Carers and Scottish Election 2016 – An Afterthought?

Lynn Williams, unpaid carer and former third sector worker looks at what Scotland’s five parties have said on carers in the run up to the Scottish elections

The election manifestos are out, the leaders’ debates are over and we are in the final run up to the Scottish Elections.

I have watched each debate and listened to the parties’ pitches a little more closely than normal this time as many of the pledges made (outlined in the Poverty Alliance’s excellent summary!) had a particularly personal resonance for my husband and I.

There is a specific reason for this; this weekend, I became (technically anyway) a full time, unpaid carer for my husband. This means that our household finances will face a massive hit and – overnight – my contribution to the economy becomes pretty worthless, if mainstream economists have their way.  In statistical terms, I am just another 40 something woman who has left her career behind to plug the ever widening gap in care.

I do this willingly, because I want to be there for my husband who faces deteriorating mobility and health.  I am one of the 40% (State of Caring, 2015) who give up work to care between the ages of 40 and 54.  In place of income, these carers receive  a pitifully low income replacement benefit in Carers Allowance and labour market policies, more often than not, forget all about us. Carers Scotland’s “Caring and Family Finance” survey suggests that as carers give up work to care or move into lower paid, lower skilled work to balance their caring role, one third will experience a £20k drop in family income. Women carers tend to have to give up work at the peak of their careers, with long lasting consequences in relation to poverty, ill health, pensions and poorer career prospects should their caring journey end.

There are over 700,000 carers in Scotland and this election has been one where – with a few exceptions – the reality of our lives in providing over £11 bn worth of care has rarely been acknowledged. A carer friend once said to me “my back is so sore from politicians who keep patting it”. I would say that for many carers struggling with poverty level benefits, that sums up this election. There are some glimmers of hope with the promise to substantially increase Carers Allowance from the Greens and Rise; and the idea of returnships, proposed by the SNP may well be prove to be an important step forward in addressing the barriers that women carers can face when seeking to return to the labour market.

Wider pledges e.g. to scrap the 84 day rule for DLA, will of course impact positively on the wider family of claimants, and this leads me to my final point – political parties often do not create “nuanced” messages about how particular pledges can specifically improve the lives of carers – or indeed other groups in society. Furthermore, when they produce targeted manifestos, these documents just re-hash the bigger election messages, but give no sense of how each commitment might impact positively on the group in question. Sometimes, it’s not obvious but consider how the extension of childcare – promised by most parties – might benefit families with disabled children (if the provision is more accessible); the promise to invest in education could directly benefit children with disabilities who so often lag behind their peers. In many pledges, some deeper thinking can ensure policies resonate with different groups who might feel that, thus far, they are not important in #SP16.

Each of us is likely to find ourselves providing unpaid care at some point in our lives and it remains a gendered issue.  Unless the nature and structure of our economy changes, women who leave the labour market to care will always face an uphill struggle to claw back what has been lost; their families will be more likely to experience poverty.  Carers will be looking to the Scottish Parliament and the new Scottish Government to directly involve us in shaping the action to make election pledges reality.  There are over 700,000 votes up for grabs and as carers become incredibly cynical about politics, we should not be an afterthought. We want to work with you, if you’ll let us.

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