Carers do an invaluable job - these all too often unsung heroes are the back-bone of care in our communities and play an indispensable role in supporting the needs of loved ones, often at enormous cost to their own health and well-being.
According to Carers UK, there are more than 5.3million carers across the UK and more than 500,000 carers in Scotland who look after relatives or loved ones. And with the economic value provided by carers in Scotland at £10.8million, their role is one that cannot be understated.
And while it is important to recognise and praise the work that carers do, it is even more important to ensure that they have the right financial support to help them provide the care they do and access to employment that others enjoy.
We all have a responsibility to break down the barriers that carers face when accessing employment opportunities. The SNP in government has invested around £114million in programmes to support carers - which is more than ever before. The £13.7million Short Break Fund in particular has provided 15,000 carers and cared-for people the opportunity to relax without feeling stress or guilt. The Carers Parliament was established to provide carers, young carers and carer representatives from across Scotland the opportunity to discuss and debate the matters that are most important to them.
But there is more to be done, and the UK Government needs to recognise the challenges faced by carers whether they are in full-time work, part-time work, no work or pension age. By increasing the availability of quality part-time, flexible work as well as raising the awareness of the right to request flexible working would be an important step towards supporting carers to enter employment that is right for their needs.
If the UK Government is truly committed to supporting the ability of carers to work, they need to do more to address the issue of access to flexible work which is supported by Carer's Allowance and other benefits. With new social security powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament, we will increase Carer's Allowance so that it is paid at the same level as Jobseekers' Allowance, a commitment that will benefit carers by £600 a year.
And I am delighted that the SNP Scottish Government has recently announced that the introduction of a Young Carer's Allowance will be considered by Scottish Ministers to provide young people with the extra financial support they need. Under the current system, only 250 people under the age of 18 in Scotland receive Carer's Allowance despite there being 44,000 young carers who currently balance their education with caring responsibilities.
We want all young people to have the same chances and opportunities to fulfil their potential.
And with the majority of carers being female it is women who are shouldering a disproportionate responsibility for care in the UK, which is further widening the gender pay gap and increasing inequality between men and women. Caring falls particularly on women in their 40s, 50s and 60s with 1 in 4 women aged 50-54 having caring responsibilities for older or disabled loved ones, compared to 1 in 6 men.
The fact also that women tend to take on the bulk of parental care means they take on twice as much of a burden of care in the home as men. Research in 2012 by Carers UK found that women were four times more likely than men to give up work because of multiple caring responsibilities.
And it is clear that the Tories have not fully investigated the impact of their benefits cuts on carers and the disabled - and even took a legal challenge in the High Court to get the UK Government to exempt the Carer's Allowance from the benefit cap.
The SNP's approach to social security recognises the need to ensure disabled people and their carers are fully supported with dignity and respect. The contribution that carers make to our society is priceless and it's only appropriate that they are properly recognised and supported in our communities across Scotland.