Opinion

Unpaid carers need a legal right to unpaid leave to support their wellbeing

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Unpaid carers are the backbone of our society. It is a cliché but it is true. There are an estimated 2.3 million people providing care to their family, friends and neighbours around the country.


According to the 2011 census 3,313 of them are living in my constituency in North East Fife – although we know that figure is likely to be much higher now.

As our population ages, and as more people stay in work for longer, more and more people are balancing work and care. This can take all sorts of forms. It can mean the physical care of washing, dressing and feeding.

But it can also mean giving day-to-day support with things we don’t necessarily think of as caring. It can be driving your next-door neighbour to chemotherapy appointments, or accompanying an elderly parent to a memory assessment. It can simply be trying to coordinate all of these competing demands.

Wendy Chamberlain MP: "Happy employees who feel supported in all that they do are best placed to thrive at work and at home."

Carers are struggling to get the balance right

At the moment support for employees with caring responsibilities is a lottery. There are lots of good employers who have policies in place. In Scotland there is a Carer Positive scheme which accredits businesses with good working practices – a process I am going through at the moment for my own office. But there are still lots of employers out there who do not have those policies in place, which leaves carers using up their own holiday time, risking burn out, and far too often struggling to get the balance right.

Happy employees who feel supported in all that they do are best placed to thrive at work and at home. I firmly believe this, which is why I am so pleased to support the British Safety Council’s Keep Thriving campaign, for which I recently hosted an event to promote in Parliament. It was wonderful to be able to meet with employers who already see the benefits of maximising workplace wellbeing. Because let’s face it, this isn’t just about doing the right thing, but about maximising motivation and employee retention.

There are an estimated 2.3 million people providing care to their family, friends and neighbours around the country. Photograph: iStock

I’ve been thinking a lot about one particular part of the Keep Thriving manifesto as a part of my work representing carers in Parliament. The pledge to “make wellbeing an integral part of their culture and the way that [businesses] operate, ensuring policies, practices and risks are assessed with preventive measures in place”. It seems to me that making wellbeing for carers an integral part of a business’s culture, would require the business to have policies in place to help carers balance their work and caring responsibilities.

Carer’s Leave Bill would provide a day one right to take unpaid leave from work

This is why I am so pleased to be introducing the flagship Carer’s Leave Bill to Parliament as a Private Member’s Bill. The Bill is intended to provide statutory day one rights to carers to take time off work. This time off can be taken in half day chunks, to allow the time to be used as flexibly as possible. Crucially, employers will not be able to deny the leave, although there are some circumstances in which they can ask for it to be postponed.

I’ve said already that many employers have policies in place right now – and some will already by offering paid leave which this Bill doesn’t provide for. Indeed, that is the gold standard, something which I hope employees will aim for and which in due course we can look to legislate for. However, the most important thing is to get the Bill on the statute books, and in my conversations with employers and third-party organisations, I know we don’t have full consensus for paid leave yet (and just as significantly, many are not yet prepared for the data requirements which come with holding a third party’s medical information!).

Carer’s Leave Bill would benefit around 2.3 million working carers

It is wonderful that so many employers are embracing the Bill and I look forward to working with them in the future. But as I take this Bill through Parliament, it is the carers I will be thinking of. It is staggering to think that this Bill will give an estimated 2.3 million people employment rights overnight. And I really hope that it will encourage more conversations between employers and their employees about caring and how people can best manage it.

During Parliament’s Summer recess, I met employers and carers from around my constituency to hear what the Bill will mean for them. MPs return in September when the Bill will get its second reading. I am confident that this is a common sense measure which will gain cross-party support and ultimately become law. Because we know it is the right thing for businesses and for carers to get it passed.

Wendy Chamberlain MP is Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife and Liberal Democrat Chief Whip and Spokesperson for Work and Pensions

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