This morning I woke up to a message from a friend that filled me with sadness, anger and determination. Together, we run a homework club for a group of young carers, mostly between the ages of six and 11. These young people are an inspiration to me, because through caring for ill and disabled family members, they face challenges and responsibilities beyond what I can imagine dealing with as a child, and they do so with remarkable maturity. But sometimes their frustrations come to the surface, and working with them can be a rewarding - but challenging - experience.
After a tricky session, my friend's message sought to remind me of why we work with this group and the unique perspective it brings to our own lives. It filled me with sadness, as he described the kinds of challenges faced by the children we work with every day. Sometimes you need that background to maintain the compassion, patience and stability these children need. I felt anger - because those who work with young carers on the frontline are battling to protect vital services that offer structure and support. But I also felt determination - because there are ways in which government and communities can improve carers' lives.
This week has been Carers Week, which seeks to celebrate the valuable contribution of carers. The 2011 census identified 6.5million carers across the UK, including 178,000 carers under 18. Other sources suggest this may be a significant underestimate, such as BBC analysis which puts the figure for under-18s closer to 700,000. 13,000 young carers provide more than 50 hours of care every week. When we consider the contribution of both adult and young carers, who devote time and emotional energy to caring for someone they are close to, it becomes apparent how much our struggling social care system relies on this group. Researchers have estimated the total economic contribution of carers to be £119billion - considerably more than what we spend on the NHS.
These figures, though staggeringly high, are only set to increase as our population ages, the length of time we expect to live with a disability lengthens, and the prevalence of complex, long term conditions increases. Research by IPPR found that the number of older people needing care will outstrip the number of adult children able to provide it in 2017. But at a time when demand for social care services are rising so quickly, the funding for those services is drying up. Local authorities have cut their social care budgets by £3.53billion - or 26% - over the last parliament. The number of people who receive care has fallen by 28% compared to 2009, as eligibility thresholds tighten.
As well as direct care for people who need it, support for carers is crucial. Carers UK research has found that almost half of carers have cut back on essentials like food and heating, and ended up in debt. Three in four find it hard to maintain social relationships. Informal caring makes it harder to find and keep jobs; carers are more likely to take time off, have to leave work early and can struggle to concentrate. Caring responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, particularly in middle-age when both children and elderly relatives require care.
The 2014 Care Act brought new responsibilities for local authorities to offer assessments of need to a wider range of people who may be hidden carers. Carers now have the right to ask for flexible working hours, which employers must make reasonable efforts to meet. The Conservative party's manifesto promised to 'increase support for full- time unpaid carers'. These are all welcome developments, but at a time when local authorities are steeling themselves for the next round of cuts, we need more concrete proposals for how the government will better support carers as they take on increasing responsibilities.
There are routes the government can take to support carers in their family and community roles. IPPR's proposals highlight the difference that stronger employment rights would make for those who combine caring with work, both for the individuals and the benefits bill. For example, a right to family caring leave would enable more working carers to keep working during and after caring, which many want to do. Meanwhile, protecting the current Carer's Allowance and it's replacement, the carer element in Universal Credit, would help families with carers and allow them to continue providing vital family-based care. The policy landscape around carers is changing - from local authority service cuts to the introduction of universal credit - and greater priority should be paid to make sure the total effect of changes is helping carers rather than making their lives harder.
Amongst the numbers, economic measures of contribution and technical policy analysis sometimes the stories and reasons behind policy can get lost. Policymakers - both elected and civil - should make sure they talk to people at the sharp end and heart of our care system, so that decisions are based on a full understanding of the realities for carers and their families. We're a long way from this happening, which is why it has been refreshing this Carers Week to hear and see people's stories that are such valuable windows into the everyday lives of carers. Let's translate those stories into meaningful action to improve the lives of carers, and the lives of those they support.