To coincide with last week’s Carers Week 2012, a summit on carers and employment has brought together the great and the good, pondering what we can do to stop thousands of people looking after disabled, sick or frail family members from dropping out of work.
Government policy on carers and employment is all over the place. On the one hand they realise that unpaid carers are a vital group who we need to keep in that role because otherwise it would cost the country a fortune, but on the other hand they want them to work. Keeping paying tax is a good thing, and many carers drop out of employment in their 50s – experienced people the economy cannot afford to lose.
So which is it to be? At the moment, policy helps neither those who stay in work nor those who don’t. For those who would like to stay in work there are the problems of negligible care packages from local authorities, sometimes unreliable care workers, and problems in finding the right quality of affordable replacement care. You may end up late for work, or having to dash away or take time off frequently- not something every employer is happy with. It’s no wonder that many people think, you know what, I’ll just stop work. But then you’re faced with low income, isolation and the health and wellbeing impact that caring for someone 24 hours a day, seven days a week can have.
We’ve got to start thinking about this in the same way as we did 30 or more years ago when realised that we couldn’t afford to lose young women from the workforce just because they had babies. Maternity leave means you can take time off and you have rights to come back to work, and protection against discrimination when you are pregnant and when you return. Childcare vouchers mean you are more able to pay for the nursery place or childminder you need, because otherwise coming back would be unaffordable. Family allowance (at least till the Tories started messing with it) indicated that it is understood that having children costs, but you know what, children are good things and the country needs them. None of these measures work perfectly, but the message is general clear. We need women in the workforce.
So why can’t we do the same kinds of things for carers? Why can’t we have protected carer leave – this might mean reduced hours for some or a period of time away for others – for people who find themselves in the position of having a family member who needs this kind of support? Often carers drop out of employment when a major event happens – perhaps someone has a stroke or an accident – and they never get back in, so having this kind of supported buffer zone might help. Why can’t we have care vouchers on the same basis as childcare vouchers to make funding replacement care easier and more affordable?
Flexible working helps, and the government does intend to increase this so that anyone can request it, normalising this and making it feel less awkward to ask for. This should be a great help if it works well.
Employers have a responsibility to treat carers positively. It’s in their interests to do so and more need to take this seriously.
However, the lessons in what the government could do to help are not far away – we need look no further than the measures which are helping thousands of parents balance their lives between work and family responsibilities – not easy, but better with these than without them. Let’s stop taking advantage of carers and support them to stay in employment, if they choose to, by giving them kinds of help we know can work.
Article by Moira Fraser – Director of Policy and Research at Carers Trust
Nearest tube – Elephant & Castle underground station (Northern and Bakerloo lines).
Nearest Railway Station – Elephant & Castle
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