Are unpaid carers saving the taxpayer £119 billion?

13 May 2011

"Carers save Britain £119 billion each year, prompting calls for more cash support." Daily Mirror, 12 May 2011

With the cost of providing care to the sick and disabled very much in the limelight as the Government's Welfare Reform and Health and Social Care Bills making their turbulent passage through Parliament, this morning's Mirror carried a report suggesting that the Government should be grateful that is not shelling out even more money.

According to the paper's headline, the hours put in by unpaid carers save the British taxpayer a staggering £119 billion every year — more than is spent on the NHS, and equivalent to nearly 9 per cent of the entire value of the UK economy.

Can such a statistic really be true? Full Fact took a look.

The figure has been calculated as part of a report put together by Carers UK — a pressure group that campaigns for better conditions for carers.

The report estimates that, based on 2001 census data, there are presently 6.44 million carers in the UK. Using the average hourly cost of local authority care (£18 per hour) as documented by the NHS Information Centre and the average time spent caring (2.8 hours per day), Carers UK can then reach the figure of £119 billion.

There are obviously a number of assumptions in such a calculation, some on firmer ground than others.

Most fundamentally, there is little information available on the level of care being provided by the six and a half million unpaid carers. It does not necessarily follow that local authorities would be required to pay for professional care if the unpaid carers were to withdraw their voluntary support.

This is because the Government's Fair Access to Care Services criteria set out that individuals must demonstrate a high-level risk to their independence in order to qualify for local authority care.

It is not clear that all those currently receiving care from volunteers would meet these eligibility criteria. The census question asks simply: "Do you look after or give any help or support to family members, friends or neighbours or others because of: long-term physical or mental ill-health or disability or problems related to old age?"

However analyses conducted by the Commission for Social Care Inspection and the Department of Health's Director General of Social Care have estimated that there are approximately 5.5 million people in the UK that require personal social care, of whom some 1.7 million are already receiving help from local authorities. This leaves 3.8 million not currently receiving statutory care.

Local authorities currently spend £16.8 billion on caring for the 1.7 million individuals that fall within their remit. Assuming that the 'cost per person' remained consistent, the taxpayer would have to shell out £37.6 billion extra to care for the additional 3.8 million not currently covered by councils. Even this, however, could be seen as an over-estimate, as the 'cost per person' of providing care services tends to decrease with larger numbers of recipients.

This isn't the only reason to treat the projected cost of care of £18 per hour with some caution.

Under the Fair Access to Care Services guidelines, recipients are divided into four groups based on the level of care that is required: critical, substantial, moderate and low. Those requiring critical support are likely to already fall under the remit of local authorities, while a higher proportion of those currently receiving voluntary care might be supposed to require lower level services. If caring responsibilities were wholly taken on by councils therefore, the average level of care required could be expected to fall, and the average cost may well do likewise.


Quantifying the savings to the taxpayer of those providing unpaid care will always require some leaps of faith, given the scarcity of firm data and the disparities in individuals needs.

Yet whilst the underlying problem identified by the Carers UK report has been acknowledged as an important one, the figure of £119 billion seems to be at the upper end of estimates, to the point that it stretches plausibility.

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