The UK General Election - 4th July 2024

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Unpaid carers: the invisible workforce that needs more recognition and support

This week marks the start of ‘Carers Week’ – the annual campaign to raise awareness of, offer support to, and highlight the challenges facing the millions of people who provide unpaid care for a friend or family member who due to a physical or mental illness or disability require additional support to live a meaningful life.

As the number of people who are classified as long-term sick or economically inactive increases, unpaid care is now estimated to be equivalent to the work of 4 million paid care workers, which is valued at approximately £162bn per year.

Yet many people supporting loved ones out of their own time are unaware that they are part of this growing group of ‘carers’’, meaning they often miss out on – or are unaware of – the financial, emotional, and charitable support they can access.

This has an economic impact too. Age UK estimates that the cost to the public purse of people leaving work to take on caring responsibilities is approximately £1.3 billion per year. For those that are able to continue working, the productivity cost of trying to balance paid work and caring is estimated to be £3.5 billion.

Identifying and raising awareness of unpaid

Unpaid carers have a number of support mechanisms available to help alleviate the burden of their responsibilities.

In addition to Universal Credit payments to support with the loss of income and paying for housing, unpaid carers supporting for someone for at least 35 hours per week are eligible for the Carer’s Allowance, which is currently valued at £76.75 per week. This allowance is used at the discretion of the carer, as it is paid in addition any financial support the person being paid receives, such as the Disability Living Allowance.

Carers supporting someone for at least 20 hours per week are also eligible for the Carer’s Credit, a form of National Insurance credit to help with gaps in their National Insurance record.

There are also various forms of support provided by local authorities following a Carer’s Assessment to determine what support is needed. Types of support include points of contact for advice, short breaks from caring responsibilities, and additional financial support.

Despite the support available, many unpaid carers have not claimed it due to lack of awareness of what is available, or the complexity of navigating local authority and central government bureaucracy.

But unpaid carers should not be burdened with the additional task of seeking state support. Under the Care Act 2014, local authorities have a legal responsibility to identify carers in their area and provide support to improve their wellbeing.

While all local authorities provide some form of support and implement measures to identify carers in their area, the reality is that such support is highly variable from council to council, and so the level of support received can be based on luck, or worse, the “postcode lottery”.

Local authorities should develop and maintain a better understanding of their local population, allowing them to build support services that offer the specific level of support needed. Unpaid carers are diverse in their makeup and a one-size-fits-all approach to support is not effective in meeting the diverse needs of carers.

Many unpaid carers are also identified through their interactions with primary care services, but there remains a disconnect between the identification of unpaid carers by the NHS and referrals to local authorities. The integration of health and social care systems into so-called Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) has created the opportunity to better identify unpaid carers at the NHS level, but more still needs to be done within local authorities. In the short term, frontline staff need better training to identify and signpost carers to support.

Expanding support

The recent passage of the Care Leavers Act 2023, which received cross-party support, will give unpaid carers the right to take unpaid leave from employment in either half or whole days of up to one week per year. This is a significant step in supporting carers that are in employment while balancing their caring responsibilities, but many policymakers and advocacy groups are calling for more to be done.

For its part, the Labour Party has pledged to offer carers paid leave from employment as part of its employment rights green paper. Others have called for more flexible working arrangements and accommodation of caring responsibilities to be enshrined into law to give carers a better chance to join and stay in the workforce. Amazon recently introduced flexible ‘school term’ employment contracts for parents – perhaps employers should look at similar innovations for those with wider caring responsibilities.

Moreover, the state of the UK economy and the effects of inflation and raised serious question as to whether the financial support provided (or lack thereof) is sufficient. But supporting carers goes beyond employment, which is why the charity Carers UK has called on the Government to create a cross-Departmental Working Group focused on the issues faced by unpaid carers.

Conclusion

Unpaid carers play a crucial role in our society, providing invaluable support to their loved ones and often filling in gaps in a formal social care system that is under huge pressure. However, they often remain invisible, overlooked, and unsupported. The recognition and support for unpaid carers needs to be strengthened at both the national and local levels.

While there are existing support mechanisms in place, many carers are unaware of their entitlements or face difficulties navigating bureaucratic processes. Local authorities should fulfil their legal responsibility to identify carers and provide the necessary, tailored support. Furthermore, there should be better integration between health and social care systems to ensure a seamless identification and referral process.

It is important to remember that being a carer should be something an individual wants to do as it is the best option for their loved one, not a necessity. External support should be readily available, and the burden of care should not fall solely on unpaid carers due to gaps in the health and social care system. Failure to address these issues not only affects the carers themselves but also has significant economic consequences.

As a society, we must recognise the vital role of unpaid carers and provide them with the recognition, support, and resources they need. By doing so, we can honour their contributions, alleviate their burdens, and ensure a more equitable and compassionate society for all.

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