Last week, I was able to speak in a debate on Young Carers in Westminster Hall. Young Carers are defined as someone under the age of 18, who helps to look after a family or a friend who is in need of support as part of their daily lives- often because they are ill, disabled, or have fallen victim to drug abuse.
It is estimated that there are as many as 700,000 children and young people across the UK providing care, some of them as young as five years old. They provide vital support to loved ones who are in need of help, but too often, these activities extract a heavy personal toll on them. Many young carers struggle to combine their responsibilities with their own lives, and as a result, many fail to fully participate in school, and are not afforded the opportunities that other children their age typically have as part of their childhood.
This can negatively affect the carer’s health, as well as their academic prospects and their self-confidence. Indeed, surveys of young carers reveal that 1 in 20 young carers have missed school because of their caring role, and 26% have been bullied at school. What is more worrying still is that these problems often go unnoticed and untreated- 39% of all respondents said that no one in their school was aware of their caring role.
There are a number of schemes currently in place to support Young Carers. I am proud to say that Sandwell has been a pioneer in this field. Ours was one of the first councils to publish research identifying Young Carers within our local community. We now have an excellent charity, Sandwell Young Carers, that works to support the development of children in this position, by organising homework clubs, and working with other organisations in Sandwell to put on leisure activities for young carers. These efforts are vital to ensuring that these children can enjoy the same experiences and opportunities that are available to their contemporaries.
Since my entry to parliament nearly twenty years ago, I have had the privilege to work closely with Sandwell Young Carers and witness the tremendous work that they do in our community. But I am also keenly aware that they face a number of systematic problems that prevent them from reaching as many young carers as possible and giving them the help that they need. Among these are the difficulties that they face in identifying those children that are in need of their support. Sandwell Young Carers are put in contact with young carers through GP referrals, but in order for this system to be effective, the Department for Health and Social Care needs to take a more proactive role in ensuring that GPs are fully aware of their responsibilities to recognise and register young carers within their practice.
Another area where more needs to be done is around provision of transport- if adults in their household are ill or disabled, the mobility of young carers will be significantly limited. This can make it harder for them to get to school and other vital appointments, as well as social events and extra-curricular activities. It can also seriously undermine the efforts of charities to support young carers-after all, there is little point in groups like Sandwell Young Carers organising events to support these children if they have no means of transportation to get there.
Finally, there has been a concerning trend in recent years that has seen Young Carer Support Services increasingly moving out of the hands of community groups such as Sandwell Young Carers. Limited investment returns from charities and foundations, the process of tendering out contracts for public services, and the development of a much larger competitive market, have all meant that these groups are finding it harder to compete with larger agencies, who are typically on short term contracts, and come from outside the local area. These companies may be able to generate substantial profits, but they lack the knowledge that comes with being embedded within a community over many decades-and this expertise is vital in addressing the issues that young carers face. The government needs to recognise the immense value that organisations like Sandwell Young Carers bring to their communities, and take steps to ensure that the tendering process does not leave young carer services in the hands of for profit companies who provide inferior support.
I strongly believe that no child should have to choose between their own aspirations and supporting those close to them. If we take action to address these problems, we can take a big step toward ensuring that Sandwell Young Carers and other groups like them are able to reach as many children as possible, and provide them with the support that they need to manage the immense responsibility that has been placed on their shoulders, whilst also leading an enjoyable and fulfilling life of their own.