The unpaid work of carers saves the UK £87bn per year, up 52% from five years ago, according to a leading charity.
The new figures are based on how much it would cost to provide alternative care if a carer was not available – calculated at £14.50 an hour.
Charity Carers UK said the total was more than the entire amount spent by the NHS in the past financial year and four times the amount spent on social care services for adults and children by local authorities in the year 2005-2006.
The charity warned that the economy was over-reliant on care provided by family and friends, and that many carers remained unsupported, unable to take up paid work or have a normal social life.
It wants more money for social care and a review of carer benefits, including exploring whether tax breaks could help carers avoid poverty and remain in employment.
Imelda Redmond, chief executive of Carers UK, said: “We need concerted action from government, employers and public bodies to end social exclusion among carers.”
The government said it was revising its strategy on the future of carers and the charity’s recommendations would be taken into consideration.
From 1 October, the maximum amount of money that carers will be allowed to earn without losing their entitlement to Carer’s Allowance will rise from £87 to £95 a week.
As part of an ongoing campaign to introduce tax breaks for carers, supported by Personnel Today, an open letter from employers has been sent to the prime minister Gordon Brown, calling for the introduction of care vouchers.
The vouchers would work in a similar way to childcare vouchers and allow carers to purchase additional care and support services – allowing them to remain in work longer.