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Scottish Parliament Speech: Unpaid Carers (February 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I congratulate Margaret Mitchell on lodging the motion. For two or three hours a day, I am a carer to my parents, who have reached their 10th decade. They are a bit wobbly on their feet and need most of their meals cooked for them, but they still enjoy life and do so in their own home.

They have mastered the microwave and digital television, although that was a narrow action. Combining being a carer with work can mean getting up at 5 in the morning and going to bed at 9, if I am lucky. Given problems with false teeth going walkabout, catheters or the elderly's wayward sense of time, an unbroken night can be a luxury. Even on a part-time basis, it is still a stressful life, but statistics tell us that this is the mildest end of the spectrum - it can occupy the carer full time, with little respite or rest. Yet for our friend Bashir Ahmad, who regularly asked after my parents, to look after the old and frail was the fulfilment of the moral life and a source of pride and dignity.

I think of Wordsworth's poem "The Old Cumberland Beggar", in which an old man wanders almost unconscious from house to house in the lake district. By caring for him, the community keeps itself together:

"Where'er the aged Beggar takes his rounds,
The mild necessity of use compels
To acts of love; and habit does the work
Of reason; yet prepares that after-joy
Which reason cherishes. And thus the soul,
By that sweet taste of pleasure unpursued,
Doth find herself insensibly disposed
To virtue and true goodness."

Wordsworth probably got the idea from Burns's notion of the social union or from Adam Smith's idea of the sympathy that must underlie society, which he saw as essential.

The statistics tell us that unpaid catering saves the Scottish economy £7.6 billion a year out of a total annual domestic production of about £150 billion. If we counted its value, it would amount to 5 per cent of our wealth. The state's contribution, as calculated from UK figures, amounts to perhaps less than 2 per cent, which is a tiny proportion. We know all too well what the effects of those responsibilities are on the 660,000 carers in Scotland, and they are not reassuring.

What looms before us not only is challenging but could be desperate. Besides catering for the elderly and the disabled, we have other problems - obesity, diabetes and the damage from alcohol and drug abuse. The total affected is perhaps pushing 400,000, and the statistics show the detrimental health effects that providing care has on the carers themselves, who are often women and may be older folk. I remember Mary, the good soul who cared for my aunt when my aunt was in her late 80s. Mary was endlessly cheerful in juggling her wee jobs: a disabled husband, an unexpected grandchild and cleaning for several households. She was selfless, and she kept going by cheerfulness, strong tea and cigarettes. She was dead at 60.

Among the things that are desperately needed for Scotland's unpaid carers are rights to respite and support to prevent them from debt, from discrimination in the workplace and education, and from ill health incurred while serving their loved ones. We need to call on new resources; that is an important point.

At the Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum last year, I argued for a social or community year as practised in Scandinavia and Germany. If we offered that to young people in the gap period between school and university, their efforts could be reimbursed in the form of educational credit and assistance for students. That would enhance public attention to the issue of unpaid care and ease the burden for carers while giving young people the chance to gain both educational and social experience. When I have mentioned the idea to the kids that one meets during their visits to Holyrood, I have been struck by the welcome that they have given it. The social or community year would not only meet a social need but enhance the self-respect and life chances of a new generation.

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