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Opinion

Paul McNamee: Time to care for the carers

"There is an estimated 700,000 children who act as carers for their relatives or guardians in Britain"

Let’s start with Emily Kay. Emily is 12 years old. She has two brothers, Peter who is 15 and Christopher who is eight. She lives with them and her mum and dad in Chesterfield. They are a happy family.

However, Emily’s mum has cerebral palsy. As do her brothers. Following a serious car accident, her dad has mobility issues. Emily acts as their carer.

She has some help from her gran and two adult carers but Emily, who is 12, gets up in the morning to get them all ready. She prepares them meals, cleans, tidies, fetches medicine.

Last week Emily won the Children of Courage award, with the support of the charity Action for Children. This is what Emily, 12, said: “It can be really tiring looking after my family but I love them very much and would do anything for them.”

I read that and I burst into tears feeling humbled and burning with anger. Emily is one of an estimated 700,000 children who act as carers for their relatives or guardians in Britain. Think about that. That is the population, give or take, of Glasgow. Or two Cardiffs or two Brightons. At a time when children need to rebel and find their own way and sleep in late and be grouchy and ungrateful and generally act like growing teens, there are hundreds of thousands who simply can’t.

The short-termism of the system, the reactive nature of it, is the problem

We use a lot of energy furrowing brows and trying to work out the mindset of political leaders.

We could wonder, for instance, why last week Chancellor Philip Hammond said deficit reduction was not his focus. Investment in capital projects was the way ahead. Which is welcome but a volte-face from the approach of his predecessor – an approach that Hammond himself, as a key lever-puller in government, backed just a few weeks ago.

Hammond’s decision isn’t bad but the short-termism of the system, the reactive nature of it, is the problem. If we are asked to make sacrifices for the future generation’s sake, yet within months we’re told to jettison these plans, how can that help build for that future? There is a whole other warren to explore around the illiberal and pernicious idea of how to deal with foreign workers. How to begin and navigate that one…

At any point, we can allow our own jaundiced rhetoric, assembled like shaky scaffolding with bits of knowledge we’ve collected, received truths and furious headlines, to make us demand that they, the others, everybody else, changes.

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In last week’s Big Issue John Lydon said an interesting thing. John Lydon, I find, frequently says interesting things.

Revolution, he said, begins at home. “Change yourself before you start telling the rest of the world what to do. Lead by example.”

It’s a very Jesus thing to say. But then he always was a bit of a messiah figure. It’s a move from a belief that anger is an energy.

The point is apt. We can’t simply go around angrily pointing. Fury is fomenting everywhere. It brings few answers. Why add to the bubbling brew?

Instead, we should say: what can I do to help? I choose to ask this around young carers. They are carrying a torch worth following. They are mighty.

What can I do to help?

If you have any comments please email me at paul.mcnamee@bigissue.com, tweet @pauldmcnamee, or send a letter to The Big Issue, 43 Bath Street, Glasgow, G2 1HW

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