Sarah Newton is the MP for Truro and Falmouth and Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party. Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the BIS Select Committee, the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Stratford on Avon.
Strong families and free choice are two of the values Conservatives hold most dear. Both of them have a direct bearing on the increasingly important role of working carers.
The UK currently has 6.5 million unpaid carers, over half of which juggle care with work. An estimated 3.5 million more will take up caring roles in the next twenty five years. As our population ages, people want to manage ever more complex caring responsibilities, looking after parents and grandparents as well as children.
Unfortunately the struggle to balance employment and care responsibilities means many give up work or retire early, taking a serious hit to household earnings. A YouGov survey in 2011 found that 1 in 5 UK adults have had their work negatively affected by caring responsibilities, with 2.3 million giving up work to care. The cost to the taxpayer of carers feeling unable to carry on working is estimated at £1.3 billion. One survey of carers who’ve reduced hours or given up work to care found that 2 in 5 suffered an annual earnings reduction of £10,000-20,000 a year.
Money is not the measure of all worth of course, some voluntarily choose to earn less in order to concentrate on caring. Yet others would prefer not to have to make that choice. A Conservative approach is all about ensuring carers can exercise genuinely free choice when it comes to those big decisions about work and family – we don’t want to dictate what those choices should be.
That’s why in Government we’ve supported more choice for carers, introducing a universal right for carers to request flexible working from their employers. For parents we’ve brought in shared parental leave so that from April both mother and father will be able to share childcare during that crucial first year of their child’s life. We’re also acting on the cost of childcare, including tax-free childcare for the first time ever.
But we also need business to step up to the plate. In a survey of carers who’d given up employment to care, 25 percent blamed the difficulty of getting time off from their employer. Some worry that asking for more flexibility from employers might be bad for business, yet the evidence shows the opposite.
The peak age for caring is 50-64, when workers will be at their most highly skilled and experienced. The loss of this talent hits firms productivity and pushes up training costs. Businesses with flexible working policies also report increased staff retention, improved morale, fewer days lost to sickness and absence and better service delivery. Policies such as carer’s leave, remote working and compressed hours all have a valuable role to play in delivering that flexibility.
This agenda is closely linked to the debate about how we narrow the employment gap between men and women. Women still shoulder the lion’s share of care work and this accounts for much of the gap. As with the need to retain older workers, there’s a strong business case for action, with an emerging body of evidence to suggest that firms perform better when they are more gender diverse.
For example, a 2007 McKinsey study of 89 listed companies found that those with the highest level of gender diversity had operating returns of 11 percent, double the average of 6 percent.This is because the more diverse firms are recruiting and retaining from a bigger pool of talent.
Getting this right can help unlock future growth. Key growth sectors such as science, technology and engineering all suffer from large gender employment gaps and perennial skills shortages. If we’re going to meet that demand for high level skills, it’s crucial that women in STEM aren’t forced to choose between care and employment.
Local authorities also have a crucial role to play. Ensuring there is a range of high quality and affordable care providers for adults is as important as it is for children. The Care Act, coming into effect in April, confers a new duty on local authorities to provide ‘high quality, sustainable and diverse local markets in care’.
Conservative Councillors should embrace these new powers. As market shapers, local authorities should work closely with employers and care providers to develop services which empower people to balance care and employment. Local authorities are also well placed to get the message across to local businesses about the benefits of flexible working.
Finally, we need to make the case that Conservatives, as the party of economic security, are best placed to drive this agenda forward. As a carer you can’t worry about your work-life balance if you’re not in employment. And it’s much harder to have a conversation with your employer about more flexible working practices if the firm’s struggling to stay afloat.
It’s only the context of a strong and growing economy that businesses and employees will have the security they need to start having those conversations. That’s why only a party with a long-term economic plan can truly deliver for hard-working carers.