Keeping on top of carers’ rights

There are approximately five million people currently providing unpaid care in the UK. Karen Farrell, an employment lawyer at Dentons, looks at what rights carers are afforded in the workplace under the law

Karen Farell
Karen Farell

Karen Farrell is an Employment partner at Dentons.

What is a carer?

A carer is anyone that assists a family member, partner or friend who needs help because of a disability, illness, mental health problem or addiction and cannot cope without support.
Carers range from children to adults but, despite the significant numbers of carers across the UK, many do not recognise themselves as being in such a role.
For carers who are also working, it means juggling their caring responsibilities alongside employment. This has raised concerns that carers do not have sufficient protection or flexibility in terms of how their caring responsibilities might interact with their employment. Carers can bring qualities, skills and values to the workplace that other employees may lack and employers may miss out on talent if carers do not apply for or stay in jobs due to their caring responsibilities.


Can I take time off work to provide care?

In the UK, all employees have a legal right to take reasonable time off to deal with emergencies involving a dependant. The right is only to unpaid time off, although the employer can use their discretion to pay an employee in these circumstances.
Additionally, all employees are entitled to make a request for flexible working to change their working pattern or hours to suit their needs.


Does an employer need to consider a flexible working request?

If the individual making the request is an employee who has 26 weeks’ continuous employment at the date of the request, their employer must consider that request. An employee can only make a statutory request once a year, although informal requests can be made more frequently.

Employers must reasonably consider formal requests, and are normally required to make a decision within three months. While an employer has a relatively wide discretion whether to accept or refuse a request, there are only certain grounds upon which an employer is able to reject a formal flexible working application.


What is the government’s stance on carers?

Earlier this year, the UK Government launched a consultation on the provision of unpaid leave for carers. The government has recognised the particular challenges faced by carers in terms of balancing their career and caring responsibilities, which may warrant new employment rights. This is particularly the case for female carers who are disproportionately impacted, as women are the main providers of unpaid care.

Under the proposals, carers would be entitled to one week of unpaid leave each year to allow them to provide care flexibly during regular working hours. This right would be in addition to the existing entitlement to request a change to working arrangements outlined above. Organisations such as the Advisory, Consultation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) have also published their responses to the consultation, with the latter recommending 10 days of paid carers’ leave. The consultation closed on 3 August and we await the Government’s conclusion.

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