Time to build 'Carer Friendly Communities'

This article was originally published on Politics Home (14th June 2017)

After an election campaign that saw headlines dominated by the critical issue of care for elderly and disabled people, it seems appropriate that Parliament should return during National Carers Week 2017 (12-18 June).

More than 6.5 million people are currently providing care for someone who is elderly, disabled or seriously ill. By 2037, it is estimated that this number will rise to 9 million as we contend with an ageing population and a surge in the number of people with long-term complex needs.

Whether it’s looking after a frail parent or a disabled child, unpaid carers do an incredible job and it is essential that their contribution is properly recognised. But in reality, this work too often goes unnoticed – and we know that the pressure of being a carer can take its toll. 

Although caring for a loved one can be rewarding, the intolerable truth is that many carers in this country are not recognised as individuals with needs and lives of their own. Around 1 in 5 carers are forced to give up work, with others having to work part-time or sacrifice their education due to a lack of support. Many more suffer financial hardship, isolation, and ill health that is often left untreated.

What does it say about our society if those who care for us in sickness or old age are pushed to the fringes of their communities – unrecognised, under-valued, and all too often unable to lead a fulfilling life?

For the last few years, I have been pleased to support the National Carers Week campaign to build ‘Carer Friendly Communities’. The aim is to encourage organisations and communities to make small changes that could help people who are trying to balance their own lives with their caring responsibilities. That could be something as simple as GP surgeries offering alternative appointment times, coursework extensions in colleges, or more flexible working hours in the workplace.  

Building ‘Carer Friendly Communities’ is not an aspiration we can pay lip service to. It is a moral demand on all of us to ensure that carers are supported to live not just as carers, but as individuals in their own right, who are able to enjoy the same opportunities as others in their community.

However, I also want to see carers given more support financially. When more than half of carers (54%) are struggling to make ends meet, it’s clear that we are failing in our basic responsibility to give carers the support they need to live comfortably. Disgracefully, many of those who are in economic hardship are already trying to juggle care with work.

I was proud that the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto committed to raising the amount people can earn before losing the Carer’s Allowance from £110 to £150 a week, as well as reducing the number of hours’ care needed to qualify for this allowance. 

We also proposed a new legal duty on the NHS to identify carers and develop a ‘Carer’s Passport’ scheme to inform carers of the rights they have in the NHS, such as flexible visiting hours and access to support. Full-time carers are more than twice as likely to suffer from poor health than non-carers, so it is critically important that the Government introduces a similar scheme to help people to seek support when they experience stress or other health problems.

But as an urgent priority following the general election debacle, the Government must face up to its mistakes and change course on Theresa May’s catastrophic plans for the funding of social care. We should be in no doubt about the far-reaching implications of the ‘Dementia Tax’. Among the most insidious of these is the likelihood that, faced with the prospect of a massive care bill, a substantial number of people will take on less professional care than they need. If that happens, we will end up with more people unnecessarily admitted to hospital. Family and friends who already often go the extra mile will be forced to take on even more responsibility as unpaid carers.

Instead of pressing ahead with these misguided plans, the Conservatives should accept the new reality of having no overall majority and embrace the approach I have been arguing for over the last 18 months – establishing a cross-party process to engage with the public with the objective of securing a long-term settlement for the NHS and social care. 

The Liberal Democrats would argue, through such a process, for an immediate injection of an extra £6bn each year, funded by a penny on income tax. In the longer-term, we would argue for the introduction of a dedicated NHS and Care Tax. Increased funding is as critical for carers as it is for those who are cared for. 

Carers Week is a welcome opportunity for us to recognise the inspiring and dedicated work carers do, and to raise awareness of the day-to-day pressures and challenges they face. As a society, we have a responsibility to ensure that unpaid carers are properly valued and supported – but we must also hold the Government to account on its duty to invest in a compassionate and effective social care system that can support the most vulnerable in our society. 

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