This House of Commons Library briefing paper provides information about the number of informal carers in the UK and the issues they face. It also explains the rights, benefits and support available to informal carers as well as current and previous Government policy on caring.

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The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) defines informal carers as:

…people who look after family members, friends, neighbours or others because of long-term physical or mental ill health or disability, or care needs related to old age. This does not include any activities as part of paid employment

The Family Resources Survey notes that informal carers can provide care for many, or only a few hours a week, and their caring takes many forms, being:

 Individuals who provide any regular service or help to someone. That person can be within or outside of their household, and might be sick, disabled or elderly; this description excludes those who give this service or help as part of a formal job.

How many informal carers?

The Family Resources Survey estimated that in 2018/19 around 7% of the UK population were providing unpaid care.

Contribution made by informal carers

Research commissioned by Carers UK and published in November 2015 estimated that 1.4 million people were providing 50 or more carer hours a week for a partner, friend or family member in the UK. As such they made a significant contribution to society and the NHS. The NHS has acknowledged this contribution, saying that it was “critical and underappreciated … not only to loved ones, neighbours and friends, but to the very sustainability of the NHS in England”.

Support for unpaid carers during the Coronavirus outbreak

Carers UK published a Research report on unpaid carers during the Coronavirus outbreak in April 2020. Its online survey of around 5,000 carers and former carers found that 70% were providing more care during the outbreak; 81% were spending more money, and 55% felt overwhelmed by the outbreak. Carers UK made several recommendations, including an increase to the Carer’s Allowance, publishing guidance for unpaid carers, and increasing the amount of personal protective equipment available.

To mark Carers Week 2020, Carers Weeks charities commissioned a report, The rise in the number of unpaid carers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak,  which estimated that around 4.5 million additional people had taken on caring responsibilities and a total of a quarter UK adults were now providing unpaid care to an older, disabled or ill relative or friend. The experience of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland carers are described in the report (pp24-31).

The DHSC published Covid-19 guidance for unpaid carers in April 2020 and defined unpaid carers as “essential workers” and a priority group for testing on 4 May (PQ 34066). The Government’s Action plan for adult social care (April 2020) also said local providers should contact unpaid carers to provide them with means to identify themselves to receive supplies and that the Government had provided additional funding for the Carers UK helpline. NHS England has confirmed that carers may call upon NHS volunteer responders for support during the outbreak.

The Government has also said that “unpaid carers can continue to claim Carer’s Allowance if they need to self-isolate. During the outbreak emotional support can also count towards the 35 hours a week Carer’s Allowance care threshold”(PQ 41020 and PQ 42186). They may, in certain circumstances, be eligible for statutory sick pay (PQ 31601).

The Scottish Government has issued advice for unpaid carers, including information on testing, and will make a one-off payment to unpaid carers in June. Guidance has also been issued for unpaid and young carers in Northern Ireland. The Welsh Government issued a statement confirming that it expects local authorities to maintain the rights of unpaid carers provided under the 2014 Care Act. Guidance was issued on 5 June and funding for the mental health of unpaid carers has also been announced.

As noted by the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Research Service, stakeholders did raise concerns that The Coronavirus Act 2020, through providing for a relaxation of local authority duties around the provision of care and support needs, may place additional pressures on unpaid carers. The Commons Library briefing Coronavirus: Local authorities’ adult social care duties (the Care Act easements) provides more information.

Carers’ incomes, health and wellbeing

Employment and income

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Family Resources Survey reports that half of informal carers were in employment in 2018/19 (including carers aged 65 and over). 33% of carers were working full-time and 17% were working part-time.

25% of carers were retired while 22% were economically inactive (in other words, not in work and not looking for work) for other reasons.

For just over half of carers, their main source of income was earnings from employment (54% of carers in 2018/19). State or private pensions were the main source of income for just over a quarter of carers (27%), while around 17% drew most of their income from other benefits or tax credits.

54% of adult carers had net weekly income (after taxes and benefits) below £300 per week.

Benefits

Carers could be entitled to a range of benefits, but the main cash benefits for those caring for disabled people is Carer’s Allowance, and the carer premium payable with means-tested benefits such as Income Support, Pension Credit and Housing Benefit. Universal Credit, which is replacing means-tested benefits for people of working age, also includes a carer element. Recipients of Carer’s Allowance must not be in full-time education, and must not have earnings of more than £128 per week after deductions. Consequently, individuals can experience problems combining receipt of Carer’s Allowance with paid work.

In November 2019 there were 1,296,700 Carer’s Allowance claimants in Great Britain. Women comprised 69% of the total.

Other support for carers

In schools: carers in schools may be able to access counselling services. They may also attract additional Pupil Premium funding for their schools if they are, or have previously been, entitled to free school meals. Data suggests a large proportion of young carers fall into this category.

In further education: students in England with caring responsibilities may be able to access discretionary 16-19 bursary support. However, being in full-time education means they cannot claim Carer’s Allowance.

In higher education: mainstream student support funding includes additions for students with qualifying adult dependents.

Social services: carers are entitled to a statutory assessment of their support needs, undertaken by the local authority. The assessment must consider a range of factors such as what assistance the carer requires to continue providing care, and their own independent needs, and, in the case of young people, whether it is appropriate for the child to provide care in light of their own needs. 

Since 1 April 2015, any adult carer who meets national eligibility criteria must be provided with services to meet their needs. Even when these eligibility criteria aren’t met, local authorities have discretionary powers to provide support. For young carers, there are no national eligibility criteria and local authorities need only consider their assessment in deciding whether to provide support.

Health: NHS England’s 2014 Commitment to Carers recognises and highlights the importance of carers to the NHS, and sets out a series of commitments that NHS England will do to support carers. The Carers Action Plan 2018-2020: Supporting carers today, published in June 2018, included a commitment that the NHS England and the Care Quality Commission would work together to develop quality standards for general practitioner surgeries to demonstrate how effective they are in identifying and supporting carers. The NHS Long Term Plan, published in January 2019, repeated the commitment to improve how the NHS identifies unpaid carers, and strengthen support for them to address their individual health needs. On 11 June 2019, NHS England announced a voluntary scheme for GP practices, aimed at young carers. This will encourage practices to identify and support children and young people providing informal care for family members.

Additional briefings

The Commons Library has also published:

Material has also been published relating to Devolved policies:

  • Commons Research Briefing CBP-7756
  • Authors: Andy Powell, Brigid Francis-Devine, David Foster, Djuna Thurley, Nerys Roberts, Philip Loft, Rachael Harker, Roderick McInnes, Shadi Danechi, Steven Kennedy, Tom Powell
  • Topics: Benefits, Families & Social Services, Schools, Work & Incomes

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