7 May 2024

Baroness Pitkeathley OBE, Co-Chair of the Carers All-Party Parliamentary Group

Last month we sat down with Baroness Pitkeathley OBE, founder of Carers UK and co-chair of the Carers All-Party Parliamentary Group, to discuss the recent Carer’s Leave Act coming into force and the position of unpaid carers more widely.  

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During a busy day in Parliament voting against the Government’s Rwanda legislation, Baroness Pitkeathley finds time away from the Lord’s Chamber to discuss the position of carers in Britain. 

As our discussion begins, her knowledge of the sector is strikingly evident. She has served not only as the co-chair of the Carers All-Party Parliamentary Group but also as the founder and first chief executive of Carers UK. This experience is further heightened by her influential work advising groups within the care sector across Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. 

Government Inaction 

Our first point centres around existing action and legislation on providing more support for unpaid carers. Baroness Pitkeathley raises concerns over the need for Government leadership on the issue. “This government did promise the carer’s strategy [but] has not actually delivered it,” she says.  

Comparatively, she notes that “the last Labour Government did a national care strategy” and that it “did have an effect on the way that care was valued”. However, the undervaluing of carers in contemporary political debate reflects the difficulty of mobilising those looking after family and friends in an election year.  

“On the whole, carers are so busy caring that they have so little time to lift their heads up from [their] caring role…even getting to the polling station to cast their vote is going to be a real problem for many carers.” 

The scale of difficulties carers face in their day-to-day lives was further highlighted by GoodOaks Homecare’s You Are Not Alone campaign and their recent Caring Unseen report, which polled unpaid carers across England. This revealed that more than half felt unable to meet their own health and wellbeing needs.  

“Carers’ mental and physical health is a major problem”, she says, adding that “there may be physical side effects” alongside the mental toll it puts on them, such as “a terrible lack of sleep, because of having to tend to someone in the night.” 

She says that “the mental health problems are enormous because of the isolation” that can come with being an unpaid carer and denounces the failure to adequately support those undertaking this task. “Not looking after carers’ health is a very short-term policy.”  

She adds that “[ignoring] the health of the carer, it’s the carer who’s going to break down as well as the person who is already in need of care,” drawing attention to the ripple effect that this breakdown would have on increasing demand for government-funded care provision. “What is the better [choice for] economic [and fiscal] outlook?”, she asks. 

Carer’s Leave Act 

We then shift focus onto the Carer’s Leave Act, the provisions of which came into force on April 6. The Act allows employees to take up to five days a year of unpaid leave to provide or arrange care for a loved one. She conveys her frustration at the scope of the measures contained within the legislation. “Of course [carer’s leave] should be paid,” she asserts. “You don’t think I was happy with just five [days]? After 40 years of campaigning?” 

Nonetheless, she remains focused on pragmatic, incremental change as essential to delivering progress for carers. “You take what you can get with your campaign…you take a small step and move on from it… that’s how you have to work in a political system…you don’t get all you asked for.” 

What we need is a radical overhaul of the Carer’s Allowance and indeed of all carers benefits
Baroness Pitkeathley OBE, Co-chair of Carers APPG

Baroness Pitkeathley notes that “taking small steps and moving on from them is the history of the carers movement” and that “when I first started…the word carer was not in the Oxford English Dictionary…think how far we’ve come.” 

Citing further findings of the Caring Unseen report, in which it was found that just 12 per cent of unpaid carers had a “good understanding” of the Act and its provisions, she believes it is “absolutely” a cause for concern but, unfortunately, not an unexpected finding. 

“It mirrors the lack of awareness about these situations in the first place”, she warns. “[The] lack of recognition of the role, as well as of the opportunities and rights you have as a carer, is a long-term problem.”  

When asked who should foot the bill to finance paid leave for carers, she argued that “the cost should be borne partly by the government and partly by employers.” She defends her position by reminding us “how much more [the Government] gets back in tax if you can keep carers in the workforce.”  

Beyond the financial cost, she stresses the value of unpaid carers to the UK economy and the significance of having such people in the workforce. “Let’s not forget the skills agenda because carers are very skilled people. They learn not only the skills of caring but the skills of management and administration in their caring roles, all of which they can take into the workforce.” 

Carer’s Allowance 

As we near the end of our discussion, Baroness Pitkeathley stresses the problems with the Carer’s Allowance, a welfare benefit that carers can claim to help compensate them for their work.  

“The Carer’s Allowance is a very mean benefit”, she argues. “We campaigned for years to get it...but it is the lowest of all benefits around with [punitive] restrictions... and many carers over the pension age, of course, can’t get it.”  

However, the problems with the benefit have been made more apparent in recent weeks with revelations of thousands of unpaid carers being forced to pay fines, sometimes over £20,000, for accidentally breaking strict income rules. 

For Pitkeathley, this is a turning point for the benefits system, and she is calling for fundamental change in our welfare system. “What we need is a radical overhaul of the Carer’s Allowance and indeed of all carers benefits.” 

In closing our discussion, she returns to her point that keeping carers in the workforce is “a win-win for everybody”, including taxpayers who would otherwise have to finance the roughly £150 billion worth of care provided by family and friends.  

When considering Baroness Pitkeathley’s insights, the struggle of the care sector to receive recognition in the political system is brought to the fore. At the same time, the need for further support from the Government is made clear. Moreover, there’s no doubt of her dedication and commitment to the cause of unpaid carers. “I will continue campaigning for this until I die,” she concludes, something her lifetime of advocacy certainly reflects. 

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