COVID-19: Flexible Working
Flexible working patterns can be mutually beneficial to the employer and the employee, helping attract and retain a workforce, increasing productivity and reducing costs.
As we continue to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses which have previously never adopted flexible working have been forced to adopt new arrangements. This has included remote working, using new technology for work, or finding new ways of working. I hope that this exposure will have enabled employers to see first hand the benefits of flexible working, and I imagine that this could have a significant effect on working arrangements in the future post-Coronavirus.
Separate to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, legally, at present, all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service with their employer have the right to request flexible working. The Government will be consulting in the longer term on making flexible working the default unless employers have good reasons not to, as committed to in 2019 Conservative Party election manifesto, which covers a range of working arrangements around the time, place and hours of work, including part-time working, flexi-time, or compressed hours, not just working from home. I understand this consultation will be published later this year, with legislation to follow when Parliamentary time allows. I am sure you will agree this is a welcome step and demonstrates the Government’s desire to deliver on our manifesto commitment to protect and enhance workers’ rights.
Ministers have also consulted on proposals for large employers (with over 250 employees) to publish their parental leave and pay and flexible working policies, and to advertise jobs as open to flexible working. I understand that they are now considering the next steps.
The current arrangements provide that all employees meeting the service requirement have the legal right to request flexible working, not just parents and carers, by making a statutory application. Options for a request include working from home, job sharing, working part time or full time over fewer days, flexi-time, annualised working hours, staggered hours compared with colleagues and progressing through a phased retirement.
Once an application has been made the employer has three months to decide, or longer if by agreement with the employee. Agreement with the request will lead to a change in the employee’s contract, whereas in the event of refusal the employer must write to the employee setting out a legitimate business reason for the refusal. In the event of a dispute the employee may have recourse to an employment tribunal.
Whilst, in principle, I am in favour of allowing employees the right to work from home for part of the week, there are significant benefits to be gained from working in the office. For example, it is more diffuclt to support and develop people – especially younger workers – via Zoom. While people have been asked to work from home where they can during the pandemic, I understand there are no plans to make this permanent – or to introduce a legal right to work from home.
I understand Tulip Siddiq MP introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill on flexible working. I am encouraged by the steps that the Government is taking to consult on future working arrangements and as such I feel it is premature to support a Bill before responses to the consultation are analysed and the Government has put forward its policy proposals.
Pensioners in Poverty Campaign: Pension Credit
I am committed to ensuring that older people receive the support they are entitled to, so they can enjoy dignity and security in their retirement. That is why I am glad the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) engages with people who may be eligible for benefits at pivotal moments in their lives, such as when they claim State Pension or report a change in their circumstances.
Speaking with colleagues at the DWP, they assure me that they use a wide range of channels to communicate information about benefits to potential customers, including gov.uk, leaflets and telephone. DWP staff in Pension Centres and Jobcentres, including visiting officers, are able to provide help and advice about entitlement to benefits, as are Local Authority staff who administer Housing Benefit. People can also use the Pension Credit calculator (https://www.gov.uk/pension-credit-calculator) to check if they are likely to be eligible and get an estimate of what they may receive. People wishing to claim Pension Credit can call 0800 99 1234 or can claim online.
In February 2020, the DWP launched a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of Pension Credit. The aim of the campaign was to encourage those over State Pension age to check whether they are eligible. It made clear that having savings, a pension or owning a home are not automatic barriers to receiving Pension Credit, as well as explaining that even a small award of Pension Credit can provide access to a range of other benefits such as help with rent, council tax reduction schemes and heating costs.
I am also aware that letters to 11 million pensioners about increases in the State Pension now include an accompanying leaflet with specific information about Pension Credit.
One of the best ways to reach eligible customers is through their community, which is why the DWP developed the Pension Credit 'toolkit' as an online resource for people in order to encourage take-up. It includes material for this year’s awareness campaign, as well as resources and suggestions to assist agencies and welfare rights organisations to encourage Pension Credit take-up and help pensioners apply for Pension Credit. It can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/pension-credit-toolkit.
I hope this reassures you of the efforts being made to encourage people to find out if they are eligible for Pension Credit, but I will continue to engage with the DWP and follow this issue closely.
Protecting Retail Workers
It is utterly reprehensible that anyone working in the retail sector should suffer abuse from members of the public. They have worked bravely and tirelessly during the Covid-19 pandemic to look after our loved ones and keep our economy running. They deserve our support. This is an issue that I take incredibly seriously, and I am deeply concerned by cases of violence on the high street, particularly in retail premises. Those who work on the high street should be able to go about their work without fear of abuse and intimidation. Quite simply, retailers should not see abuse as part of the job.
It was a positive step forward when Ministers announced a call for evidence to provide a greater understanding of the scale of the issue.
In response to the call for evidence, the Government has recognised that there are issues that need to be dealt with, and I am encouraged by the Government's robust response. This includes working with the National Retail Crime Steering Group (NRCSG) on a best practice guide to support staff in reporting these crimes, strengthening and making full use of existing laws, and improving data sharing between businesses and the police.
I do appreciate the strength of feeling behind the calls for the Government to legislate in this area through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. However, I do not believe such a change is necessary. It is already the case that the Sentencing Council has set out guidelines in which it specifically refers to people such as retail workers in an important public service position, which means that the courts should be increasing sentences and finding aggravating factors where shop workers have been the victims of crime.
More broadly, I understand that police demand is changing and becoming increasingly complex and it is the first priority of government to protect the public. As such, the Government has a key responsibility to ensure Police and Crime Commissioners have the necessary funding to keep communities safe.
The clear commitment made by the Prime Minister to put more officers back on our streets is an important step forward. Boris Johnson made it clear in his first speech on the steps of Downing Street that making our streets safer is a key priority. You may be pleased to know that nearly 9000 police officers have been recruited since the Government launched its 20,000 new officers by March 2023 recruitment drive.
I recognise that the violence and abuse that shop workers can face can have a significant impact, not only physically but mentally and emotionally, and we must ensure that all the action being taken enable shop workers to feel safer.
Reforms to Statutory Sick Pay
SSP provides financial support to an employee when they are off work sick. Those on low pay may be able to receive additional help through the welfare system, depending on their personal circumstances. You may be aware that my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions have run a consultation containing a number of proposals aiming to reduce ill health-related job loss and support disabled people and those with health conditions to stay in and thrive in work. This includes proposals to reform SSP. A response to the consultation will be published in due course and I look forward to reading this. I would add that SSP is the legal minimum and many employees do receive more than this.
Thank you for making me aware of Mind's important campaign on reforming SSP. As I mentioned, DWP Ministers are exploring reforms to ensure SSP supports employees who need it. Proposals include allowing the system to better accommodate phased returns, widening eligibility for SSP to those on the lowest incomes, and introducing measures to increase compliance. I eagerly await the Government’s response.
SSP is now payable from the first day of sickness absence (as opposed to day four) where an individual is sick, self-isolating or shielding due to COVID-19. Eligibility has also been extended to those told to self-isolate due to a member of a household (including linked or extended household) displaying symptoms, or testing positive for COVID19, having been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, or before being admitted to hospital prior to planned or elective surgery. These measures are in place to ensure that everyone is supported to do the right thing.
It is important to add that SSP is only one form of the wider support offer to support people in times of need. Where an employee’s income is reduced while off sick and they require further financial support, they may be able to claim Universal Credit, as well as the new style Employment and Support Allowance.
£20 Uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits
As I am sure you are aware, this extra support was announced by the Chancellor as a temporary measure in March 2020 to support those facing the most financial disruption as a result of the public health emergency. The Government has also introduced measures such as mortgage holidays, additional support for renters and has worked with energy suppliers to protect those struggling with energy bills to support those who need it most.
It is right that we wait for more clarity on the national economic and social picture before assessing the best way to support low income families moving forward. The uplift is one of a range of measures which have been put in place to support jobs and livelihoods as part of a £280 billion package.
As I understand the situation, the statutory annual review of benefits does not include the need for a decision on the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits. Under the existing arrangements, the uplifts remain in place until the end of March. I am assured, however, that the Government will continue to assess how best to support low-income families in the economic and health context, and that decisions on the future of the uplift will be made later in 2021.
I know my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions remain focused on supporting people by helping them get back into work through the Government’s Plan for Jobs. This includes launching the Kickstart Scheme, which is backed by a £2 billion fund to create hundreds of thousands of new, fully funded jobs for young people.
I will, however, pass the concerns you have raised with me on to ministers as they consider future policy.
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