When prime minister Boris Johnson unveiled plans to ‘fix’ social care this week, totally absent were those at the very heart of it – the millions of carers, both paid and unpaid, without whose contribution the whole system would collapse.
Instead, Johnson announced a tax hike on those who can least afford it by raising National Insurance Contributions (NIC) on working people. Since it is a regressive tax, it will hit the lowest paid the hardest.
The cruelest irony of all is that both care workers and unpaid family carers in work will be forced to pay the extra tax for the very care they deliver with no extra wages or support. Likewise, unpaid carers who cannot work because of their caring responsibilities face impending cuts to Universal Credit, with no increase in Carer’s Allowance.
‘Morale is rock-bottom’
UniteLive spoke to care worker and Unite convenor Carol Starr, who cares for adults with dementia and mental health issues in their homes. Her duties will vary from giving patients medication to feeding, bathing and helping them move from their beds to offering other forms of support.
Carol spoke of a bitter sense of frustration after the prime minister’s announcement.
“They say they’ve got a plan to fix social care – but they aren’t fixing anything,” Carol said, adding that this isn’t the first time care workers have had to pay extra for social care, even as their wages stagnate. In 2016, the social care precept was introduced, allowing councils in England to charge an additional amount on council tax to pay for adult social care costs.
“For the last few years, I’ve been paying through the nose for council tax and now I’m going to be paying a lot more in national insurance contributions,” Carol said. “I’ve had a pay rise worth buttons this year but everything else has gone up – gas, electric, you name it. Speaking as someone who works in local government, we’ve had ten years of austerity, where pay, terms and conditions have all been slashed. Morale is rock-bottom.”
Carol pointed out that for low-paid workers in care, the NIC increase will be deeply felt.
“They keep saying it’s going up by 1.25 per cent,” she noted. “But actually in effect for many workers it’s a 10 per cent increase on the NIC contributions we already make. The government is trying to play it down but it’s a significant increase.
“We’ve got members going to food banks; we’ve got members on Universal Credit, who are going to lose the £20 a week on top of the tax hike. And even after council tax went up over the last few years, in part to fund social care with the social care precept, frontline social care services end up getting nothing. We are chronically underfunded as well as underpaid.”
‘We’re forgotten about’
Just as care workers are undervalued, so too are the millions of unpaid carers who make an enormous contribution to society. Not only do they provide the care and support that so many of our loved ones need, but they also save the economy £123bn each and every year.
UniteLive spoke to Unite Community member Kerry Wilks who cares full-time for her three children, including her 15-year-old son who is autistic and needs 24/7 care.
Even though Kerry is eligible for Carer’s Allowance, she doesn’t receive the full amount, because she’s also on Universal Credit since she cannot work.
“I get less than half of the full Carer’s Allowance because you’re penalised if you’re on Universal Credit,” she explained. “The problem is I couldn’t get a job even if I wanted to because I can’t leave my son on his own. Childcare doesn’t exist for a fifteen year old.
“According to government data I’m unemployed, even though I’m a full-time carer. And you get loads of abuse because you’re in receipt of Universal Credit. From the outside looking in, it looks as though you’re not doing anything but the care I provide is a full-time job. It’s very challenging and exhausting.”
When the prime minister unveiled his plans this week for social care, without any mention of unpaid carers at all, Kerry said she was “absolutely flabbergasted”.
“Unpaid carers are the backbone of the social care system,” she said. “How many millions of people do it? And we’re just forgotten about. You just get your Carer’s Allowance and you’re supposed to shut up and get on with it.
“We save the government billions of pounds a year and we hardly get anything for it. It’s the lowest paid benefit. If you break it down, I’m paid one pound an hour to care for my son. It’s shameful really. They view us as the lowest of the low in society, and it’s the same with paid care workers, who are also the lowest paid in society – I know because I used to work as one for many years.”
‘We can’t keep shouldering the burden’
Both Kerry and Carol believe the government is not only failing carers but those they care for as well.
“They say they’ll be capping individuals’ care costs at £86,000 of their assets or savings – this is still a significant amount of money,” Carol noted. “£86,000 of an ex-council house is a huge percentage of that house, but £86,000 out of a multi-million pound house is nothing.
“This isn’t fair on the people we care for,” she added. “You’ve got people who have saved all their lives with the intent of passing it on to their children and leaving something behind. And that’s being grabbed by the government- with the exception of their wealthy friends.”
Meanwhile, Kerry highlighted that the lack of funding as well as access to support means both unpaid carers and their loved ones suffer.
“As it stand now you’re basically just left to it,” she explained. “There’s no support for you. If you’re looking after a really poorly person 24/7 on your own, you’d be close to the edge. You’re doing such physically and mentally demanding work and you’re just left on your own. It’s wrong. It’s unfair for both the carer and the people we look after when we don’t get any extra support.”
Above all, Kerry and Carol both want their voices to be heard, and are calling on the government to listen to the people who underpin the social care system.
“You can’t keep coming after low-paid workers,” Carol said. “We can’t keep shouldering the burden. We’ve paid the price for austerity and now we’re going to pay the price for Covid and social care. It’s not sustainable. There needs to be a wealth tax. Even better, social care needs to be structured like the NHS, free at the point of use.”
“As a carer you’re penalised in every direction,” she said. “It makes me really angry. With these new plans, this government is coming after everyone except the wealthy. And for unpaid family carers, they’re just adding insult to injury. They need to be paying us more and there needs to be more support. We need to be listened to.”
By Hajera Blagg