The furore which accompanied Conservative Party proposals on social care and the very public climbdown by their leader, Theresa May, during the recent General Election campaign, illustrates what happens when political leaders are not in tune with the day to day experiences or views of their voters.
With much of the debate focused on who pays for social care, there was little discussion on the purpose of social care, its role in addressing pressures elsewhere in the health system or how high quality services can be provided as equitably and as fairly as possible to those who need it.
Also missing was any reference to the essential contribution of unpaid carers – in the main provided by close family members, but also by neighbours and friends. There are around 220,000 carers in Northern Ireland, saving the state around £4.6 billon a year. More shocking, are figures produced in 2016 by Detail Data revealing the extent of care provided by older people - with 'more than 15,000 people aged 70 and over providing a minimum of 35 hours unpaid care every week, the equivalent of a full-time job. And over 400 of them are 90 years or older'.
There is growing evidence that high levels of caring – caring for over 20 hours a week - have a negative effect on a person’s wellbeing and impact negatively on other aspects of their life, with research by Age UK suggesting that 5+ hours of caring may damage employment prospects .
It is hardly surprising that figures produced by Carers NI as part of Carers Week showed that more than 7 in 10 (77%) of the general public in Northern Ireland feel carers are not sufficiently valued by society for the support they provide, rising to just over eight in ten (83%) in the UK of those who have previous experience of caring themselves.
The NI Human Rights Commission, in its report on the human rights of carers pointed to the need for 'a rights based framework... to ensure public services, and policies are developed which properly recognise, identify and support carers.'
We need to have a public conversation about how we achieve a social care system that is fit for purpose, adequately resourced, sustainable, person-centred, accessible and fair. Part of this conversation will be about the balance of responsibility between the state and the individual. It is vital that the, often invisible, significant and critical contribution made by unpaid carers across Northern Ireland, is recognised and reflected in the steps we take to reform and fix social care in Northern Ireland.