Marking Carers Rights Day in Scotland

This blog was written jointly by Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser at the CIPD in Scotland, and Paul Traynor, Head of External Affairs at Carers Trust Scotland 

25 November 2021 marks the annual Carers Rights Day. Its purpose is to help unpaid carers understand their rights and direct them to the help and support that they are entitled to. This year, as we slowly emerge from the pandemic, it is more important than ever. Because while the pandemic impacted the lives of all of us, it has also exacerbated existing inequalities. 

Tens of thousands of unpaid carers across Scotland have to balance their work commitments with their caring responsibilities. COVID-19 added further concerns about the wellbeing of those being cared for, in addition to job security concerns and upheaval in unpaid carers’ own working lives. Additional findings from the CIPD’s Working Lives Scotland 2021 report provide a worrying insight into the experiences of workers with caring responsibilities. 

The survey shows that employees who have caring responsibilities for an adult report their mental health as worse (43% good) than those without any caring responsibilities (55% good). This also means that unpaid carers are more likely to report presenteeism – going to work despite not feeling well enough to do so. Over half (54%) of those with adult caring responsibilities and 42% of those with child caring responsibilities say they have worked despite not feeling well enough to do so. This compares with 30% for those without any caring responsibilities. 

Employees with caring responsibilities are also more likely to say they feel under excessive pressure at work – 32% of workers with adult caring responsibilities say they feel like this always or often. And it is their caring responsibilities that have an impact here. Our survey shows that 16% of those caring for adult relatives say they find it difficult to do their job properly due to commitments outside of work. 

The one area where the pandemic has made a real difference is in the number of employees and employers who are supportive of some kind of flexible working. This is incredibly important for unpaid carers, who need to fit their careers around caring responsibilities. All too often this involves reducing hours worked – indeed, our survey shows 16% of those with adult caring responsibilities have used reduced hours, compared with only 6% of those with no caring responsibilities – but access to other forms of flexibility can unlock employment opportunities. 

Of course, it is crucial to emphasise that this does not simply mean working from home, but also things like flexi-time, compressed hours or job sharing, which can suit some unpaid carers better. While we see an increase in the proportion of employees who are or can work from home, Working Lives Scotland 2021 shows that there are persistent gaps in the availability of other flexible working forms. Employers have an opportunity to step up here. 

In September the UK Government announced that it would introduce an extra week of unpaid leave for unpaid carers, and they accepted Carers Trust’s recommendation that this can be taken flexibly. This will help many working carers with the challenges they can face balancing work and caring, as well as those unpaid carers looking for work. However, the UK Government could go a step further and introduce paid leave for unpaid carers. Working carers welcome not having to use their annual leave allowance to provide unpaid care, but having to take time off without pay is galling, given the additional financial challenges and costs that so many have providing unpaid care to someone with care needs. This would also help retain unpaid carers within the workforce, and employers who offer enhanced measures are more attractive for unpaid carers.

It has been encouraging to see the Scottish Parliament show commitment to supporting unpaid carers. Legislation passed unanimously just last month will see the Carer’s Allowance Supplement double for the winter 2021 payment, benefiting over 91,000 unpaid carers across Scotland. But this is only a temporary step and only benefits a small proportion of the estimated 1.1 million unpaid carers in Scotland. The devolution of disability and carer benefits means the Scottish Government will have the power to be bolder. 

Designing these benefits, including Scottish Carer’s Assistance (to replace Carer’s Allowance), is an incredibly complex and lengthy process that everyone wants to get right. Both the CIPD and Carers Trust Scotland welcome the opportunity to provide informed views from our stakeholders on how Carer’s Allowance should be reformed in the Scottish Government’s consultation on Scottish Carer’s Assistance, expected to launch over the winter. 

One of the areas we support is the scrapping of the so-called full-time study rule, which disqualifies anyone studying for longer than 21h per week from receiving Carer’s Allowance. This disincentivises unpaid carers wishing to develop their skills and progress in their careers. Additional findings from Carers Trust Scotland’s The Student Carer Experience in Scotland 2020 report found that finance was considered as a major challenge for student carers. Three quarters of student carers surveyed said that money and budgeting were extremely challenging and not being eligible for Carer’s Allowance while continuing to care unpaid for the required 35 hours per week is unjust. Considering the importance of lifelong learning to our future prosperity, we should do all we can to remove any barriers to accessing skills development. 

The considerable challenges unpaid carers face predate the pandemic. But the last 20 months exacerbated them, with additional concerns around health and wellbeing, job security or work-life balance. With cross-party support for nearly every Parliamentary motion and debate about unpaid carers, it is up to our policy-makers to now step up and turn words into tangible support. This blog highlights that both the UK and Scottish Governments have the power to make a real difference to unpaid carers’ lives. We hope we get to praise their progress on next year’s Carers Rights Day.