Pivotal

Author

Craig Harrison

Craig Harrison

Published

“I am at breaking point due to the abject poverty I’m forced to live in while caring. My debts are increasing at an alarming rate and my quality of life continues to decline.” 

That’s just one story that reflects the devastating financial strain facing so many unpaid carers in Northern Ireland today. And unfortunately, there are tens of thousands more where that came from.

Over the last 15 months, the Carer Poverty Commission has been examining the scale and drivers of poverty among those caring for sick or disabled family members and friends in Northern Ireland. We found that 28% of local carers are living below the poverty line, which is significantly higher than the non–carer population here (17%) and reflective of the immense extra costs and insurmountable barriers to employment that so many carers deal with day–to–day.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the situation is significantly worse for those carers within the social security system. When we look specifically at Carer’s Allowance – the main welfare benefit for unpaid carers across the UK – nearly half (46%) of recipients in Northern Ireland are living in poverty, while around 1 in 6 are in ‘deep poverty’, meaning their household income is 50% below the poverty line.

This overwhelming financial pressure manifests in a number of ways. In Carers NI’s State of Caring survey, over 40% of local Carer’s Allowance recipients said they were having to cut back on essentials like heating, with 1 in 4 experiencing debt and more than 1 in 3 struggling to afford to eat. Compared to the carer population as a whole, those dependent on Carer’s Allowance were nearly twice as likely to have used a food bank and were at double the risk of being unable to afford their utility bills.

Experiences of poverty among unpaid carers in Northern Ireland

Source: Carers NI
Source: Carers NI

State of Caring 2023: The impact of caring on finances in Northern Ireland; Carer Poverty Commission NI (2023): Policy measures to tackle poverty among unpaid carers in Northern Ireland.

The scale of poverty among those receiving Carer’s Allowance in Northern Ireland may be appalling, but it isn’t at all surprising when we examine the value and eligibility criteria of the benefit.

A person must be providing unpaid care for a minimum of 35 hours per week to be eligible, and in exchange for that immense contribution – which is equivalent to a full–time job – they receive a weekly payment of £81.90. That’s just £2.34 per hour, or nearly five times less than the National Living Wage.

The benefit also has one of the harshest cliff edges in the entire welfare system, where one penny earnt over a £151 weekly earnings cap means losing the whole Carer’s Allowance payment. It is a grossly unfair example of government having its cake and eating it – maintaining that Carer’s Allowance was never intended to be an income replacement while simultaneously tying eligibility so strictly to a carer’s weekly income.

The end result is lives defined by hardship and despair. We’ve heard from carers who are embarrassed to have visitors, because an empty oil tank has left the house freezing cold.

Carers borrowing money from loan sharks so they can clothe their children. 

Carers pretending to be on a diet so that their family don’t work out the real reason they’re skipping meals every day.

A wide range of experiences, but the thing all of these carers have in common is that they’re trying to make ends meet within a Carer’s Allowance system that isn’t fit for purpose.

The Stormont Assembly has the devolved power to fix Carer’s Allowance and provide the financial support our carers need. With the time left in the current mandate, we should prioritise the delivery of a Carer’s Allowance Supplement scheme, which was recommended by the independent review of welfare mitigations and would put an extra £540 in the pockets of local carers each year.

According to modelling by the Carer Poverty Commission, this would lift 3,400 unpaid carers out of poverty immediately, and a further 2,500 out of deep poverty. In Scotland, where the policy has existed since 2018, the Supplement has been shown to make a big difference – helping carers to pay for essential household expenses that they would otherwise have struggled to afford, clear their debts and improve their mental health.

In the medium–to–longer–term, we also need deeper reform of the weekly value of Carer’s Allowance payments and the earnings cap, so that the benefit provides greater financial support to carers and has less of a stifling effect on meaningful employment.

While these policy interventions would cost money, that pales in comparison to the near £6 billion in care costs our carers are saving the public purse each year. Indeed, the annual estimated cost of implementing a Carer’s Allowance Supplement scheme (£26 million) is less than our carers are saving the health system every two days (£32 million) in Northern Ireland.

This is a population of people that keeps our health service afloat and protects Stormont’s budget from instant collapse. They make an immense contribution to Northern Ireland and deserve better than a welfare system that systematically traps them in poverty.

Craig Harrison, Carers NI, Public Affairs Manager. 

Craig is also Chairperson of the Coalition of Carers Organisations NI and Co–Chairs the Supporting Carers workstream within the Department of Health’s Social Care Collaborative Forum. In 2021, he was appointed by the Department for Communities to the Independent Welfare Mitigations Review Panel. Craig is a Trustee of Camphill Communities Trust NI. He previously worked in the Policy team at Marie Curie, where he led an award–winning campaign to change social security law for terminally ill people. Before that, he worked for a strategic communications consultancy in Belfast.

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