Survey reveals extent of financial hardship among carers as government prepares to review their benefits
(Pictured: Karen and Mark Holdsworth-Cannon. The pair have been cascaded into poverty since Mark was diagnosed with a serious medical condition – see case study below)
Nearly half of carers (45%) are depressed about their financial position, a Princess Royal Trust for Carers (PRTC) study published today reveals.
The charity’s survey of 800 carers found 15% are turning to drink and drugs to cope with their financial predicament.
Many have given up work to care and more than half of those in work earn less than £10,000 a year. Meanwhile, 62% have no savings and 39% are in fear of losing their home.
“We are losing from the workforce the skilled workers we need for the economic recovery,” says Philippa Russell, chair of the Standing Commission on Carers, the government’s watchdog for carers.
The survey is the latest to highlight carers’ parlous financial plight, as well as the poor value of the benefits they receive. Half of respondents called for an increase in the £53.90 carer’s allowance, paid weekly to working-age carers who earn no more than £100 a week.
The previous government pledged to reform carers’ benefits but did not get round to doing so. The current government also plans to review carers’ benefits as part of a wider welfare reform. However, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has been tasked with reducing the overall welfare bill.
“Carers do value their benefit and they value that recognition [a specific allowance provides] and of course it needs to be improved,” says Emily Holzhausen, director of policy at Carers UK.
Failing to provide more financial recognition for carers would undermine the government’s Big Society agenda to empower volunteers to deliver public services, says Simon Knighton, chief executive of the Expert Patients Programme, which delivers training for carers. But he warns that a rise in the carer’s allowance is not realistic.
The government plans to publish a refreshed version of its predecessor’s carers strategy before the end of the year to improve support for the group.
However, carers could lose out on services under government plans to subsume a specific grant targeted to support them – the £256m-a-year carers grant – into councils’ baseline funding from next year, Holzhausen warned. An announcement on this is due in next month’s comprehensive spending review.
The news of carers’ financial troubles follows the government’s decision to scrap Caring with Confidence, a programme to train carers in their role.
Participating in the programme led some carers to seek assessments of their need and claim benefits they had not previously received.
The government said Caring with Confidence, administered by a consortium of charities, including Carers UK and the PRTC, had not reached enough carers.
However, Gordon Conochie, policy officer at PRTC and Crossroads Care, says: “The carers’ centres [run by the consortium] that were providing Caring with Confidence were hitting all their targets.”
Knighton, whose organisation also delivered the programme, says Caring with Confidence as a whole would easily have met its targets had it been allowed to run until March 2011 as planned.
But the coalition government did not share Labour’s view that the programme represented good value.
The government plans to invest the money saved from the programme in training for GPs and other frontline staff in supporting carers, and in a network of carers champions.
Both Knighton and Conochie agree that Caring with Confidence would have helped carers’ financial situation but say welfare reform would have a greater impact.
For this we must await Duncan Smith’s plans.
‘We have cascaded into poverty’
Seventeen years ago, Karen Holdsworth-Cannon was a research psychologist who took foreign holidays with husband Mark, with whom she owned a four-bedroom terraced house.
But then Mark was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, which causes skin problems and bone deformities, and chronic arthritis.
“Since Mark became ill we have cascaded into poverty,” says Karen, of Surrey Heath. “I was declared bankrupt; I have lost a well-paid job, our house and the future we thought we’d have – all as a result of my caring role. ”
She receives carer’s allowance of £53.90 a week, alongside £121.25 a week in disability living allowance for Mark, housing benefit and help with council tax. This is not enough.
Karen worries when the bills come, seeks help from charities and sometimes goes without food.
She wants to care for Mark but also wants to return to employment. However, she lacks the support to do so. Of the 168 hours a week of care that Mark needs, she performs 98 of them.
This took its toll a few years ago when she had a nervous breakdown. She says the answer is to improve the carer’s allowance and provide better respite care. “£53 a week isn’t enough to live on,” she says.
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