It’s time carers got the credit they deserve
Thursday, 13 June 2013

Prepare to care

More than six million Britons do it, saving the state £119 billion a year. It’s time carers got the credit they deserve, says Vanessa Berridge

The figures are sobering. Across the UK, the number of people caring regularly and unpaid for a family member or friend who is ill, frail or disabled, has now risen to 6.5 million. Of those, 1.25 million, most of them women, spend more than 50 hours a week as carers. Every day at least 6,000 people start caring – often without warning and with a major impact on their lives.

Caring takes energy and commitment, and often carers need to cut down on or leave work. The loss of a paid job can lead to financial hardship, as well as leaving carers isolated and without status. Yet carers do contribute to the UK economy: according to recent estimates, carers save the state about £119bn a year.

That’s why this year’s Carers Week campaign, running from 10 to 16 June, took as its title Prepared To Care? It has been looking at how the UK’s current carer population is coping, how effectively government supports the growing number of carers, and whether the wider population is prepared for future caring responsibilities in the light of our ageing population. An important part of the campaign has been to alert those already caring to the practical and emotional support that is available through charitable organisations.

Some 2,000 organisations have been involved in more than 10,000 events during the week that was organised by several national charities. Spearheaded by Carers UK, the partnership has included Age UK, Carers Trust, Macmillan Cancer Support, Parkinson’s UK and the Stroke Association.

The issues for individuals suddenly faced with becoming carers are legion. For a start, state funding isn’t generous. To qualify for the weekly Carer’s Allowance of £59.75, you need to spend at least 35 hours a week caring for a disabled person, not earn more than £100 a week (after deductions) and not be in fulltime education. It may not be paid if you are receiving a state pension or certain other benefits – although it may be worth applying because you could be eligible for extra pension credit or housing benefit.

Emily Holzhausen, director of policy and public affairs at Carers UK, is very aware of the issues affecting carers. Both a supportive and campaigning organisation, Carers UK evolved out of the National Council For The Single Woman And Her Dependants, set up in 1965 by Mary Webster, who identified what is usually, if not exclusively, a female problem. Webster, a single, professional woman herself, was expected to give up her job to devote herself to her elderly parents, relinquishing financial independence and losing touch with friends and colleagues. Her letter to The Times, entitled The Plight, provoked an enormous response from women in similar circumstances.

The charity campaigned for an independent income from the state, and succeeded, in part, when Barbara Castle introduced the 1976 Invalid Care Allowance. Forty years on, the situation has improved, but much remains to be done, argues Emily Holzhausen. Carers UK is closely involved in scrutinising current government policy in order to spot unforeseen difficulties. In the process, the charity consults families and those involved in care.

‘People don’t ask a lot,’ she says. ‘All they want is a chance to work, to manage and to be in good health.’ The charity is concerned about both the changes to disability benefit and the so-called Bedroom Tax that may force families to move home and lose contact with their GP and their carefully built-up support system.

These are some of the difficulties that will have been flagged up during Carers Week. The message is simple, believes Holzhausen: ‘Caring is a private matter that should be made into a public issue.’

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