May 13th, 2007

Children with a burden beyond bearing

With broken voice and trembling lip, a-quiver with self-righteousness, Tony Blair bade us farewell last Thursday. He ought to have saved a few of his choked-back tears for the thousands of young children who have to look after their sick or disabled parents with little or no help.

A day earlier the Princess Royal Trust for Carers had issued a report showing that there are at least 175,000 young carers in this country. Some are as young as five and nearly half are aged between eight and 15.

They are forced to look after mothers who are mentally ill or dying, after fathers who are partly paralysed or incontinent, after brothers and sisters who are disturbed or disabled; they are robbed of their youth and their education in the painful process.

This terrible scandal is not new. The prime minister – he of the “Every Child Matters” initiative – ought to have known of it for years, or his ministers ought to have told him. His mysterious chancellor boasts complacently that he has brought millions of children out of poverty. But it is simply wrong to say so when 175,000 child carers carry the emotional and physical burden of changing their parents’ nappies, either metaphorically or literally. Of these children, at least 13,000 spend more than 50 hours a week caring for family members. What is this if not Third World-style poverty?

In fact the numbers are almost certainly much higher, as many children are afraid to seek help in case they get taken away for fostering or their addict parents get sent to jail. (There are also, according to estimates, about 250,000 living with drug-using parents.) But even a tenth, a thousandth, of that number would be a national disgrace.

As an interview in this newspaper’s magazine recently revealed, the individual stories of such problems are heartrending. A 10-year-old called Lauren described her life with her paralysed mother, getting her up, getting her onto the commode, emptying her urine gadget into the lavatory and then worrying about her all day at school. “After lunch on Saturday, when the carer has gone, we’re housebound.” In October a girl of 13 died after taking an overdose of morphine pills meant for her terminally sick mother, whom she had looked after since she was nine. The coroner at the inquest wrote to Beverley Hughes, the children’s minister, who later claimed that the government had such children’s needs “in the frame”. Some frame.

We have a vast, hugely expensive welfare state designed to protect everyone from the extremes of hardship and want. What is the point of it, with all the extra money that new Labour has thrown at it, if it cannot look after children like these? How is it that money cannot go as a priority to them?

Instead, incredibly, the government proposes to do away with the two central funds aimed at helping them – the carers’ grant and the children’s fund. Between them these two funds provide about £334m a year and contribute towards many projects for young carers, but by next April they will be abolished. The money will be given directly to local authorities; charities fear that it will be absorbed into the bottomless pit of council spending and will no longer be directed at young carers.

Meanwhile, recent figures suggest that the numbers of children in relative poverty rose by 100,000 to 2.8m in 2005-6, and Gordon Brown has wasted about £2 billion on wrongly calculated welfare payments.

Any fair-minded person must agree that it is hard to administer a large and complex social security system. Equally, though, it is clear that these children’s problems are proof of institutionalised failure in social services – a lack of proper priorities and communication, partly or largely brought upon them by government.

Every sick or disabled adult must come across countless other people – social workers, doctors, nurses, mental health teams, learning disability teams, teachers, physiotherapists, ambulance drivers or care services workers. How is it, then, that all these people fail to alert the council to the suffering of the child carers and their families? How is it that other adults who know the children – their teachers, their friends’ parents, their neighbours – don’t either themselves help or bully social services to do more? Why don’t social services do more, prompted or not?

Part of the explanation is the government’s unwise decision to split social services into two parts, as of April last year; children’s services now come under the education department and adults’ services under the health department. Social services have different bosses within government and different organisational structures.

This change was intended to link schools and children’s social services, but the gap between children’s and adults’ services has grown wider. It is also true that mental health and disability services are adult services and there’s evidence that the focus these teams put on the needs of their adult clients means that they don’t necessarily see them in their role as parents and don’t have responsibility for their children either.

Everyone is supposed to communicate with everyone, but it doesn’t always happen. Given the burden and stress of social work and the shortage of money in local authorities, that is hardly surprising.

Parents who need social care also have to pay for it. I cannot understand why they should if they are not rich – and you need to be very rich to be able to afford large amounts of such care – but so it is. Although councils do not demand the full commercial rate for personal care, they still charge and the cost each week can quickly become horrifying. People turn to their children instead, which is convenient for the councils’ coffers.

This seems to me to betray the postwar ideal of shared social insurance. That surely means little if it doesn’t mean protecting people like this in a way they can afford. It seems crazy to me that everyone gets medical care free, but the poor do not get social care free, except in Scotland.

It would be better to charge some people for National Health Service treatment and take care, free, of the most needy and their unfortunate children. How about it, Gordon? The £2 billion that you carelessly mislaid would have helped. And so would the cost of the Olympics.