Peter Markham: Why Westminster is turning the UK into a group of ‘Justgiving’ nations

“Those who look after others may be some of society’s heroes, but they are also sometimes taking on service roles which should be provided by the government.”

THERE are almost 700,000 unpaid carers in Scotland – that’s according to figures compiled in 2015. Today, the true number of carers is rising, and is estimated to be around 7 million across the UK. 

These people show a level of devotion which goes beyond the call of duty. They are also often children and adolescents, many of whom give up their education and job prospects in order to look after a loved one. In Scotland alone, there are around 30,000 unpaid carers aged under 18.

The contribution made by carers in the UK is worth an  estimated to be £119 billion per year. Those who look after others may be some of society’s heroes, but they are also sometimes taking on service roles which should be provided by the government. 

Time after time, Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has won far greater public approval than Boris Johnson’s. He has often seemed to be playing catch-up to Scotland’s lead. And yet, during the pandemic, the British prime minister and his ministers seem keen to shamelessly promote the UK as a group of ‘Justgiving’ nations which relies on the public to plug holes it’s left unfilled. 

A pattern has emerged whereby inequalities or injustices which capture the population’s mood are rejected by the Westminster government, only for it to then perform a U-turn when public pressure becomes too great.

Take the issue of free school meals. At first, the UK Government dismissed footballer Marcus Rashford’s demand to extend them again during the holidays. By the end of October, the Man United star’s petition to stamp out child poverty had received over a million signatures.  

Cafés and restaurants then stepped up to the plate to support struggling families during the autumn half-term. Even McDonalds jumped in, offering a million free meals to poorer families.

These instances of generosity made the government look even more miserly, particularly as it seemed happy to dish out extra billions on defence spending at almost the same time.

And so there was yet another U-turn, with the government saying it would give local authorities £170 million to provide food in the Christmas holidays. A winter grant scheme, to be run by councils, is to help with food and bills, and a holiday food and activities programme is going to be extended. 

Even though it was forced to change tack when challenged, the government seems to want to stamp all over the public’s generosity of spirit when it doesn’t suit it. Home Secretary Priti Patel, recently sneered at people who dared get in the way of her agenda, referring to them as  ‘do-gooders’ and ‘lefty lawyers.’ 

These are people who have been legitimately trying to help asylum seekers, some of society’s most vulnerable. And yet the home secretary has tried to associate them with people-traffickers who want to prevent reform of the UK’s ‘broken’ asylum system. 

Her comments, which the prime minister supported, were greeted by an onslaught of outrage from respected politicians, judges and lawyers who called on both to apologise

It should be remembered that a Cabinet Office inquiry had already formed a damning assessment of the home secretary. It pulled no punches when it said: “Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals.” 

This description of her poor behaviour stands in stark contrast to the kindness of others. Captain Tom Moore, the hundred-year-old World War TWO veteran, raised more than £30 million to help NHS Charities Together as the pandemic ground on. At the same time, the government found itself having to backtrack on an NHS related policy that even Tory peers and its own MPs argued had been “mean-spirited and immoral.” 

This was related to overseas migrant health workers and a hike in the cost of a controversial visa surcharge. In the end, the Prime Minister announced that these workers would no longer have to pay extra for the fee. The fiasco of algorithms used in A’ level results and the issue of paid parking for hospital workers add to the impression of a government indifferent to or out of touch with the public psyche.

Cuts to care levels are making the headlines almost every day. Now, more than 200,000 older people who were in receipt of social care before the pandemic have now had their support reduced or stopped. These are the findings of Age UK.

The charity Mencap has found that nearly 9 out of 10 people with a learning disability have had their care packages withdrawn during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, almost three quarters of family carers say they’ve had no choice but to increase the amount of care they offer themselves, with many saying they have reached breaking point. Those with challenging conditions are now stuck at home with extra support needs, as well as additional loneliness and isolation. 

Nevertheless, the government is on the record as saying that the Coronavirus Act has actually been improving access to care. At the same time, it seems to be complacently handing out honours to those who have spurred the public on to do its work. 

The UK is one the world’s most charitable nations. There is a real danger that this generosity is not only being taken for granted, but also that high profile individuals are finding no alternative other than forcing reluctant politicians into paying for services that should be provided by the state.

Peter Markham is a correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of Manchester immigration lawyers