But the previous lack of action meant the scale of the problem was unknown. A new question in the national census in 2001 will be used to establish exactly how many children and adults are affected. In a joint statement by government ministers yesterday, Paul Boateng, Margaret Hodge, Hilary Armstrong and John Hutton promised to achieve a change in society so that the needs of people looking after elderly or disabled relatives were addressed.
More than 850,000 people are estimated to provide care for more than 50 hours a week and three-fifths receive no regular visitor-support services. Existing services were "patchy", the Government admitted. The Prime Minister, in a foreword to the new strategy document, Caring About Carers, wrote of his own experience. "When I was a boy, I watched my own mother care for my father after he had a stroke. Like her, there are now many people - daughters, sons, parents, relatives, friends and neighbours - who give help and support in many, many ways to those they're caring for," Mr Blair said.
Many schoolchildren have to shoulder the responsibility of caring for a relative singlehandedly. Kathy Bell, 19, looked after her wheelchair- bound mother until she left home to go to university. Although her mother, Ritva, tried to give her a normal life, being a carer affected her school work, her emotional health and her social life, Ms Bell said at the launch of the Government's national strategy for carers at Downing Street yesterday.
"It was an emotional strain more than anything. I did the shopping, fetching and carrying, but I always felt very guilty for wishing mum would get better. It was just the lack of having a parent around the house and company in the evening that was hard. She tried to give me as normal a childhood as possible."
Ms Bell cared for her divorced mother, who was in her early 50s, until she left her home in Cranleigh, Surrey, to study drama and English.
Then she was forced, reluctantly, to leave her mother in the care of social services. She still telephones her daily, however, and visits her every week and during the holidays.
Among the measures announced by the Government yesterday were pounds 140m to provide respite care. Mr Boateng, who launched the inquiry into carers last June, said the aim was to provide relief for a few hours a week and also for longer periods of respite care.
He called for more carer-friendly employment measures, similar to those already introduced for working mothers and announced proposals for "personal advisers" to help carers keep in touch with the jobs market and return to work once they have finished caring.
There is also a long-term commitment to make amends for loss of pensions contributions by adding up to pounds 50 a week, in today's terms, to carers' pensions by 2050.
Margaret Hodge said that although young carers would benefit from some of these measures, they also had particular needs.
Many suffered problems at school with completing homework and lack of time for play or sport activities.
They also feared that if they highlighted their problems they would be taken into care themselves and needed to be reassured that they could and should ask for help.
Ms Hodge said the Government wanted to provide greater support and, with the help of teachers and GPs, identify those not currently receiving it. David Butler, of the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, said the strategy provided a good basis for action. "But the real test will be whether it is implemented at local level."
Francine Bates, of the Carers' National Association, welcomed the strategy. "This is the first time we have had a commitment by the Government to funding and services," she said. The association was concerned as to whether the money would be enough and how consistently the services would be delivered and monitored, but the principles were sound.
Margaret Coombs, of the Oxfordshire Community Care Action Group, which lobbied Parliament yesterday over pounds 4mof cuts to the Oxfordshire social services budget, said the financial problems councils were facing across the country made a "nonsense" of the carers' strategy.
Ms Bell said she hoped that others would get the support she had not received. In particular, she noted the idea of mentors or adults forming a link between school and home to give young carers someone to talk to. "This strategy is almost 12 years too late for me, but I hope it helps other young people caring for disabled parents," Ms Bell said.
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