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Society, Politics & Law

A nation of unpaid carers

Updated Wednesday, 30th April 2014

Britain's army of unpaid carers has increased during the life of the Coalition as cuts hit child and older people care provision, reports Dick Skellington. 

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Cartoon of Nick Clegg and David Cameron with the words 'Unpaid Carers: Cameron and Clegg Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Catherine Pain

The Easter holidays is always a busy time. A curious thing happens to our High Street in Stony Stratford. Cafés which are usually relatively uncrowded suddenly fill up with older people and young children, as grandparents keep their family going while mum and dad go to work. School holidays bring about an increase in the need for family care provision. They remind us that there are child and adult carers who are plugging the holes in the welfare lifeboat every day of the week, school holidays or not. We are reminded of the hidden army of carers our society that government (and ourselves) seems increasingly to take for granted.

This year official figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that over 5.8 million people in England and Wales (untold more in Scotland) now provide unpaid care. Since 2001, the number of unpaid carers has risen by over 600,000, as more and more mothers go out to work.

Imagine you are in government and examining the issue. You realise that this unpaid army of carers is actually saving you £340bn a year. Yes, that is right, three hundred and forty billion pounds EACH year. The unpaid carers include grandparents of course, but also a rising number of unpaid child carers – some as young as five – as well as legions of adult carers, sacrificing their own employment prospects by caring for a loved one.

Almost 10,000 five- to seven-year-olds act as carers for relatives, an increase of over 80 per cent in the last ten years. According to the 2011 England and Wales Census, over 1,600 of these young carers look after relatives for more than 50 hours a week. It is estimated that over 180,000 children are missing out on their childhoods caring for relatives, a rise of 20 per cent in the last decade. Over 20,000 of these children provide between 20 and 49 hours care a week, while over 16,000 provide more than 50 hours. Many of these children experience health and education deprivations. Some have to miss out on school.

The Children's Society found that child carers have lower educational attainment – up to nine GCSE grades lower – than their classmates who do not care for relatives. They are also one and a half times more likely to suffer a long-standing illness, have a disability, or need special educational provision.

More girls than boys are carers according to the census: 95,250 against 82,668. The proportions for adult carers is similar, most are women. In the past decade the number of women in full-time work and providing at least 50 hours each week has risen by 39 per cent. Statisticians believe this is the tip of an iceberg of unmeasured unpaid care, and that the real scale of the provision is far greater.

The Care Bill and the Children and Families Bill, currently going through Parliament, do at least seek to remove some barriers so local authorities can support these carers and ensure that children are prevented from taking on inappropriate caring. But as we all know in this age of austerity, local authority budgets are being squeezed. These unpaid carers are a classic example of how one part of Cameron's 'Big Society' can become lost, or taken for granted.

The ONS data endorses the need for greater recognition by all government of the role played by unpaid carers in our society. Of the 5.8 million providing unpaid care, 3.7 million provide free care for up to 129 hours a week, 775,000 for between 20 and 49 hours a week, and 1.4 million for more than 50 hours a week.

Helena Herklots, Chief Executive of Carers UK, has urged the Coalition Government to invest much more in care for children and the elderly. "We need government investment in all services, from childcare to elderly care. Without this extra funding we will continue to see women drop out of the labour market to fill gaps in care provision.". We also need more employers to embrace flexible working, so that carers can juggle their commitments and their working lives.

It will be interesting to see if policy is promised in the political manifestos to help unpaid care. I doubt it. After all if the army of carers is saving you over £1,500 billion during the lifetime of a government, and your raison d'etre is austerity, why bother?

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.





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