When 31-year-old Mary Webster gave up her career as a congregational minister in 1954 to care for her parents, she was following in a long line of ‘dutiful daughters’ over the centuries who have done the same. But she was determined to make this an issue of public concern and in 1963 she was frequently wrote to newspapers and journals highlighting the position of single women caring at home and, as she said, “under house arrest”.
By December 1965 a charity, The National Council for Single Women and her Dependants, was launched, though the term ‘carer’ was not used until 1980. Webster died in 1969 but by then the council was a strong organisation with an outstanding director and energetic committee.
The style and thrust of its work laid down the template that has continued for over 40 years. It stressed the numbers involved – 310,000 single women caring at home; emphasis was given to publicity, campaigning and lobbying with strong links to both major political parties; research to demonstrate the needs of the single women, especially their poverty, was undertaken; direct services were limited though important in individual cases. It was the great vision of the charity to realise that campaigning for a Dependant Relative’s Tax Allowance would be more beneficial than trying to develop advice services for individuals. It was to be the most significant strategic decision.
By 1982 the council felt its core aims had been achieved, but accepted the need to widen its scope and changed its name to the National Council for Carers and their Elderly Dependants. This change was partly stimulated by the formation in 1982 of a new charity, The Association of Carers. It had a wide definition of ‘carer’, essentially the one accepted today. The association had a similar approach to the council, emphasising the importance of research, publicity and campaigning. Its more encompassing view of the concept of carer led to its discovery of young carers, which was soon to receive enormous attention.
Relationships between the two charities were not always easy though both recognised each other’s strengths. Recognising their similarities, talks about a merger began in 1986. These came to fruition in 1988 with the establishment of the Carers National Association, now Carers UK. Its first director was Baroness Jill Pitkeathley. From the outset the aims echoed so much of what had gone before but now there was a united front.
CNA wanted to involve and build on carers’ experiences, to bring the needs of carers to government’s attention, to provide advice and support to carers and to pay special attention to policy making, building on the organisation’s credibility, knowledge of members and long experience. Direct services were better provided through the local branches, a feature of both the two original charities. The branches were also an invaluable source of evidence on any campaigning issue. Though the success since 1988 has been remarkable not all was plain sailing. Financial crises occurred (as in all charities) and tensions erupted from time to time between the national body and the branches around their respective roles and responsibilities. Membership rarely reached the targeted figures and ‘hidden carers’ remain to this day one of the abiding concerns of the charity.
But the success is undoubted. There have been three Acts of Parliament dealing specifically with carers. Government policy strategies have highlighted carers. Questions on carers are included in the census. No welfare debate can afford to omit discussion about the contribution of carers, both financial and practical. The annual national carers’ day is a highly significant event. Are the causes of this success identifiable?
The numbers argument has always been a powerful one, as Mary Webster foresaw. No one now disputes that there are six million carers, predicted to rise to nine million by 2037. As critical is the equally undisputed value of their contribution now put at £57bn. The figures are reinforced by the ‘deserving’ nature of the cause. This in turn assists the political lobbying which has been such a strong part of the charities’ work. Lobbying has been marked by intensive follow-up to see whether the agreed policies have actually been implemented. No one has ever sat back on their laurels.
The carers’ movement history shows how from the outset it was grounded in the tough realities of carers’ lives and how it built up from that with a practical vision of how best to improve those lives. It had a remarkable founder, and over the years a succession of outstanding directors, the total commitment of trustees and the interest and support of key politicians. Above all it has had the engagement of the carers themselves who have put their case so powerfully and eloquently in the media.
Changing patterns of family life and the demographics of today mean that the challenges facing the carers’ movement are as great as those which faced Mary Webster in 1963. But the culture and values of the movement are such that there is every reason to believe that subsequent histories will tell of continuing success.
Timothy Cook is an author and former voluntary sector worker. His book, The History of the Carers’ Movement, was published in October2007 by Carers UK. To order a copy call 0845 241 0963 (price £10)