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2.4 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): We have had a well-informed and constructive debate on an important piece of legislation. In the House, as elsewhere, there is no substitute for common sense gained from practical front-line experience. We have heard from several hon. Members who have that experience in substantial measure: in particular, my hon. Friends the Members for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal), for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) and for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke).

My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis said that it is possible to make a strong moral, social and economic case for the Bill. I agree strongly on all three factors. It is perfectly possible to quantify the benefits in financial terms, but not in human terms. We cannot quantify the practical difference that the Bill can make to the lives of both carers and cared for.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) has done the House a huge service, and I warmly congratulate him. He described the Bill as a stunning victory for carers. He was entirely accurate. This is a breakthrough, and I hope that it is the beginning of a

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new culture and a new approach in social services and other agencies and that the important contribution of carers will be more properly recognised.

Notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said about the history of the evolution of social care policy, we have made a significant difference in the past two or three years. It is important to consolidate and develop that change and to take the next steps forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde made the point well that this is not the end of the story. We could usefully describe the Bill as the turning of a new page in that story. There is much still to do in ensuring that we continue to sustain the momentum that the Bill has created. There is no doubt that it is a landmark piece of legislation. We all have a responsibility to maintain that progress into the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) made an excellent speech, not only drawing on his own experience but asking the important question about who will care for the carers. From what everyone has said, there is no doubt that the answer is that we must assume the primary responsibility in the legislative framework and in the resources that we allocate to agencies to ensure that they can provide that service.

I agree with the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that we must strike the right balance, assuming the appropriate range of responsibilities in the public, voluntary and independent sectors while allowing the family to make the appropriate contribution. We want to reflect that in the legislation that we develop, and the Bill certainly achieves that. We have a responsibility as a society to care for the carers, and the Bill is an important reflection of that.

I have only a short time to respond to 15 Back-Bench speeches and offer my own thoughts on the Bill, so I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not refer in great detail to their speeches. I will try to refer briefly to some of the points that have been made.

The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) asked about parent carers. I think that there has been a genuine misunderstanding about the Bill's implications for parent carers, and I hope soon to dispel that. It has always been our intention to consult widely, involving all the interested parties, on guidance and regulations under the Bill.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston and my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green referred in their excellent contributions to the important changes that the Bill will introduce into the direct payments legislation. The Government have no doubt about the importance of direct payments in promoting choice, flexibility and independence. The direct payments scheme, properly operated by local authorities, will have the effect of transferring power from institutions to individuals, and that is entirely consistent with the points that all hon. Members have made in the debate about the importance of empowering individuals, be they carers or people with a disability, to exert greater control and flexibility over the decisions that affect their lives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green spoke from his considerable experience as a social worker about some of the inflexibilities that are an almost inevitable feature of large public sector organisations. Not for the first time, I hear the criticism he has made, but the challenge of direct payments for local authorities is to ensure that when

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services are provided directly by local authorities they are as flexible and as tailored to the needs of service users as those provided through direct payments. That is a big challenge, but it is the future and local authorities must put themselves in a position to achieve it.

The Bill will introduce some significant changes to the direct payments framework--I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde specifically on that--which will encourage greater choice, control and flexibility in the provision of services. That is much to the good.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) raised several interesting questions. I reassure him that the Bill will not compromise or undermine the relationship between carers and those being cared for. Several hon. Members have pointed out, and I accept, that the Bill covers some complex areas and raises some problems, especially in relation to services of an intimate and personal nature. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge also expressed his views on that point.

I do not pretend that there is an easy solution, but we intend--once the Bill is enacted--to consult as widely as possible on how we can make the necessary regulations effective. It is appropriate to resolve the problems through regulations, instead of locking us into a fixed formula in the Bill that might be difficult to change in future years. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde has tried hard to get the balance right in his Bill, and we support the current drafting because it has succeeded in doing just that.

Mr. Burstow: When the Bill is in Committee, will it be possible to have early drafts of those definitions?

Mr. Hutton: As always, we will do our best to support the work of the Committee, but I cannot give any absolute assurances.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam expressed concerns about whether under clause 2(3) of the Bill the income or assets of the carer, or of the cared-for person, would be taken into account when assessing liability for charging. The answer is in clause 4(4), which makes it clear that that decision will be made by the local authority providing the services. I suspect that we will also need to issue guidance on that point, so that the clause is interpreted consistently.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) made a strong case, as did others, for more resources for local authority social services departments. I am not clear whether he has spoken to the new shadow Chancellor, but perhaps we can look forward to some more policy U-turns. It is refreshing to hear Conservative Members raise those issues, but it must be said that it has taken them some time to get to that position. I recall that in the previous Parliament there was a deafening silence from the Conservatives on such issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) who, sadly, is no longer in his place, was right to say that the Bill is part of a wider strategy. I, too, am sure that there is more that we need to do.

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May I correct a mistake made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown when he was describing the allocation of the carers' grant to his local authority? He quoted this year's figure of £128,000, when Brighton and Hove council will receive £313,000 next year.

Mr. Maclean: I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way in his customary courteous manner. He will be aware that the Carers National Association, Mencap and the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation have some small concerns about certain parts of the Bill. Although I generally support the Bill and wish it well, I hope that the Minister will have as open a mind as possible in Committee or perhaps on Report so that we can explore the individual concerns and amendments in due course. The Minister may then be minded to accept some of them, which may reassure those of us who have read carefully the briefings of Mencap, RADAR and the Carers National Association.

Mr. Hutton: The Government certainly have an open mind about these issues, as we display when they come before the House. But this is a private Member's Bill--my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde has control of it, while we express our views. However, I assure the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) that we have an open mind about these issues.

It is our view, and I shall not pretend otherwise, that the Bill adequately meets all the objectives that we would like it to achieve. There is one issue that has been mentioned in the debate to which I would like to turn my attention. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have expressed concerns about parent carers, and I should like to reassure them that support for parent carers under the Children Act 1989 has been available since the Act was implemented. The Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 already provides parent carers with a right to an assessment of their need. That is of course why we do not need to refer specifically to parent carers in clause 1 to 4. We have examined the issues carefully, and we believe that the Bill is drafted perfectly properly. I reassure hon. Members who voiced their concerns that there has been no oversight; we have looked at the matter very carefully--and I know that my hon. Friend has too--to ensure that the drafting of the Bill is adequate and comprehensive.

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