Unpaid carers are the backbone of our society – their priorities should be our priorities

Local communities rely on the commitment and compassion of unpaid carers to carry on, despite the challenges they face on a daily basis. They are the backbone of our society and often go unrecognised. Earlier this year we announced the launch of a UK-wide research project which focused on identifying gaps in support and sought to understand the views of unpaid carers – involving them in a structured exercise to help determine their education and training needs. I am delighted that we published the report findings yesterday.

The research brings into sharp focus those issues that are placing increased pressure on unpaid carers. For example, loneliness, poor mental health, financial worries and a lack of flexibility to learn and train. We have outlined five recommendations which aim to encourage the Government, third and private sectors to develop a renewed vision and package of support for unpaid carers.

YouGov, whom we commissioned to deliver the research, identified several key challenges which informed the development of our recommendations.

Recommendation one: identification, signposting and targeting of Information

Given the range of physical and mental health impacts associated with a caring role, early identification of carers is important so that support can be directed quickly in an attempt to mitigate some of the issues they face. The Government is required to identify them but cannot do so in isolation. It will need to work closely with the third and private sectors to better utilise existing information about carers. Our research also identified that carers needed better signposting to understand the process for accessing benefits and other financial advice. We believe the Government should engage experts from all sectors to develop a new nationwide capability to help identify, invite consent from, then, signpost and target useful information in respect of unpaid carers.

Recommendation two: flexible education taskforce for young carers

Young carers told us that they were struggling to meet deadlines and often needed work extensions at school. A lack of flexibility was the stand-out issue for many of the younger carers who participated in our research project. The Department for Education has a key leadership role in this area. Our concern is that young carers run the risk of being left behind by the education system. It is right that the Government looks at early intervention to help support young carers with the aim to reduce their caring responsibilities. Young carers should be able to prioritise their studies, but it is often difficult to achieve the right balance. The legal requirement to attend school needs to be looked at carefully in the context of establishing greater flexibility for carers to continue their studies whilst carrying out their caring responsibilities. To understand how this will work in practice, we have proposed the establishment of a dedicated taskforce to explore the potential to introduce flexible and/or online educational provision to improve the life chances of young carers as part of the current education system.

Recommendation three: new training pathway

One way to address wellbeing issues faced by unpaid carers is to better support their work-life-care balance. There are no easy answers. The Government’s adult social care Green Paper will need to look carefully at how to improve the support for carers more generally. Initiatives that focus on flexible working, enhanced employment support and the use of technology can make a difference, but something more fundamental is needed. There needs to be culture change, whereby communities are encouraged to support and recognise carers contributions. This will not happen overnight, but the Government has a key leadership role to play.

Carers can also face uncertainty when their caring responsibilities reduce or come to an end. If they had a career before and need retraining, the Government needs to step in and help. The Government already has employment support programmes which help the long-term unemployed and disabled people into work. It seems reasonable to suggest that a dedicated training programme, designed specifically for carers, who require retraining to get back into work, would be a sensible way forward. Helping carers achieve their work and training ambitions will benefit both the economy and society. That’s why we want the Government’s adult social care Green Paper to include considerations around supporting carers’ work-life-care balance – helping carers to manage their work commitments whilst maintaining their caring responsibilities, as well as preventing them from falling behind from the point of view of career progression.

Recommendation four: cost of caring

Our research found that transport costs are a real worry for carers, particularly the cost of travelling to medical appointments. Ireland has a free travel scheme for unpaid carers who are in receipt of the Irish version of Carer’s Allowance. Carers who qualify for the scheme can use public bus and rail services. What we are proposing is slightly different, but we can begin to establish an indication of the spending commitment. In 2017, the total number of people in Ireland eligible for the free travel scheme was 1 million (including pensioners, disabled people and those who qualify through certain benefits), costing the Irish taxpayer €77 million.[1] 7 per cent of those registered under the scheme in 2017 were carers, which is an estimated cost of €5.39 million.[2] There are more carers in the UK, around 6.5 million according to Carers UK.[3] Although we cannot make a like-for-like comparison with the Irish scheme, the rough cost of our per annum fund would need to be in the region of £25-£30 million to manage the demand. It would also need to be a central government scheme managed by the Department for Work and Pensions, rather than local government, because of the scale of demand that would need to be managed.

How to fund such a proposal in England and Wales (the Scottish Government has the ability to top-up benefits as part of its devolution deal) and what the eligibility criteria would be is a matter for the Government to decide. What we are calling on the Government to do is seriously consider establishing a fund to support carers’ transport costs because a per annum transport payment or top-up could potentially reduce administration costs and help carers manage their tight household budget.

Recommendation five: priority treatment

We know from our research findings that unpaid carers mental and physical health is impacted by their role. Increased stress, depression, reduced fitness and back pain came up as common impacts of unpaid care. The NHS Long-Term plan includes 24-hour access to mental health crisis care and the Government’s own Carers Action Plan suggests that:

“The green paper will also address other areas of importance to carers, including improving the quality of care, increasing personalisation…”[4]

Progress in this area will only be achieved once the adult social care Green Paper is published and the consultation begins in earnest. Until that happens, carers will remain in limbo. Our recommendation calls on the Government to look at new ways to prioritise the physical and mental health needs of unpaid carers. This should include committing to priority treatment for the most common mental and physical health issues developed in the course of undertaking a caring role.

Call to action

Our research and recommendations add to the existing evidence base about improving the lives of unpaid carers. We hope that our report reinforces the messages made by other organisations and carers themselves about the urgent need for more support. Our recommendations are intended to complement the policy proposals made by organisations working in this area, such as Carers UK, Carers Trust, Age UK, Independent Age and coalitions like the Care & Support Alliance and National Voices. It is not solely the duty of Government to deal with all of the issues that have been identified in our research report – responsibility needs to be shared more widely. As we head towards Carers Week, we are calling on the Government, local authorities, employers and the public to share one way they can make a difference to the lives of unpaid carers. It could be that an employer offers some form of flexibility to their employees who have caring responsibilities, or a local authority offers to set up a peer support group for carers. One small act of kindness goes a long way. Let’s come together as a society and do something positive for these unsung heroes who deserve greater recognition and support for their commitment to others.

Download the full report here.

[1] Lynne Kelleher, Irish Examiner, Free travel for nearly 1m people cost €77m in 2017, April 2018 [online], available from: https://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/free-travel-for-nearly-1m-people-cost-77m-in-2017-469806.html

[2] Fiach Kelly, The Irish Times, Numbers qualifying for free travel rising every year, January 2017 [online], available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/numbers-qualifying-for-free-travel-rising-every-year-1.2939398

[3] Carers UK, Facts & figures, May 2019 [online], available here: https://www.carersuk.org/news-and-campaigns/press-releases/facts-and-figures

[4] Department of Health and Social Care, Carers Action Plan 2018-2020: Supporting carers today, June 2018 [online], page 9, available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/713781/carers-action-plan-2018-2020.pdf