The future of the left since 1884

The Case for Care

Our failure to support carers is damaging our society and economy, writes Andrew Harrop



The UK’s economic and social fabric is in tatters. So are its public finances. Future ministers know they will soon face huge pressure to move fast on countless causes, with very little cash. They need to prioritise issues where there is both a strong social and economic case for action.

Fabian Society research in 2023 showed that improving support for unpaid family carers fits firmly in this box. Last week we published a new paper, Caring for Carers, with 10 options to improve the protections available to people providing informal care.

Carers have long been regarded by the public as a priority for government help. Many are sacrificing their own wellbeing and future prospects to care for their loved ones. Others are performing a near impossible juggling act to combine care, work and family.

Traditionally, help for carers has been seen as a question of social justice – a mix of compassion, poverty alleviation and recognition for unsung contribution. But the Fabians’ work has shown there are now critical economic, fiscal and demographic reasons for action too.

The 2023 Fabian report Support Guaranteed laid out the evidence. The country’s changing demographics mean we are set to face a huge mismatch between the demand and supply of unpaid carers. The number of people in late old age is expanding much faster than the numbers in their 40s, 50s and 60s who have traditionally provided unpaid care to parents. One projection shows that, if the current caring patterns in the population were rolled-forward to 2035, we would need 8 million carers but only have 6 million available.

This shortfall is driven by rapid growth in the number of people in late old age. But there are other reasons that demand for care is rising. The recent and alarming decline in disability-free life expectancy means that more people will need support from partners while they are of working age. And many more young people with severe physical and learning disabilities are living into mature adulthood, which means that greater numbers of parents will be supporting their adult children for many decades.

From an economic standpoint, future ministers can draw two conclusions. First, more people will need to care. There is no way that adult social care and other community services can expand sufficiently to fill the huge projected carer shortfall. Even if this was desirable, it is a fiscal non-starter. We already need to expand care services just to account for demographic change and to meet existing unmet need. Formal support cannot displace family care also, and nor would most families want it to. In a decade’s time the UK will need many more people to be caring – at every stage of adult life, and men as well as women.

Second, for the sake of the economy and for family finances, more of these growing ranks of carers need to also be in paid work. We have rising labour market shortages already. The last thing the economy can sustain is hundreds of thousands of extra people leaving work because their relatives need care. With not enough people working up to state pension age as things stand, it is essential that people in mid-life can both work and care.

But neither the share of the population who care, nor the share of carers who work, will increase without a public policy response. The next government therefore needs to create an environment where caring is a sustainable choice for more people; and where more people can combine work with providing many hours of care each week.

In Support Guaranteed we pointed to evidence that better adult social care is part of the answer, because providing paid services creates the conditions in which families can also care: the classic example is where home care and family support combined prevent the need for a care home. In the report we called for enhanced rights for carers in order to sustain caring relationships; in particular the ability for people to choose how much care they provide, and a right to short breaks, which are important for health, wellbeing and the continuation of care.

We also need to use the power of data to join up government. In exploring the case for a National Care Service I was shocked to discover how little data sharing there is across the public sector with respect to carers. Between them, the DWP and NHS have the records of millions of known carers who are not referred to adult social care departments for assessment or support.

In the new Caring for Carers paper, we review policy options for carer’s employment and financial protections. The highest priorities are measures that will help people simultaneously care and work. These include options that would cost the government next to nothing, although they would require changes from employers.

We suggest ministers consider offering up to two weeks’ paid carer’s leave per year, building on the new right to a week unpaid that will be introduced in April. We propose changes to benefit rules to provide more to carers who move into work or education. We also call for a debate on making ‘caring’ a protected characteristic in equalities law to drive changes in employer behaviour, whenever discrimination law is next reviewed. The costs to the government of these three policies would be very low.

Caring for Carers also floats a ‘right to return’ to a job, similar to maternity leave, for carers who need to step back from work temporarily. In due course this could evolve into a paid leave scheme or insurance benefit similar to statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance (though that would need to come later, as it would require new spending). This proposal is part of the Fabian Society’s plan for a new system of British employment insurance, which would act as both a ‘cushion’ and a ‘trampoline’ to help people when they need to stop work and to reconnect them with jobs once they can work again.

These policies are all priorities because they will make caring viable for more people, and will help people combine care and work. In the long term, however, action will also be needed to ensure that carers who can’t work have adequate living standards and future retirement incomes. Eventually, this will require significant spending which is unlikely to be possible in the early years of a new government.

That debate is for the future. In the meantime, there is a lot that can be done straight away at low cost, which will sustainably increase the numbers who care for family and friends.

10 policy options to boost carers’ protections

Immediate action

  1. A right to up to two weeks paid carer’s leave
  2. A ‘right to return’ for carers who take time off work
  3. Reforms to universal credit to support carers to work and learn

Within 5 years

  1. Data sharing within the public sector to automatically offer carers entitlements & support
  2. Paid time off for carers for up to 9 or 12 months
  3. Protection for ‘caring’ in equalities law
  4. Councils to offer more short breaks & control to carers

Longer term

  1. Adequate benefits for every household with a carer
  2. A carer’s pension credit and early access to pension benefits
  3. Increasing the value of carer’s allowance


Image credit: Centre for Ageing Better via Unsplash

Andrew Harrop

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.


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