James Sunderland backs a Bill that would create a new entitlement for employees to take up to a week of unpaid leave a year in order to provide or arrange care for a dependant with a long-term care need.
I rise to commend this excellent Bill. It is what I would call a no-brainer —an easy win. I will, if I may, make two quick points about the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). First, it must be a great thing to have a private Member’s Bill that is being adopted by the incumbent Government. That is great. The Bill is so good that we have taken it as our own, and I thank her so much for that.
More broadly, I wish to commend her—and perhaps to embarrass her—for the very objective way that she engages with the House, particularly with the veterans’ community and the all-party parliamentary group on veterans on which we serve. It is really great when the House comes together for this particular purpose. Fridays are always good for that. This is a really good Bill to get behind and support for the reasons that have been outlined.
I wish to make two points on the Bill itself. First, we know that it creates an entitlement for employees to be absent from work on unpaid leave to provide or arrange care for a dependant with a long-term care need. That is great. What I also like is that it will take its place in that suite of other protections that we have in law including: maternity; paternity; adoption; parental bereavement; and shared parental and parental leave. That is indicative of a Government who care. We are endorsing this Bill and have taken it as our own, with full credit to the hon. Member for North East Fife. The Bill also includes protection from dismissal or detriment because of having taken the leave, and it is good that that can be applied retrospectively if an employee has particular difficulty with an employer. That is a good thing.
I am very privileged to serve Bracknell. Bracknell Forest is a great place to work, live and play, and it has brilliant people. I am constantly meeting people in the constituency who care for others. I want to plug what we have locally. In 2021, 4.2% of Bracknell Forest residents reported providing up to 19 hours of unpaid care each week. We ignore these fantastic people—these heroes—at our peril. All of us are looking after somebody all the time, and it is amazing that we can provide a bit of extra assistance in law through this Bill.
I meet people in the Lexicon, in Bracknell town centre and on my travels, and I am blown away by the charity sector and the sense of community in Bracknell. It is completely unsurpassed by anywhere else I have been, and I am an old boy now, so I have been around a bit. Bracknell is a brilliant place with great people, and I thank everyone in Bracknell who is providing this care for others; it is so important.
I want to mention a couple of caveats with regard to the Bill. The hon. Member for North East Fife said that sufficient notice has to be given to employers. Actually, I would like to see a provision in the Bill that allows a carer to not be in the workplace at short notice if an unforeseen event takes place. It is difficult, because employers have to be given notice, but perhaps we could write further flexibility into the Bill so that, instead of these slots being bolted on to annual leave, they could be taken on an ad hoc basis. It equates to five full days or 10 half-days in one year. Why could we not write it into the Bill that, if something happens at short notice, the employee would be covered in law for half a day or a day at a time?
We cannot write a blank cheque for who the Bill applies to. We need to make sure that it relates to support for a nominated individual or individuals; it cannot just be a person living down the road or a neighbour. I want to see a bit more protection for employers in the Bill, so that the package of support is for named individuals who need that support.
Employment protections such as this will mean that more people who are carers can go back to the workplace. If they have this flexibility and extra support, they will go back into the workplace and want to be at work, because they know they can get away if they have to provide care for somebody. It will boost the UK economy. Our ageing population needs more support, and ultimately, this will mean that people who are caring for perhaps a parent or parents have the flexibility they need.
It is important that we do everything possible to entice people back into the workplace, and this support might help. We have 1.5 million job vacancies across the UK, and fewer people are in the workplace than were before the pandemic. In my constituency and in the south-east more broadly, we have so many job vacancies—employers are crying out for staff. It may be that, with this extra provision in law, people will be encouraged to go back into the workplace even if they are caring for other people. It is a no-brainer. Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife. Let us support the Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent speech. He has an absolute gift for bringing human experience to life, and listening to him is always great. Is there a risk that people applying for jobs may be prevented from getting that job or discriminated against because they say that they are carers? We perhaps need to look a little more at not requiring potential employees to declare that they are carers.
My hon. and gallant Friend is absolutely right to highlight that potential issue. The way I would read it, however—to go back to what the Minister said in the previous debate—is that reputation matters. For an employer, when an employee says that they have caring responsibilities, it shows loyalty. In my experience, it shows that the employee is more loyal, passionate and eager to do a good job when they are at work. If someone approached me for a job today and flexible working were part of their requirements, I would regard that as an asset. Part of the challenge is educating employers to understand that it is a benefit to have someone with that skillset in their workforce. It is, in my eyes, more important to be effective at work than just to clock in and out.