They should also have the right to an annual holiday in recognition of the huge sums they save the public purse, the study says.
An entitlement to a limited amount of respite care - a weekly break and a 'carer's holiday' - would help solve difficult issues around how far and how much social services should charge for it, the study says. It would also enable carers to keep going, reducing the need for costly places in residential homes. Most community care is provided by informal carers such as relatives, friends and neighbours - a fact the Government has acknowledged, while stating that an important feature of the new community care system was meant to be the provision of more respite care to give carers a break.
Today's study of 420 carers' experience of the first year of community care, however, shows that a quarter of them were not aware that a new system was in place - and that even where their relatives' needs were assessed, their own needs were not discussed by social services in half the cases.
Norman Warner, the former director of social services for Kent and now a senior fellow at the University of Kent, who carried out the study, said: 'Carers need a break. It is an unwaged, often full-time and emotionally and physically demanding job.'
Carers' own emotional and social needs are often overlooked as they come to be regarded 'as machines designed for perpetual motion'. Many, however, as the study shows, 'find it difficult to ask for help'.
There were also difficult issues around charging for respite care, he said. Social services departments' policies varied and carers' own attitudes were ambiguous. 'Many have spotted the link between paying for services and achieving a greater influence and control - they want to throw their weight around more over how and when services are provided.' Against that, many were on incomes which limited 'their ability either to hire the piper or to finance much of the tune'. Many were also aware of how much they were saving the state and of their own sacrifices to do that, so that being charged for respite care 'only adds insult to injury'. Furthermore, there were genuine difficulties in sorting out who benefits from respite and other services - the carer or the service user - and thus who should be means-tested for any contribution towards the cost.
The solution, Mr Warner argues, could be a statutory right to a 'core package' of respite care provided free to those registered as full-time carers - a package of four hours, or a half day a week off, and an annual holiday of 7 to 14 days. 'If society as a whole guaranteed to provide these breaks in recognition of what carers were saving the public purse,' he said, many carers might then be prepared to pay for any additional respite breaks - 'the jam on the bread and butter'.
He points out that 'the needs of people being cared for vary widely and the services provided for them are responses to their individual needs. It is incidental if those services also provide a break for the carer. That is a bonus not the primary purpose of, for example, providing day care'.
It is at least arguable, he said, 'that carers should have some fundamental entitlements to respite and support in recognition of their caring activities. After all, those in employment have legal safeguards to protect them against unfair treatment'. How many people might qualify for such services is not yet known; the next stage of the study is intended to help assess that.
More than 9 out of 10 carers interviewed in the study backed the idea of a statutory right to a break and the National Carers' Association said it would pursue the idea, taking it up with directors of social services.
Community Care: Just a Fairy Tale?; Carers National Association, 20-25 Glasshouse Yard, London EC1A 4JS; pounds 12.50.Reuse content