21/10/2015 06:00 BST | Updated 19/10/2016 06:12 BST

Prevent, Reduce, Delay: Are Councils Meeting Their New Duties to Support Unpaid Carers?


Imagine you're an unpaid carer. You look after a family member. You cook for them, clean their house, do the washing, and look after the finances. Done all that? Now repeat - only for yourself. In between those tasks you go out to work to pay the bills, make sure your children are ferried to and from school, and, occasionally, catch some shut eye.

This is a big ask but it's also not an uncommon situation across households in the UK: there are 7 million unpaid carers working round the clock to support a friend or family member who is in need.

Under those pressures, it's hardly surprising that carers' health is often put under immense strain. More than half of carers report that their health has suffered as a result of their caring role.

It seems rather obvious, therefore, that we should be putting in place services to help carers manage their caring role and prevent their health from taking a downturn. It's in their interests, the interests of the person they care for, and best of the sustainability of our entire health and social care system.

And that is exactly what the new Care Act, which came into force this April, aims to do. It places a duty on councils to provide services that can "prevent, reduce, or delay" unpaid carers from developing their own support needs. As the old adage goes, prevention is better than cure.

Here at Carers Trust, the UK's largest charity for unpaid carers, we've been unsurprisingly keen to ensure that carers get the new rights they are entitled. This summer we sent out a Freedom of Information request to all councils in England with responsibility for social care asking them what they are doing to meet their new "prevention" duties.

Our findings are presented in a brand new report published today.

What we've found from our research is hard to distil into one article but there some common themes.

Firstly, its clear councils are in the early stages of developing their approaches to prevention. Across the 132 councils that replied to our FOI, just 20% mentioned a "Prevention Strategy" or "Prevention Approach". Of those, 40% made no reference at all to carers.

This is concerning however because it seems to leave carers' rights in a state of limbo.

Across the responses we received we found it difficult to determine how council policies are being designed specifically to meet the needs of carers. We found lots of examples of great support services - from information and advice to telecare, counselling to the coffee mornings - but it was rarely made clear whether these services were designed for carers or how they could be used to support the particular needs carers might have.

We also found very few examples of work being done by councils to identify carers. Just 17 councils (13% of those who replied) said they have projects designed to find and support carers. This is troubling. It means that the thousands of carers who go without support today - either because they don't recognise themselves as a carer or don't know where to go to to access support - will continue without help tomorrow. That weakens the ambitions of the Care Act because it means carers will not be given access to help, or even identified, until they are forced to reach for the emergency button.

But, we shouldn't despair. At this stage councils are still absorbing their new prevention duties. They're testing policies, seeking best practice, consulting with third party care providers. We still have a chance to influence the prevention agenda and that's why our report sets a number of recommendations to councils on how they can best meet the needs of carers. It includes developing a new "prevention strategy" consulted on with carers and designed around their needs, encouraging councils to do more to identify carers, and creating a national bank of the best policies councils have developed to enhance carers' health. By adopting our recommendations, we believe councils and central government will be able to ensure that the ambitions of the Care Act to protect carers and enhance their wellbeing will finally be realised.

Download a full copy of our report here.