YORKSHIRE’s hidden army of up to 85,000 children who look after sick or disabled relatives is likely to grow even vaster as welfare cuts bite, campaigners warn today.
The shocking number of young carers is expected to soar as it falls to more youngsters to fill the gap left by dwindling state support.
The warning comes as the Yorkshire Post launches its Christmas appeal in aid of young carers across the region.
We are raising money to give these youngsters a break – the chance of a trip out or a few hours away from their responsibilities, which can include cooking, cleaning or even giving medication.
Research suggests there are likely to be four times as many young carers in Yorkshire as the 21,141 identified by the 2001 census.
A study by leading expert Professor Saul Becker, from the University of Nottingham, revealed that as many as eight per cent of children carried out duties that could class them as young carers. The census classed only two per cent as such.
Now it is feared a shake-up of disability benefits, which help cover extra costs such as care and home help, will leave people increasingly reliant on the support of relatives – including children.
Helen Prince, of Harrogate-based Carers Resource, said changes to Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which is to be replaced with Personal Independence Payments (PIP) next April, were a source of huge uncertainty to families with young carers.
“This is a major change and nobody knows quite how it’s going to be,” she said. “If families are worse off it impacts in many different ways and there are going to be possibly more caring jobs for young carers. Nobody knows if that has been thought about. Often it is forgotten that there are children behind the scenes.”
Sheffield Heeley MP Meg Munn, patron of Sheffield Young Carers, said welfare cuts were “almost bound to” result in more youngsters stepping up to such roles.
She also warned that without support disabled parents and their children could end up in local authority care – at a far greater cost to the taxpayer.
“These families are struggling all the time,” she said. “If we can support young carers, often families can stay together and that ultimately does save the state money.”
Professor Becker, head of the school of sociology and social policy at the University of Nottingham, said welfare spending cuts would “inevitably” have a knock-on effect on carer numbers.
“As services are cut or withdrawn from disabled people, and they have less income through benefits to pay for alternative care or support, they will require family and friends to step up and help, including children,” he said.
“This is a historical fact, as well as a contemporary fact. When the state contracts or withdraws services, the family fills the gap. In some families that falls on children.”
It is also feared that cuts to funding for local health and social services, resulting in fewer staff and bigger caseloads, may cause more young carers to slip under the radar.
Barnardo’s regional director Steve Oversby said: “A lot of children don’t know they are young carers, because they have grown up with it.
“If there are fewer multi-agency and social services staff to identify and support those families, that has a big impact. We are certainly concerned about some families that slip through the net.”
The Department for Work and Pensions said DLA was “outdated” and led to hundreds of millions of pounds in overpayments.
A spokeswoman said: “Under our reforms we will still be spending the same in 2015/16 as we did last year – around £13bn.
“What we are doing is introducing a new face-to-face assessment and regular reviews – something missing under the current system. This will ensure support is going to those who need it most.”