Today our Work and Pensions committee has published a report on employment support for carers. There are 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK and over half are trying desperately to juggle their caring role with paid employment. It’s tough and certain policies make it even harder.
Through its mega welfare reforms, the Government is on a mission to “make work pay”. But carers face as steep, if not steeper, barriers to work as they did before the Government set out on its mission.
The cliff-edge leaving them trapped
Many rely on the support of Carer’s Allowance, which is currently £64.60 per week, but if they exceed the earnings threshold of £120 per week by just £1, they lose the lot. Carers told us this cliff-edge leaves them feeling “trapped”, unable to increase their hours or take a pay rise because doing so would leave them financially worse off. The cliff-edge is a disincentive to work and is totally at odds with the Government’s objective to make work pay.
The Government says Universal Credit will fix it, as the benefit will gradually be withdrawn as earnings increase. And it will, for some. But time and again we are finding not only is this a policy riddled with holes, but we shouldn’t hold our breath for its full roll-out. Even when that day comes, some carers won’t be eligible. For these carers, the Carer’s Allowance cliff-edge will linger, complicating what should be simple decisions about taking on work.
Work can be a valuable escape
Carers are doing heroic and admirable work, often seeing themselves first and foremost as a partner, parent, child or friend. The carers we met are completely devoted to the person they care for, but they also told us about the demands and pressures of being a carer. Work can be a valuable escape. It boosts self-esteem, provides a sense of identity and brings a welcome source of normality to a life that can sometimes be a rollercoaster of unpredictability. The moral case for making it easier to juggle care and work is self-evident.
‘Ultimately, the economy – and tax revenues – suffer as a result of anyone avoidably un- or under-employed’
The economic case is just as stark. It applies to individuals, employers and our whole economy. Carers are more likely to be struggling financially compared to non-carers, making the individual benefits of carers entering, or staying in, paid employment obvious. What’s less obvious, but just as real, is the financial gain to employers. It’s hugely expensive for employers to replace employees who leave work and these costs are on top of the loss of crucial skills and experience. Look wider still, and the picture of our economy with near full employment, but sluggish productivity, shows carers to be a valuable untapped resource. Ultimately, the economy – and tax revenues – suffer as a result of anyone avoidably un- or under-employed.
A £132bn economic contribution
Making it easier for carers to juggle their caring role with paid work is a no-brainer. Replacing the cliff-edge in Carer’s Allowance with a system whereby the benefit is gradually withdrawn as earnings increase is one simple step in the right direction. The Government might argue that it’s too expensive, but this would be a risky riposte given it implicitly banks carers’ unpaid economic contribution of a whopping £132 billion a year.
Frank Field is the Labour MP for Birkenhead
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