Government ideology makes caring more difficult

By Bernadette Meaden
February 1, 2017

When making cuts to social security benefits the government’s approach has been to blame the poor for their own poverty. Now it seems that having slashed social care budgets they would like to shift responsibility for the resultant crisis onto hard-pressed and often exhausted families.

Care minister David Mowat has said that people must do more to care for their elderly parents. Tim Loughton, a former families minister said, "In Mediterranean countries they have a social, family caring structure where you have different generations that look out for each other. They literally live on top of each other and surprise surprise have far fewer elderly people cast out into care homes.”

But are families shirking their responsibilities, or is the government’s ideological approach actually making it impossible for them to give the care they would like to give? It’s all very nice to talk about Mediterranean families keeping their elderly parents at home, but if a parent needs constant attention then somebody needs to be at home with them, and that has financial and policy implications.

Here in the UK, the government stigmatises people who are ‘economically inactive’, or not in paid employment, and strains every sinew to get employment levels as high as possible. Jobseekers are pressured to take jobs a 90 minute commute away from home, and low-paid workers on Universal Credit are expected to increase their hours or take another job to boost their incomes and get off benefits – on pain of sanction. Caring responsibilities are given very little consideration.   

In the Mediterranean countries Mr Loughton holds up as shining examples, things are very different. In countries such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, the percentage of the population in paid employment is much lower than in the UK, and   this is not a recent development as a result of the banking crisis. In 2005, the percentage of the population aged 20-64 employed in Mediterranean countries was as follows; Greece 64 per cent, Spain 67 per cent, France 69 per cent, Italy, 61 per cent, Malta 57 per cent. In the United Kingdom, it was75 per cent.

The figures for women are even more striking. In Italy, for instance, only 50 per cent of women are currently in paid employment, whereas in the UK the figure is 69 per cent. That makes a massive difference to how society operates. With so many more people at home during the day, caring responsibilities can be shared and do not seem so daunting. For a family where all the adults are out at work all day, caring for a parent with dementia who may need round the clock supervision is an almost impossible task.    

Let’s assume that the elderly parents Mr Mowat was referring to are in their eighties or nineties. This means that their sons and/or daughters are likely to be in their fifties or sixties. With the state pension age for men and women soon to be 66, they are probably still working. They may be in a demanding job where it is difficult to find time to get lunch or take a toilet break – impossible to take time off for caring duties.

Leaving a job to take on caring responsibilities before reaching pension age may simply not be an option for financial reasons. People can’t live without an income. No doubt the government would point to Carer’s Allowance, which is £62.10 a week. But one can only claim Carers Allowance if the elderly person you care for receives Attendance Allowance (AA), and the government currently plans to transfer responsibility for this benefit to Councils, to be funded via business rates.  The potential for a ‘postcode lottery’ is obvious, with poor areas able to raise much less through their business rates than prosperous areas.

Disability Rights UK has said, “We are extremely concerned that if local authorities were required to replace AA in this way, many older disabled people would lose access to support they would have otherwise received, with significant, harmful consequences for individuals, carers, family members and local authorities.” With the government also pressing for drastically reduced social care funding to be supplemented by Council Tax rises, the gap between rich and poor areas can only widen further.

And what if a son or daughter is not well enough to look after a parent? Here too, something of a postcode lottery applies, in the shape of health inequalities and Disability Free Life Expectancy.  People may be living much longer, but how long they live free of significant illness or disability very much depends on their postcode and economic status. In the latest government figures we can see that a woman living in Richmond upon Thames can expect to live to the age of 72 free of any disability, whilst a woman in Tower Hamlets can on average only expect to live until 52  “free from a limiting long-term illness or disability”. So people in poorer areas may struggle to even continue working to 66 – it’s highly unlikely that they will be fit enough to also do the exhausting job of caring for someone with dementia or other serious disability.

In care for the elderly, as in every other area of life, inequality is a very significant factor. In poor areas people have poorer health and need more care, but the resources are simply not available. Government policies all tend to entrench this inequality, not lessen it. Unless we radically change course as a nation, the way older, poorer people are cared for looks set to get much worse, not better.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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