Government can reach the ‘Just about Managing’ by giving more help to working parents

17th February 2017 by Steve Herbert

You don’t need me to tell you that Chancellor Philip Hammond faces another delicate balancing act come the Spring Budget in March.  With the UK’s future still far from clear, the Chancellor must show leadership with his decisions to ensure that – in his own words – the economy is “match-fit” for whatever uncertainties lie ahead.

Much of the focus will of course be on big-ticket infrastructure spending, but such decisions should not overshadow the need to help some key demographics within the workforce.  The Prime Minister has also added pressure in this area by making it clear that a principal aim of her term in office is to better support those many families that are “just about managing”.  So the Chancellor will presumably be seeking solutions that provide targeted financial support which will help employees, employers, and also the nation’s rather poor productivity figures.

One such area is support for working parents.  For many years the Governments of various colours has been helping families pay for their childcare costs through childcare vouchers.  And in 2017 a new initiative in this space – Tax Free Childcare – will also become available.  This is a welcome if slightly overdue development, and will help many more working parents remain or re-join the workplace.

But does this support go far enough?  Although childcare is deeply important, it overlooks the role of other carers in the UK.  A Department for Work and Pensions document* issued last year estimated that as many as 3 million workers combine paid work with providing informal care to an ill or elderly family member or friend.  This grouping therefore represents a sizable slice of the UK’s working population.

Another report published last year ** highlighted the challenges that such workers face as a result of these dual demands:

These barriers are strikingly similar to those faced by working parents, and it is self-evident that they are costly and damaging to the employee, employer’s productivity, and therefore the nations finances also.  And with more and more of us living longer, the number of carers looks likely to only go one way for the foreseeable future.

Yet this issue remains much less obvious than that of working parents.  Jelf’s 2017 Employee Benefits Survey of more than 350 employers across England and Wales found that just 13% of employers believed that they are aware of all employees who double as carers in their non-work time.  This is deeply concerning, and it is therefore apparent that this working demographic needs much greater support and understanding from their employers.

In those rare cases where employers are aware of the situation it will be possible to signpost workers towards employee benefits offerings that may help.  Items such as Flexible Working, Employee Assistance Plans, and Financial Education can all go some way to supporting working carers.  So I would encourage more employers to look at this issue again.

Yet the bigger question is whether the Government recognise the reality of this situation, and are prepared to do something tangible to tackle it (perhaps an extension of Childcare Vouchers or Tax Free Childcare to include other carers?).  Certainly UK employers have indicated their support to just such an approach.  The Jelf survey found that almost 9 in 10 employers questioned (89%) wanted greater emphasis and encouragement from the Government towards the provision of “carer” employee benefits.

Such overt and overwhelming employer support from employers for such proposals is certainly worthy of note by the Chancellor and his team.  It will therefore be interesting to see if this topic appears on the Chancellor’s radar anytime soon.

Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Jelf Employee Benefits

*DWP:  Improving Lives:  The Work, Health and Disability Green Paper