Social CareSpeeches

Wendy Chamberlain – 2022 Speech on the Carer’s Leave Bill

The speech made by Wendy Chamberlain, the Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife, in the House of Commons on 21 October 2022.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Let me first echo the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and say that it would be remiss of me not to comment on the fact that the Bill was scheduled to have its Second Reading on 9 September. Very sadly, the death of the late Queen Elizabeth prevented that. I am therefore pleased to have the opportunity to present the Bill today. Again like the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, I want to recognise the work of previous Ministers, in this case the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) and the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), who is in the Chamber, and thank them for their support for the Bill so far. I also thank the civil servants at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who have been a constant thread in the time that has elapsed since I took up this cause.

In many respects, carers are the backbone of our country. We think of caring for our loved ones as often a small and personal thing; we do it behind closed doors. It can be full-time personal care—washing, dressing or feeding; things that we instinctively think of as private—or it can be, for instance, making appointments or taking someone to a hospital appointment. Those are the small things that we do for people we love, or know, without questioning it. Taken together, however, all those individual acts of caring are huge. In 2016 the Office for National Statistics estimated that the gross value of unpaid care in the UK was almost £60 billion, and we know that that figure will only have gone up in the last six years. This country would collapse without its unpaid carers, and their importance must not be underestimated.

The Liberal Democrats have long championed unpaid carers, and never more so than under the leadership of my friend and carer, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey)—I do not mean that he cares for me, but he has spoken in this House and other places about the care he gives to his family. At the height of the pandemic, the Liberal Democrats campaigned to have unpaid carers recognised as a priority group for vaccinations, and we have long been calling for employment rights for carers, including the type of leave that the Bill will introduce. Indeed, all Bills that will hopefully achieve Second Reading today are about improving employment rights for all.

Although I knew that the Bill had the backing of my party, I have been overwhelmed by the amount of cross-party support it has received. I have received support from Members from every party in the House, and I am pleased to see Members here today. Sadly, I know there would have been others, but for the rescheduling of the Bill. Indeed, I was even more ahead than the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, because I managed to secure members of the Committee before I got here. For example, I know that, among others, the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage), who co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on carers, and the hon. Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans), for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), and for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), wanted to be here today, but they were unable to due to the rescheduling. I have been tapping them for Committee membership as a result.

I have had conversations with the Government, who I hope will support the Bill. It is disappointing that we have not had the opportunity to have an employment Bill, as proposed in the Queen’s Speech in 2019. That was long-promised, but sadly never delivered, and although that has given me, and others, the opportunity to bring forward employment legislation, we must ensure that other gaps are filled by the Government.

Members are here today because this is a good Bill, and if the House will bear with me, I will set out in more detail some of what it proposes. It will mean that for the first time ever, all employees from their first day of employment will be entitled to take time off to help manage caring responsibilities. That fills a gap in the current law whereby although employees can take limited time off for emergencies, and parents can take time off to care for their children, there is no provision for the day-to-day planned caring of adults.

The idea of a caring responsibility has been drafted widely to include as much as possible. As I said at the outset, a lot of things count as caring. Caring can include day-to-day physical support, taking someone to appointments or doing the shopping, liaising with medical staff, or sitting with someone as they struggle through a diagnosis. It could be helping elderly parents move into sheltered accommodation, or the time spent arranging for social carers to visit daily. It includes support for someone with a long-term physical or mental illness, and anything to do with old age.

The Bill has also been drafted widely to include as many caring relationships as possible. We would obviously expect it to cover immediate family, but the Bill goes further and includes not only cohabitees, tenants and lodgers, but anyone who reasonably relies on an employee to provide or arrange care. This summer I spoke to one of my constituents in relation to the Bill. In addition to caring for his wife, he does the shopping for an elderly neighbour. That small act of kindness is also caring, and the Bill recognises that.

The leave is flexible and incredibly light touch. It can be taken in half-day chunks, and it works through self-certification. The notice period is expected to be short, at twice the length of time to be taken plus one day. For most people, if they want a half day on Wednesday afternoon that means letting their employer know by Monday lunchtime. As flexible not emergency care, I believe that to be reasonable, and in line with current regulations for annual leave so easy for everybody to understand. Most importantly, employers cannot refuse a request for leave. They can ask for it to be postponed, but only in a manner that is reasonable.

Robbie Moore (Keighley) (Con)

I want to emphasise some of the points that the hon. Lady is making, which illustrate that having that flexibility built in with the notice provisions, and a Bill that affects anyone who is involved in providing care, is crucial. I commend her for her work in bringing forward this Bill.

Wendy Chamberlain

I thank the hon. Member for his contribution. Yes, we need to be flexible—that is important —because there is such a range of caring. It is also important, however, that we align that with other existing legislation, as that will make this easier and less burdensome for employers and employees to understand. I do not want the Bill to become law but then people do not utilise it, because they are not aware of it.

I met the Minister and officials to discuss the Bill and to ensure that it is the best we can get it before becoming law. That means that, in some areas, it does not potentially do everything that I would want it to do, if it were down to just me. For a start, my instincts would be to want the rights to be implemented immediately through primary legislation. That is not possible, which means I am trusting the Government to act in good faith in supporting the Bill, and I expect them to bring in the proposed regulations at the earliest possible opportunity. I will be here to make sure that they do.

The Bill does not go as far as Liberal Democrat policy would go. We would like there to be more time and for that to be paid, but I accept that this is a journey and that this is a vital first step in getting these rights on to the statute book now. There is nothing on the statute book that recognises leave for caring.

It is estimated that 2.3 million carers—that is a conservative estimate—cannot wait for the perfect policy to be put in place. They need these rights as soon as possible. According to the 2011 census, there are at least 3,000 carers in my North East Fife constituency. I spent summer recess meeting many of them. I have been told time and again that, although the Bill will not make their lives easy, because caring is challenging, it will help just a little bit to keep some of the plates spinning.

I learned a lot this summer about the vast variety of caring experiences that people have. Karen cares for her 91-year-old mother. She drives from Cupar in North East Fife to Annan every weekend to be with her mother—I assure the House that that is a long way; hon. Members should look it up on a map following the debate—to make sure that she is stocked up and to deal with any household tasks that need doing. Her mum is fiercely independent and wants to remain in her own home. She makes and manages her appointments and, despite the 125-mile distance between her and her mother, she is a carer and needs her employer’s support to make things work.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)

Is it not true that family members often do what they do out of love and that, in many ways, they find it difficult to come forward and claim the financial support they need for the hours they put in looking after their loved ones?

Wendy Chamberlain

I agree. During my conversations I find that carers are using annual leave and emergency unpaid leave, when they need to, in order to undertake caring responsibilities, and that sadly—as I will mention later—they are forced out of the workplace because they cannot manage to balance their responsibilities.

I also met the Fife carers support group in St Andrews, a group who call themselves, and I hope the House will forgive my language, the CRAP carers—that stands for compassionate, resourceful and patient. One lady was caring for her grown-up son, who is coping with severe mental health challenges, two were caring for terminally ill parents, and parents and partners with dementia were being cared for. All were doing so with huge amounts of grit and compassion, and indeed humour—as the name they have chosen shows.

I came away from meeting that group feeling not only uplifted by their love for their family members, but angry because a number of them expressed guilt—guilt that so much of their time is spent dealing with the administration of caring, rather than feeling that they can give their loved ones the care that they need. That care admin includes negotiating with their employers.

I will bring to the House’s attention the experience of one of my constituents in particular. Amanda works full time as well as providing increasing care to her mum and dad. Her dad has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and her mum, having been forgetful for a few years, is showing clear signs of dementia. Many of us will recognise that path: forgetfulness followed by confusion; denial followed by anger; and frustration as managing day-to-day life slips away. For Amanda, that means setting up appointments and speaking to carers and medical professionals. It means popping in as often as she can to do the shopping, to keep her dad company, to make sure her mum is okay and to be there after nurses leave to manage her mum’s confusion and sometimes even distress.

That is all relatively new and, so far, Amanda’s employer has been supportive. She has taken some last-minute holidays and she has been able to take the odd day off, but she is worried about what comes next. Her mum is not going to get any better. Will her employer stay supportive? What happens if she gets a new manager? Something that struck me in the earlier debate today is that sometimes it is not just about employers, but about managers and line managers, and ensuring that they have the correct information to take the correct decisions.

Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)

Does the hon. Lady agree that this is just one of many changes that we will need to make as a society to reflect the fact that we are growing older and there are more and more of us who need care on a daily basis, much of which is thankfully provided by those heroes, unpaid carers and carers within families? I hope this is the start of a wider process where we reflect on what we can do to support carers in the incredibly important work they do.

Wendy Chamberlain

Absolutely; we have seen a lot of family legislation come in to support that, but the reality is that many people are not only looking after children and dependants, but looking after older generations as well. That is an increasing challenge for people, for employers and for society at large.

If I could, I would want to make it all better for Amanda, but I cannot. Ageing and illness are a part of life, and we care for family members because we love them and it is what we do. However, I know from research by Carers UK, which has given me and my researchers so much support in bringing this Bill forward, that there is a significant risk that someone like Amanda will burn out and end up cutting back on work or having to leave work altogether. My goal is to help, and with this Bill we can make things a little bit easier, with the guarantee of time off when she needs it—to be there when the nurse comes, to make those appointments and to have the breathing space to manage.

There is of course much more we could do to help unpaid carers, both those in work and those who find it impossible to cope and have given up their jobs to care full time. I met many carers over the summer whom this Bill will not help, because for them it is too late and they have given up on the world of work.

The experiences of those carers and the loved ones they care for are best expressed by my constituent Amy. She has multiple sclerosis and is the chair of the Fife MS Forum, and her husband now cares for her full time. That is not unusual; research by the MS Society found that 34% of carers give up work when caring for someone with MS.

I must tell the House that Amy is a force of nature. In her working life she was a behavioural scientist specifically working with young offenders. So successful was she at engaging those young people that at one point the local police force started to hear positively about a potential new gang called “Amy’s lads”—young people who were rehabilitating their lives and proud to be associated with Amy and the work she did.

However, for Amy and her husband it all boils down now to making sure that carers are valued—and not just through words, which I know we can all be guilty of. I started this speech with the time-honoured cliché that carers are the backbone of our society, but we in this House need to show that we value them through our actions.

First and foremost, that should mean uprating carer’s allowance for those who receive it and reviewing the policy under which carer’s allowance counts as income for other benefits such as universal credit. It should also mean reviewing the amount of work carers can do before they lose their allowance. That is particularly important for young carers, because those young people are caring even before they get into the world of work and will potentially be prevented from ever entering it if we do not help them.

Being a carer is hard work even when we do it for loved ones, but if we really want carers to know they are valued and if we want them to have some dignity, we must ensure that we help them. Amy told me from her experience with the MS Forum that many carers feel they are failures—failures for not being able to balance their home and professional lives, failures for not being the perfect partners, failures for not being able to get everything right. Amy was not the only person who told me that; sisters Alex and Claudia told me the same thing. They need caring for a loved one to be seen as equally valuable to paid employment. I thank the right hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who is not here today, for his support to both sisters when they were his constituents. The work of the right hon. Gentleman and his team has been invaluable. I want every carer to know that they are not a failure—far from it—and we need policies to put that into action. I hope that all hon. Members agree.

To turn back to the details of carer’s leave, I will set out how the Bill will work for businesses. I am delighted that this is a policy where doing the right thing for people is also doing the right thing for businesses. Thanks to Carers UK, I have had several opportunities to speak with businesses that already have support policies in place for carers. A carer from one of those companies is in the Gallery. Those businesses include Centrica, TSB Bank, Nationwide Building Society, the Phoenix Group, CMS, and not forgetting the University of St Andrews, which is the largest employer in my constituency. From those meetings, I happily offer the House three key observations.

First, offering carer’s leave, even paid carer’s leave, makes financial sense for businesses in the long run. Centrica, which has been at the forefront of the move among businesses to be carer-friendly, offers 10 days’ paid leave. With 20,000 employees, it estimates that it is saving £3.1 million a year by avoiding unplanned absences and improving employee retention. It and other businesses also report increased loyalty and higher motivation. People who feel supported in difficult times are simply more likely to put in that extra effort in the good times. That was borne out by what I have heard from carers. They want to keep working and are grateful for the support from their employers that means that they can.

Secondly, I have heard about the importance of formal leave policies that are well communicated and widely used throughout organisations. There are many different businesses and organisations in this country, and within those companies, there are lots of people doing lots of different types of roles. I have heard that, even within organisations that are ahead of the game on such policies, it can be a challenge to get people to make use of the time that they are allowed. That sometimes makes people feel that the policies are not for them, because they work in a frontline or customer-facing role. That is why this law would help employees even in companies that are already on this journey. The Bill will make it a legal right, which will feel very different from just a perk of working for a good employer.

Thirdly, I was struck by the strength of feeling among businesses that there was a role for employers in helping their staff to recognise that they are carers and to feel supported and dignified in accessing the help they need. My husband is in the Gallery and he cares for his mother. He does not think of himself as a carer—many carers do not. Those businesses felt that introducing carer’s leave and other support, and reaching out to build a network, had been a catalyst that had kick-started an open conversation about what being a carer looks like. It helped people to realise the many forms that caring can take and that support is available to them. Again, the Bill plays a part in that by bringing the conversation into the open and into businesses up and down the country.

I also want to highlight the Scottish Government’s carer positive scheme. I am pleased to say that my office has just been accredited as a carer positive organisation. That is a way to identify and share good practice, and to show that an organisation is proud to support carers. If someone is in Scotland, I recommend finding out more about that.

Before I conclude, I will reflect on why this Bill works for the Government. Sitting on the Opposition Benches, I am not usually in the business of helping those on the Government Benches, but I assume that despite a tumultuous week, the Government are still broadly in favour of wanting to get more people, especially the over-50s, back into work—as set out in the growth plan of the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng). I agree with the Government on that, although I oppose any plans that force people into unsuitable work through the threat of sanctions or benefit cuts.

The good news for the Government is that the primary demographic that will benefit from the Bill and will be supported to stay in work is the over-50s, particularly women, who have a 50:50 chance of providing care by the age of 46—I am just about there—and are more likely to work part time as a result. If the Government want people who have a 50% chance of caring to be in employment, having employment rights for carers is a really good first step. As I previously said, this Bill will also help to get young carers into the workplace and support them as they come in.

I appreciate that I have touched on this already, and it is outwith the Minister’s portfolio, but it would definitely help if we lifted the number of hours that someone can work before they lose their carer’s allowance. At the moment, carers can earn only £132 per week before it is taken away. That is less than 14 hours on the minimum wage. Increasing that to 25 hours, ideally on the slightly higher living wage, would go so far towards helping carers to keep their jobs and support themselves. Put simply, if the Government want people to work, they should let them.

I know that many of my colleagues want to speak in favour of the Bill, for which I am grateful, so I would like to conclude my remarks by returning to Amanda—caring for her parents, now more a parent than a child, trying to hold everything together. We all in this place, through our constituency casework, our family and friends, know someone like Amanda; it may even be us in the future. Our constituents, too, will either be in this situation or know someone who is being stretched in every direction. We are passing this Bill’s Second Reading today for them. I commend the Bill to the House.