Our regular columnist and Nottingham East MP tackles an important topic during Carers Week...
The second week of June (5-11 this year) is Carers Week - an annual campaign drawing attention to the enormous contributions of this often-ignored group.
There are anywhere between 10 and 16 million disabled people in the UK. Every single one of them deserves to have their basic needs met, and more: to live a fulfilling life as part of society, with as much freedom and independence as possible. For some, this requires having the support of another person or people to assist them with daily tasks.
Like many roles disproportionately performed by women, caring work - whether paid or unpaid - is underappreciated and can feel invisible. As a former care worker, I find it absurd that many people consider it an “unskilled” job. It’s both physically and emotionally demanding, requires an in-depth knowledge of a person’s needs, and calls for impeccable attention-to-detail - you don’t want to miss any small change that can be a symptom of a serious medical problem. You might be administering medication, helping someone who had a fall, or trying to brighten someone’s day who has no one else to talk to - while knowing that, during every shift, you’re responsible for another person’s life.
But acknowledgement alone is not enough. We all remember the early days of the pandemic, when Government ministers enthusiastically took part in the weekly ritual of clapping for our carers. Sadly, this performative appreciation didn’t come with any material change. More than three years on, many of my old colleagues are having to cope with the cost-of-living crisis on the minimum wage and a zero-hours contract.
The systemic underfunding of social care has wide-ranging consequences
As a result, around 165,000 roles in social care in England are unfilled, as workers struggling to pay the bills quit for higher-paid jobs elsewhere. But instead of investing in decent pay and conditions for staff, the Tories have recently decided to cut £250 million from the funding aimed at supporting and growing the social care workforce, a Health Service Journal report found.
The systemic underfunding of social care has wide-ranging consequences. Apart from the workers, those most directly impacted are disabled people themselves. According to Age UK, 2.6 million people over fifty have unmet care needs. Privatisation has meant care homes being run by unaccountable, for-profit companies, leading to English councils spending £480 million in four years on homes deemed inadequate and unsafe, claims a Guardian investigation.
Where social care is lacking, the NHS often picks up the slack. Guardian analysis found that, in some hospitals, up to one in three beds are occupied by patients who no longer need to be there but cannot be discharged - because they have nowhere else to go where they’d get appropriate support. This deepens the crisis in our health service, while depriving thousands of the chance to live a more independent life.
While campaigning for fair pay and conditions for care workers, we can’t forget about unpaid carers, who are supporting an ill or disabled person in their lives. According to the latest census, there are 5 million unpaid carers in England and Wales. Charities estimate that the real number could even be twice as high, because many carers don’t identify as such, instead seeing their duties as part of being a good relative, friend, or partner. For the same reason, many might not be accessing the government support they’re entitled to. But work done out of love is still work, and those performing it deserve a decent standard of living, too.
Unpaid carers must get proper financial support, and have the option of accessing free respite care when they need a break
The Carer’s Allowance, available to people who spend at least 35 hours weekly on their duties, is only £76.75 per week - the lowest benefit of its kind. A survey by Carers UK found that over a quarter of carers are struggling to make ends meet, one in five struggle to afford food, and one in twelve of those receiving Carer’s Allowance have had to use a food bank. Carers also face barriers in the workplace, and loneliness, stress and financial pressures can contribute to poor mental health.
Like raising children, ensuring the dignity of elderly and disabled people shouldn’t just be the responsibility of their loved ones. Our whole society must be organised in a way that enables it. This starts with a National Care Service, free at the point of use, fully public, and democratically-run in the interests of workers and care recipients. People who need care should be able to decide what’s best for them, including if they’re better off in a residential setting or their own home.
Unpaid carers must get proper financial support, and have the option of accessing free respite care when they need a break. Work should also be flexible, to give equal opportunities to people with caring responsibilities. One week of unpaid care leave, granted by the Government last year, is a step forward - but given the high rates of poverty among carers, many won’t be able to take it anyway. In order to be fair, it must be fully-paid. In my column last month, I wrote about the growing movement for a four-day working week. Time off is a carers’ rights issue, too. Having more of it would allow all of us to spend more time looking after those we love, and reduce the pay gap carers face.
Caring for one another is part of what makes us human. Most of us will need care at some point of our lives, and many of us will provide it. This Carers Week, let’s acknowledge the vital importance of care, and campaign for a better deal for those who give and receive it.
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