The case for protecting caring responsibilities under the Equality Act
Published: 6 Nov 2020
By Mubeen Bhutta, Joint Head of Policy & Influencing at Working Families
Like many working parents across the country, I had a sinking feeling back in March watching the Prime Minister confirm that schools and childcare settings would be closed as part of efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. This sinking feeling only grew as the UK Government failed to offer any advice for how working parents should navigate the effective removal of all the childcare that they rely upon to do their jobs.
The demand for our Legal Advice Service quadrupled almost overnight, as parents scrambled to make changes in real time. Sadly, some parents were told by their employers that their job was no longer viable, and others felt that they had no choice but to immediately give up work. When the job retention scheme was announced, it was initially only available for jobs that were effectively suspended due to the pandemic. Following lobbying from Working Families and others, this was broadened to include the option of being placed on furlough for childcare reasons.
This measure undoubtedly helped many families to keep hold of their jobs and support their children as the school closure stretched into weeks and then months.
But the issue this exposed – that caring responsibilities are invisible in economic policymaking – has only seemed to intensify. Over the summer we saw calls to ‘return to the office’ even while schools remained closed, causing widespread consternation amongst parents. And this is notwithstanding the fact that employers have seen no difference in productivity with the shift to widespread homeworking.
More than six months on and the COVID pandemic is with us as much as ever. Our recent polling found that one in five working parents (20%) felt they had been treated less fairly at work due to their childcare responsibilities since the pandemic began. This equates to 2.6 million people across the UK. This discrimination was more pronounced for working mothers (22%) than working fathers (17%) and for those working part time (29%) rather than full time (15%).
The Prime Minister has suggested that if people cannot ‘go to work because they cannot get the childcare that they need, plainly they are impeded from going to work, and they must be defended and protected on that basis’. But there isn’t a legal way to protect working parents from discrimination. Some employers believe that the re-opening of schools in September means they can expect employees to immediately return to the working pattern they had in March. In reality, parents are managing new lockdown restrictions, staggered school times, gaps in wraparound childcare provision, and the ever-present risk of being required to isolate their family.
Adding caring responsibilities to the list of protected characteristics in equality legislation would enable working parents to be ‘defended and protected’ in the way that the UK Government has suggested.
We have seen children ‘popping up’ on countless virtual meetings across the country and interjecting in national broadcast media interviews. The realities of balancing work and care have never been more visible, and supporting working parents and carers has never been more vital.