Carers are a high-profile group in Gordon Brown’s government. Despite this, the degree to which they are considered in mainstream policies varies. Undoubtedly, some policies offer immense help to carers but others appear to be working against them.
There are also questions about how much the government’s message on the importance of carers is getting through at a local level, with the revised strategy due in the spring set to be launched against a backdrop of cuts to carer services by many primary care trusts and councils.
The introduction of extended schools is one national policy that has failed to properly take account of those carers looking after children with disabilities.
On their launch, the schools were heralded as a great opportunity for all children and parents to benefit from a range of activities beyond the school day. But Chris Osborne, policy adviser on disabled children for the Children’s Society, is less impressed.
She says: “Many [disabled children] need individual support in schools through the statementing process, but it’s quite common that this individual support isn’t provided during extended school time.”
Osborne adds that if a disabled child uses transport to take them to and from school they often cannot stay on as they will miss their lift home.
“Extended schools are a policy that nobody would disagree could offer quite a lot of benefit to disabled children, but arrangements just have not been put in place,” she says.
Truancy policies are another area where the needs of carers – this time young carers – have been ignored, campaigners say. Young carers are known to make up a significant number of the 8,000 children who are persistently absent from school each year, yet initiatives to tackle the problem tend to overlook this group.
“Truancy policies generally focus on truancy sweeps, when young carers will be at home, and on prosecuting parents,” says Alex Fox, assistant director of policy and service development at The Princess Royal Trust for Carers. “But you can’t prosecute a parent for their child being off school when the reason they are off in the first place is to help meet their parent’s community care needs.”
Fox says the government doesn’t think enough about young carers who are absent as an issue, and believes more effort should be put into helping schools to identify young carers and putting them in contact with services.
He adds that young carers who miss school due to their caring responsibilities are also likely to lose their education maintenance allowance, even though guidance for schools specifically calls on them to take into account whether a pupil may be a carer before penalising them for missing lessons.
It is recognised that the best way to improve the lot of young carers is to reduce their parents’ reliance on them in the first place. Despite this, the Fair Access to Care Services guidance, which governs eligibility criteria for adult social care for councils, has only a couple of lines on taking into account an adult’s family and their caring responsibilities when assessing them for services. Fox says this small reference is “little known and widely ignored”, and is calling for the FACS guidance to be overhauled.
“At the moment, adults’ services will make an adult assessment and they won’t ask them if they have children,” Fox says. “There needs to be mechanisms of whole-family assessment so eligibility criteria are affected by the likely impact of caring on an adult’s children.
“Adults’ services aren’t aware they can fill in a common assessment framework (CAF) form. There’s also an adult CAF in development. But we should have one CAF that can look at the whole family.”
One piece of legislation that stands out for its consideration of carers is the Childcare Act 2006. This places a duty on councils to ensure there’s enough childcare in their area, including provision for disabled children.
Jill Harrison, director of external affairs at charity Contact a Family, says the act is an example of a generic policy that has gone out of its way to consider disabled children and their parents and carers.
The act also requires councils to provide information to all parents on all the services available to them, and particular emphasis is placed on ensuring that information is available to parents caring for children with disabilities. “This means that children’s information centres are already trying harder,” says Harrison.
Far less considerate of carers’ needs is the government’s policy on tax credits, under which the sum available to meet childcare costs is the same for both non-disabled and disabled children despite childcare for the latter being up to five times as expensive.
“In practice, it means that many parents of disabled children cannot use the tax credit system to help them return to work,” Harrison says.
The tax credit system, along with the benefits system, is also particularly unhelpful when disabled children reach adulthood. Once a child turns 18, their entitlement to benefits and tax credits changes even though their circumstances often remain the same with many still living at home just as they were before their birthday.
“The legislation does not knit up,” says Emily Holzhausen, head of policy and public affairs at Carers UK. “You have to go through the whole system again even though their needs won’t have changed.”
Holzhausen says that no single government department seems to be better at ensuring carers’ needs are considered when making their mainstream policies than any other. She describes the system as ad hoc, pointing out that one document can be highly considerate of carers while another in the same series coming out of the same department can ignore them.
Fox adds that the health side of the Department of Health has not been as strong on carers as its social care side, even though both are based in the same department. He says that, despite the government having more of a top-down structure in relation to health than social care, carers’ presence is “noticeably lacking in the NHS”.
“There hasn’t been a really strong central DH leadership for health on carers and we would like to see that strengthened in the new strategy,” Fox says. “One of the key things for the strategy will be dependent on whether health comes to the table nationally and locally.”
However, David Behan (pictured right), director-general of social care in the DH, insists that to say the social care part of the DH works and the health part doesn’t fails to capture correctly how the system works.
“Some people have good and bad experiences of different bits,” he says. “There isn’t a single view about what’s needed here. What we are looking at is the menu of services that needs to be provided. Some might be direct service provision and some might not be as direct.”
But as the chair of the interdepartmental group on carers and therefore the man charged with looking at making existing policies across the board more carer-friendly, Behan would be hard pushed to deny there is still some way to go yet before all departments – including the DH – consider carers’ needs as a matter of course in mainstream policy-making.
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This article appeared in the 6 December issue under the headline “So many contradictions”