FOLLOWING my election back in 2010, there are few more extraordinary people who I have come into contact with than the young carers I have come to know.
John, for example, is 17 years old now and started caring for his mum when he was 10 years old. She has fibromyalgia.
John says: “This causes her muscles and bones to become weak and most of the time she is unable to walk or even get out of bed. As a young carer, I help my mum with shopping and things inside and outside of the house.
“I don’t get much time to go out with my mates or have much time to myself. My life is different because I am looking after my mum, making sure she is taking her tablets and eating and drinking.”
John was one of eight young people from Sheffield who I took to meet the Prime Minister last May. I thank the Prime Minister — she has one or two other things on right now — for finding time to sit down for half an hour with us.
Another one of the group was Holly. She is now 14 years old, but she started caring for her mum and her sister around the age of four or five. Her mum has an underactive thyroid and her sister has a reflux in her right kidney.
Holly says of their life: “I don’t get much time to be a child or to spend time with friends. I don’t mind, but it sometimes gets really frustrating if I can’t sit down for five minutes or so.
“I still get to live my life but I have to be an adult and I have to be very careful. The highs are that I get to spend lots of time with my mum and my sister. The lows are that I have no other family around, so it is just the three of us. It is very painful for me and very emotional to have to watch my sister screaming in agony.”
Holly and John are the lucky ones, because they have made contact with Sheffield Young Carers, of which I am proud to be a patron. They are getting tremendous support and the opportunity to meet and share their experience with others in the same position, but most young carers are hidden from view.
One in 12 children and young people is taking on mid to high-level care for a family member. Their average age is just 12-years-old, the average annual income for their families is £5,000 lower than others, 68 per cent are bullied at school, 26 per cent are being bullied about their caring role and 45 per cent report a mental health problem. They achieve nine grades lower at GCSE and they are four times more likely to drop out of further and higher education. The right support is vital, and we owe them nothing less.
The lives of young carers are divided between home and school, so schools can make a huge difference. In their recommendations to the Prime Minister last May, our young carers made two main points. The first was that schools should be required to have a young carers lead.
There is nothing special about that — it is there for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and for looked after children, so we would just be following the same approach. The second recommendation was that Ofsted should inspect schools on what they are doing to support young carers and whether they have a young carers lead in the school.
In a press release after the meeting, No 10 said: “The Prime Minister recently met with a group of young carers who highlighted issues with identification and support in schools and NHS settings and the Government will be undertaking a review...”
We need to make progress on this. And on some of the other points that our young carers from Sheffield made, there were two recommendations for the National Health Service, which have begun to be addressed in the NHS long-term plan and the commitment to carers.
I hope this commitment – “we will continue to identify and support carers” – will include young carers and recognise the special nature of their needs.
It goes on to say “up to 20,000 Young Carers will benefit from this more proactive approach by 2023/24”, but that number falls well short of the estimated 700,000 young carers across the country.
Fourteen-year-old Phoebe, who also joined me to meet the Prime Minister, has been caring since the age of eight. She probably spoke for all 700,000 young carers in the country when she said: “I worry a lot.” She also said: “This affects my own wellbeing.”
Should we not be doing everything to ensure that the caring that contributes so much to the family – and saves the country so much – does not affect the wellbeing of our young people, and that those young carers get the support they need to make the most of their lives?
Paul Blomfield is the Labour MP for Sheffield Central. He led a Parliamentary debate on young carers – this is an edited version.