Child care’s sorted. Now for carers…

    It seems churlish to bite the hand of the chancellor Gordon Brown
    so soon after he has invested generously in children. Nevertheless,
    as Julie Mellor, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, asked
    during her contribution to the post-mortem on the spending review,
    what about the carers?

    More than five million, including young people, look after disabled
    or older relatives every day. (Many of them are forced to take
    “sick” leave to do so – a practice Brown now plans to tackle in the
    public sector without improved incentives to increase work
    flexibility.)

    Mellor has called for an end to the present piecemeal approach and
    the establishment of a coherent national framework of services.

    The political ground has shifted immeasurably on child care – how
    can an equivalent seismic change be effected for those who care for
    older dependants?

    The answer is far from clear. Child care unlocks the door to higher
    female employment and lower costs in the long term to the public
    purse. But easing the burden on carers adds to public spending, and
    thus lacks lustre for politicians. Estimates of the economic value
    of unpaid adult care in the UK ranges from almost £14bn to a
    staggering £57bn. For politicians wedded to the notion of no
    tax increases, the figures are frightening. A drop of 10 per cent
    in informal care would lead to a 33 per cent rise in the cost of
    formal care.

    The demand for change is pressing – but who will ensure that it
    comes about? We already have more over-60s than under-16s in the
    UK. The number of carers will have risen to more than nine million
    by 2037 – but it will probably be too exhausted a group to form a
    coherent and effective lobby.

    Weigh up support for a carer against investment in a child via, for
    instance, Sure Start, thus possibly averting a lifetime of
    offending and expenditure by the state, and it’s easy to see which
    carries the greater political clout.

    Some businesses may have recognised the profit in flexibility. But
    this won’t produce a coherent national framework that affects
    income, status and quality of life – for instance, guaranteed
    respite care – unless a carers’ charter of rights becomes integral
    to the economy.

    Once upon a time, it was difficult to imagine ministers would take
    child care so seriously. Now that they do, what can work a similar
    miracle for those who struggle to do what’s right, often with next
    to no support?

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