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The Care Act was meant to help transform support for unpaid carers – what went wrong?

Ten years ago today (14th May), the Care Act received Royal Assent and with it came the hope that things would finally change for this country’s devoted unpaid carers. Introduced by David Cameron’s government, the Act was intended to be a game-changer.

It promised that people who looked after family and friends due to disability, illness or addiction would no longer have their needs ignored. Their own rights to care and support would be enshrined in law. Their lives would be improved. 

Ten years and four Prime Ministers later, instead of a sea change, what we’ve seen is stagnation. During the decade since the Act came into force, a staggering 43 million people have provided unpaid care and the pressures carers now face are even more crushing than in 2014.

The ever-increasing hours they spend looking after loved ones are destroying people’s finances, health and wellbeing. Outside of the support provided by overstretched local carer organisations, they are largely left to fend for themselves. How did it go so wrong? 

The Care Act had some important aims. It said carers would have the same right to support as those they care for. A focus on wellbeing and choice for carers would be front and centre.

There would be a duty on local councils to reduce the need for support, provide information and advice to carers, and to provide a carer’s assessment. NHS bodies also had a duty to cooperate with local authorities on these goals. 

Although there has been progress on some of these fronts, it has been wildly uneven across the country, creating a postcode lottery of support.

Sadly, the same can be said of the Social Services and Wellbeing Act in Wales or the Children and Families Act – both marking their 10th anniversaries this year and also seeing many of their goals unachieved. 

The Care Act had the potential to transform carers’ lives – unfortunately the funding to make that a reality has been nowhere near enough.

Carers routinely tell us they’re waiting months for their assessments, while the idea that both they and the person they’re caring for are having their support needs met is for the birds.

Perhaps this is no surprise. In many areas, council budgets have been cut to the bone while we’re still waiting for the Government’s long-promised, long-term plan to reform social care funding.

There’s little capacity for the needs of unpaid carers to be heard and even less scope for their needs to be properly addressed. 

Pressure on carers is ramping up

But something has to urgently change. What's needed now is a fundamental rethink of how we support carers. With millions of them across the UK, there are simply too many people whose pressing needs are not being met.

The failure of the Act to create meaningful change for them has seen a worsening quality of life for many over the past 10 years.

They constantly tell us they’re providing excessive amounts of care, can’t get a break, are at risk of burnout and are developing health issues of their own. 

A Carers Trust survey in 2023 showed 41% of carers had seen the time they spent caring increase in the previous 12 months.

The census has also shown 47% of carers aged over 65 spend 50 hours a week or more looking after loved ones, while, you’re more likely to be a carer if you live in a deprived area of the country.

Worryingly, this divide has increased since the 2011 census, suggesting a failure by Government to provide proper support for carers and the services that help them. The gender divide is also failing to close, with more women and older people providing care from home. 

At the same time, their financial woes are increasing. In 2022, we found that one in seven had to use a food bank due to the spiralling cost of living and having to cut back on working hours or give up employment because of their caring role.

We know that carers are more likely to live in poverty than the wider population. Yet those on Carer's Allowance were excluded from the Government’s cost of living payments, despite evidence of their financial hardship.

In some cases, carers aren’t just being ignored, they’re being scapegoated by the UK Government’s obsession with so-called “sick note culture”.

The media has recently highlighted how people who made honest mistakes in claiming Carer’s Allowance are being threatened with prosecution and asked to pay back eye-watering sums of money, sometimes in the tens of thousands.

These overpayments – something Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) systems are meant to flag up – have often been allowed to build up over several years. Yet nothing appears to have been done to improve the system, despite promises made five years ago by the DWP to MPs.

Clearly, any government which is serious about helping the UK’s millions of unpaid carers needs to clean up this mess and reform the whole system.

And by finally tackling the social care crisis, they would also save so many families from having to plug the gaps themselves by looking after people at home. 

And the responsibility of this care is not falling on adult shoulders alone. There are an estimated one million young carers in the UK, some as young as five years old. For them, things have not improved in the past decade either.

It is nothing short of shameful that, in 21st century Britain, children are having to spend 50 hours or more a week looking after their family members. Yet, for 15,000 children, including 3,000 aged just five to nine, that is precisely what’s happening. 

A parliamentary inquiry last year found the levels of care our children provide has a clear impact on their education, wellbeing and prospects.

They miss more days of school, they’re 38% less likely to get a degree and their future employment rates are lower than their peers.

These young people should be identified early by local authorities and schools but, yet again, too many are left unidentified and unsupported until their situation reaches crisis point.

Like adult carers, many of these young people rely on local carer organisations for advice, support and an invaluable break from their day-to-day responsibilities.

But some of these organisations are struggling to cope with rising demand and constrained access to funding in the current climate. Without support from local and central government, there’s no guarantee they will continue. 

The Care Act failed because local authorities were starved of the funding to make it work. Millions of people are paying the price. Politicians must finally get a grip on the issue of unpaid care.

A national, cross-government strategy which includes young carers is urgently needed. Without it, we’ll face another 10 years of failure and millions more lives being blighted.  


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