Picture a workforce six million strong, paid £50 a week, working long hours, often on call 24 hours a day, with few breaks or holidays. Some workers are as young as 14, while others are in their seventies or eighties. Their very existence, and their willingness to work, saves their government billions of pounds each year, yet they receive no training, little support and often give up the chance of building a life and career for themselves because of their circumstances. Many suffer from ill health due to the pressures they are under, enter a cycle of poverty and some have even been driven to suicide or violence because of their lot.
You’d be forgiven for thinking these are sweat shop workers in some developing country, but they’re not. I’m shocked to say that they are the UK’s invisible army of carers – people who every day look after their disabled or ill relatives in their homes and by doing so, save social services £87bn a year.
A few of you have left me comments during my current incapacity benefit challenge explaining the difficult situation many carers find themselves in, and I was curious to find out more. Gordon Conochie, who is Joint Policy and Parliamentary Officer at The Princess Royal Trust for Carers, the largest provider of services for carers in the UK and Crossroads Care, the leading provider of respite services for carers, filled me in.
“The pressures carers face are tough,” he told me. “For non-working carers, it’s a struggle every day to cover costs. You may have to run a car, you’re in the house a lot and need heating, the person you’re caring for may need a special diet which may be expensive. One in three carers cut back on food or heating. There is a huge impact on their quality of life and financial pressures exacerbate matters. The health of carers in general is worse than that of ordinary people.”
50 per cent of the UK’s six million carers also try to hold down a job, but one in five are forced to give up work. Many people make the active decision to be carers but don’t always realise what a heavy burden it will be. Social workers assess how much care and support a disabled or ill individual needs and, according to Gordon, if they say they have family members who can help them, the amount of social care they receive is reduced. But often the family carers themselves aren’t consulted by social services regarding how much support they can provide. “Sometimes they have to give up their lives because of these judgements, so there is a huge sense of injustice,” he reveals. “When people want to make the decision [to become a carer] we think it’s a good thing, but we don’t think they should have to give up their own life. Too many carers don’t get enough support and feel isolated.”
The plight of young carers looking after a sick parent while still at school is particularly shocking. They are often reluctant to get help or open up about their problems because they fear their families will be split up. “There’s also a huge problem with bullying,” Gordon admits, who writes a blog on issues affecting carers. “Research shows that 30 per cent of young carers are bullied. They are often branded as troublesome kids, too. If you’ve got a kid who is showing up late to school, with unwashed clothes, you might not realise that they’ve been up all night caring for their mum. You’d automatically think they were truanting.”
Young carers are often at a huge disadvantage career wise, too, missing out on university education and training opportunities. “If a young carer has the option of receiving the carer’s allowance or going to university and their family relies on [the money and help], the incentive is not to go to university,” he says.
As well as providing a network of advice centres and online support for carers, the Princess Royal Trust for Carers is busy lobbying the government. The trust wants the carer’s allowance to be raised from the current £50 a week rate and a ‘credits for caring’ scheme to be introduced. Campaigners are also angry that government money given to primary care trusts to provide carer support hasn’t been utilised for that purpose. “The majority of care and support in this country is provided by family, not social services,” says Gordon. “You wouldn’t treat a workforce like we treat carers.”
Do you think the carer’s allowance should be raised from £50 a week? Are you a young carer looking after your parents or relatives? How should the government improve the lot for carers? Leave a message and let me know.
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