Time for a Carer’s Passport

Carers in the workplace should be provided with a 'carer’s passport' which would qualify them for financial support when they have to take time away from work to look after a family member and which would stay with them throughout their working lives.

Deborah Hargreaves, Friends Provident Foundation journalist fellow, is calling for the institution of feminine corporations to help redress gender imbalance in business, and says carers are getting a raw deal from government and that looking after older, disabled or seriously ill relatives should be treated much like maternity leave.

The idea of a carer’s passport has been championed by the charity, Carers UK which has received funding from the Department of Health and Social Care to investigate the possibilities.   According to the charity more than six hundred people a day leave their jobs to look after a sick, disabled or elderly relative.  It says more than two and a half million people have quit their jobs in the past five years to care for someone in their family whose age or level of illness or disability requires significant support while five million more are struggling to juggle work and care, hanging on to their jobs by their fingertips.

At the moment, an awful lot of caring is done on a shoestring by mothers, sisters and daughters who save local and national government a fortune, often to the detriment of their careers. Once upon a time the idea of a work-based system which recognised the value and need for time off to have children and the desire to return to work after giving birth was pretty outlandish. Now we have statutory maternity leave and pay and everyone takes it for granted as a normal and just part of working life. Why don’t we look at the inevitable need to care for relatives in the same way? Shouldn’t families come first and work second?
Deborah Hargreaves

Deborah interviewed a number of carers for the report including a woman who runs her own company in Wales.  She said, “Aged fifty-one, as a menopausal mother of two girls, both under ten and with all their parenting needs, my husband and I found ourselves in the ‘caring for all sandwich.’  We are both freelance arts practitioners who run our own businesses.  Our three remaining octogenarian parents were all in crisis.  My husbands’ parents, living an hour away and determined to stay in their own home, had ten hospital visits between them in the space of twelve weeks.  This involved respite care for my father-in-law in a home whose website looked like a hotel stay and was, in reality, an episode of Fawlty Towers and the Walking Dead.  My advice to the staff was: ‘Keep him in his room. Going downstairs to the day lounge will kill him.’  My mother, forty-five minutes away, was then hospitalised for two months and emerged frail and vulnerable. Everything had to stop to deal with this very real ‘care crisis sandwich.’”

The impact of taking an enforced career break to become a carer can be significant.  Another of Deborah’s interviewees said, “I was a charity chief exec, but I went self-employed to look after my elderly parents.  She went on, “As a woman in my fifties, once I’d done that for a couple of years, no-one would take me on again, I had given up all my seniority.”

The charity, Carers UK, has had more than 150 businesses join its Employers for Carers business forum and commit to helping people combine work and caring.  One is Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, which says, “We are working hard to retain a diverse and skilled workforce through our carers’ policies which includes paid carers leave and flexible working from day one of being a carer.”

This approach actually makes sound business sense. When skilled, trained, experienced people are lost to their employers because of the need to look after a relative the cost of replacing them can be enormous. Having a system in place to give carers the kind of flexibility they need will surely improve profitability in the long run. Unsurprisingly, being disadvantaged at work in this way affects women disproportionately. 73% of the people receiving Carer's Allowance are women.* One wonders how many of them have sacrificed promising careers to become eligible for it. Equally, how many older people are in homes because the £66.15 per week it pays isn’t sustainable? How many hundreds of millions do local authorities and individuals spend on residential homes which could be saved if it was easier for families to incorporate work and care? How many older or infirm people would be able to live and home and retain some independence if the implementation of a care passport system meant their family’s employers could be more flexible?
Deborah Hargreaves

Read the full report Women at Work in our library here

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