Taking better care of carers has become an issue of growing importance in recent years. Carers themselves have become more organised, notably through support organisation Carers UK, and the government has increasingly expressed willingness to build and publicise help for carers.
The reasons for this may be moral, because helping the helpers seems like the right thing to do or largely driven by economics, because the voluntary nature of carers saves the welfare state a good deal of money. Most likely it is a combination of the two.
Pressure to treat carers fairly has also been growing in the courts, with the Employment Tribunal’s decision in favour of Sharon Coleman (see below) the latest to underline that employers cannot lightly brush aside carers’ interests. Whatever the reasons, National Carers Rights Day (December 5) is a natural consequence of increasing awareness that carers themselves merit looking after by society as a whole.
So what are carers rights? Broadly, it’s worth thinking of them in terms of whether the carer is also in paid employment. The main rights for carers who work is that under the Work and Families Act 2006 and the Employment Rights Act 1996 they can request flexible working and time off in emergencies from their employer. This is not an automatic right to flexible working, but simply an encouragement to ask for it and an obligation for employers to consider it seriously.
In addition, parents of children aged under 5 or under 18 if the child is disabled, have a statutory right to unpaid parental leave of 13 weeks for a non-disabled child and 18 weeks for a disabled child. This leave can be taken in blocks of a week or blocks of a day if the care is for a disabled child.
Carers are also encouraged to ask employers about any other support which may be offered by individual companies, including paid or unpaid career breaks or simple things such as access to a telephone for private use at work.
The attitude of employers is clearly crucial in helping working carers to juggle and manage their duel responsibilities. Kate Groucutt, senior policy officer at Carers UK, says that even staff perception is vital because “people’s confidence about how their employer will react tends to govern whether they will make a request in the first place”.
But Groucutt adds that many employers seem to have accepted the spirit as well as the letter of the legislation, with the CBI suggesting that 96% of requests for flexible working are accepted.
For carers who do not work in another job or only in a very low paid one, there are state benefits available. The main one, Carer’s Allowance, is currently worth £50.55 a week. To qualify carers need to be 16 or over, look after someone for at least 35 hours a week, the person looked after must receive a qualifying disability benefit and the carer must not get a list of other benefits. Additionally, the carer cannot be a full time student and must not earn more than £95 a week.
In addition to the basic Carer’s Allowance, there is a Carer Premium (up to £27.75 a week), which is included in a calculation of income support, job seekers allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit. Carers need to ask about the premium.
Other potential help from government includes partial or complete exemption from council tax, for example in properties which are shared by the carer and those they look after. Again, the precise rules are complicated but a good guide is on the Carers UK website.
The Sharon Coleman case
The latest legal decision to improve the position of carers was made last month (November) by the Employment Tribunal in the case of Sharon Coleman.
Coleman is a carer who claimed she was discriminated against by her employer because she has a disabled son. Her employer – a law firm – refused to allow her to return to the same job after maternity leave and accused her of being “lazy” when she needed time off to care for her child.
Earlier in the year the European Court of Justice ruled that the laws which protect disabled people against discrimination should also apply to their carer. Now the Employment Tribunal has said that UK law can give protection to carers “by association with disability”.
Commenting on the ruling Coleman said: “Carers who have been discriminated against and have cases pending can now take their cases forward.”