This week is Carers Week, where we all recognise the crucial role unpaid carers play in our society.
6.5million people in the UK are giving unpaid care to a family member or friend, three million of whom juggle paid work and care. Two million of them are aged over 65.
The value of the care they provide dwarfs the amounts which are paid for social care by councils and they save the economy over £130 billion every year.
But despite the vital role unpaid carers play, they are not getting the support they so badly need.
It hit home to me recently when I met a group of older carers, Joyce, Elaine and Elizabeth.
The older carers told me how they and their families are often at breaking point. How they feel betrayed by a system of care that leaves them with little or no affordable support. How they face rising care costs which they describe as “crippling” but that the care they pay for is too often not good enough.
How has it come to this?
The simple truth is that the burden on unpaid carers has grown because, while demand for care is rising, our threadbare social care system has been hollowed out by eight years of funding cuts to councils who deliver care.
400,000 fewer people are getting publicly-funded care now than in 2010 and there are 1.2million older people with unmet care needs. This is heaping unbearable pressure on unpaid carers.
To compound things, the cuts have meant that fewer carers are able to access respite care for the person they are caring for, so that they can take a short break from their caring responsibilities.
Previously, the last Labour Government provided a dedicated £150 million respite care fund to give carers’ breaks but this was absorbed into wider social care funding where it was not ringfenced.
Labour’s own research shows that over two thirds of councils now have to charge cared for people to give their carers a break, with a quarter increasing their charges in the last three years. It flatly contradicts the Government’s claims that most councils do not charge for break, recognising the contribution that carers make to their communities.
Care costs these days can be eye-watering, with the average weekly care home stay costing, on average, between £511 and £741, and care at home costing upwards of one hundred pounds per week, depending on where you are in the country.
These charges are one of the reasons that 40% of carers haven’t had a day off for more than a year and a quarter haven’t had a day off in five years.
It is beginning to take its toll on carers’ health. New research from Carers UK published today has found that almost three quarters of carers said they had suffered mental ill health while well over half said that their physical health had worsened.
When carers have needed help to maintain their own health and wellbeing, this Government has continually let them down.
Last week, having gone back on their promise of a full carers’ strategy, they published an “action plan”, which was notable for its distinct lack of action. To make matters worse, it was published six months’ later than planned.
There was no funding for social care, no increase in the carers allowance, no money for carers’ breaks. Instead, only vague commitments to ‘consider’ giving carers dedicated employment rights.
Carers deserve better than this. They need a real strategy developed across Government that delivers proper funding and support, not a rushed action plan that offers no new solutions to the problems they face.
By contrast, the last Labour Government launched two landmark Carers’ strategies in 1999 and 2008 which delivered valuable support to carers.
We recognised that caring was at the heart of our values as a society and our ambition to create a fairer Britain.
And we will continue this mission to see the work of carers valued, and for carers to be recognised and treated as equal partners in care.
At the 2017 General Election, we pledged to increase the Carers Allowance in line with Job Seeker’s Allowance. But we know that we need to do more than that.
That is why the next Labour Government will develop a proper National Strategy for Carers, so that together we can establish what is reasonable for families to do and what help and support they can get.
And why we will build a National Care Service that provides care to everyone that needs it, paid for by sharing the risks of care costs across society.
It is the least that carers deserve.
Barbara Keeley is the Shadow Cabinet Minister for Mental Health and Social Care and Labour MP for Worsley and Eccles South