Today marks the annual Carers Rights Day, drawing attention to the help and financial assistance that carers are legally entitled to. Unpaid carers make up over 10% of the population, and look after family, friends or neighbours with an illness, disability or care needs due to old age. According to 2015 research by Sheffield and Leeds Universities, unpaid care saves the public purse up to £132 billion per year in health and care costs.

Legal recognition of the needs of carers is a relatively recent development, with the first related Act of Parliament only passed in 1995. Although changes to the law in 2014 saw a further strengthening of carers’ legal rights, significant numbers still aren’t accessing the support or claiming the benefits they’re entitled to.

Many also find themselves ineligible for support on the grounds of being in full-time education, earning above a certain amount or receiving a pension. On top of this, caring responsibilities can impact upon all aspects of a carer’s life, including their employment, education, health and mental wellbeing.

Who cares?

An ever increasing amount of care is being provided by an ever increasing number of carers.

The 2011 Census found that 6.5 million people in the UK were providing unpaid care, representing 10.3% of the population. Most of those providing unpaid care in the UK, around three quarters, do so for a family member, be that for a parent, partner or child. 58% of carers – 3.3 million people – are women.

Around 24% provide more than 50 hours of care per week, and the largest growth in number of carers since the previous 2001 census has come from this ’50 hours’ group.

Analysis of carers in England and Wales by the ONS found that the health of unpaid carers deteriorated in line with increasing time spent providing care. This health impact was particularly acute amongst young carers. Young carers are also more likely to not be in education, employment or training than other young people, and have lower levels of attainment in school.

Research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2016 found that the poverty rate among carers varied markedly by the number of hours of care they provided. 14% of working-age carers providing fewer than five hours of care per week were in poverty, rising to 37% for working-age carers providing at least 20 hours of care per week. The research also found that around 400,000 carers were combining full-time employment with significant caring responsibilities (over 20 hours per week).

Fighting for their rights

The carers’ rights movement has been active since at least the 1960s, although the achievement of legal rights and protections is relatively recent (Carers UK’s timeline highlights some of the key campaigns and achievements of the movement).

The first carer’s benefit was introduced in 1976, although the needs of carers in their own right, independent of those they cared for, was not recognised in law until 1995. Carers’ rights were further strengthened by the Care Act 2014, which for the first time required local authorities to identify those who might have care needs, and required these to be met. The Care Minister at the time described this change as a “historic step”.

There have also been more modest achievements recently related to Carer’s Allowance. This was exempted from the four-year freeze in working-age benefits announced in 2015, and since November this year, claimants have been exempted from the benefits cap. In Scotland, there are plans to increase Carer’s Allowance to the same rate as Jobseeker’s Allowance, and to introduce a new Young Carer’s Allowance.

Challenges ahead

Developments in Scotland however highlight ongoing difficulties faced by carers in the UK. Campaigners argue that Carer’s Allowance is paid at too low a level, and that there is little financial support for those aged under 16. The current rules also exclude those in full-time education, some claimants with a state pension, those in work earning more than £110 per week and those providing less than 35 hours of care per week. Even for those who can claim, Carers UK estimate that 35% of eligible UK carers are missing out on Carer’s Allowance.

In terms of carers’ new rights under the Care Act 2014, a study by the Carers’ Trust found that 69% of carers they surveyed felt that the Act had made no difference, that many remained unaware of their legal right to an assessment of needs, and that some were being charged by local authorities to access support services.

Whilst unpaid carers continue to face these and other challenges, and whilst they make up a significant portion of the population, the ongoing campaign for carers’ rights is likely to continue.

Our research briefing on carers can be found online.

Image: Watching, by Mooganic; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)