Politicians fail to understand that the situation with unpaid carers in this country is about more than throwing pounds and pence at them. It’s about respect for their place in our society.
When COVID 19 hit, services began shutting down, including care packages and other services which carers rely on. Their work increased exponentially and has continued at the same pace even to this day. Yet we live in a country where the law specifically classifies them as something other than the essential workers that they are.
Put a public sector or private sector carer side by side with an unpaid carer and their roles are identical. The respect society affords them, however, is not the same.
The fact that unpaid carers are forced to claim benefits means that an unfeeling society lumps them in with all other benefit claimants, and disregards them in the same manner. The right-wing of the UK classifies them as leeches and subsidy junkies – the reality is that their contribution to the UK is more quantifiable than the politicians who fail to give them the respect they deserve.
Pre-COVID, the 2 million full-time carers in the UK saved the UK treasury £136 Billion per year. That’s the equivelant of the NHS budgets for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. In other words, no carers, no health and social care system. During COVID, without the unpaid carers, the entirety of the NHS would have collapsed. Some estimates put their contribution in a single year to be as high as £250 Billion.
In Scotland, the Scottish Government gives carers an extra supplement to bring them up to jobseekers levels of funding, but it is still a pittance. However, remuneration is not the only issue here. The same legislation at the UK level which awards Carers Allowance also deliberately defines carers as not being workers or employees (these are actually two different terms with different legal meanings). Unpaid carers are afforded none of the same rights as their private and public sector counterparts.
If we are to reform the lives of unpaid carers it must start with recognising them as workers and not benefit claimants.
I am proposing a radical transition for carers in Scotland – by folding them into the new National Care Service as workers given a fixed salary. Note I said “salary” and not a “wage”.
In retail, for instance, sales people are on an hourly wage, whereas their managers are typically on a salary. The difference being that the manager is paid the same weekly rate whether they work 40 hours or 60 hours.
What would this do?
Well for a start, a large chunk of that salary could be paid from the money currently expended on carers allowance and carers supplement, as well as other ancillary services.
They would be paid a salary (based on full-time care provision of at least 35 hours which is the existing benchmark to claim carers allowance) commensurate with full time national living wage, on which they would pay tax on that wage like any other employee. That tax is another 20% of the bill paid for.
The National Care Service would also have a responsibility for giving the carer proper training on things like first aid, in-home care provision, food safety, medication safety and all of the necessary training they would give to a normal employee working for the NCS. This would be beneficial for the health and welfare of the person being cared for, especially with health issues which they would be able to spot before deterioration occurred, preventing hospital stays etc.
In the event of a carer becoming ill, emergency care provision for their ward would be a call away. The unpaid carer would call the Human Resources Team of the NCS and they can allocate care provision the same as they would for any other private or public sector carer working under them.
Unpaid carers would be able to book time off and would be entitled to standard holiday provisions just like any other employee, booked through the HR team at the NCS.
The carers would be extended the same rights and priveleges as any standard employee.
Care packages and care assessments by local councils would go the way of the dinosaur, they would become uncessary because all the carer would have to do is call the HR department through established report functions like any carer working for the NCS. Care would be patient focused and there would be no lag time waiting for local councils to get their backside in gear.
What would stem from doing this would be the falling away of prejudices about carers. When they go to purchase something from a shop on credit, or sign a lease on a home, they would have a P60, payslips and a real wage. To credit companies and businesses they would be indistinguishable from their public and private sector counterparts.
They’d be able to get a workplace pension on the same terms as their NCS counterparts.
Over 50% of the money to do this would come from existing benefits the Government would be able to get rid of, another 20% from tax on their wages and the savings from local council care provision and other ancillary services which would become defunct would also go to pay for it.
No longer would unpaid carers be unpaid carers – they’d simply be carers. With the same respect and dignity afforded to them as their private and public sector counterparts.
More importantly, carers wouldn’t be the lowest paid “claimants” in the country, having to listen to sanctamonious politicians clap for them and proclaiming (thinking they are complimenting them but actually insulting them) “We love carers….they give up work to…” – Unpaid Carers don’t “give up” anything. Caring is their job and it is not their fault that politicians on one hand sing their praises, but on the other, allow a situation to persist where their rights are continiously stripped from them. During this pandemic, the UK Government couldn’t even deliver the £20 COVID uplift to them because they were on “legacy benefits”. They diverted all of the PPE to hospitals (which is fair enough) but made no provision for carers who required PPE to perform their normal role. They failed to establish price controls in order stop carers being scalped for things like gloves in order to perform their roles.
And there’s the rub – imagine being paid the same as a jobseeker, but working (in most cases) over 60 hours per week and having to pay for your own PPE, before you pay for food, heating and other bills.
We watched during the pandemic as politicians lined up to call out the exploitative practices of businesses in the north of England paying £4, £5 & £6 per hour and calling it slave labour, but the uncomfortable truth is that politicians are OK with such practices, because they are actively enshrined in Law. Unpaid carers are the original workfare. A carer on carers allowance only (therefore requiring income support or UC) is paid less than £115 per week. At 60 hours per week that equates to £1.91 per hour. But you don’t see the politicians lining up calling this exploitation – you see them lining up, clapping, proclaiming how much they love them – just not enough to do anything for them. And why would they? The state has built an entire health and social care system on their backs.
It’s time to break the cycle! It’s time to enshrine unpaid carers as workers in Scotland and to give them the remuneration and the respect they deserve.
I am a full-time carer, so if elected in May to Holyrood, I take each and every single one of my brothers and sisters who care, into that chamber with me, and you can be sure, I’m going to be screaming from the roof tops.