We must act now to combat a short breaks crisis that is pushing many families to breaking point
Short breaks provide much needed time off for carers to rest and focus on other activities and other family members. They are equally important for the people being cared for, allowing them to develop new relationships and take part in different activities outside their home. Families often call these services a “lifeline” – the one thing that can make life bearable and keep them going. Often, just a few breaks a month can be the difference between a family carer managing their caring responsibilities or reaching a point where they are not able to carry on.
However, the latest investigation by Mencap reveals a worrying picture. Three out of ten carers have never had a short break, and half do not know how to access short breaks. This has led to eight out of ten families claiming that they do not receive enough short breaks and, consequently, that they have reached a state of crisis. Family carers describe this situation as reaching “breaking point”, a state of emotional, psychological and physical exhaustion, where they feel they can’t go on. Given that most carers who took part in the research provide over 15 hours of care a day, it is no surprise that without adequate support, they are experiencing such extreme difficulties.
Since the charity’s first short breaks report, Breaking Point, in 2003, there has been significant debate about the lack of short breaks. Parliamentary hearings in 2006 found that “the lack of short breaks was the biggest single cause of unhappiness with service provision”. The Government’s Aiming High for Disabled Children programme in 2008 marked a significant step forward.
Since May 2010, the Coalition Government has allocated over £800 million to local authorities for disabled children’s short breaks over four years – the highest ever level of investment in England. This was accompanied by a £400 million allocation to primary care trusts.
However, despite investigations, strategies and considerable investment, the situation has not improved since 2003. A decade on, the new report found, like the 2003 study, that eight out of ten families are still reaching crisis point because of a lack of short breaks.
Nine out of ten family carers who responded to the latest survey said they felt stressed; eight out of ten said their family life had suffered and over half said they had given up, or considered giving up, work as a result of their caring responsibilities. Carers reported feeling “desperate”, “abandoned” and even “suicidal” as a result of not getting the time off from caring that they need.
How can this be happening, though, when over £1.2 billion funding has been allocated specifically for short breaks since 2010?
As part of its research, Mencap sent freedom of information requests to all local authorities in England. These revealed major differences in the way central government allocations are being spent on children’s short breaks at a local level. Since 2011, over half the local authorities that responded have cut their spending on short breaks. This has impacted on service provision, with 29 per cent of responding local authorities saying they had closed short breaks services for children with a learning disability over the past three years. These facts explain family carers’ experiences, with four out of ten saying that they have experienced cuts to their short breaks services and the same number saying short breaks provision has got worse in the last three years.
Even amongst families who are receiving support, there is a very mixed picture. Only one in ten family carers from the survey said that their short breaks services have improved in the past three years, and seven out of ten said the services they receive do not fully meet their family’s needs.
So, despite extra investment from the Government, services are being cut and there is no evident improvement in short breaks provision for families. This leads to the conclusion that while money may have been allocated, it is not being spent on the intended purpose.
We all know the huge pressures faced by local authorities, with an overall budget cut of 26 per cent over the current comprehensive spending review period. However, the apparent failure to invest in short breaks services cannot be explained away by this alone. Some local authorities have continued to invest in short breaks support, recognising how vital it is for families, while others have made different choices, and have cut services.
Cuts to short breaks, combined with significant cuts to benefits and other social care services, mean that the level of support for families is likely to reduce even further, even in the face of growing need. The majority of local authorities (55 per cent) are expecting an increase in the number of children with a learning disability needing short breaks services in the future. However, short breaks service closures are steadily increasing and data from the 2013 study suggests that 60 per cent of local authorities provided short breaks to a smaller proportion of children with a learning disability in 2011/12 than in the previous year.
What can be done?
I am concerned that local authorities are losing their grip on this precarious situation, meaning more and more families will miss out on the services they so desperately need and will be pushed to breaking point.
The pressures of caring without adequate support can lead to relationship breakdown between parents, and disabled children being sent away from their home to residential care. This costs families, society and local authorities a huge amount, yet this doesn’t need to be the case. A short break of just a few hours a month can make all the difference.
The Government must ringfence the money it has allocated for short breaks to ensure that it is spent on those services. Local authorities must also ensure that they prioritise short breaks services when it comes to allocating resources. Without central and local government taking joint responsibility for the current short breaks crisis, many more family carers will be left in an untenable position and many more disabled children, and their siblings, will suffer. We must not allow this to happen.
Dan Scorer is Senior Campaigns and Policy Manager at Mencap. The charity’s report on short breaks can be found at: