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Under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, social services departments can help young carers by considering whether their welfare or development might suffer if support is not provided. The Bill tries to go beyond the existing narrow definition used in providing assistance to carers, and my amendment would strengthen the position of that age group and go beyond the provisions of the Children Act by giving them more rights.
Under the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, young carers can ask for an assessment of their needs, but many are not aware of that. Some local authorities are reluctant to advertise the fact because they are concerned about raising expectations. The Bill is trying to raise expectations and to fulfil them. If we do not recognise that younger carers are reluctant to come forward and ask for their needs to be recognised, we run the risk of creating a loophole in the Bill. Fourteen-year-olds are of an age when they begin to make their views known, and by reducing the age in the Bill to 14 we can empower them to do so.
The amendment will also strengthen the hand of projects such as the one in my constituency when they visit schools to raise young people's awareness. They will be able to tell 14-year-old carers that they have rights and should ask the local authority to assess them and meet their needs, and that the project will assist them in doing so.
There is a strong argument for the amendment, and it applies not only to 14 to 16-year-olds, but to carers in single-parent families, whom I have mentioned, and carers from minority groups. We know of their problems from the national carers strategy. I dealt with that issue on Second Reading so I shall not do so again, but those carers have special needs that need to be identified.
We can use the Bill to help carers aged 14 to 16 by working with local authorities, schools, projects and GPs to try to identify young carers and to provide them with support. With those brief remarks, I hope that I have made a case for reducing the age limit to 14 which will at least be answered by the Bill's promoter. Let us try to empower young people, who are getting older at a younger age, if hon. Members see what I mean. We need to take a little more responsibility for them, particularly at the time in their life when they need additional help with their schooling.
Mr. Forth: I am rather unhappy with the argument for a number of reasons. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) referred in passing to the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, which interestingly says in its definitions that
What really bothers me is that the hon. Gentleman apparently not only sanctions but encourages the concept that someone as young as 14 should be given the enormous responsibilities of being a carer in the full sense of the word. That may well happen, and in some circumstances it may well even be unavoidable, but do we want to go so far as sanctioning it by including it in an Act of Parliament?
I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument that we should give statutory recognition to what is already happening, but I would rather go in the other direction and have a community and governmental responsibility for trying to ensure, as far as possible, that no 14-year-old has the full responsibility of being a carer. Certainly, that should not be sanctioned by law, which would be the effect of the amendment.
I go further: where there are financial implications, as there are in the Bill and in other statute, should we be entrusting taxpayers' money to someone who is 14 years of age? I take a different view of youth from the hon. Gentleman. I believe that one of the big mistakes that we are making is to try to hustle young people into adulthood and responsibility too early. I regret that young people these days seem to have shorter and shorter childhoods and seem to be hustled in every conceivable way into what I would style premature adulthood. The amendment strikes me as yet another step in that direction. That is why I have severe reservations about it.
I am just about content with the fact that the Bill defines the age as 16. It does not make me particularly happy that someone of that tender age should have such responsibilities, but I suppose that, in practice, one has to go along with that as a reality of modern life. However, I would certainly want to resist any effort to reduce the age further. I hope that either the promoter of the Bill or the Minister will be able to reassure me that what they have in mind is that we should try to alleviate any responsibility that may rest with 14-year-olds as much as we possibly can. I grant that, in some circumstances, such responsibility may be unavoidable, but our objective should be to use the panoply of existing legislation and to use the Bill, which I hope will become an Act, to that end.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. There are occasions when circumstances arise that are unavoidable. Should we not offer young people the protection and support that they need when those circumstances do arise?
Mr. Forth: I hope that that would take place in any case. I hope that the existing mechanisms and those that the Bill seeks to add would do that. What I am resisting is that we sanction and write into legislation the fact that we almost expect people as young as 14 to fulfil those responsibilities--we risk formalising that.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying--we must try to ensure that wherever that terrible responsibility is placed on someone of those tender years, they get the fullest possible support and the requirement is placed on them for as short a time as possible. That is a world away from building the matter into legislation and saying, "Well, because we are making the provision, we assume that it will happen." It would not take a lot to persuade me that we should make the relevant age higher than 16, but that is not a debate for today. I am content to stick with the Bill as it stands. For that reason, I oppose the amendment.
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde): May I first say that I am grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) proposed his amendment, but I have more in common with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). That alliance seems to be continuing--long may it
We have to consider carefully the position of young carers. Some of them are old enough--it is true--to be able to undertake a reasonable level of caring responsibility and they will do so willingly out of love for their parents. It is entirely proper that that goes on in families in the ways that families think best.
Other young carers are obliged to undertake levels of caring responsibility that actually harm their future prospects as they miss out on opportunities of education, leisure pursuits, time with friends, part-time work and so on. The Bill must send the right message about young carers--they should not undertake levels of caring that are damaging and they should receive the most appropriate levels of support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) intervened, rightly, to ask a particular question. At the moment, young carers receive valuable support from local authorities. They are seen as children in need under the Children Act and services are provided that safeguard and promote their welfare. The amendment would enable 14 and 15-year-olds to opt to be treated in the same way as adults who choose to care and are caring on a regular and substantial basis. They could, for example, if given a right to request an assessment under the Bill, request direct payments instead of receiving services directly from their local council.
In my view, when young people of that age are also carers they already have too many responsibilities. We want to relieve those burdens, not run the risk of adding to them, so I would wish to be assured that councils were delivering adequate support to the service user, so that young persons were not undertaking a substantial and regular load of caring responsibilities. I am sure that the House would agree that we do not want young carers' futures blighted by their caring responsibilities, thus undermining their need to participate fully in education and leisure activities.
I have, as the House will have noted, included young carers aged 16 in the Bill--some people are quite unhappy but are prepared to live with it, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has said--because there are a small number of situations in which a 16 or 17-year-old is choosing to undertake a substantial and regular caring role for a period: for example, if a parent is terminally ill. In those circumstances, it could be more helpful in terms of the young person's personal development for their local council to support them actively if they positively choose to adopt a role that one would otherwise wish to ensure they were not burdened with.
I hope that my hon. Friend, having listened to those arguments, will not press his amendment, because I do not believe that it helps 14 and 15-year-old carers. I hope that, on that basis, he will agree to withdraw his amendment.