Last week (10-16 June 2019) was Carers’ Week- a chance to recognise the contribution of the six and a half million people in the UK who provide unpaid care. There are large numbers of people in Oxford who regularly look after a loved one who needs extra help because of their age, disability or illness. Indeed, surveys suggest that one in eight of my constituents in Oxford East is performs caring duties for a family member or friend.
Many carers are themselves elderly and caring for an unwell spouse. Others have had to reduce their hours at work, or even stop work completely in order to make sure that the person they care for remains safe and well.
The burden of caring can be substantial. Overall, unpaid carers are estimated to save the public purse around £132billion a year. But carers themselves often struggle to make ends meet- as I have sadly seen far too often during my constituency surgeries. For others, the mental drain of caring can be substantial- borne out by the fact that around three in five carers have experienced mental health problems such as depression.
One helpful change for carers would be to recognise the financial impact of caring by raising the ‘Carers’ Allowance’ for those people who care for more than 35 hours a week. The Allowance has not gone up in line with other forms of benefit (like Jobseekers’ Allowance), and at £62 it does not cover many carers’ costs. Labour has pledged to increase the Allowance by 17%, which would help to redress the balance. We also need policy-makers to be much more aware of how benefits like Carers’ Allowance interact with other measures. When the National Living Wage increased, for example, this meant that many people who were only working a few hours a week lost all of their entitlement to Carers’ Allowance- which seems very unfair.
Secondly, workplaces need to adapt, so that those carers who want to work can do so. There is a particular problem for ‘sandwich carers’- who are often women, looking after children plus one or more elderly relatives. Despite evidence that many such carers would like to work part-time or flexibly, less than half are able to do so. This is an enormous waste of resources and should be rectified with a stronger presumption towards ‘flexibility’ in place.
Finally, we need to acknowledge that carers come in all shapes, sizes- and ages. There are an estimated 200,000 young carers across the UK. The Oxfordshire charity ‘Be Free Young Carers’ suggests that at least 2,900 of them live in our county, where they often struggle to access services and support. Cuts to social care provision appear to be pushing more young people into caring roles- with implications for youngsters’ mental health and progression at school. Be Free Young Carers does great work enabling these youngsters to make friends with other carers and get some time away from their responsibilities. But in the long run, we need a social care system which actually relieves the pressure on young carers on a permanent basis.