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

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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