As the party conference season begins, Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers and former ministers seem determined to create a PR smokescreen over the gaps and errors in their policies affecting carers.
David Cameron said the government will become “family friendly” and that all policies will be assessed for their impact on the family. Yet, although Cameron recognised that “it is family that is there to care for you when you are sick” his policies have hit Britain’s 6.5 million carers hard. With £3.5bn cut from adult social care budgets, 60,000 carers hit by the bedroom tax and thousands more hit by the welfare benefits cap, carers are reeling from the negative impact of this government’s policies.
Cue former and current Liberal Democrat care ministers with their own smokescreen on policy for carers and social care. Having had over four years as ministers with this specific government portfolio, the Liberal Democrats suddenly promised a future package of measures to help carers. Having voted for the welfare reforms which have hit carers, the Liberal Democrat’s now promise a carer “bonus” payment of £250. Having refused to support Labour amendments to the Care Bill which would have given NHS bodies a duty to identify carers and refer them for support, these Liberal Democrats now promised carers “more information and more support through the NHS”.
I acknowledge that prioritising support to carers will not be easy in 2015, given the issues an incoming government will face. These include an NHS facing a funding crisis and a social care system scaled back so far that, in most areas, adult social care will only be available to those with the highest level of needs.
Labour’s plans for whole person care, integrating NHS and social care services, will help those who depend on those services. But while integration will make a crucial contribution to tackling future funding pressures, it will not be enough in itself to tackle either the underfunding of social care or the funding issues in the NHS.
Local authority spending on adult social care has fallen by £3.5bn since 2010 and nine out of ten local authorities now set their eligibility for social care at “substantial” needs or higher. As fewer people receive publicly-funded social care, more of the care workload now falls on to unpaid family carers.
Given the increasing pressures on those unpaid family carers, it is vital that Labour’s vision of whole person care is developed in a way that recognises and supports the pivotal role of family carers.
Increasingly people’s needs are met by a mix of three services: NHS, mental health services and social care. Whole person care would bring together these three fragmented services into a single service co-ordinating all of a person’s needs. Supporting carers will be central to Labour’s proposals, as they provide so much of the care needed.
But more than this, I believe it is time for national government to make a Covenant with Carers. This would show how society values their caring and intends to support them to continue to care. A Covenant could address flaws in the Care Act, widen the definition of “carer” and address additional burdens put on carers by the Coalition government’s welfare reforms.
These are some of the initial ideas being considered as part of Labour’s policy review:
- NHS Bodies to have a duty to identify carers, with GPs and hospital staff signposting carers to the help and support they need.
- To promote the health of carers NHS bodies to ensure that carers are receiving the relevant medical services needed to support their caring, including relevant health checks
- The definition of carer being widened to include young carers and parent carers (who currently have rights defined in Children and Families legislation but not the Care Act.)
- Schools and colleges to recognise the needs and rights of young carers and to have procedures in place to identify young carers; and more generally government to protect children and young people from inappropriate caring.
- Not charging carers if they need an extra room for their caring responsibilities. The bedroom tax currently affects 60,000 carers and Labour will abolish it.
Most importantly, ensuring that future legislation is “carer-proofed” so that it does not negatively affect the carer’s ability to care would be an important commitment for Labour to make.
The Labour government’s 2008 Carers Strategy said that “carers will be respected as expert care partners” and that carers will have access to the “integrated and personalised services they need to support them in their caring role.” Since 2010, carers have suffered the negative impact of Coalition government policies and there is much ground to make up.
For Labour, a new Covenant with Carers alongside the development of whole person care will help make that pledge of support a more realistic goal.