Shine A Light

Child neglect: welfare benefits and child carers

The plight of young carers in Britain is described by a benefits adviser at Cambridge Citizens Advice Bureau.

Deborah Padfield
14 November 2011

I saw a 17 year-old carer a week ago, eldest of three. His father has disappeared. His mother has severe arthritis and anxiety disorder. Of necessity, she is on disability benefits, with a backlog of debt because the benefits had got in a mess.

To his mother’s distress, he had just given up his college place because the family couldn’t afford it. He plans to combine caring with stacking shelves. Bright lad. Pity about his future.

What drives government’s benefits policy, apart from reducing costs? Two principles, we’re told: prioritizing support for the most disabled people and “simplifying” the benefit/tax credit system. Peers debating welfare reform last month were concerned about the adequacy of support for anyone at all. Baroness Tyler insisted that “simplification of the system must not override social justice for the most vulnerable and indeed the very idea of fairness.”

Claire Tyler (executive director of Relate) was speaking of child carers. Their predicament is worse even than that of adult carers, themselves unforgiveably neglected.

A non-professional adult who looks after a disabled adult for at least 35 hours and earns less than £100 per week can claim £55.55 per week Carer’s Allowance. The cared-for person has to be receiving Disability Living Allowance, needing frequent attention throughout the day and/or night. This work generally adds up to well over 35 hours.

I think of other people I’ve met: the elderly parents of a heavily built, wheelchair-bound man; the dedicated friend of a man with psychotic depression; the woman whose husband, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, is sometimes violent towards her.

Single carers may also be able to claim Income Support, in all receiving £98.50 (plus help with council tax and some, though probably not all, of the rent). Job Seekers Allowance pays £67.50 per week; under the byzantine benefit rules, that extra £31 is the value of the “carer premium”.

If the cared-for person is the carer’s partner and receiving an income-related benefit, payments are calculated for the couple. The carer premium doesn’t change.

Carers who are under sixteen or in full-time education fare worse: Carer’s Allowance is for over-16s only. I’ve never forgotten the 14 year-old who did a good 35 hours’ caring for her disabled mother, missing out on childhood playtime and adolescent adventuring, corralled in the household’s poverty, and receiving nothing. No acknowledgement of what her work saves the State. No replacement for the evening or weekend earnings open to her friends.

As a single, low-income disabled adult, the parent can claim Severe Disability Premium, (£55.30 per week). It’s not payable to the young carer, but it eases the household’s poverty.

How serious is that poverty?  A 2008 Department for Work & Pensions report found that “the extra cost of having at least one household member with a disability is about 37 per cent of disposable income.” Cost, unsurprisingly, rises with disability; the figure for severe disability was 40 to 49 per cent.

For single parent families the implications are stark. The report found that 29.6 per cent of single-parent households with a disabled member lived in poverty compared with 8 per cent without such a member.

A disabled single person on relatively high disability benefits gets just over 3.5 times the single job seeker’s £67.50: £238.05 per week, both figures excluding rent and council tax. That’s assuming that the disabled person succeeds in claiming those rates of benefit: not easily done.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the minimum income standard for a single non-disabled person is £170.72 per week excluding rent.

This was, Baroness Sherlock explained, calculated using nutritional research into how much was needed for healthy living, alongside research into other essentials. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation then asked members of the public what they thought needed for a ‘modest’ standard of living. “Interestingly,” said Baroness Sherlock, “the public are rather more generous than politicians”, maybe because the public “are only too aware of how hard it is to make ends meet.”

Maeve Sherlock (formerly of the Refugee Council) did not advocate payments at this level, but she wanted government to bear it in mind when considering benefit reform. Disabled people and their carers fall a long way short.

Universal Credit will abolish Severe Disability Premium for the sake, according to Under-Secretary of State David Freud, of “simplification.” This loss will be serious for single people, but the Lords focused on the consequences for child carers. Baroness Tyler (Claire Tyler of Relate) cited Department of Work & Pensions figures indicating that some 25,000 lone parents currently receive a Severe Disability Premium, meaning that more than 40,000 children are likely to be affected.

She was concerned that the cut “will place substantial pressure on these children to take on additional inappropriate care responsibilities…, simply because the parent can no longer afford to pay for the additional costs of care for themselves.”

Lord Freud, under-secretary of state for welfare reform, claimed that this loss will be balanced by an increased disability component paid to the most severely disabled people. These will be identified through eligibility for Universal Credit’s work-replacement element, successor to Employment & Support Allowance, criteria designed to assess work-readiness, not the need of personal care.

It is a tough and quasi-arbitrary test. Significantly disabled people continue to be refused Employment & Support Allowance. That situation will worsen when legal aid is cut, reducing their chance of successful appeals. When these people are forced to struggle with job-seekers’ requirements, their carers’ role is liable to become more onerous. Many disabled people may well drop out of the benefit system – as, anecdotally, they are already starting to do – cutting away their own income and that of their carers, adult or child.

According to Lord Freud, “support for young carers should focus on achieving their educational and employment potential, having the same opportunities as other young people, without assuming that they should always be a carer.”

An admirable aspiration. Young carers are directed by the DirectGov web-site to local authority and voluntary sector help. Unfortunately, local government funding, and hence its support for voluntary bodies, is being slashed. The charity Action for Children found that 86 per cent of young carer services it recently surveyed had a decreased income; of these, 78 per cent had experienced a decrease of up to 30 per cent. More than a fifth had lost up to 40 per cent of their income.

The growing rich/poor divide is bad. Indifference to its casualties is very bad. But a hypocritical refusal to acknowledge responsibility for choices now being made is worst of all. 

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