and charities, with an emphasis on the need for flexibility in approach, recognising that the needs and circumstances of carers can vary greatly. In particular, the issue of carers taking annual leave to fulfil care responsibilities, as other options are not available or appropriate, was brought into sharp focus by the responses. Whilst recognising that the proposals would entail some additional burdens and costs for employers, the responses acknowledge that these would be greatly outweighed by the benefits of a more supported and valued workforce.
Given the positive response to the consultation, the UK Government has announced its intention to take these plans forward. Let’s take a closer look at what it proposes.
The new right to carer’s leave will take effect from day one of the carer’s employment so there will be no minimum period of work required in order to qualify. Over half the respondents to the consultation supported this approach, appreciating that care responsibilities cannot be paused while an employee completes a qualifying period of service.
Entitlement to the right will depend on the carer’s relationship with the person being cared for; close family members, members of the same household or people who reasonably rely on the employee for care are all included. Further, the proposals also encompass someone who provides care whilst the primary carer is taking respite.
In addition to the relationship requirement, the person receiving the care must have a long-term care need, meaning a long-term illness or injury, a disability, or issues related to age. However, some situations which do not fall within these general categories would also qualify – for example, in the case of a person with a terminal illness.
Possible uses: Responses to the consultation supported a broad definition of what the leave can be used for. The UK Government proposes that carer’s leave be used for “providing care or making arrangement for the provision of care”.
How: Consultation responses were also strongly in favour of providing flexibility in how the leave can be taken. The employee will therefore be able to take the leave flexibly, from single days or even half-days, up to a full week in one go.
Notice: Before taking carer’s leave, employees will be required to give the same notice as is required for annual leave requests. The employer will not be entitled to deny the request, but may postpone it in strictly limited circumstances.
Evidence: Employees will be able to self-certify their entitlement to carer’s leave, with no requirement to provide evidence. This is in recognition of the difficulties of asking for and managing sensitive personal and medical information relating to the person receiving the care.
Protections: In order to protect the rights of those entitled to carer’s leave, the UK Government also proposes to create a new ground of automatically unfair dismissal. Dismissal for reasons connected to the exercise of the right to carer’s leave would be automatically unfair.
The UK Government’s proposed entitlement to unpaid carer’s leave will apply in England, Wales and Scotland, as employment law is devolved to Northern Ireland. As yet, no concrete timescale to enact the legislation has been given, with the UK Government’s response stating only that this will happen “when parliamentary time allows”. We will need to keep our eyes peeled for the proposals’ progression to Parliament, along with the other measures proposed to provide greater flexibility to employees.