Sharp rise in number of Britons leaving work to look after family

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The number of people who aren’t working because of caring commitments is the highest since May 2020, with the last year marking a sustained increase in stay-at-home parents and carers after three decades of decline, new analysis from the Guardian reveals.

The figures are a stark warning that at a time of record employment vacancies and skills shortages, families are being “priced out and shut out of work”, said Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner.

Her comments come ahead of a speech to the Trades Union Congress conference on Wednesday in which she will pledge that Labour will transform working practices by giving workers the right to flexible working from their first day in a job.

Rayner told the Guardian that working women – who make up 84% of the 1.75 million people who have have given up work to care for family – had been “denied good quality, affordable childcare, proper parental leave and access to flexible working” during 12 years of Conservative governments.

Figures show that 43,000 women have dropped out of the workforce to look after family in the last year, a 3% increase on the previous year and part of a sustained shift after decades of decline, according to the most recent UK labour market figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

In June to August 2022, 27.6% of women were not working because of family commitments, compared to 7.4% of men. However, ONS statistics show that a growing number of men are also leaving the workforce because of family commitments – 36,000 men dropped out of the workforce in the last year, a 15% increase on the year before.

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“It’s really challenging for families, and it’s even harder the lower down the food chain you are in terms of your income,” Rayner said. “If you’re already on a lower income, then trying to match your working hours with what you can afford to pay in terms of childcare and its availability is a real challenge.”

Labour launched its ​​“new deal for working people” last year, which will legislate to give all employees the right to flexible work from day one in the job, unless a company can provide legitimate reasons to deny the request.

“I want to see a cultural shift to the default position being how do we accommodate this, as opposed to how do we knock this back,” she said.

In her speech to the TUC, which the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, will address on Thursday, Rayner will pledge that the party’s promise to provide breakfast clubs for every primary school child would be “the first step on the road to a modern childcare system enabling parents to work the jobs and hours they choose”.

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Rayner said that the dramatic shift in working practices during the pandemic showed how nimble companies could be: “Lots of companies are already doing this and it works – it improves growth, increases productivity, improves staff retention and improves recruitment.”

But Lauren Fabianski, from the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, said the pandemic had not pushed enough businesses to pivot to flexible working models, and legislation was needed, with 86% of mothers who work flexibly facing discrimination as a result, according to the group’s research.

“We hear every day on our helplines from women who fear they will have to leave the workforce if they cannot get the flex that they need, and hope that any changes Labour are planning make a tangible difference to the economic empowerment of women in the UK,” she said.

Companies that do not fully embrace flexible working will face recruitment and retention problems, said Simon Kelleher, the head of policy at the charity Working Families. A YouGov poll commissioned by Working Families and SF Recruitment found that flexibility was as important as salary to mothers, and second only to pay for fathers looking for new roles, and over half of UK working parents would consider leaving their job for a more flexible role.

“Employers and government need to think creatively about how they can attract the one and three-quarter million people – most of them women – who have have given up work to care for family back into the workforce, to tackle record vacancies and skills shortages,” he said.

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