Page last updated at 14:24 GMT, Saturday, 23 May 2009 15:24 UK

Charities demand help for carers

By Simon Gompertz
Personal finance correspondent, BBC News

Elizabeth and Lewis Drew
Lewis Drew does not receive an allowance for caring for his wife

Charities are demanding a better deal for the UK's army of unpaid carers.

They have drawn up a carer's poverty charter, calling for improved benefits, including an increase on the weekly carer's allowance of £53.10.

Carers UK, Mencap and the Alzheimers Society are among nine leading charities behind the charter, which aims to end carer poverty.

Six million carers look after family members or friends at home and often struggle to pay for their basic needs.

The charities complain that the carer's charter is insufficient and too tricky to claim.

"It needs a complete overhaul," says Imelda Redmond, chief executive of Carers UK.

"It's not fit for purpose."

'Struggling'

Lewis Drew from York, whose wife Elizabeth has suffered a series of strokes, told BBC Breakfast about the financial strain he was under as a carer.

Elizabeth Drew
I feel very frightened. What happens to our home if Lewis has to give up work?
Elizabeth Drew

Elizabeth suffers from short-term memory loss and has no feeling down the left side of her body, so she needs constant supervision.

Even so, Lewis cannot get carer's allowance, the benefit which is supposed to help people like him.

"We're struggling. To care for Elizabeth, I feel I should stop work but I can't," Lewis explains. They need the money to keep up their mortgage payments.

Lewis has cut his hours at a local supermarket and relies on friends to keep an eye on Elizabeth when he is out.

But he still brings home around £150 a week from his part-time job, and that takes him above the maximum allowed for Carer's Allowance. Applicants cannot earn more than £95 a week.

Not saving

There is a long list of other restrictions. You have to be caring for more than 35 hours a week. You cannot study for 21 hours or more. If you are receiving a state pension, the two benefits cancel each other out.

The result is that fewer than 500,000 out of the UK's millions of carers actually get the allowance.

We want to create a system of carers' benefits that is able to provide effective support where it is most needed
Department for Work and Pensions

"Many families are running down their assets, not saving for their own futures, not saving for their pensions and going into their old age in poverty," Imelda Redmond points out. "It's an outrage."

People who need to be looked after can claim benefits, such as attendance allowance.

Elizabeth Drew qualifies for disability living allowance. But she argues that carers deserve support as well, because they often have to give up some or all of their earnings.

"It's eating into our savings. Where will the money come from?" asks Elizabeth.

Lewis Drew has a heart condition, which adds to the stress. "I feel very frightened," his wife adds, "What happens to our home if Lewis has to give up work?"

Benefit reforms

Carer's UK says that most carers struggle to pay bills and are cutting back on food. Its list of demands includes higher benefits which are more straightforward to claim.

"It would cost a significant amount," Redmond concedes, "but we've calculated what carers save the state and it comes out at £87bn a year."

The Department for Work and Pensions told BBC Breakfast it would be considering carers as part of wider benefit reforms.

In a statement, it said: "We want to create a system of carers' benefits that is able to provide effective support where it is most needed and that can adapt to the extensive range of needs that carers have."

In addition the government has a national strategy for carers which promises that by the year 2018 no one will be forced into financial hardship because of their caring role.

But, to carers, 2018 seems a long way away.



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