We need legislation to support carers in Wales

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In an ideal world each young person's childhood would be free from stress and anxiety.

But that is not the reality for most young carers.

Sian Gwenllian AM argues that we need legislation to support young carers in Wales.

According to the most recent figures, there are around 11,000 young carers in Wales. In fact, we suspect there may be more than this as a young person needs to declare themselves as a carer to be counted in the statistics, and if said person has lived as a carer for years, they may not think themselves a carer.

The reality is that, due to a lack of data, we cannot know exactly how many young carers need help and support in Wales.

These are thousands of young people who are willing to or have had to take on caring responsibilities for family members: parents, siblings, grandparents, people who are dependent on the help of others.

Life can be difficult for a young carer and there is no doubt that they need more support and recognition for their role.

There are, for example, significant challenges faced by young carers on a day-to-day basis. At school, when classes are lost, faced with stigma and prejudice, missing out on life experiences and opportunities to socialise and school trips: sometimes living life in silence, without knowing who to turn to for help and support.

We hear stories from young people who have asked their schools about flexibility in keeping time and attendance due to conflicting duties at home, and being made to feel that their applications were not taken seriously, and that parents had to confirm what a young carer had told teachers.

There is also a particular stigma of being a young carer, and we know that many young carers face bullying. One survey reported that 68 per cent of carers had been bullied at some point in their lives. Young carers often do not really see themselves as carers, but rather as someone who helps at home to a greater extent than other children. This can often be a barrier to seeking support.

Many teachers and health professionals do not have the relevant training, guidance or experience necessary to identify young carers and their particular needs, and don’t know how to respond. Too many fail to ask the relevant questions when dealing with a situation where a young carer takes a parent or brother or sister to the doctor, for example.

Even practical issues such as collecting prescriptions prove challenging.

Currently, a pharmacist gives medication to an underage person at their discretion. It would of course be ideal if a young carer did not need to go to a pharmacy to collect medicines, some of which could be treatments for substance misuse, addiction or strong painkillers, but sometimes they will have no other choice but to do so. We need to put measures in place so that they can access those medicines in a timely manner, and so that young people do not feel that they are being disrespected.

Studies are underway for a young carers' card which could help with this and identify who are young carers, although some young carers may feel stigmatized if they were to be associated with such a card.

For young carers, the lack of a life balance can last into adult life.

Most jobs and career paths act as a barrier to caring, which is a particular problem for carers of individuals with medical conditions that can vary from needing full-time care one week to very little care the next.

Entry-level jobs, which tend to lead to professional careers, can exclude young people with caring responsibilities who cannot commit to long hours or participate in the type of networking required to develop a career.

The Children's Commissioner for Wales, Sally Holland, has suggested a number of practical steps that would make a big difference to the lives of young carers.

These include ensuring that schools know which students are carers and sit down with them to outline exactly what support they need, educate all children so they know how to respond to their fellow pupils with admiration and respect rather than bullying, teaching pragmatic key skills such as first aid training and cooking healthy food, and understanding from experts and their role in their family lives.

There are, of course, requirements under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 to provide more support to carers, with statutory responsibilities placed on local authorities. But it is clear from talking to young carers themselves and the organisations that work with them, that the current policy framework and funding arrangements simply aren’t enough.

That’s why I believe it is time to consider legislation to support young carers in Wales.

The purpose of such a law would be to provide statutory guidance to schools and local authorities in Wales in providing appropriate support and flexibility for young carers to undertake their caring responsibilities during school hours and after school hours.

It could also provide guidance to schools in working with young carers to provide flexible pathways to ensure they remain in education as well as allowing young carers to collect prescriptions on behalf of those in their care, with a Young Carer's Card or another method.

It could also ensure that the Welsh Government works with the appropriate organizations to deliver palliative service and support for young carers in each local authority area in Wales.

It comes down to a very simple principle. We need to listen to young carers when they tell us what support they need.  It is our role then, as politicians, to provide them with that support. A failure to do so would be a dereliction of duty as representatives.

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