More people are taking on caring responsibilities: almost six million people in the UK provide care on an unpaid basis for a relative, friend or neighbour in need of support.
It is estimated that at least a third of all people will fulfil a caring role at some point in their lives. Many carers struggle to juggle care with paid work and some care for more than one person.
Moreover, carers are often unaware of their rights to assessment and services and research shows that they are also more likely to lack confidence and self-esteem. This, in addition to their availability, is likely to disadvantage them in taking up education, employment or leisure activities.
The government has increasingly recognised the contribution that carers make to society (carers save the economy an estimated £57bn a year). Indeed the adult care green paper emphasises the need to ensure that carers are integral to the new vision for social care.
The Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004 acknowledges that carers are entitled to the same life chances as others and should not be socially excluded because of their caring role. It seeks to ensure that carers are identified and informed of their rights; their needs for education, training, employment and leisure are considered, and that public bodies recognise and support carers.
The act applies in England and Wales to carers who provide or intend to provide a substantial amount of care on a regular basis for another individual aged over 18 and those with parental responsibility for a disabled child, who provide or intend to provide a substantial amount of care on a regular basis for that child.
Yet while the act is a positive step for carers, the rate of change within the social care sector makes it difficult for social services to keep up with and embrace new legislation. Local authorities face different challenges in implementing the act, depending on the complexity of local statutory and non-statutory networks, the demographic characteristics of the local population and geographical considerations. Planning on a local level is essential to ensure that such factors are considered and that local needs are met.
At the request of the Department of Health, the Social Care Institute for Excellence (Scie) has produced an online practice guide to support the implementation of the act. The guide, Implementing the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004, translates what is known from research and policy into recommendations for practice, with examples. The guide is intended to be used alongside existing DH guidance. It can be found at www.scie.org.uk/carers
Practitioners, carers and carers’ organisations worked with Scie to develop the guidance. It follows the structure of the act, examining legislative changes, and expands on this by identifying the areas of practice that are most useful to practitioners responsible for its implementation.
The act places a new duty on local authorities to ensure that carers are informed of their right to an assessment. Local authorities must make an effort to seek out carers who are not known to social services (commonly known as “hidden carers”), and must ensure that information is available and accessible for all carers. The guide expands by including a section on young carers, who are largely a hidden population.
Under the act, a carer’s assessment must now consider their needs with regard to education, training, employment and leisure. Assessors will need to be aware of the resources, locally and nationally, that are available to support carers in pursuing these activities in addition to ensuring carers have full access to mainstream resources.
The advantages of employment for carers are well documented and include better income, pension rights, career prospects and social networks. In addition, there is evidence that employment, education and training can benefit carers’ emotional and physical well-being, boost self-esteem and reduce the risk of social exclusion.
The guide’s focus on outcomes in assessment practice highlights how the caring role can be relieved by creative service provision. For example, practical help such as providing a carer with driving lessons may enable a person to access education, employment or training where it was previously not practicable.
Co-operation between authorities is essential for the support of carers and the act requires that other public bodies, such as housing and health authorities, give due consideration to requests from the local authority for assistance in planning services for carers.
The guide identifies essential steps to implementing the act, which would need to be addressed at a strategic level within councils. The steps are not required by the act but would form a model of good practice. The steps include:
Elaine Cass is a practice development manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence. She is a qualified social worker with 15 years’ experience. She spent many years working with people with learning difficulties as a residential worker, a social worker and a team manager. She has a masters degree in social care, policy and management. She joined Scie a year ago and is the author of Scie’s practice guide on the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004.
Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.
The Social Care Institute for Excellence has launched a new practice guide on implementing the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004. For each topic area the guide includes key research and policy findings, recommendations for practice.
*Carers UK, Missed Opportunities, 2003. www.carersuk.org
*H Arksey, “People into employment: supporting people with disabilities and carers into work”, Health and Social Care in the Community, vol 11, no 3, pp283-292, 2003
*H Arksey, “Combining informal care and work: supporting carers in the workplace”, Health and Social Care in the Community, vol 10, no 3, pp151-161, 2002
*Department of Health, Caring about Carers: a National Strategy for Carers, 1999. www.dh.gov.uk
The Action for Carers in Employment national partnership – led by Carers UK – has also launched resources designed to help councils and professionals working with unpaid carers across England and Wales. The resources include a CD-Rom on training for supporting working carers and a DVD with case studies from employers and carers: Juggling Work and Care.
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