"I could not exist, much less live a fulfilling life, without my carer"

Writing for National Carers Week, Hannah Buchanan explains why the role of carers in our society is so important, and why we should be more aware of what they do for us.

This week is National Carers Week. In my eyes, carers are a group of unsung heroes who do not get the recognition they deserve.

Of course, as human beings we all know what it means to care. We believe in things we are passionate about, we care about friends and those who mean something to us. But being a carer is something different altogether. It means taking responsibility for somebody else’s life while forgoing your own. It is not an easy job and is fraught with challenges but is one that is very rewarding not to mention necessary.

For example, I write regularly on many different subjects. But let me put a very simple question to you – how do I get to the computer to file my pieces? How do I get enough energy sustenance and nutrition to complete the task? If I fancy a night out clubbing with my friends, how do I get there and who is waiting for me when I come back?

In all three scenarios the answer would of course be with my carer’s help. I could not exist, much less live a fulfilling life, without my carer.

Having been born with cerebral palsy, the role of caregiving has always been extremely important to me. In the earlier part of my life my main caregiver was my mother, who brought me up as a single mother and undertook all the duties around caring for me. She did this with little help from the Government, and very little help from the outside world. She was one of the army of unpaid carers who devote their time and energy to their children with disabilities.

My mother nurtured me in many ways, encouraging my ability to read and write, and also musical abilities too. She wanted the best for me and fought to ensure I got it. This meant my mother made many sacrifices for me. She could not go out to work nor earn money because her life was consumed with looking after me. She knew there was nobody else to help and the buck stopped with her. Although we visited my grandparents regularly when I was younger, and I could be left with them for short periods, they were not in any position to offer long-term assistance.

When I was 18, I went away to boarding school to do my A-levels. I took them at Alton College and boarded at Lord Mayor Treloar National Specialist College, a facility specially equipped for those with disabilities. Once at university in Oxford, I was cared for firstly by in-house students on gap years, and then later on care was provided by specific agencies, enabling me to take full advantage of the rich academic and social programme Oxford had to offer. It was a beautiful city, a beautiful time and there was never a dull moment. It was the first time I felt truly alive.

Following university, I moved to a local authority facility in Hampshire where my freedom was somewhat curtailed due to staffing constraints. I existed but looking back I never really lived. This was nobody’s fault - it was just the circumstances I found myself in at the time.

But it was when I moved into my bungalow that caring really came into its own. After meeting many nice people I established a firm relationship with the carer and friend I have to this day. She encourages me to live life to the full and I couldn’t do what I do without her. She enables me to take risks - not risks that put me in mortal danger, but perhaps situations I have not faced before that I would benefit from. Can you believe that before I met her I had never experienced the London Underground?

I feel in control of my own life thanks to carers. I feel empowered and able to make choices. But at the same time,  I never take my carer for granted and miss an opportunity to appreciate them. It is true to say that disability is to some extent a social construct. Since I met my current carer I feel far less disabled than I used to. I feel stronger and more confident – ready to participate in life.

I used to struggle to come out the house. I didn’t have agoraphobia or anything like that – I was just frightened. I’d been cooped up in the disability hostel for a long time and was just out of practice with life. But my carer helped me to regain that confidence.

However, I also feel that carers are highly underestimated and underappreciated in patriarchal society. To me, the job of carer should be on par with that of doctor. Doctors save lives but carers maintain quality of life so that a hospital admission is not needed in the first place. They keep people clean, hydrated, well-fed and happy. They help them maintain their hygiene and dignity. In short, my carer enables me to be an active participant rather than a spectator in my own life. That is a great thing to help somebody do and I feel it is woefully undervalued, both financially and personally, in 2013.

We need to be kinder to carers, pay them better and value their contributions more. Without my carer’s help, I literally would not be able to get out of bed in the morning. Without her encouragement, I would never have whizzed around the Underground. I am glad she’s here.


Everyone needs a hand to hold. Photograph: Getty Images

Hannah Buchanan is a blogger with a specific interest in LGBT, disability, and feminist issues and the potential crossover between them. Follow her @HannahBoo3131

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.