Just over nine months ago, the government announced a “wide ranging review of the 1999 national carers strategy” as part of a broader package of support for carers. A few months later, cementing its commitment to the group Gordon Brown describes as the country’s “hidden heroes”, the government promised a standing commission on carers to oversee the new strategy and its implementation and to ensure that carers’ voices are heard in the corridors of Whitehall.
But with publication of the revised strategy pencilled in for March, time is of the essence if the whole process is to amount to more than lip service. Carers charity Carers UK is determined that the 2008 strategy will lead to real improvement for the UK’s six million carers and has already set out a clear set of goals against which it will measure progress over the next 10 years (see Achieving a better deal for carers).
The charity breaks the list of pressing concerns for carers into five main areas: the funding of long-term care income employment carers’ health and carers’ rights.
Conversations with carers reveal that the issue of income – or lack of – is never far from the forefront of their minds. The £48-a-week carer’s allowance is widely considered woefully inadequate, as is the fact it is paid only once irrespective of how many people you care for and that you cease to receive it when you reach retirement age. As Carers UK chief executive Imelda Redmond puts it: “The levels of carers’ benefits and rules surrounding them are simply not fit for purpose.”
Addressing these issues, however, will be neither straight forward nor quick. Work and pensions minister and former carer Anne McGuire told the first national carers’ summit last month that the sheer complexity of the issue had resulted in two strategy review sub-groups being set up to deal with income and pensions.
And despite the admission of care services minister Ivan Lewis at the same summit that he couldn’t live on £48 a week, Carers UK predicts it could take up to 10 years to replace the existing system of benefits with one that properly meets carers’ needs.
“We have already had the comprehensive spending review for the next three years, and the Department for Work and Pensions has had cutbacks so what it has to spend is not a bottomless pot,” says Emily Holzhausen, head of policy and public affairs at Carers UK. “We will need the next four to 10 years to get the commitment on spending and get the right legislation. I know people want change tomorrow, but to get extra money into carers’ pockets takes that long.”
Adding to carers’ income woes is the fact that so many of them struggle to combine their caring responsibilities with employment. Philippa Russell, chair of the standing commission on carers, sees addressing the barriers to employment for those carers of working age who would like to continue working as integral to the commission’s task of finding ways to improve the lives of carers and people being cared for.
“It is not right that so many carers have to opt out of the employment market,” Russell says. “There are many younger carers who wish to be in employment and whose employment would contribute to the well-being of their whole family.”
Demanding a review of discrimination towards carers in employment, Holzhausen adds: “We want to bring in an anti-discrimination law in relation to employment. The government is saying ‘isn’t flexible working enough?’. But flexible working won’t take into account recruitment processes, promotion opportunities and so on. It needs to be broader.”
A wider range of jobs available to those working part-time or flexibly and investment in improving access to education and training for carers are also two of the policy recommendations included in a report published by Carers UK two weeks ago designed to create the right environment for the introduction of a new social contract for care. On top of setting out the relationship between the carer and the state, any such contract would therefore also require commitment from employers, as well as from local agencies and communities.
The issues of carers’ health and carers’ rights feature prominently in other policy recommendations included in the report as prerequisites to a new social care contract too. Carers UK are demanding action in both areas, including more flexibility around health appointments for carers and the people they care for, and legislation to promote equality of opportunity for carers in the delivery of public services.
“The idea is to get a duty on local authorities to promote equality in relation to carers,” says Holzhausen. “They are already doing this in relation to race and gender – and it is already being done in relation to carers in Northern Ireland.
“What’s difficult is that some local authorities are saying ‘don’t put additional burdens on us’. But we are pointing out that they are discriminating against a group of people and that needs to be balanced up. The experience in Northern Ireland is that it doesn’t necessarily cost any more money.”
In terms of health services, Lewis has publicly acknowledged that a cultural change is needed to ensure GPs play their role in improving the lives of carers. Holzhausen believes that tapping into health service funding is also essential. “Local authorities haven’t got enough money. Health has a massive role to play in this. They are getting the lion share of government spending. If the NHS pays more attention to carers then we all win.”
In the summer, Community Care readers and visitors to communitycare.co.uk told us that a better deal for carers was a top priority for extra funding, a higher profile and political attention. A closer look reveals that improving the lot of carers will also require a co-ordinated effort at every level, a fresh approach to doing things, and legislation.
Lewis told carers at last month’s summit that he hoped the revised national strategy would “reflect what you want” when it is published in the spring. Undoubtedly, his hope is shared by millions of carers across the UK who believe a chance for them to receive the recognition and support they deserve could finally be next.
This article appeared in the 6 December issue under the headline “Steps in the right direction”