Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s unpaid carers being left behind by new law, campaigners warn

Employees who are carers in other UK regions will now be able to take a week of unpaid leave

Carers in Northern Ireland are being "left behind" as a legal entitlement to unpaid leave comes into effect in the rest of the UK, campaigners have warned. PICTURE: YUI MOK/PA WIRE
Carers in Northern Ireland are being "left behind" as a legal entitlement to unpaid leave comes into effect in the rest of the UK, campaigners have warned. PICTURE: YUI MOK/PA WIRE (Yui Mok/Yui Mok/PA Wire)

Carers in Northern Ireland are being “left behind” as a legal entitlement to unpaid leave comes into effect in the rest of the UK, campaigners have warned.

Under the Carer’s Leave Act, which comes into force on Saturday in England, Wales and Scotland, employees who are carers can take up to a week of unpaid leave every 12 months – equating to five days for most people.

Workers are entitled to such leave to give or arrange care for a dependant – not necessarily a family member – who has a physical or mental illness or injury meaning they will need care for more than three months, who has a disability, or who needs care due to old age.

The new legislation will not cover Northern Ireland where employment rules are devolved to Stormont.

The Assembly has recently returned from a two-year suspension. Economy Minister Conor Murphy has signalled that he intends to bring forward an Employment Bill during the current mandate which will consider carer’s leave.

Carers NI has called on the Executive to go further than the Westminster legislation and to introduce paid leave for carers.

Craig Harrison, public affairs manager at the charity, said: “Many people with caring roles in Northern Ireland want and need to stay in work, but the lack of support to juggle employment with caring too often makes that impossible.

“Delivering new rights to carer’s leave is going to be a game-changer, not just in making life easier for carers, but in helping businesses to keep hold of valued staff, bringing in public revenue through tax receipts and reducing the number of carers who need to apply for support from the welfare system.”

He added: “Having no government in Stormont for two years has meant that local carers are now being left behind and missing out on a crucial new employment right that’s coming into force in GB.

“As a minimum we need to see parity for carers here, but there is also a significant moral, economic and financial case for the Economy Minister to go a step further and deliver paid carer’s leave in Northern Ireland.”

Pauline Holland lives in Belfast and cares for her son, who has autism and additional needs, while working full-time.

She said: “The fact that there are no legally enshrined workplace rights for unpaid carers in Northern Ireland is symptomatic of how little we are respected, recognised or valued by the government.

“What we do every day is exhausting. We’re saving Stormont billions of pounds a year and so surely a legal right to carer’s leave from work, to help us fulfil the numerous appointments and other pressures of caring, isn’t too much to ask?”

SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin said it was a “matter of deep regret that unpaid carers in Northern Ireland are being left behind by this new legislation”.

She added: “Every year, tens of thousands of people across Northern Ireland are forced to undertake an exhausting juggling act between their caring responsibilities and work, saving the public purse a huge amount of money each and every day in the process.

“We need to see change on this issue.

“I would urge the Economy Minister to catch up with Great Britain on this and make progress on legislation to provide carers with at least five days of paid carer’s leave.

“This should be the very least that unpaid carers here are able to expect and it is incumbent on the Executive to get on with the job.”

Natasha McClelland, from Coleraine, works full-time and cares for two children with multiple and severe disabilities. She said her employer voluntarily provides additional support for staff with caring roles.

She said: “This isn’t a legal right in Northern Ireland and it very much limits career progression, because I know that other workplaces don’t have the same policies or protections in place.”

A Department for the Economy spokesperson said: “The important benefits carers bring to society and the local economy cannot be overstated.

“It is vitally important, therefore, that those in employment with caring responsibilities are supported to balance those responsibilities with their work commitments so that they can remain within the workforce.

“Following a co-design and consultation process, the department intends to bring forward an employment rights Bill within the current Assembly mandate to ensure the employment law framework remains fit for purpose and operates effectively for both businesses and their employees.

“The right to carer’s leave and a revision to the current flexible working arrangements to remove the current qualifying period before a flexible working request can be made are two of the issues that will be considered in that context.”