Caroline Abrahams: Carers need a combination of support to fulfil their vital role – here’s how the Government can play its part

12 Mar

Caroline Abrahams is the Charity Director at Age UK.

In the week during which International Women’s Day falls I want to focus on an experience which, if not quite universal among older women, is extremely common, and that’s of being a carer. By this I mean taking on the role of looking after someone else, typically a partner or parent, on an unpaid basis. Some people are carers over a lifetime for their adult children with learning disabilities, while others, so called “sandwich carers”, find themselves caring both for younger and older relatives at the same time – an onerous responsibility indeed.

I am a carer myself, for my 92-year-old mum, who was fit and well until she had a tragic accident four years ago, robbing her of most of her mental capacity in an instant and making her dependent on others for all activities of daily living. I am now doing the “hardest yards” of caring, helping to care for her as she approaches the very end of her life. Like so many others, my caring role will come to an end when the person I am caring for dies. Then I will have to rebuild my life again.

I didn’t become a carer for my mum from a sense of duty, less still because of exhortations from some policymakers that “families must do more”, but because of a feeling of reciprocity. We have been the best of friends and my mum would have done anything to help me, whatever it took. Therefore, I wished and wish to do the same. It has been an amazing experience, one I took on willingly and with no regrets.

But I would also be the first to say that despite the tragedy that befell my mum I have been immensely fortunate to have been able to make the system work for her and for me, since I knew my way around it owing to my professional role. I have also been able to combine my caring responsibilities with continuing to work, because Age UK has been a marvellously sympathetic and flexible employer. Most people are not nearly so lucky in either respect.

What would most help older women, and men too, who care? Not one thing but a whole raft of measures. Above all a properly funded and effective system of social care would back up what unpaid carers do and make caring a less scary and lonely experience. I am thinking especially here of the legions of older people who care for a partner with dementia; something that is both extremely challenging and also often very isolating for them. Too many are left without the support they need, in the most heart-breaking of circumstances.

As Danny Kruger has observed in his recent report on the future of social care, produced with Demos, many people who need care get it from a combination of informal, unpaid support from family and sometimes friends, plus the input of formal care services. This is important because the debate about the future of social care often erroneously assumes it’s one or the other. This reality, that it’s both, reinforces the importance of formal services wanting and being able to work collaboratively with unpaid carers. From what we hear at Age UK, sometimes this happens but not always.

The same is also true of the local NHS. The vast majority of older people with care needs also have health needs, so if you are a carer for an older person you are highly likely to find yourself interacting extensively with GPs and their teams and district nurses and the like. Some health professionals are great at working with unpaid carers, but it’s not a given.

A more collaborative, properly funded approach between formal services and unpaid carers would also remove a disincentive to informal caring: that is the sadly legitimate fear that if you take on a caring responsibility you will be “dumped on” and formal services will back off, leaving you to it. We hear many examples of this at Age UK and while its wrong that it happens it is scarcely surprising, given that social services are stretched beyond endurance in trying to reach all those in need.

What I have just described is a form of “rationing” by formal services, something that manifestly happens in many other ways within social care too. Access to state-funded help with care is invariably a tortuous process, requiring resilience and staying power – often from the unpaid carer if the person needing care is unable to advocate for themselves, as was the case with my mum. Both NHS continuing healthcare and council care are underfunded and when applying for them it is not unusual to encounter barriers that may or may not seem fair or based in law – with few apparent opportunities to challenge them. This piles huge additional stress onto carers.

The fact is that the decisions about social care, or lack of them, in Whitehall eventually result in unpaid carers as well as the people for whom they are trying to do their best losing out financially as well as in terms of the quality of life they are able to lead while caring. The financial hit on unpaid carers who give up work to care is huge, often condemning older women to penny pinching in retirement. Capping very high care costs would help, but for full-time unpaid carers not enough on its own: the benefits paid for caring must go up too. They are currently below those for the unemployed – a travesty.

Then there’s flexible working. It is invariably in the best interests of a carer to stay in employment, both in terms of their quality of life and their finances. For older women like me, once caring ends you may be unable to get another job, leaving you in a real financial mess if you gave up work to care. The pandemic has seen a sea-change in attitudes towards and experiences of working from home and other forms of flexible working. I would like the Government to solidify this cultural change through amending the law to increase access to flexible working, from day one in a job.

When he entered office the Prime Minister promised to “fix social care” and he has repeated that pledge many times since. I sincerely hope we will see his promise bearing fruit later in the year and, if and when it does, that it fully factors in the need to support our carers, including our older women carers. And I believe most readers of this and other articles on ConHome would say they – we – deserve it.

Matthew Elliott: Please apply to invest in Britain’s future and win £10,000

19 Oct

Matthew Elliott was Editor-at-Large of BrexitCentral

Coming from the world of think-tanks and campaign groups, I have a strong interest in the policy ecosystem that surrounds political parties.

Ahead of Tony Blair’s victory in 1997, think-tanks such as Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research were established. And in the 2000s,a plethora of think-tanks (Centre for Social Justice/Policy Exchange), campaign groups (Business for Sterling/Countryside Alliance) and websites (ConservativeHome/Guido Fawkes) were launched and play an influential role in political discourse.

As well as playing a role in two successful referendum campaigns (NOtoAV and Vote Leave), I helped set up the TaxPayers’ Alliance (2004), Big Brother Watch (2009), Million Jobs (2012), Business for Britain (2013) and BrexitCentral (2016), so policy entrepreneurship is one of my passions. And even though my focus is now more in the private sector, I still enjoy helping and mentoring new policy entrepreneurs who are setting up the next generation of campaign groups and think-tanks.

At the beginning of my career, I was helped by the entrepreneur and philanthropist Stuart Wheeler, who sadly passed away at the end of July. I was 25 when we launched the TaxPayers’Alliance. I didn’t know any potential financial supporters, so I wrote to the signatories of a Business for Sterling advertisement with my ‘Strategy Plan’.

I thought, if they like BfS, there’s a good chance they’ll like the TPA. Stuart was one of the people who very generously sent a contribution which, along with some other donations, gave us the resources to cover my salary for three months, giving me the confidence to leave my position as a researcher to the Conservative MEP (now Lord) Timothy Kirkhope, and go full-time with the TPA.

Seventeen years later, I now find myself in a different position. My most recent project – the news website BrexitCentral – sent out its 1,085th and final daily email bulletin to the tens of thousands of subscribers we had accrued on February 1, the day after the UK formally left the European Union.

Alongside those essential morning emails put together by the indefatigable Jonathan Isaby and his team, we had published more than 2000 articles by over 500 authors, including the current Prime Minister and many of his Cabinet, not to mention Erin O’Toole, the man who was elected leader of the Canadian Conservative Party over the summer.

We are now in the final stages of winding up the company – a task which has been somewhat delayed by babies and Covid-19 – so, along with Georgiana Bristol, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the show on the road, we are left with the issue of what to do with the last remaining funds.

When we were discussing the matter, I thought about the support that Stuart Wheeler and other donors had given me as we launched the TPA, and we decided that it would be very fitting to use those remaining funds to support the young policy and campaigning entrepreneurs of today – people with the ideas that will tackle the policy challenges of the coming years.

We have two cheques for £10,000, and we would like to hear from people under the age of 35 with an exciting idea or contribution to policy debate. It could be:

  • A campaign group or think-tank you have set up, or are hoping to set up;
  • A book proposal that you want to take a sabbatical from your current job to research and draft;
  • A think-tank report you want to take time off from your current position to write;
  • A website or podcast you want to establish, or a short film you wish to make.

That is not an exhaustive list – we are interested in all ideas, the more innovative and entrepreneurial the better. And because Brexit was supported by people from across the political spectrum, we are open to proposals from all policy positions.

To stress, we are not looking for proposals relating to Brexit or Britain’s future relationship with the European Union – we are looking for submissions on any issue, policy or subject that you feel passionate about.

Entries should be emailed to policyentrepreneurs@brexitcentral.com by midnight on Sunday 8th November 2020 and should cover (on no more than two sides of A4) an outline of your plan an dhow you hope to execute it. All submissions will then be sifted and judged by a panel comprising Jonathan and I, plus Kate Andrews, Peter Cruddas, Helena Morrissey, Jon Moynihan and Mark Wallace. And the two winners will be announced by the end of November.

Since I became active in politics, the barriers to entry for policy entrepreneurship have been massively reduced thanks to the Internet. When I interned at the European Foundation whilst at university, it had an office in Pall Mall, it had copies of its European Journal and European Digest professionally printed, which were then posted to subscribers and the opinion formers in Westminster, Whitehall and Fleet Street that it was trying to influence. It sent press releases out by fax, business was conducted on the telephone or by post, and all these costs were before the general overheads and payroll costs that also needed to be covered.

Fast forward twenty years, and the cost of campaigning has fallen significantly. From setting up a website to using social media, broadcasting ideas and opinions to the world is so much cheaper. But there are still financial barriers, so I hope that this small project will help two policy entrepreneurs of the future, just as Stuart Wheeler helped me with the creation of the TaxPayers’ Alliance all those years ago.

I look forward to reading your entries and announcing the recipients later this year.

This article was originally published on ConservativeHome on Monday October 19, and we are re-publishing it during each weekday this week in order to advertise this project.