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Beyond the big speeches, what do the party conferences mean for carers?

08 October 2013 by Steve McIntosh

Steve McIntosh, Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Carers UK

Each autumn, as the main political parties gather for their party conferences, the media tends to get very excited about what it all means for the ‘political world’. But most people only catch a glimpse on the news or a story in the paper about the big speeches from the party leaders or often just do their best to avoid the wall-to-wall media coverage of political gossip.

Each autumn, as the main political parties gather for their party conferences, the media tends to get very excited about what it all means for the ‘political world’. But most people only catch a glimpse on the news or a story in the paper about the big speeches from the party leaders or often just do their best to avoid the wall-to-wall media coverage of political gossip.

Carers UK attends the party conferences each year – not for all the politicking, but because it is also an important opportunity to influence what the political parties are thinking.

We campaign all-year-round, and much of this is about arguing for protections for carers and their families as services and benefits face significant changes and, in many cases, cuts. Alongside the well-publicised speeches in the main conference hall, lots of ‘fringe’ events go on around the conferences with top politicians debating what the parties should do about different issues. These are a good chance to take our messages directly them.

For example, this year we questioned Department for Work and Pensions Ministers Steve Webb MP (a Lib Dem) and Conservative Peer Lord Freud about the failure of Government to assess the impact of disability benefit changes in carers and the inadequacy of protections for carers hit by the 'bedroom tax' cuts to housing benefit. We welcomed Ed Miliband’s announcement at the start of Labour conference that they would scrap the ‘bedroom tax’ – after he had met with Carers UK members the Heard family whose story led our campaign in July to protect carers from the policy.

Later at the Labour conference, our Chief Executive Heléna represented over 70 disability, older people and carers charities at the big Health Debate with Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burham MP, to make it clear just how much pressure social care cuts are putting on families and called on the political parties to make the delivery of sustainable, good quality care and support an urgent priority.

But party conferences are also a time when politicians, party members, think-tanks and other policy organisations come together to debate not just current policy, but also the longer term future.

So, alongside speaking up about what is happening to carers now, we also wanted to try influence wider policy discussions going on – particularly as the political parties start to think about writing their manifestos for the next general election in 2015.

Too often carers are just seen as an issue for social care services rather than there being an understanding that caring has an impact across a huge range of policy areas - debt, pensions savings, housing, family break-up, social exclusion and workplaces. .. In particularly, I always get pretty frustrated by attending events on 'the family', and find that speakers focus completely on childcare and marriage - without mentioning other family responsibilities and caring for older and disabled people.

To address this, Carers UK hosted our own debate events this year, focussing on how increasing numbers of families are facing a complicated balance of childcare, work and caring for older or disabled loved ones.

At the events, our Chief Executive Heléna, set out the stats about the impact of caring on families, the fact that all our families will be affected by caring at some point and also noted that we’re reaching a ‘tipping point’ as the number of people needing care grows faster than the number of carers able to provide it – resulting in rapidly growing pressure on families. Ian Peters from British Gas, who chairs our business forum Employers for Carers, described the costs to businesses of failures in care services putting pressure on the 1 in 7 workers who are combining work and caring and the huge numbers forced to give up work to care; and he set out the business case for workplaces and services supporting carers better (including a great new statistic from British Gas that carers in their workforce who are being supported through their carers’ policies and flexible working are actually more productive than their non-carer colleagues!)

Our political speakers, Labour’s Liz Kendall MP and the Conservatives Sarah Newton MP, spoke passionately about the need for caring to be seen as an economic issue and for care services to be seen as part of our economic infrastructure. Baroness Tyler, who is responsible for the Lib Dem’s work on the ‘work-life balance’ drew the important comparison between how childcare and workplace flexibility for parents are increasingly taken for granted, but caring for older and disabled people often isn’t.

We still have a long way to go, and we need to work with these advocates in each party to turn these debates into changes in policy. But this year felt like we made important progress in getting caring talked about in these policy debates - particularly as so many audience members at our events, including party members and councillors, stood up and spoke about their own experiences of caring.

As the political parties start work on their election manifestos, we need to keep the pressure up so that, amongst all these phrases you hear coming from politicians mouths, like 'hardworking families' and 'the squeezed middle', we finally see carers become part of mainstream political debate and for this to turn into concrete action.

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