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Wendy Chamberlain MP holding up Right to Carers Leave sign

Benjamin Franklin is commonly quoted as saying that “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

This might be true, but I’d like to add that if there are two things we can almost be certain of, they are work and care. It is a rare person who doesn’t need to work in their lifetime. It’s equally rare for someone to go through life without needing or providing care. It is almost a universal experience.

The figures are staggering: Carers UK estimates that there are 5.7 million unpaid carers across the UK, whilst recent polling suggests half of the population are or have been impacted. With an ageing population those numbers will only grow. It is these millions of carers that we come together to recognise and thank during Carers Week.

However in thanking our unpaid carers, we must acknowledge the barriers which they face, particularly when it comes to employment. Balancing the responsibilities of caring for loved ones while doing our best at work can be an impossible task. There is progress however, and I am delighted that one step on that journey was completed last month, when my private member’s bill, the Carer’s Leave Act, became law.

This will provide unpaid carers with five days of unpaid leave, to be taken in half days and which will help the two million people juggling caring with working. It can be used for taking loved ones to appointments, organising social care, or any one of the infinite tasks which we do for those we love when they can’t do them themselves, like running errands or helping managing bills.  

During the passage of the bill, I had the privilege of meeting with unpaid carers from all over the country. I have been overwhelmed by the love and resilience that I have seen. But I have also heard about the exhaustion people feel when they are forced to use their own much needed holiday time to care rather than to rest; and the guilt experienced when employers make exceptional arrangements to allow for time off.

Simply, this new law immediately assists with the former, but more than anything what this new law does is start to normalise the experience of caring and working at the same time. To start those conversations in workplaces, about what it is to be a carer, and what organisations can do to be more supportive. Institutions need to be pushed to self-reflect and progress. As an employer I thought I was carer friendly, but it was not until I went through accreditation to become certified “Carer Positive” last year that I realised where I could improve.

As importantly, I hope conversations will start where more people see themselves as carers and seek out the support available to them. The polling which shows that 50% of the population are or have cared for someone, also found that 73% of people have never recognised themselves as a carer. This is an incredible gap of 19 million people, which must be tackled.

As for businesses, as a Liberal Democrat I am an optimist and I do believe that most employers want to do the best by their employees. But even for the most cynical businesses I can point to the benefits to your bottom line from retention and motivation amongst your workforce.

Carer friendly businesses will and must become standard, because caring whilst working is already the norm for so many people. This Carers Week, as we celebrate our carers and recent milestone Carer’s Leave Act, let’s also see this as a first step to something greater.

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