Jeremy Corbyn delivered his first speech following Theresa May’s snap general election announcement from the Birmingham Carers Hub where he’d gone to listen to more than 60 carers looking after loved ones who are older, disabled or seriously ill.
And while he was in the city, he announced a significant key policy for the Labour party, to boost carer’s allowance by 17 per cent – or £10 a week. The 800,000 carers currently in receipt of carer’s allowance receive just £62.70 to care for a loved one for 35 hours or more a week – and the benefit is only available to those earning less than £116 per week after deductions. The promised increase would be paid for by reversing George Osborne’s inheritance tax cut and would bring carer’s allowance to the same level as job seeker’s allowance.
Few would argue that the increase is over-generous. Since 2010, the allowance has only risen by £450 a year. Carers make a huge contribution to society and, according to Carers UK, in the process save taxpayers save taxpayers £132bn a year that would otherwise need to be spent on care.
Labour was behind the initial introduction of carer’s allowance thanks to secretary of state for social services, Barbara Castle MP and minister for the disabled, Alf Morris MP. First introduced as invalid care allowance in 1976, the benefit was the first of its kind not only in the UK, but across the world. In its initial form it was far from ideal with low payments and soon-to-be controversial exclusions, including married women (who it was assumed would be financially supported by their husbands).
Forty years later Labour has another opportunity to lead the way by extending support to carers. A 17 per cent increase in carer’s allowance is long overdue – and will make a difference to the lives of around 1 million carers by 2020/21. There is, however, scope – and indeed a need – for Labour to go even further.
Given that most carers are between 45 and 64 years of age it is crucial to provide support for working carers. Accounting for one in in nine of the British workforce people with caring responsibilities are under huge pressure. One in six of them will either have to give up work to care or be forced to reduce their hours. Carers who decide to – or have no other option than to – leave their job often experience feelings of isolation and find it difficult to return to the workforce when their caring journey ends. With the number of carers in the UK set to rise to 9 million over the next 30 years, this is an issue that cannot be ignored. Labour should therefore also include a manifesto commitment to introduce the right to paid care leave. This flexibility would enable more carers to stay in work.
The number of carers in the UK is on the rise as a result of an ageing population, but also because of a worsening social care crisis. Indeed, in his announcement last week Corbyn cited Tory cuts to council social care budgets of £4.6bn as the reason “millions of unpaid carers have been forced to fill the gap”.
Labour’s manifesto must, then, also address the chronic under funding of social care in the UK. Back in January Corbyn, addressed the Fabian Society New Year conference with a promise that a Labour government would “give social care the funding it needs.” He also pledged to nationalise failing private care homes in response to Care Quality Commission findings that one in five nursing homes were understaffed. Alongside these commitments, Labour should look to adopt and adapt its 2015 manifesto pledges to better integrate health and social care, to recruit more home care workers and to end time-limited 15-minute social care visits.
Resurrecting the social care system will take time – even under a Labour government. In the meantime, the £10-a-week increase in carer’s allowance will help ensure carers can continue to look after their loved ones without living in poverty.