Leading article: The injustice of a system that penalises carers

Profound reform is needed in one vital part of the welfare state

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There are many ways in which our state benefits system is inadequate and damaging. The fact that the long-term sick receive more than the unemployed has helped to channel millions of Britons into demoralising joblessness. The flat-rate state pension acts as a disincentive for people to save for their old age. The system is widely agreed to be unwieldy and often counter-productive. But the most morally indefensible aspect of the benefits system tends to get far less attention than any of the above faults. The most egregious injustice of the system is its treatment of those who spend their lives caring for disabled relatives and friends.

That is why we welcome the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee's report today, which makes a powerful case for wholesale reform of the benefits available to carers. As the report points out, if these individuals were paid by the private sector for their services, their combined salary bill would be billions of pounds every year. Those who have experienced life as a carer will find that unsurprising. Caring for a sick or disabled relative is arduous work and very often a round-the-clock job. It can exert a huge mental toll and the disruption it inflicts on a normal family life is colossal.

Yet the financial support carers are entitled to claim from the state is woefully low. And the resources they can call on to give them a break from their daily duties are scant, hard to access and, all too often, pitifully inadequate. Many complain that it is impossible to find a nurse to provide cover for a single weekend's break. The idea that the state might provide enough support for a carer to work part-time in another job is an almost laughably unrealistic prospect at the moment. There is a further penalty: carers often give up careers to look after their relatives, but they are given no compensatory pension replacement by the state. It is perfectly true that the vast majority of these carers do what they do, not for money, but out of devotion. But that does not mean they should be financially penalised for their sacrifice. Just because they act out of love does not mean they and their plight should be ignored.

The Committee's report urges the Government to provide greater financial aid to carers. That is certainly right. More nursing relief help and social support must also be made available. There is much that could be done in the job market too. Many carers who would like to return to work find their skills have become obsolete. The state could do considerably more to help retrain them. Furthermore, it is quite plain that the benefits system needs to be made more accessible. Too often, carers are not even claiming what is available because they do not know that it exists.

But a more profound reform is also needed. The political classes need to start recognising the contribution that carers make, not just to their own family life, but wider society. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, both have a disabled child, so they will have a greater appreciation than most of the immense pressures faced by Britain's carers. They have it in their power to ensure that their parties take the plight of carers more seriously. A good start from each of them would be a pledge to enact the overdue proposals contained in this report.

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