It’s National Carers Week, and I’m awaiting the government’s social media accounts sending their warmest congrats. You know the sort; tweets from a minister celebrating the “vital and selfless work carers do every day”. Words, of course, are cheaper than actions.
This month, the Conservatives released a cross-government “action plan” setting out what they claimed were “the practical actions we plan to take over the next two years”. It includes several positive measures, such as a review of dedicated employment rights for carers, a fund to develop new ways to reach carers with information earlier, and training for NHS staff to better support them. But what’s striking is the total absence of any focus on financial help for carers; barely a paragraph, in fact. (At one point, the paper even suggests getting disabled people into work is a way to help carers financially.) Much like Theresa May’s mental health drive, it’s as though we’ve entered a bizarre game show in which ministers try to solve a health and care crisis without ever pushing more resources towards it. We could call it: “How small can the state go?”
Family carers are not human sticking plasters for squeezed council budgets
The prize could be wellbeing or perhaps a bit of dignity. Social care services are on “the verge of collapse”, research by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services warned this week, with cuts of more than £7bn and counting leaving hundreds of thousands of elderly and disabled people without support to wash, eat and leave the house. It’s unpaid family carers – largely women – who are being left to pick up the pieces. There are 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK. Almost 180,000 of them are children (or as many as 700,000, due to underreporting).
There’s a habit of romanticising caring: it’s easier to focus on the altruism than the final electric demands. Many carers juggle work and caring responsibilities but one in five is forced to give up work altogether, meaning all that person has to live off is what the social safety net awards in benefits. In the UK, a carer receives just £64.60 a week in carer’s allowance for a minimum of 35 hours – that’s equivalent to £1.85 an hour. (More than 1.3 million people provide 50 hours of care a week or more but receive no more social security for it.)
I often listen to discussions of support for carers as if I’m missing something. The conversation always has a good dose of worthiness about it – after all, who on earth would be against helping disabled or older people? What politician would say they didn’t want to support family carers? At the same time, it’s characterised by an unthinking acceptance of a supposed truth: carers should be given the bare minimum support by the state.
Flick through the Daily Mail or listen to rightwing politicians talk about the need to get the welfare bill down, and the argument in recent years has actually been to leave disabled people and their carers with less. Even Labour, which has been relatively strong on carers’ rights – Jeremy Corbyn pledged a £10 rise for carers at the last election – has been lukewarm on reversing many of the post-2010 welfare cuts. No one ever talks about how we should be radically redistributing more resources to disabled people and their families. No one uses the important push for workers to get a living wage to ask why carers don’t need the same.
This is despite a lot of evidence that shows that existing levels of support are seriously below a decent standard of living. Research by the Disability Benefits Consortium, a national coalition of more than 80 organisations, this year found the majority of people on out-of-work sickness benefits are struggling to afford to eat, pay bills or get to hospital appointments. Meanwhile, their carers have had to fight to not be charged the bedroom tax for the room they sleep in while caring. Others are losing their carer’s allowance as changes to the gateway benefit, personal independence payments (PIP), means that many are no longer eligible.
Is this the life we want for the people giving up their days and nights? Not only is increasing social security for carers the right thing to do, it’s economically prudent: carers save the economy £132bn a year, an average of £19,336 per carer. This is often at the cost of their own health; almost three-quarters of carers in the UK say they have suffered mental ill health as a result of caring, while well over half report their physical health has worsened, according to new research by Carers UK this week.
By 2020-21, almost 1 million people are expected to be claiming carer’s allowance as the population ages. There’s never been a more important time to seriously evaluate the state’s support for this hidden workforce. But this shouldn’t be used as a way to justify the ongoing neglect of the social care system. Family carers are not human sticking plasters for squeezed council budgets. Rather, it’s because there’s a social care crisis that unpaid carers are under more pressure than ever. Those who suggest families should just take more slack – often Conservative ministers – are not typically the ones who are going to be suffering from exhaustion at 5am or counting out 50p coins because carers’ allowance doesn’t stretch the week.
Any of us may need to be cared for, or care, unexpectedly – be it for an elderly parent developing dementia or falling ill ourselves. The long-term undervaluing of caring labour – because it’s “women’s work”, in the home, and isn’t profit-driven – is hurting millions of families. If politicians wish to show they value carers, it’s going to take hard cash, not platitudes.
• Frances Ryan is a regular Guardian contributor