Ask the panel

November 17, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am a full-time lecturer. My father recently had a stroke and, although he has been discharged from hospital, he needs considerable assistance. Although I have some flexibility in my job, I find that I need to adjust my hours so that I can take him to hospital appointments. My employers are reluctant to grant this, even though I do not think it will affect my job. I find the situation irritating because my partner, who takes primary responsibility for our two young children, is allowed considerable flexibility when emergencies arise with the children. Are there two rules - one for women caring for small children, one for men caring for relatives?

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "In short, yes, there are two pieces of legislation that apply to employees who are parents of young children and employees with ongoing caring responsibilities for adults. But neither applies just to men or just to women.

"Under the Employment Relations Act, all employees have the right to take a reasonable amount of time off work to deal with an emergency that affects their dependants or to make longer term arrangements for them. At present, only a child, spouse or parent, or other person who lives in the same household as the employee or somebody who reasonably relies on the employee for assistance is considered a dependant.

"The Work and Families Act 2006 aims to extend the right to request flexible working (which exists for parents of children under six or disabled children under 18) to carers of adults from April 6, 2007. The responses to consultation on this provision are being considered. But it is expected that employees with caring responsibilities for older people will have the right to request flexible working, such as a change to hours, working from home and flexitime. These changes will require employers to consider such requests seriously and reject them only for good business reasons, and may allow you the flexibility to care for your father."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "There are two pieces of legislation that are relevant here. One is the right to request flexible working, which applies to parents of children under the age of six (or 18 if the child is disabled), and the other is the time off for dependants legislation. Both are part of the Employment Relations Act and both apply to men and to women. It sounds as if your partner is relying on the time off for dependants legislation, which can be used in cases of unexpected emergencies relating to a dependant, such as illness of a child. A dependant is defined as a husband, wife, child or parent, or anyone living in your household as a member of the family. If your father is living with you, then this legislation could apply.

"However, you must be aware that it can be argued that hospital appointments are not emergencies if they are pre-booked. Further, employers don't have to give staff paid time off under this legislation.

"In terms of flexible working, there is no legislation at the moment that would cover your situation but the right to request flexible working for carers of adults (expected to be introduced through the Work and Families Act) may help your case."

* Our University and College Union panellist adds: "Trade unions and Ucea have agreed some helpful guidance for higher education employers on work-life balance. Some employers have reached local agreements with the UCU on flexible working. It would be worth checking if there is a local agreement at your institution. If there isn't, you should ask your UCU branch or association to meet with management and draw one up."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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