We define ourselves in many ways – by our jobs, our interests, our roles in the family. I’m a Midlands girl, a working mum of four, a dog-lover. And like many other women in their early fifties, I am an unpaid carer.
I’m a sandwich carer, which means I care for both a child and an elderly relative – my mother has dementia - and one of the one in four women aged 50-64 with caring responsibilities for older, disabled or seriously ill loved ones. Though not explicitly a women’s issue, 58% of carers are women and women are more likely to be providing ‘round the clock’ care.
Caring is a subject very close to my heart, and I know how challenging it can be to juggle caring responsibilities with a full-time job. My mother receives excellent care in Cumbria, which enables me to continue my work as an MP – including as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Caring, among other roles. However, many people have no choice but to reduce their working hours, or give up work all together, to provide care.
As well as the financial impact, this can put a strain on a carer’s mental and physical health. It can be easy to forget about your own needs while focusing on the here and now of caring responsibilities, and the theme of this year’s Carers’ Rights Day is Caring For Your Future, raising awareness of the needs of carers and making carers aware of where to turn for help and support.
This Conservative Government recognises becoming a carer is often borne out of both love and necessity – but that doesn’t make it any easier. Earlier this year ministers from across government launched the Carers Action Plan to better support unpaid carers. This two-year programme, working alongside employers, charities, and other organisations, will seek to raise the profile of carers and the gap they bridge between local health services and the patient.
Various government departments will be exploring how to improve employment support for carers, promoting best practices for flexible working alongside caring. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will consider implementing dedicated employment rights for carers, while the Government Equalities Office has a £1.5million fund to support projects for full-time carers returning to work. And a new £500,000 Carer Innovations Fund will be used to find innovative ways to ensure carers feel respected and valued, rather than taken for granted and overlooked.
Significantly, there is a vast hidden value to unpaid care; estimates suggest the care provided by women alone is worth £77billion to the economy, of a total £132billion provided by all carers. Because of these huge sums, we need to ensure we have a long-term, sustainable and fully funded system of support.
As such, the DWP is working on ensuring benefits, such as the Carer’s Allowance and Universal Credit, meet the needs of working carers. And in October’s budget, the Chancellor allocated a further £650 million to local authorities for social care spending over the next two years. Combined with the recent £3.5billion allocation for community-based rapid response teams to provide urgent care and support at home, this should mean unpaid carers have more resources to call on when looking after their loved ones, avoiding stressful hospital admissions and the additional pressures these can entail.
The number of carers is increasing by 6,000 people each day to deal with our growing ageing population, and estimates suggest three in five people will become carers at some stage in their lives. With the Carers Action Plan, and the forthcoming social care Green Paper, I’m pleased there is now considerable commitment by the government to get community health services and carers’ support absolutely right.
Rachel Maclean is the Conservative MP for Redditch