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28 June 2007

Anyone care about carers?

They talk a good talk, but do the politicians or anyone else for that matter really care about the c

By James Medhurst

One of Gordon Brown’s last acts as Chancellor of the Exchequer was to host a reception at Downing Street to celebrate Carers’ Week. He described carers as a “remarkable group in society; a lifeline for millions of people who rely on their compassion and dedication,” and few would disagree.

Unlike, say, single mothers or illegal immigrants, even the most virulent right-wing commentator would find it difficult to write a bad word to about carers and it is recognised that they are people for whom the word ‘scrounger’ would be singly inappropriate.

However, there is another side to this apparent gratitude. Although no-one would grudge them the limited support they already receive from the state, there is little evidence of a desire in mainstream politics for them to be entitled to any more, despite the vital work that they do. It seems that their goodwill and generosity is there to be exploited.

The main social security benefit is Carer’s Allowance of £48.65 a week, which works out at a paltry £1.39 per hour for a person caring for 35 hours a week. This is the minimum time commitment required to qualify but many carers work considerably more hours than this without an increase in their benefits, and this makes it extremely difficult for them to have a paid job as well. It is remarkable that they receive much less than people who are on Income Support.

The logic of the government for the rate seems to be that, because the person receiving the care will necessarily have an award of Disability Living Allowance, the cost of caring for them will already be covered and the carer only has to provide a rather large chunk of spare time. However, the lowest rate of DLA is only £17.10 a week and, perhaps because few ministers have to do their own shopping, they are unrealistic about how far this money will stretch. Such a small income is usually inadequate to cover the expenses required for their care and so the carer must often absorb these costs as well.

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Disability Living Allowance can be awarded to people who work or are receiving other benefits, the rationale being that it covers the cost of being disabled, rather than providing a basic income. A similar reasoning clearly should apply in the case of Carers Allowance, which ought to compensate carers for their time and effort, not just allow them to subsist if it is impossible for them to enter paid employment.

Nevertheless, in a simply striking demonstration of the fact that logic and policy do not go hand in hand, Carers Allowance is removed from people who receive more than a limited income from other sources, such as an old-age pension, a problem for the many carers over 65. A tiny supplement is added to their existing benefits instead. It is a shame that caring is not seen as real work which is worthy of financial reward in its own right, regardless of surrounding circumstances.

Despite all this, like disabled people, most carers would rather work than stay on benefits, given half the chance. The problem is that their employment rights are rather limited. A right now exists for a carer to request flexible working from an employer but there is no requirement that any such request be granted.

This could all change as a result of the case of Sharon Coleman, who is suing a former employer under the Disability Discrimination, Act, with the claim that discrimination against a carer qualifies as being “on the grounds of disability.” If the European Court of Justice accepts this argument then maybe the tide will begin to turn in favour of carers, who will start to get the recognition they deserve.

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