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This Carers Week, let's help unpaid carers back into employment

Hear from our CEO, Kirsty McHugh, as she reflects on this year's Carers Week and what we can do to help unpaid carers get back into work. 

There’s been no shortage of hand-wringing about the UK’s workforce shortage. Jeremy Hunt has posed as yet another “back-to-work” Chancellor who has talked at length about tackling the twin challenges of the burgeoning out-of-work benefit bill and business’s struggle to recruit for post-pandemic vacancies.

These desires are not new of course. Since 1997 we have had one back-to-work scheme after another, variously targeted at different cohorts of the potential labour market. However, what is marked is that one large group of people have been completely ignored by successive governments – unpaid family carers.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Unpaid family carers are routinely ignored by public policy, despite there being at least five million of them in the UK. As the UK infrastructure body for the nation’s network of local carer organisations, who collectively support around one million people every year, we know that many unpaid carers would love paid employment. However, instead, those who do want to enter the jobs market are being pushed in the other direction.

Our research shows that 41% of all unpaid carers have had to give up work altogether because of their caring role, while a further 23% have cut back on hours. That’s a large cohort of people who have been forced out of paid employment in order to prop up a crumbling social care system that remains starved of investment and reform.

Shockingly, as many as one million of these unpaid carers in the UK are children aged 17 or under. The implications of their caring role on future employment prospects is stark. New research by University College London, with Carers Trust, shows young people who care for 35 hours or more per week are 86% less likely to get a degree than their peers. Those aged over 23 who care for the same amount of time were 46% less likely to enter employment than non-carers.

The result is not only missed opportunity, but poverty, with half of unpaid carers telling us they are worried about being able to buy the basics and 20% reporting using a foodbank. Some, but not all, unpaid carers qualify for Carer’s Allowance – a benefit which is well past its sell by date. Not only is it the lowest benefit of its kind, it can actively discourage people from working because of its tough eligibility criteria. This includes locking out any claimant  earning more than £139 per week.

Sat amidst this wasted potential are the numbers. The cost to the economy of unpaid carers’ withdrawal from the labour market is estimated at around £1.3bn annually, whilst the potential gain of enabling them to work has been calculated as £5.3bn per year.

So what can be done? Our answer is a great deal.

Recent projects from Carers Trust have shed light on what happens when carers are supported to get back into paid employment. Our Working for Carers scheme has helped 1,266 London unpaid carers and former carers to move into, or closer to, employment. Funded by the European Social Fund and The National Lottery Community Fund, it offered free, tailored support which included help with job-hunting, interviews and access to training opportunities. In all, 72% reported being in sustained work after leaving the project.

Employers also can play a positive role. The Going Forward Into Employment Scheme has seen the Civil Service partner with Carers Trust to recruit unpaid carers into roles across government departments. Carers Week will include a webinar for local carer organisations and carers themselves who want to learn more about the partnership.

There are some simple lessons learned. 

First, is that many carers want to work, but go nowhere near the Job Centre. We therefore need to put first line support in where unpaid carers go - including our network of dedicated local carer centres. Secondly, for those who do go to the Job Centre, there needs to be a dedicated unpaid carer lead for them to engage with. Third, we need more dedicated routeways into employment, including flexible apprenticeship structures. Next, we need fundamental reform of Carer’s Allowance. It is broken. And finally, we need more employer leadership. The current Carer’s Leave Bill is an important step forward as it will give unpaid carers the right to five days leave. However, if employers are serious about filling vacancies, they need to look again at this group of potential workers.

Our final ask is the biggest one – fix social care. Unpaid carers will always find it difficult to leave the cared for person without there being replacement care. The current picture is a postcode lottery of support. In 2023, that’s just not good enough.

So, as Carers Week dawns once more, we have an ask – that the current labour market shortages make political parties of all colours think again about the support that is provided to unpaid family carers. This shouldn’t be about forcing family carers back into the labour market, but it is about giving choice and helping both them and the UK generally fulfil its potential.


Kirsty McHugh

CEO, Carers Trust


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