We must deliver for Scotland’s carers
Johann Lamont MSP says establishing rights for carers is only part of the battle; we need to find the will to deliver, identify the funding to pay for it, and make the changes that mean carers’ needs are met.
If warm words put food on the table, carers would be feeding on a banquet every night. There needs to be a will to make a difference, not just the opportunity to praise.
Out of love — although occasionally people are caught up in a caring role by accident — carers go far beyond what most of us can imagine in disrupting their lives to give people the care that they need. There is no doubt that, since the Parliament was established, carers’ voices have been heard. They have been at the heart of many of our debates and the campaigning organisations and the carers should be congratulated on how effective they have been.
However, we face a challenge in relation to the Carers (Scotland) Bill. We need to ask whether, as well as hearing what carers say, we are listening to what they tell us. We will be damned if we settle for rhetoric without delivering on carers’ aspirations. That is a challenge for all of us.
I am proud of the work that Labour did when it was in power. I am particularly proud of the establishment of carers centres, which represent an understanding of the need for flexible support and which reach out to and support people when they are in circumstances in which they find it difficult to get through processes. I pay particular tribute to south-west Glasgow carers centre in my constituency. As well as providing practical and emotional support to carers, including young carers, it supports people who no longer have a caring role and offers friendship to people as they come to terms with bereavement.
Many of the carers I speak to express frustration because some of the care support that they need is not for big things. They may need time to go to the hairdresser, the library or church, or they may need to spend a little time with their friends. There is frustration that access even to a bit of respite or support can often involve a long and complicated procedure which in some case that is more expensive to administer than the cost of the support.
There is the example of a woman who cares for her husband and who wanted to go to her granddaughter’s wedding. It took more than nine months to establish whether she would be able to get that time off. Even then, she lacked the confidence in the care that was offered to her husband to allow her to go to that wedding. Surely we can find a process or establish a fund to provide small amounts of money with speedy access which would make a huge difference to people in their ordinary lives and help them to sustain their caring role.
Problems with the carers information monies have been highlighted to me too. I understand the plan to take those monies from health boards and give them to local authorities, but there is a concern that the monies have on some occasions been handed back unspent and therefore that the opportunity has not been taken to support carers. We must ensure that funding gets as close to carers as possible and does not get lost in the process.
Practical issues that relate to young carers also need to be addressed, including attendance conditions on education maintenance allowance in schools. Work must be done to ensure that colleges and universities understand the particular barriers that young carers face. They need the liberation and support of education almost more than most young people do and the Scottish Government must ensure that these issues are highlighted.
Like others, I accept that there is support for the Carers (Scotland) Bill at Stage One, but that cannot in itself be enough. We need to be honest about the tough context in which carers are working. I have been struck by the dilemma that emerges in the bill with the proposal to open up the identification of carers and the assessment of their needs. I understand the rationale behind early identification, but we must reflect on the fear that has been expressed that such a broadening might dilute the support that is available to carers who are already in need.
In truth, a right that is unenforceable is unacceptable. We need not just to declare the right but to will the means to deliver. That is a practical challenge for the Scottish Government. It is not good enough for us to create a right and then sit back and denounce local authorities when they fail to deliver it.
I acknowledge the emphasis on identifying young carers, which can be a challenge. In my last teaching post, when I worked to support young people to stay in mainstream education, I met many individuals who were carers. Some of them were carers entirely inappropriately. I know that understanding of a young person’s situation—they might be reluctant to talk about the reality of their family life—is more likely when there is a strong guidance team, a strong attendance officer team, behaviour support, learning support and classroom assistants. Those people have the intelligence and understanding to reach out and see that a young person is perhaps struggling because of what is happening in their home.
At this moment, our schools are being stripped of such support because of the pressures on their budgets. That is not just an educational loss, but has significant consequences for the identification of, and support for, carers.
We need to see carers in the context of the real world, which is increasingly stressful. If they are working, their tax credits may be removed, and employers are demanding increased flexibility of them. Zero-hours contracts and people being available for longer means that they cannot guarantee that they can care for their loved one. People are being forced out of work because of a lack of proper support.
We need to work together to find solutions to these problems. We understand the central role of local authorities in offering support for carers. It is therefore essential, whether it is in health, education or social work — wherever it might be — that we are honest about how we will ensure that local authorities are properly supported.
Across the Parliament, we have a responsibility on this. If we are saying that local authorities must deliver good-quality care, we need to take a fundamental look at how we regard local authorities and how we fund that care. That is a key commitment for any bill through which we want to provide increased support to carers.