Op Ed - Carers deserve more than the pitiful allowance they’re getting. This is how the government can give it to them

Originally in The Independent

It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to shine a spotlight on the struggles of our country’s unpaid carers. How a society treats people in this position is symbolic of its values, and I believe that current and previous governments have fallen well short here.

According to a recent Carers UK report, over 55 per cent of unpaid carers currently feel overwhelmed by their caring responsibilities, and 81 per cent are spending more money during the coronavirus outbreak.

And the struggles didn’t just start in March this year. Unpaid carers bore the brunt of austerity following the last recession, and in 2016, research from the New Policy Institute exposed that 1.2 million working-age carers were living in poverty.

Yet, despite all this, the carer’s allowance in England and Wales remains just £67.25 a week. That’s not good enough, and it’s simply not fair that unpaid carers’ costs are rising while their benefits fail to keep pace.

That’s why, this Carers Week, I’m calling for an urgent emergency support package for unpaid carers across the UK, along with long-term measures to change the system for good.

In the short term, the government must recognise the hard work of carers throughout this crisis, with an immediate uplift in the carer’s allowance for the whole of the UK (bringing it in line with Scotland’s new provisions), in line with calls from Carers UK. I’m also suggesting providing every carer with a one-off cash bonus of £250.

The increase in the carer’s allowance would cost the chancellor around £344m a year, and the one-off carer’s bonus around £195m. That’s a lot of money, but I believe our unpaid carers, who give their time and energy to the care of others, are more than worthy of it.

In case the chancellor needed further convincing, I’ve suggested that he cover the cost by reversing the 2015 cut to inheritance tax, which would save the government an estimated £725m. That would leave additional funding, which could be invested in social care.

Another compassionate short-term measure would be an end to the cruel “no recourse to public funds (NRPF)” policy, which freezes carers from overseas out of any benefits at all. Suspending the policy would enable carers from overseas to access the support they so desperately need.

Longer term, I would like to see the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI), to provide a regular payment to those unable to earn. This would ensure that unpaid carers  and indeed others who provide valuable, yet unpaid services to society  are guaranteed a decent and respectful income.

However, even amid a pandemic, the Conservative government has shown no sign of introducing this, and I’m not optimistic about ministers changing their minds anytime soon. So, in lieu of a UBI, I’m calling for an independent review into the carer’s allowance system, to recommend a fairer allowance amount based on need, and to determine who should be eligible.

In response to the previous economic crisis, £31m was cut from carers’ benefits, and 10,000 people had their carer’s allowance removed completely. These cuts made carers feel at best taken for granted and at worst ignored. This was the wrong approach, and it must now be reversed.

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