Throughout the election campaign we have heard a lot about 'hard working people' and 'hard working families'. But who are the hard working people of whom politicians speak?
I agree with the politicians that we - society at large; the Government; the social security system - should be doing more for hard working people. Where we differ, and I think we do, is how we define hard working people and hard working families. The political narrative seems to focus on a narrow and limited view that hard working equates to being in paid employment. It is only being in paid employment that qualifies you as hard working, and paid employment is elevated above all else, as worthy of the politicians' attention and promises. There appears to be little conception of the importance, value and contribution - to society and to the economy - of unpaid work.
What am I referring to? Caring. Caring, unpaid, for a disabled family member, relative or friend. Today in the UK 6.5 million people are caring for a loved one, and each year more and more of us take on a caring role. It may be caring for a disabled child, or a partner who's had a stroke, or an elderly parent with dementia. There are 1.4 million people caring for more than 50 hours a week - a full-time job by anyone's standards, but not one that brings with it a living wage, but at best a Carer's Allowance of just £62.10.
The contribution that carers make to our country is immense, but too often unseen and unappreciated. The value of the unpaid care provided is £119 billion - about the same as the cost of the NHS . We hear a lot about the NHS, but much less about the carers that the NHS, and our chronically underfunded social care system, relies on. Caring is not restricted to 'working age' people. There are 1.3 million people over the age of 65 who are carers, and this is the fastest growing group of carers. The 2011 census also showed that there are 178,000 under 18s who are carers.
But let's come back to the issue of employment. Of course it's right that politicians pay attention to this, at a macro level in terms of the contribution the employed population makes to taxation and to the economy. It's also important at the individual level, that people have the opportunity of paid employment, and that this opportunity includes all members of society. However, not everyone is able to work (whether paid or unpaid), and how politicians describe those who can't; and how we ensure that every member of society is valued and helped when needed, seems to me to be a critical test for any political party.
Amongst carers, three million are juggling work and caring: two million trying to hold down a full-time job with caring; and one million a part-time job. But too many carers have to give up work because of their caring responsibilities, not because they want to, not because they aren't 'hard-working' but often because the social care services aren't there to look after their loved one when they're at work. There is a cost to the individual as a result - loss of income; loss of contact with work - but there is a cost to the economy too. A loss of tax receipts; an increase in benefits payments for the economy; and a loss of skill and the cost of rehiring for the employer.
So what's in the Manifestos for carers? There are some welcome commitments, and better recognition across the political spectrum than there was at the last Election. However, until carers and caring feature, not just in some specific and limited commitments, but at the heart of the political narrative, and are recognised and appreciated for the essential contribution to our economy, then the politicians will have failed us.
So let's hear it for hard working people - the carers who contribute so much to the economy and to our country, who sustain our NHS and society itself, and who have yet to hear this fully understood, valued and recognised.