Families on the edge - Does society value unpaid care? - RSA

Families on the edge - Does society value unpaid care?

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Lynn Williams, unpaid carer, shares her thoughts about carers fighting for support, the new Carers Act and the potential hope created by the emerging Basic Income debate in Scotland.

Carers’ Rights day is fast approaching – and for many unpaid carers, it serves as a stark reminder of how few rights are afforded to the UK’s 6 million plus unpaid carers.

The significant contribution made by unpaid carers – some £13 billion in Scotland alone – has never been fully recognised or supported by governments at local or national level. 

The focus on local eligibility criteria in the new Carers Act makes it less likely that any real rights will follow; without further political intervention, the Act may have little or no impact. Even those with the heaviest burdens of care are now finding it almost impossible to access the support to which they are entitled and that they desperately need.

Scotland’s 700,000 plus unpaid carers are portrayed as unsung heroes.  The reality is, the care we provide is taken for granted.  Take the paltry weekly amount of Carers Allowance – at £62.70, it remains the lowest of all income replacement benefits.  Even with the planned increase in Carers Allowance in Scotland, caring often means poverty and at the end of your caring journey, destitution and the cruelty of Universal Credit.

Carers Allowance is pitiful – take a moment to consider how you would feel being paid around £1.70 an hour for a physically and emotionally demanding job, with very long hours and no workplace protections.

Caring for a loved one is portrayed as brave and wonderful.  That can be the case, especially when the person you love and support is able to thrive or to achieve some quality of life, even in difficult circumstances.

However, caring can be hard. It can place a significant strain on family relationships and it leaves people exhausted in a maze of bureaucracy, and increasingly unable to cope. 

And yes, I speak from experience. I care full time for my husband who has a spinal injury and a number of linked serious health conditions. I am one of many thousands of women who do this – because unpaid care is gendered and contributes to the pay and income inequality so endemic in our country.

Each day, I survive on around four hours of solid sleep – more than many carer friends get in a week.  I deal with prescriptions, treatments, manage skin integrity and administer strong painkillers and washout systems, as well as many other things. I work almost daily with GPs, consultants and a host of other professionals.

I certainly don’t feel valued, nor do I feel that politicians truly understand our life. In fact, the bubble which creates the legislation and policies that affect the lives of unpaid carers often seems very far away.

My lack of hope and faith in our establishment is shared by many thousands of carers, and families who feel abandoned.  When the Carers Act should be providing hope, it is viewed by carers with a deep cynicism that none of us want to feel. 

And yet, there may be a tiny chink of light at the end of a very long dark tunnel. Sparks of hope are being created as a result of the fast moving debate on the Universal Basic Income (UBI) in Scotland.

This debate is long overdue and very, very welcome.  Through UBI, unpaid care can be better acknowledged and rewarded.  The thought that making the choice to care could be done without moving into poverty is deeply appealing.

Of course, financial security alone cannot create the conditions which enable unpaid carers to exercise choice or have a life outside of caring.  Without good social support, or the right infrastructure, our loved ones are increasingly isolated and we are included in that loneliness and lack of fulfilment.

The current UBI discourse shines a very bright light on the contributions made by tens of thousands of people who cannot take up paid work, but who should still be valued as citizens.  UBI creates a new approach – an approach that is the polar opposite of the current social security rhetoric, which lacks all sense of compassion or humanity. 

By paying unpaid carers a guaranteed income, without condition, society values what we do.  UBI recognises our changing and ageing society and can respond to the fact that most of us will, at some point, provide unpaid care for family members.

And the UBI says “thank you” by providing a financial safety net which doesn’t rip the rug out from under you as you transition out of work into the world of caring (if of course, the UBI is more than the current level of Carers Allowance or Jobseeker’s Allowance).

The UBI is a long way from being implemented but it changes the rhetoric around unpaid work and recognises that people contribute to our economy in many different ways.  It reintroduces a sense of humanity into the public service domain that is often sadly lacking.

That is why it gives people hope. 

As we approach Carers’ Rights Day and the implementation of the new Carers Act, we can learn a great deal about how to recognise and acknowledge unpaid care from the UBI debate.  I have always thought that carers should be considered as a group to be supported in any eventual Basic Income pilots.

In this context, GCVS is hosting an event to coincide with Carers Rights Day on 27 November.  The event will focus on the new Carers Act but as the City also considers the potential of a UBI trial, there is a double opportunity to consider what more can be done to ensure carers in the City finally receive the recognition and support they deserve.

To sign up for this event, register here.

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