Dan Parton cutCarers provide vital support to many people with mental ill health, saving the country billions per year. So why does the Carer’s Allowance remain at such a pitiful rate?

This week is Carer’s Week and across the country thousands of events and activities are taking place, including roadshows, sponsored walks, tea parties and information displays, all of which are designed to raise the profile of carers and the issues they face, but also help to ensure that carers receive the help and support they need.

This annual week plays a key role in highlighting issues that, in general, remain out of the public eye. One issue in particular that should have a higher profile is the rate of Carer’s Allowance, which remains at a scandalously low level and is helping to trap many carers – and the people they support – in poverty.

First some statistics, courtesy of the Princess Royal Trust for Carers: it is estimated that up to 1.5 million people in the UK are carers for a person with a mental health condition – about 1 in 4 of all carers – including some 50,000 children and young people.

Mental health carers spend an average of 60 hours per week on caring tasks. That is significantly more than the standard working week of 37.5-40 hours. Indeed, the European Working Time Directive states that no-one should spend more than 48 hours a week working. Remember also that carers who live with a person with mental ill health can be ‘on call’ 24/7. 

Additionally, respite services are being cut back in many areas, so the opportunities for carers to take a break from their duties – something acknowledged as vital in helping them maintain their role – are declining, edging more carers closer to breaking point.

So, given the amount of time mental health carers spend on caring tasks – which covers a myriad of things, such as personal care and administering medication – and that many are unable to remain in full-time work because of this, you would think that they would be adequately recompensed by the state?

But, of course, they aren’t. Not even close. Carer’s Allowance is a pitiful £61.35 per week. In order to qualify for this, the carer must spend at least 35 hours a week undertaking caring tasks. It is also taxable, means-tested and can affect the level of benefits the person being cared for receives (this gets very complicated – far too much to explain in a blog). 

But effectively, that means the carer spends the equivalent of a full-time job on caring tasks but gets paid less than £2 per hour for doing so. For comparison, the national minimum wage for someone aged over 21 is £6.31 per hour, or £220.85 per week (assuming a 35-hour working week), according to the www.gov.uk website. Over a year, that works out as £3,190 for Carer’s Allowance, compared to £11,484.20 for minimum wage – more than £8,000 difference. 

Given how much carers are estimated to save the state through reducing the need for access primary or secondary care services etc – estimated to be £119 billion across all carers – this disparity is nothing short of a scandal. 

This government, as well as the previous Labour administration, have consistently neglected this benefit. People who claim this benefit are not ‘shirkers’ or ‘scroungers’ – quite the opposite. While they might like to work, their caring duties mean they cannot. Indeed, by caring they are doing something much more important.

So why are they being punished for this? The level of benefit, and the way it can impact on other payments, means many carers and the people they support are trapped in poverty. For example, according to Carers UK, 49% of all carers have had to use savings to pay for essentials such as heating and food. This can have a negative impact on the physical and mental health of not only the carer, but the person they support, exacerbating the situation.

Ideally, Carer’s Allowance should be raised significantly – to minimum wage at least. If nothing else it would recognise the work carers do and the value that has, not only to the person or people they support, but to the nation as a whole.

Of course, this won’t happen, given the government’s commitment to austerity at all costs and reducing the benefits bill. Raising Carer’s Allowance won’t be in any party’s manifesto for next year’s general election either, as it’s not seen as a ‘vote winner’. So this situation is set to continue – and that is a real continuing hardship for many of those affected.