Sharon was asked to address professionals and carers at the conference arranged by Sunderland Carers Centre.
It’s a real privilege to be invited to speak to you today and to help make this conference a success, which I’m sure it has been.
I’m delighted that so many professionals have come along to hear about the challenges faced by young carers and the help that they need, and how you can provide that help or at least ensure that they are accessing it.
I’m here to talk about what’s been going on in Westminster over the last few months in this area and how I and others have been involved in that.
But actually it’s the people in this room, and your colleagues in Sunderland and across the country, who are the ones who can really make the changes to the lives of young carers.
Yes, we can talk about the need to drive up identification and to make sure that the needs of the whole family are met.
But it’s you guys who we actually rely upon to identify those families, and it’s you guys who we rely upon to work with colleagues in other agencies to make sure all of those needs are met.
I’m therefore keen not to spend my entire time here speaking at you, but to hear from you about what impact you think this new legislation can make, and especially what more you think can be done – because I certainly don’t think we’re all the way there just yet.
Reason for my involvement
But before I go into the to’s and fro’s in Parliament that got us to the point where we have some new legislation, I just wanted to talk about why I care about this.
Yes – I was the Shadow Minister for Children and Families at the time when the Children and Families Bill was being put together and then taken through Parliament.
But this is something that I’ve been talking about for many years.
Caring can be extremely tough at any stage of your life, but for a child or a young person it not only impacts on their ability to enjoy the same kind of childhood as their peers, but it can, and in far too many cases does, define how the rest of their life will pan out.
And this isn’t a small number of children and young people we’re talking about.
The latest figure given for the number who would benefit as a result of this legislation was 160,000 – and I’ve seen ones even higher than that over the years. In Sunderland Graham and Sunderland Carers support 600 young carers – but estimate that there are at least 1,800 young carers across Sunderland in total.
Now, it’s all very well talking in terms of statistics – even when they’re so huge.
But, it’s only when you meet young people – or even just one young person - in this situation…
…when you hear from them about what their responsibilities at home are…
…and what an impact those responsibilities have on their lives at present and how they’re planning for the future, that you really understand it.
For me, that was realisation came from my daughter’s best friend, who looks after her father - who has mobility and other health issues - after her mother died when she was 11.
They both did their GCSEs in 2012 and both did very well, and they both want to go on to university – the process for which has been a major part of my home life with my daughter Emily for the last 6 months!
My daughter, like lots of young people, plans to go away to university while her friend is considering staying in the local area so she can fulfil her caring duties.
I worry that even that may be too much, and her aspirations may never be fulfilled, because if she doesn’t get the support she needs she might very well start at university but then find that she is unable to continue.
That would be tragic – they’re just as talented as each other, yet one may well be held back because of the responsibilities she has at home.
My interest in this subject also obviously drew me to getting involved with Sunderland Carers Centre and seeing the great work they can do with young people when they’re identified – I think it’s safe to say they impact they can have on the lives of those young people is second only in magnitude to the impact of becoming a carer in the first place.
While I’m on the subject of how great Sunderland Carers are, actually, if anyone’s in London during the last week of June – 23rd to 27th – I’ve arranged for an exhibition of the photos from the Sunderland Carers Time Well Earned project to be hosted in Parliament near the Committee Rooms, so you’d be very welcome to come in to Parliament and see that in situ.
This is a great opportunity for this excellent exhibition, which really captures what it means to be a carer and how much breaks from that responsibility mean, to be seen in the seat of power, and I’m confident it will have a big impact on those who see it, who will be MPs, Ministers, Civil Servants, people attending select committees and visitors etc. Who knows, maybe even the Prime Minister if he walks past it!
Sunderland Carers have also obviously been very keen to support me in my Parliamentary work on this issue, and one case study they gave me a couple of years ago when I was preparing to speak in support of a Private Members’ Bill has particularly stuck with me, and I’ve used it on a number of occasions.
The example is that of two children who went to live with their grandparents at a young age because their mother was unable to care for them.
The arrangement worked very well for a number of years.
The children were thriving at school, had plenty of friends and took part in a number of other activities.
But as time passed their grandparents grew older and their health and mobility suffered.
They didn’t ask for help because they feared losing custody of their grandchildren, and as we know is the case in lots of families, it’s often the children who don’t want to tell anyone either because they don’t want to be separated from their family.
Now, the children couldn’t get out and about due to lack of transport, and this left the grandparents struggling to entertain them.
As things progressed, the grandparents struggled to get the children to school, especially in poor winter weather conditions, because the grandfather relied upon a mobility scooter, and occasionally he could not get them there at all.
This affected their attendance, and even when they were at school they were often distracted because they were so worried about their grandparents’ health.
Thankfully, the school eventually recognised the children as being young carers and was able to get the family the support that they needed.
A common assessment framework was put in place and a team was developed around the family.
The children were then able to take part in activities that allowed them to get out and have a normal childhood and meet other young carers.
And while they were out, their grandparents were able to get some much-needed rest, which meant they had more energy when the children were at home.
The school transport problem was resolved, and the children got back to having a 100% attendance record.
They’ll still face challenges as they grow up – of course they will.
But now they’ve been identified as carers they should get the right support to help them to cope, and eventually to get qualifications and careers and to develop, fulfilling adult lives.
Young people only ever really get one shot at their education.
If they’re not able to make the most of it…
…if they’re missing school to care for relatives…
…if when they’re at school they can’t concentrate because they’re too tired or anxious…
…if they drop out of formal education as soon as they’re able because they want to spend more time caring or working…
…then whatever potential and aspiration they might have had will have been wasted.
And in every case where a child or young person’s potential has been wasted, then we – as a society – have failed them.
It’s as simple as that.
And we’ve failed ourselves as well, of course, because as well as the human cost of wasted potential, there’s also a significant fiscal and economic cost in terms of increased use of benefits and public services and limited contributions in terms of taxes and spending in local economies.
It’s for all of those reasons that I care so deeply about supporting young carers, but also why I think every policy- and decision-maker should as well.
Children and Families Bill
I was therefore obviously very pleased to be the lead Shadow Minister scrutinising the Children and Families Bill, which we’d known was coming for some time.
We obviously knew that the Bill would mainly be a vehicle for the significant changes to the SEN system which the Government had been developing since 2010, and of course measures relating to looked-after children and fostering and adoption.
But we’d also been led to believe by the Care Minister from the Department of Health, in a debate on supporting carers some 9 or so months previous, that the Government would also use it to help young carers.
Imagine our surprise, therefore, when it was finally published and there was absolutely nothing in it about young carers.
I saw that as a massive wasted opportunity, as did many colleagues from all parties who had campaigned on this in the past, and indeed the national children’s charities and local carers groups.
So working with all of those interested parties, I put down amendments and new clauses to the Bill when it was in Committee Stage at the end of April – that’s the bit you don’t see on TV, where we go through legislation with a fine-toothed comb and try to add bits in or take bits out to make it better or do things we want it to do.
Unfortunately, when it came to debating them, the Minister wouldn’t be moved.
He said he’d looked into it but he wasn’t convinced there was anything wrong or any reason to change things – although he said he kept an open mind.
We knew from our back channel contacts that he and his civil servants were a bit more sympathetic to the arguments than they were letting on, but I think the main thing was they wanted it to look like they’d done something of their own accord, rather than pushed into it by the opposition.
One of the charities even told us that someone at the Department had said that there was a better chance of getting an amendment in sooner if Labour stopped going on about it so much – needless to say, I didn’t let that stop me, as it could have been a bluff.
Fast forward six weeks to June, when the Bill was back in front of the House, and sure enough the Minister announced that he’d changed his mind on legislation, and was looking into how best to do it.
Fast forward another few months to when they were going through the same process in the House of Lords – with Labour and others still going on about it, of course – and they finally tabled their own amendment – which is actually an amendment to the Children Act 1989.
This was, of course, great news.
Everyone always wants the credit for themselves in politics, but in this case I’d be the first to say this was a massive team effort – both in terms of the cross-party group within Parliament who were pushing for it at every opportunity, as well as with the lobbyists for the charities who were going into the Department and doing everything they could behind the scenes.
As I’m sure many of you will know, that new clause places a duty on local authorities to conduct young carers needs assessments where they think a young carer might need support, or they’ve had a referral from the family or the young carer themselves.
That assessment will look at the appropriateness of the care they are giving, their capacity to give it, and their need to participate in education, employment and training.
It also extends the right to an assessment to all young carers, regardless of who they care for, what type of care they
provide or how often they provide it.
I think perhaps most importantly, however, is that it also combines with the Care Bill to enable local authorities to join up the assessment of a young carer with an assessment of the person they care for – a whole family approach.
You’d think this would make so much sense that it would already happen anyway – and I’m sure in some areas it does. I know here in Sunderland we are leading the way on this now and I’ve just heard today from Dr Raj Bethapudi from Pennywell Medical Centre - who is the Clinical Head for Sunderland CCG Carers Improvement Programme as well as the Clinical Champion for Carers Support for the Royal College of GPs – who was telling me about the work he is doing here in Sunderland to make the changes necessary to the system in order to support carers better.
But sadly we know that way too many children were falling through the gap, and if this new clause results in better outcomes for any child – which I think it will for many – then it’s worth all the effort.
So that’s what we were able to achieve in legislation, but as I said at the start, I wanted the Government to go further at the time, and I still think there’s a case for further action, particularly on identification.
The example I gave earlier of those two young carers is a great example of the system working well once a young carer has been identified, which I understand it generally does here in Sunderland – although maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong on that.
Unfortunately, many children remain under the radar—some in even worse situations—and they won’t be as lucky as those who have been identified.
And actually, we should also ask why those children in the example weren’t picked up by their school even earlier, before the situation deteriorated – I don’t think it quite reached crisis point in that case, but we know that that’s what it takes in far too many cases.
That’s true of school-age children, but it’s arguably even more true of young adults in further and higher education, who have less time with tutors or teachers who would be able to spot the obvious signs.
Of course, teachers and educational institutions are not alone in their ability to identify young and young adult carers, nor in the fact that they come into contact with these families on a regular basis.
I served on the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee back in 2008 when we considered the issue of young carers, under the banner of children who are under the radar.
During that inquiry I asked why GPs in particular were not more proactive in identifying such children, because it is a common-sense deduction that a parent with certain health conditions who is not receiving extra support from professionals or a spouse is probably relying upon their children for that support.
The answer from Dr Jo Aldridge of Loughborough University was that GPs and other health professionals – including those treating parents for mental health problems - generally didn’t see this as part of their job description.
My arguments during the Bill’s passage was that this should be part of a GP’s job description, as it should be for any professional who comes into contact with children and families on a regular basis.
I know there are lots of those professionals in the room today, so I’d be interested in your thoughts on this area.
The very last line of what is now Section 96 of the Children and Families Act 2014 does say that local authorities should take reasonable steps to identify young carers, but in reality what will this extend to – especially given the cash-strapped times we’re in and the fact that many of these families will actively avoid contact with social services for fear of being separated?
The professionals who know families and children best are those in health and education.
A GP will know whether a patient has need of care and whether there are children in that household who might be providing it – it doesn’t take too much to join the dots.
Teachers, too, can see if something’s not right with a child – they’re late regularly, unkempt, no PE kit or homework not completed etc - and in many cases will have a good idea of the medical or psychological condition of their parent as well.
At the very least we need to see greater and mandatory training on spotting the signs, and for those professionals to then be able to directly trigger a young carers needs assessment.
Yes, we might get some false positives, but we’d also pick up and be able to support some of the young people we never would have done before, and that’s got to be worth it.
I don’t want any of you to feel that this is a criticism of you or your colleagues – far from it.
The fact that you’re here today shows how seriously you do take this issue, and demonstrates your commitment to ensure that you’re doing everything you can to help all the young carers in Sunderland you might come into contact with.
As I said right at the start, it’s people like you – not politicians or civil servants – who really have the power to be able to vastly improve the lives and the futures of those young people.
But for as long as some young people remain under the radar there is and will remain an imperative to do more to find them and to help them, and in the time we’ve got left today I’d love to know your thoughts on how we can achieve that together.