With the number of people aged over 85 expected to double in the next 20 years, the logic of shifting more responsibility for their care on to families is inescapable, not least because a big expansion of state care provision is unlikely when the government is so deeply in debt.
In addition, most older people and their families prefer close relatives to take this responsibility anyway, according to women’s minister Harriet Harman.
At a seminar earlier in December, she described the right to flexible working for people caring for elderly relatives as one of several “vital new family policies for an aging population”.
Harman said: “Just as we back up families caring for children, we will back up families caring for older relatives.”
One example of this strategy is included in the Department for Work and Pensions’ White Paper, published on 15 December. It proposes that people who work fewer than 16 hours a week and who receive a government carer’s allowance should be allowed to keep more of their earned income.
The seminar was organised by left-wing think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which argues that innovative reforms will be needed to cope with demographic change.
It highlights how care of the elderly is increasingly being delivered by women with dependent children and, although all employees already have the right to request emergency time off to look after dependant relatives, support from employers is unequal.
According to research published by the then Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in 2007, just over half (52%) of those exercising this right did so on full pay, even though employers are not obliged to fund such leave.
The people who usually benefit include men, public sector employees, managers and those with a household income above £40,000-a-year.
Dalia Ben-Galim, IPPR acting head of social policy, says those on lower pay and in more vulnerable jobs, including part-time and even temporary jobs, lose out on paid emergency leave. “It’s just about making it more standardised and accessible for everyone,” she says.
Ben-Galim adds that the DTI research shows that demand for emergency leave is limited, with half of those taking it having no more than two days off.
This means that the costs of the leave would be limited, although she concedes that it is “an idea for the long-term” because of the recession.
The Work Foundation
Stephen Overell, associate director of think tank The Work Foundation, feels too many questions are left unanswered by the IPPR.
“There are difficult decisions around who qualifies for paid leave, how long you’d need to be in employment and how long it should be paid for,” he says.
Clare Phizacklea, HR director of nursery and childcare provider Busy Bees, highlights the potential problems that the nursery and daycare provider would face if employers met the full cost of paid leave. Nearly all of her company’s employees are female and, despite “vast strides in equality”, she says it is still women who do most of the caring for sick children and dependent relatives.
She adds: “As an employer we would potentially face a far greater burden of such costs than other sectors.”
Neill Clark, vice-president of European HR for container shipping company APL , warns that the whole nature of the temping industry could change if the IPPR proposals were adopted. “The main advantage of having temps is that it is a cheaper, easier, less administratively burdensome way of getting through times when you are short of staff.”
He adds that granting temps the right to paid leave for caring purposes could result in companies hiring temps to cover for temps.
Fiona Irvine, director of consultancy Rainbow HR, agrees. “I can’t see at all how this can be appropriate or even fair.”
Interim HR director Lucy Lofting suspects that granting a set amount of days annually for meeting caring responsibilities might encourage some people to take them automatically, whether they needed them or not. “I think there might be some mileage in having a scatter of domestic leave spread over an elongated period of time; you can plan it better and control it better.”
But she feels that staff who do not benefit from such concessions need to be considered as well. “It would be quite unfair to give time off to some people and not to others. It would be really divisive.”
With1.5% of scheduled working days lost to sickness or injury annually in the UK, Ben Willmott, senior public policy advisor for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says employers already face challenges in managing absenteeism, and granting paid emergency leave would simply add to the administrative burden.
However, he supports another IPPR proposal that workers who care for relatives should be granted the right to request flexible working. This right is currently limited to employees with parental responsibility for children aged 16 and under.
“We think the issue of work-life balance and dealing with challenges outside work does not just apply to parents; it applies to all employees,” Willmott says.
Irvine suggests extending the eligibility of the carer’s allowance as a way of easing the financial burden of paid leave on employers. “It would mean you would go part-time and you could get some money to do the caring stuff. All of these allowances are tested in some way.”
She points out that this could help tackle absenteeism because, if denied help when caring for relatives, employees may simply claim time off as sick instead. For employers, the prospect of gaining more control over absenteeism could help make the idea of paid emergency leave and flexible working that much more palatable.
How other countries deal with the issue of unpaid leave
The UK lags behind several countries in the help it provides workers with dependent relatives, according to a review of international leave policies published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
In the Netherlands, employees are allowed up to 10 days of paid leave a year to care for a sick partner or parent. Employers cover 70% of the pay, although they can refuse such leave if it exposes their organisation to serious harm.
Australia grants all employees paid emergency leave, but it is limited to one twenty-sixth of their annual hours.