Lord Young of Cookham is a former Chief Whip and Leader of the House of Commons.
The challenges of the past two years have highlighted the incredible caring spirit of our country. Covid-19 continues to be the single greatest public health emergency in the history of the NHS. But thanks to the remarkable success of the vaccination programme, we can cautiously hope for 2022 to be a better year than 2021.
This success would not have been possible without the tens of thousands of people who have volunteered their time to perform tasks such as registering patients, managing queues and giving jabs at vaccine sites across the country.
But there is another caring spirit which often remains hidden from society and that is children who look after their adult relatives. According to research, there are more than 800,000 young carers in the UK and recent figures show that 180,000 children in England who care for an ill or disabled relative are missing out on support, because they are not known to their local authority.
That’s why it’s so important that young carers are identified before adults are sent home from hospital.
However, Government proposals in the Health and Care Bill, currently being debated in the Lords, could have the unintended consequences of weakening protections for these children. The Government’s health reforms have the commendable aim of creating a new integrated system that joins up health and social care – now we need to ensure this works for our most vulnerable children and young people.
Evidence from children’s charity Barnardo’s shows adults are being discharged from hospital into the care of children, without first making sure these children are aware of their new responsibilities and are being offered support by their local authority, and I fear this is only set to get worse unless the Bill is amended.
Hospital staff are in a vital position as professionals to ask questions and identify young carers. Children are often reluctant to identify as young carers as they don’t want to get their parents into trouble. If the responsibility sits with hospital professionals to ask patients who will be their primary carer on discharge from hospital it will stop children feeling responsible for involving services in family life.
Barnardo’s has long been calling for hospital staff to ensure that when someone is discharged from their care, the question of who will support the adult at home is routinely asked. This should be recorded and shared with other agencies, so that young carers are identified, supported and are not slipping through the net.
Caring for those closest to them is something that many young carers are incredibly proud to do – as I know from my time with Andover Young Carers, as MP for North West Hampshire – but children must never be expected to shoulder the burden of care for family members on their own.
Research published by Barnardo’s found young carers can spend more than 30 hours or more each week looking after their relatives – almost the equivalent of a full-time job.
This can involve cooking, housework, shopping, or attending medical appointments as well as helping to look after their siblings, leaving little or no time to enjoy their childhood.
The impact the responsibility of children and young people caring for their family members can be profound and long-lasting, and outcomes are significantly lower than their peers. Research shows they have significantly lower educational attainment at GCSE level, many struggle to achieve qualifications they are capable of, and young adult carers aged 16-18 are twice as likely as their peers to not be in education, employment or training.
Barnardo’s does an invaluable job of supporting many young carers through its excellent services, but as a society we must protect children from taking on too much responsibility at a young age, and from sacrificing their education, or physical and mental health.
Parliament must take the opportunity of the Health and Social Care Bill, to recognise the needs of children and ensure young carers are identified by healthcare professionals, so that local authorities can provide them with the support they need.
To help improve support and outcomes for this vulnerable group of young people, I urge the Government to support my cross-party amendment that would introduce a requirement on NHS bodies to identify if a young carer will be the primary carer. And if so, to inform local authorities of any new or existing young carers in their area to make sure they can access the help they need.
Young people caring for their relatives are making a vital contribution to their family and their wider society. We cannot allow these remarkable children and young people to be overlooked by this legislation.