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The Policy Ask with Helen Walker: “I’d make caring the tenth protected characteristic”

The chief executive of Carers UK on benefits, the right to take unpaid leave and following gut instincts when hiring.

By Spotlight

Helen Walker has been the chief executive of Carers UK since December 2018, and has a background in leading civil society organisations, fundraising and business planning. She was chief executive of TimeBank, the national volunteering charity, for ten years and before that was director of fundraising at the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA).

How do you start your working day?

By walking my dog. It clears my head whatever the weather and gives me the time and space to think about and plan the day ahead.

What has been your career high?

Being appointed chief executive of Carers UK – a cause I am passionate about and where I believe we can make fundamental change for the better at a time when two in three of us will become carers.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Running a charity that was government funded and losing it all in one hit when a new government came in, so I was forced to make sweeping redundancies overnight.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

If you have any doubt about recruitment, don’t appoint – it will only come back to haunt you.

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Which political figure inspires you?

Baroness Jill Pitkeathley, my predecessor as a former chief executive at Carers UK (then called the Carers National Association), who has spent a lifetime fighting for carers’ rights, often successfully changing laws in their favour and continues to do so in the House of Lords. Her steadfast and relentless support for our work is an inspiration to us all.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The government’s work to identify and prioritise unpaid carers for the Covid-19 and flu vaccinations has been brilliant. It recognises how important carers are to our health and care systems, which would crumble without them.

And what policy should the UK government ditch?

It should ditch the way that Carer’s Allowance is uprated and make the benefit more generous. The earnings limit needs to be amended so carers can work more hours without losing the entirety of their benefit – the harshest withdrawal rate in the benefits system. The overall level of Carer’s Allowance is a disgrace, at £69.70 per week for providing a minimum of 35 hours of care.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

The Carer’s Leave Bill, a private member’s bill brought forward by Wendy Chamberlain MP, is really exciting. If passed it would see British employees get a landmark new right to take up to one week of unpaid carer’s leave, which could make balancing work-home life that bit easier for carers.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

It could learn from other countries that have had longer-term steady investment into social care such as Germany and Japan, where carers know their entitlements. But even their care systems are under strain with ageing populations.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

I’d make caring the tenth protected characteristic and improve carers’ lives immeasurably by ensuring they were treated equally throughout society.

[See also: Clare Moriarty: “Renters have fewer options for lowering energy bills”]

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