It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Paul Burstow on securing this debate and on his many years of intensive, dedicated work on these issues. Although I am the Minister responding to the debate, I do so with a degree of trepidation because there are probably few people who have a greater understanding or are able to speak with more eloquence about care and carers than him, particularly with his ministerial experience but also with his interest in the issue going back many years. Since leaving ministerial office, his interest has continued through his chairing of the commission on residential care—of course, the Demos report came out of that—and he continues to take up such issues at every opportunity. It is unsurprising that he will have a key role in speaking on care as the election approaches.
I am sure the care sector will be a key issue that is discussed in great detail during the election period because, as my right hon. Friend said, it has an impact on so many different parts of our lives. It is about quality of life for people as they age or, indeed, for people with disabilities who require care. It is also about the role of women in the workplace and how they can combine that role with their caring responsibilities. As he rightly pointed out, care is an issue for men, too, not only in terms of their own caring responsibilities—although the majority of caring responsibilities in our society still fall to women—but in terms of the economic and employment opportunities for men within these sectors.
In a short debate, it is difficult to do justice to every issue, but my right hon. Friend rightly recognises that this debate is part of an ongoing dialogue. He made the helpful point that this is not only a debate and dialogue to be had with the Department of Health. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills also has a crucial involvement, as indeed do many other Departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions and the Government Equalities Office, which is the other Department for which I wear a hat. The Government Equalities Office is hugely interested in these issues, and it is already working with other Departments on some of the thorny problems about how we can help carers who are in employment to continue working, if that is what they wish to do—and, as he said, many do—alongside their caring responsibilities.
My right hon. Friend clearly set out the care sector’s significant contribution to the economy. The sector brings in billions of pounds to the UK and creates millions of jobs, with mix of private provision and public and voluntary sector jobs. Care will become more salient as our population continues to age. I am sure he agrees that it is a cause for celebration that people are living longer and that medical advances mean that we are able to cure more diseases and prolong life, but, of course, that creates significant challenges on how we can age well and how we can have quality and dignity throughout longer lives, which will often mean that people work longer, particularly given the economics. We must recognise the important role of older people in our economy. Ros Altmann, whom the Government appointed as the champion for older workers, is doing a sterling job, and she will produce a report in the not-too-distant future setting out how we can better value the role that older people play within the work force. It is quite right that that is happening.
My right hon. Friend discussed the sandwich generation, which is a particularly resonant issue. That group of people—mainly women, but not exclusively—are feeling pressure from both sides. They have responsibilities to children or even grandchildren; equally, they have caring responsibilities for elderly parents or other relatives. Although a huge amount of love and joy comes from caring responsibilities, at the same time, the pressure of fulfilling them often also creates a huge amount of stress. Often carers must battle with public services to get what they need to provide those individuals with quality of life, while trying to hold down a full-time job. The pressures certainly mount up; carers are some of the most pressured people in our society.
In those circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising to hear the statistic that my right hon. Friend quoted: one in six carers quit work to care full-time. That is a huge loss to the economy. Some of those people wish to do so, which is absolutely fine, but when people are forced to do so, we lose the contribution that they could be making. As my right hon. Friend rightly says, the businesses and organisations for which they work suddenly have a gap in experience, knowledge and skills, which they must try to fill. In many cases, it takes significant time before a new person can fulfil that role in the same way. There is an economic opportunity cost.
My right hon. Friend is right that many employers now recognise some of those risks. There are many enlightened employers out there; I engage across my employment relations role with companies that recognise that equality in terms of gender, race, religion and sexuality is an important business issue in recruiting and retaining the right talent. They recognise that a more agile work force can not only help the business to respond to emerging challenges but give individual employees much more flexibility. That attracts a wider pool, which includes people with caring responsibilities. Many of those companies—often, but not exclusively, larger companies—are starting to see the business risks and huge potential advantages of getting it right and putting in place policies that allow people’s working lives to fit in with their responsibilities outside work.
My right hon. Friend is also right that as the trend of decreasing unemployment continues—it is still too high, particularly for young people, but it is certainly moving in the right direction, and its rise in the past few years has been a great success story—it places more pressure on employers trying to find the right people and the right mix of skills within their organisation, making it even more important for them to be able to hold on to the talented people that they have.
The Government clearly have a role to play in that. As I said, we engage with employers to encourage best practice on a regular basis, but we have also made legislative change. For example, as my right hon. Friend will know, last June, the right to request flexible working was extended to all employees. That will be helpful in changing views on flexible working, which had been stigmatised in some corners as being only for a particular group of people and as creating unhelpful divisions within workplaces. Instead, it is becoming much more the norm: the modern way of doing business is that, where flexibility is possible, it will be accepted by default. Clearly, there will sometimes be business reasons why an employer cannot agree to a flexible working request, and that is built into the system. That kind of change can help drive the difference that we need.
My right hon. Friend discussed the quality of the caring work force, which is hugely important. As he said, it is about who the elderly person sees coming in to support them. He said that some people see up to 50 different care workers in a year. That is clearly not a situation that any of us would wish in our older years, and we should not encourage it. Staff turnover is hugely important, and a range of things can be done to help address it.
My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the status of caring as a profession. Training and qualifications are one way to signpost that, which is why the Department of Health is supporting the social care sector through the social care work force programme, which focuses on improving quality, and introducing the care certificate in April this year for new health care assistants and social care support workers. Apprenticeships also have a role to play in ensuring that employers have proper standards and are training people appropriately.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the hugely relevant issue of the need for more men in the care sector. If there is a shortage of workers in a particular field, it makes sense to consider who is going into that line of work, in the exact same way that when considering the huge shortage of engineering skills that our country faces and how we can bridge that gap, we look at the fact that only 7% of engineers are women. Clearly, the biggest pool of people we are not currently tapping into is girls and young women, whom we must encourage to study science, technology, engineering and maths and to open their horizons, rather than being led by dated stereotypes about what girls can do.
Similarly, if we need to expand the number of care workers and there is a huge shortage of men in the care profession, the biggest pool available for expansion is boys and young men, and we need to get them to consider caring as a profession. Again, stereotyping is important, as are the messages we send children about the roles of men and women, and whether boys can be nurturing and caring and—yes, dare I say it?—play with dolls. We should see habits of care and nurture as being just as appropriate for boys and men as for girls and women. It is important, and it will help us plug the skills gap.
I want to address the national minimum wage, because it is hugely relevant to the care sector, perhaps unfortunately. In an ideal world, we would all want people to be paid significantly more than the national minimum wage, but the present economics of the sector mean that many care workers rely on the national minimum wage for wage protection. There have been a number of well-documented cases involving people not being paid what they are due, particularly in the care sector, which, as my right hon. Friend said, has traditionally been a low-wage sector.
The law is crystal clear. Care workers, like any other workers, are legally entitled to receive at least the national minimum wage. If they travel between care appointments, the time spent travelling is working time, so they must also be paid the national minimum wage then. If they must pay for their uniforms, any money deducted for that cannot count towards national minimum wage calculations; they must be paid the national minimum on top of that.
The law is absolutely clear. Many employers comply—that is fine, it is appropriate and it is what should happen—but some do not, and failure to pay is a serious issue. That is why there are tough consequences for employers who break the law. If anyone is concerned about whether they are being properly paid the national minimum wage, they should contact the pay and work rights helpline on 0800 917 2368. Every complaint will be investigated.