In the debate about social care and the elderly there's a group of people often overlooked. Rightly we hear about paid workers in the sector and the need for their pay to rise. Yet alongside them there is a large and growing army of unpaid carers, who are just as dedicated.
We all know them. These carers are mums and dads, husbands and wives, neighbours and sometimes children and teenagers. They often have health problems themselves. Yet they have taken on the role of caring for a family member, or a near neighbour or friend who has no one else.
I know these carers. Indeed, my mum was such a carer for my dad in his last months. She found it exhausting but soldiered on when her own health was faltering. I have fought hard for carers in my constituency to get the respite they need, when very often the system forgets about their needs. I campaigned for the Carers Act so we could get proper assessments for carers, which reflects their own needs. I have also worked alongside our excellent Carers In Hertfordshire in its work to both recognise support and lobby for carers across the county.
Yet that work is far from finished. I am a member of the Communities & Local Government Select Committee and last week we published a detailed report on adult social care. This can be found at the Committee's page at www.parliament.uk Much of the media focus was on paid carers, but we also considered the increasing importance of unpaid carers.
We learnt that the system is increasingly reliant on unpaid, family members to care for the sick and frail. Since 2001 the number of people providing over 20 hours of unpaid care has risen by nearly half - 43%. This reflects one of the hidden effects of the rise in the elderly population, but it's becoming increasingly unsustainable. The rate of growth of those aged over 85 is much faster than rise in the numbers of those who usually care for them, namely those aged 50-64. So, the idea of one generation helping their parents, whilst currently viable for some, won't last. We need to rethink what's happening.
First, I believe we need to change attitudes towards unpaid carers. The Select Committee heard a wide variance in how different councils support their carers. We need to promote and reward best practice amongst councils in this field and that's a role which Government can and should lead on. That means more assessments of their needs; greater flexibility in how support is provided; and much wider adoption of personal budgets for people.
Second, we need to make it easier for carers to enter, stay in and return to work. This will help many existing carers who are struggling to juggle both work and family life. All too often they find themselves having to give up work, because they cannot cope. This makes no sense for them, as it often reduces the family income. It's also bad for the economy, and creates another group of people who reluctantly find themselves dependent on the public purse.
At present, we rely on the goodwill of employers all too often. Many are flexible, but the wider impact on family incomes, and individuals' employment rights is difficult for many people to successfully navigate. That is why we need to improve and reform the way the Carers Allowance works, to reflect the realities for people. It is also why we need to look again at the legal framework for working people with caring responsibilities. In Germany, they have a clear and specific legal set of rights and responsibilities for carers, which reflects the realities, both for the individual, their dependent and for employers and the Government.
When the Government publishes its plans in adult social care later this year, it is vital it addresses the needs not just of those being cared for, but also of those who willingly but selflessly care for others. Just as they care for their nearest and dearest, we have a duty to care for them.
Mark Prisk FRICS MP represent Hertford & Stortford and is a member of the Communities & Local Government Select Committee. www.markprisk.com Facebook: @Mark4HertsStort Twitter: @PriskMark