Two aspects of the recent Budget really stand out for families: new policies on childcare and the absence of measures to help the army of unpaid carers who plug some of the glaring gaps in Broken Britain. The Chancellor’s focus was on bringing older “economically inactive” people back into the workplace. Prior to the Budget statement to Parliament, he said that “life doesn’t just have to be about going to the golf course”. He clearly has no idea how ordinary people’s lives work and how many people take on caring responsibilities in middle age. The measures he did introduce amount to a huge pensions’ giveaway for the wealthiest 1% but may have no impact on increasing the number of people in work, while opening a loophole for avoidance of inheritance tax, according to the economic thinktank, The Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Furthermore, the Conservative government is looking to apply new punitive measures to increase the numbers in work targeting those who are currently on long term sickness and disability benefits. These include plans to apply benefit controls more rigorously to universal credit claimants, especially for the main carers of children. In future, claimants will be expected to look for work or increase their existing hours under threat of having their benefits docked. The use of benefit controls has been shown to have little impact on employability. Rather, they actively impoverish claimants, drive more people into debt, and have an adverse effect on mental and physical health.
Economic inactivity – It’s complicated
Economic inactivity in the UK has increased by around 700,000 people since before the pandemic. This includes 300,000 people aged 50–69 years, who are at greater risk of never returning to work. The reasons why there is a growing number of people who are economically inactive are far more complicated than the Chancellor suggests. The Health Foundation claims that poor health is a key factor.
Many in middle age are burned out after demanding careers in social work, teaching, and the NHS. Others are worn out after many years of hard physical labour. Another factor is the number of people, the majority of whom are women, who have to give up paid work in order to take care of family members. Some of these are grandparents who take on childcare because the cost of childcare is so ruinously expensive. Many women cannot return to work after having a baby because they cannot afford the cost of nannies and nurseries. Single parents are in a particularly vulnerable situation as regards returning to work and resuming their careers. The Chancellor announced in the Budget that he will increase the 30 hours free childcare to an unprecedented extent to cover infants from 9 months to two years, costing £4bn and which Jeremy Hunt claims, will cut childcare costs by 60%.
However, this will not be implemented until 2025. The 30 hours being offered don’t include school holidays, but most parents do not get school holidays off work. The childcare sector also has serious reservations about the offer, based on the cost and sustainability of the plan. No actual figure of the hourly rate has yet been given. Based on the overall cost for 3+4 year olds (£288m for 2024/5) it looks way too low. There would be higher operating costs for nurseries as demand increases. Then there is a supply problem in an extremely dysfunctional labour market where recruitment of staff who are paid the minimum wage is already problematic. The related announcement on ‘wraparound childcare’ at schools from 8am to 6pm by 2026 is just the government telling schools to stay open and charge parents for it. This is not politics for the good of families but cynical forward planning and policies which may never see the light of day. It makes good headlines and may win some votes but how does it help those in society who take on caring responsibilities with little support?
The crisis in social care has left family carers feeling abandoned
The absence of anything in the Budget to tackle the social care crisis was shameful. Rishi Sunak claimed at the beginning of his premiership that fixing social care was his Number 1 priority. No sign of that in the Budget. In the UK, millions of people become unpaid carers for family members. These could include teenagers caring for their siblings with a mother with mental health problems, or looking after a sick or disabled child, partner or parent, for example. It could happen to any of us. This army of carers may have to give up work, experience poverty worsened by the cost of living crisis and lose all the social connections which sustained them. Caring for a loved one can be physically and emotionally exhausting. The pressures may be intolerable without the support they need.
The process of getting help can be a real struggle – just applying for help is unnecessarily bureaucratic and difficult. Assessments for support are often delayed and don’t always result in additional help. While it is the responsibility of government to fund programmes to help those who are most vulnerable, austerity measures have stripped resources down to the basics. Broken systems and lack of money impact on what can be offered. Successive governments have failed to develop a sustainable model for funding social care. The system relies on about seven million unpaid family carers who feel taken for granted, ignored and undervalued, Yet not a word in the Budget about supporting people who take on caring responsibilities for their loved ones and in effect prop up the failing health and social care system. Who cares for the carers? Not the current government.