As the carers’ movement turns 50 there is no room for complacency

In 1954, the Rev Mary Webster, then aged 31, left her vocation to care for her aged parents, following the well-trodden path of a dutiful daughter. Webster faced the stark reality of trying to manage caring responsibilities while dealing with the financial hardship of loss of income and the prospect of poverty in her own old age.

Webster is still spoken of today because this private and personal dilemma became a public matter. In January 1963, she raised the issues in letters to the national press, underlining the problems for single women effectively “under house arrest” in their caring responsibilities, and argued for a national council for the single woman and her dependants. An article in the Guardian promoted Webster’s cause. The flood of letters (and financial donations) that poured in from other women, and the unexpected level of interest in a meeting organised at the House of Commons in July 1963 (described in Timothy Cook’s 2007 history of the carers movement) led to the setting up of the National Council, providing the foundation from which the carers movement has grown.

As the movement marks its 50th anniversary with the inaugural Mary Webster lecture, it is timely to reflect on its milestones and to consider future priorities. Much has undoubtedly been achieved, due in no small part to continued campaigning and lobbying. The introduction of a dependant relative tax allowance in 1967 was the first legal recognition of caring responsibilities other than for children. The creation of the invalid care allowance in 1976 brought the first cash benefit for carers, although it would be a decade before it was extended to married and cohabiting women (in the teeth of government resistance) after a ruling in the European court. Another nine years passed before the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act of 1995 gave carers the right to an assessment of their own needs. The act was the result of a private member’s bill introduced by the late Malcolm Wicks MP, and leaves an appropriate legacy on the statute books from a man who, prior to entering parliament in 1992, had a long career in research, particularly around family care, under the auspices of the Family Policy Studies Centre. Further legislation culminated in the 2014 Care Act, which strengthens carers’ rights.

Since 1999 cross-government carers’ strategies have addressed the wider public policy agenda in education and employment, as well as in social security, health and social care. A speech by the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to the Local Government Association last week called for a “revolution in personal responsibility”, reiterated the commitment to carers, and pledged a new carers strategy that will consider international evidence to support carers.

Thirty-one years ago, Wicks and I wrote a paper in which we described carers as “the welfare state’s forgotten army” – unrecognised, undervalued and often unsupported despite representing huge annual savings for the state (estimated currently at £119bn).

Today, carers are better recognised and their vital role is much better understood, but there can be no room for complacency. Reductions to carers’ allowance are a possible target in the government’s emergency budget today. But a refreshed carers’ strategy should be an opportunity to address the needs of carers in both practical and financial terms. That would indeed be a revolution in personal responsibility and the basis for a new social contract fit for the next 50 years.

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