Change the terms of carers allowance to allow more carers to work

The arrival of care partnership managers this September won’t compensate for the miserly level of carers allowance: £53 a week, writes Gary Vaux

Going back a couple of years, welfare rights advisers had great hopes that the Cinderella benefit, carers allowance, would finally get the uprating – in status and value – that was long overdue.

All the signs were there – positive noises from the prime minister, nods and winks in meetings with civil servants, working groups of officials and advisers who actually seemed to be taken seriously. But then the economic roof caved in and the end result was disappointment and a continuation of the scandalous treatment given to carers by the benefits system.

A benefit that is worth just £53.10 for providing at least 35 hours of care per week – £1.50 an hour – should be a source of shame to the government. My teenage daughters receive more for babysitting.

The one concession was that Jobcentre Plus gave a commitment to recruiting care partnership managers to improve the service given to carers. So no extra money, but at least a recognition that carers deserved better treatment and more attention given to their need for training and better access to employment advice.

Increase in unemployment

But even that limited improvement came under threat, when the massive increase in unemployment blew the job centre staffing budget out of the water and all staff were directed to handling jobseeker’s allowance claims. Fortunately, the needs of carers prevailed and funding for the Carers’ Strategy commitments was confirmed on 29 April. Recruitment of district care partnership managers started on 28 May. They should be in post by 1 September 2009.

The main role of the care partnership manager is to increase the number of Jobcentre Plus customers who are carers moving into paid employment. By having a named “lead officer” for carers’ issues, each job centre should be able to draw upon someone who develops expertise in what services are available locally, who the key contacts are and so on. They will represent Jobcentre Plus in local forums involving carers and carer support organisations and are expected to “make an expert contribution on carers and employment”. This will involve developing an awareness of the barriers to work and training which carers face. More importantly, they’ll be expected to work with colleagues, inside and outside the job centre, to overcome those barriers.

Day-to-day benefit problems

Because the care partnership manager role is so work-focused, it seems a shame that attention hasn’t been given to resolving some of the day-to-day benefit problems that carers face – for example, it would be useful if someone in the local job centre could take the lead in ensuring that carers aren’t penalised financially for taking part-time work – those getting carers allowance can earn £95 a week before benefit is affected, but those getting any means-tested benefits start to lose benefit once £20.01 is earned.

Having someone on hand in the job centre with the knowledge and influence to resolve problems with the overlap between the carer’s benefits and the cared-for person’s benefits would also be a huge step forward.

If the government was really serious about helping carers move into employment – either in combination with their caring role or when their caring role ends – care partnership managers would be just the beginning of the improvements. For a start, increasing the £95 earnings limit for carer’s allowance, and tapering it so that earnings that are just pennies over the limit don’t lead to a total rejection of a carer’s allowance claim would go a long way to enabling carers to keep in touch with the job market.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice at Hertfordshire Council. If you have a question for him please send it by e-mail 

This article is published in the 23 July edition of Community Care under the headline “Emphasis on work won’t solve carers’ main worry: lack of cash”

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