Unpaid Care and Employment: The Right to Carer’s Leave Bill is a good start but we need to go further
Care and paid employment
The provision of unpaid care – caring for a family member, friend or neighbour due to long-term health problems, disability or needs related to old age (Kelly and Kenny, 2018) – can have consequences for people’s employment. Carers may need to reduce their working hours to provide care, or give up employment entirely (Carers UK, n.d.; Yeandle and Buckner, 2017), which in turn may negatively impact their earnings through reducing their income or limiting opportunities. Balancing work and care may also have other negative consequences, such as poor mental and physical wellbeing due to experiencing stress, burnout and exhaustion (Carers UK, 2019).
Exploring the changes in care and employment patterns is important to enable us to identify how changes could be made to help carers balance their caring responsibilities with employment. It is important to address this now, more than ever, due to the effects of the cost-of-living crisis which is disproportionately affecting carers, causing increasing strain on their financial situation (Carers UK, n.d. b). This short commentary outlines the statistics relating to carers in employment and discusses the policy in place to support working carers – including the new Right to Carers Leave Bill that is currently making its way through the UK Parliament. I argue, in agreement with Carers UK (2019), for the introduction of annual Paid Carers Leave of up to ten days per year, to support working carers to balance their multiple roles.
The amount and intensity of unpaid care
Results from the 2001 and 2011 Censuses show that the overall number of carers increased by 600,000 between 2001 and 2011, with the highest increase being amongst those providing at least 50 hours of care per week (ONS, 2013). The recent release of the 2021 data on unpaid carers by the Office for National Statistics (2023), shows that the overall proportion of the population who are unpaid carers has actually decreased slightly, by approximately 2.4% between 2011 and 2021. However, the proportion of the population providing the highest intensity of care (50 or more hours per week) has increased slightly from 2.7% to 2.8%. These figures suggest that many people across England and Wales are providing many hours of care per week, which may affect their ability to participate in employment. The most unpaid care is provided in the North East of England and the least is provided in London at 10.1% compared to and 7.8% respectively. More unpaid care is also provided in the most deprived areas of the UK compared to the least deprived areas, at 10.1% compared to 8.1% (ONS, 2023, b). These findings suggest that consideration should be given to understanding spatial inequalities and what action can be implemented to reduce these inequalities.
Carers in Employment
According to Carers UK (n.d. b), the number of people in employment who provided unpaid care had increased to more than seven million in 2020, rising faster than the total number of carers (Carers UK, 2019). Carers UK (n.d. b) also found that on average 600 people leave employment every day because of their caring role. Whilst there has been some effort to try and improve experiences for employed unpaid carers through policy, it is debatable as to how beneficial this has been.
The Care Act 2014 saw the introduction of the ‘Right to Request Flexible Working’, in which an employee has the statutory right to request flexible working hours from their employer (Department of Health & Social Care, 2016). To be eligible, however, you must have been working for the same employer for at least 26 weeks (Gov.uk, n.d.), and the employer may also refuse the request if they have a good ‘business reason’ (Carers UK, n.d. b).
Right to Carers Leave Bill
Liberal Democrat MP Wendy Chamberlain has recently pushed for the ‘Right to Carers Leave’, an amendment to the Employment Rights Act 1996. The amendment will give carers statutory entitlement to at least one week of carer’s leave each year to provide care for a dependent with a long-term care need (House of Commons, 2022), and could affect two million employees (UK Parliament, 2023, b). This bill received government support in 2022 (Carers UK, n.d. b), and officially passed its second reading in the House of Lords on the 3rd of March 2023. The Bill is currently in the committee stage, where amendments can be made (UK Parliament, 2023). This is a positive step forward in the progress of the Bill, which appears to have strong support from the members of the House of Lords (Carers UK, 2023). The Bill will benefit carers as it may help increase their ability to balance their job as well as their caring responsibilities. This in turn is likely to help their finances in the short and long term. It also means employers will be increasingly considering the needs of unpaid carers, and introduces a carer-related policy for the first time, which will hopefully make it easier to introduce further policy changes in the future, such as paid leave (Carers UK, n.d. b).
The Right to Carer’s Leave Bill, however, only scratches the surface on what needs to be done. For example, it does not offer any financial aid to carers if they take any Carer’s Leave, meaning it will not be accessible to all. Some carers may not be able to afford to take time off work unpaid, especially those who are in challenging financial circumstances. This suggests that it may disproportionately benefit those who are more well-off in society, potentially having the unintended consequence of increasing inequalities between carers. We may start to see these effects across space, for example, Local Authorities with higher levels of deprivation may not see the same benefits as the less deprived Local Authorities. If this is the case, further effort needs to be made to support the needs of all carers, and policy needs to be implemented that ensures inequalities are reduced, rather than widened.
The impact of Carers UK
The effort and impact of the voluntary sector should not be ignored. Charities such as Carers UK have actively worked with unpaid carers to campaign for their rights. Between 2002 and 2007 they created the Action for Carers Employment project. During this time, they created an Employers for Carers group and put pressure on the government to respond to working carers needs (Kröger and Yeandle, 2013). The Employers for Carers group is a multi-sector forum that provides specialist knowledge and advice to employers in order to help them support their caring employees (Employers for Carers, n.d.). Arguably, the voluntary sector is doing just as much as the government and Local Authorities, if not more, when it comes to improving the employment rights and opportunities of carers. The support provided by voluntary sector organisations such as these is accessible and beneficial to both employers and employees and have been deemed very useful by their users. Continued involvement from both the public and voluntary sector will be necessary in ensuring carers rights are respected, and that working carers are supported.
The increasing number of unpaid carers who are balancing their caring responsibilities with paid employment calls for further policy intervention to help them balance their multiple roles. This is particularly important in the current climate, with the cost-of-living crisis weighing heavy on the shoulders of many unpaid carers who face additional costs (Carers UK, n.d. b).
The limited policy in place to benefit working carers such as the Right to Request Flexible Working, whilst positive, is inadequate. It is restrictive, only applying to employees who have worked for the same employer for six months and may yet still be rejected. The new piece of legislation that is currently in the process of being implemented – the Right to Carer’s Leave – is also too limited, and is only a small step in the right direction in improving carers rights. I agree with Carers UK (2019), who argue for the implementation of annual paid care leave of at least five to ten days. This would allow carers to feel more secure in their job, as they are able to take a period of time off work to provide care for a dependent without the fear of losing their job or having to go without an income during this period. Not only could this benefit unpaid carers themselves, but also the economy as Carers UK (2019) estimates that introducing paid care leave could save the UK economy around £3.5 billion a year.
Christie’s PhD research focuses on the characteristics and experiences of carers in the UK. She is be exploring how social factors impact people’s experiences of providing care, and how these vary over space and time. Christie is working in collaboration with Carers UK, using their own collected data alongside census data between 2001 – 2021.
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