The government has said that it plans to extend the right to demand flexible working to the five and a half million people in the UK who care for sick or elderly relatives.
A year ago, mothers and fathers with children under the age of six were give a legal right to request flexible working arrangements from their employers. But the new move would be the first time that the role of the carer has been formally recognised in employment law.
Following a consultation exercise, the Prime Minister has now said that the needs of the 5.7 million carers in the UK - one in ten of the population - can no longer be ignored.
Three million of these carers are in work and the government believes that many others want to find jobs but are unable to juggle work with their caring responsibilities. Speaking after a Downing Street meeting on the issue, Tony Blair said that it was time to look at how carers can be better supported: “An ageing population coupled with women’s employment is creating growing pressure on people who are caring for an elderly or sick parent or relative,” he said.
“We have promised to review the impact of the legislation and make no further changes until after that review in 2006. But, subject to that, I believe that our priority should be to extend the right to request to work flexibly to carers of elderly or sick relatives”
Government sources suggested that the new ‘carer’s right to request’ would apply broadly to anybody who regularly helps or looks after an elderly or sick adult relative.
But the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) called on the government to honour its pledge not to introduce further legislation until after a promised review in 2006.
“Business took the Government’s commitment to a three-year review extremely seriously,” said the CBI’s Deputy Director-General, John Cridland. “Of course the right- to-request policy is not set in stone, but it would be unfair on business to make decisions now that are properly a matter for 2006.
“The CBI is a strong supporter of flexible working, but legislation in this area comes at a price. The three-year review must be honoured.”
Earlier this month, a report by HR consultants Ceridian Centrefile warned that changing demographics was creating a ‘sandwich generation’ of workers who would be squeezed between responsibilities for young children and caring for elderly parents. By 2037, it estimated, the number of carers could rise to 9.1 million, with huge ramifications for business.
This latest move appears to mark a growing acceptance of this view by the government, not least because it is clear that it will be unable to provide the necessary funding to care for an ageing population.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) welcomed the move but renewed its call for the government to extend the right to work flexibly all workers.
"In practice, nearly three-quarters of employers say they are willing to consider requests for flexible working from all employees, not just parents," said the CIPD’s Mike Emmott. "This reduces the likelihood that some employees will feel badly treated because they believe that others are being given preferential treatment," he said
"Where individuals can establish a positive work-life balance, both employers and employees benefit. We shall continue to argue for the statutory right to apply to all employees, not just to particular groups."