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Mr. Hutton: I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) and those of the right hon. Member for Bromley and

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Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is a lawyer; I am a lawyer; there are lots of lawyers in this place, and we all know that when we make legislation, it is, by definition, about where we draw lines. Under the Bill, we are extending choice and flexibility to young carers--for example, through the extension of the direct payment scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde has made a judgment about where that line needs to be drawn. We fix it in the Bill at 16 because we feel that it is the appropriate place to establish that line.

The amendment would raise exactly the sort of scenarios to which both my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst have referred--14-year-olds would receive direct payments. On that ground alone, we need to consider some serious issues of public policy, quite apart from the separate issues that they have referred to in relation to the wider responsibilities of young people and young carers in our society.

By way of information, I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, in case he is concerned about his amendment and its relationship to the Bill, that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde was right to point out the existing protection and support that the Children Act provides to young carers, as they can be considered as children in need. He will be aware, too, that this year, as part of the conditions relating to the use of the carers grant, it will be possible for local councils to support, for example, young carers projects. I am hopeful that local authorities will use their freedom and discretion to do that.

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Additionally, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will be aware that the Government are supporting a range of other programmes to provide better support in meeting the needs of younger people. I draw his attention to the additional resources going to support child and adolescent mental health services. Although some hon. Members may question the relevance of such services to this debate, they are relevant to it, as one aspect of such services may well be to provide the counselling and support that is crucial in enabling young people to continue their caring responsibilities, perhaps to members of their own families.

All hon. Members will be aware from constituency case work and from knowledge of our own families of the stresses and strains that caring responsibilities can create for young people. The right thing to do if we are to ensure that services are available to meet the needs of young people is to ensure that appropriate services are available locally, supported by national health service trusts and local authorities, to provide better support in meeting the counselling and mental health needs of young people, which includes those of young carers.

The Government are taking action across the board to meet some of the concerns to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has rightly drawn attention. The position of young carers is a matter of very serious concern to the Government and, I am sure, to the House. It is tragic to see the life of a young person affected adversely by the assumption of very substantial caring responsibility. No hon. Member wants to see that happen. We are working very hard with local government, the

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NHS and others to ensure that we develop a more effective range of services to support young people who have those caring responsibilities.

I am sorry, to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and I are not convinced that the right thing to do is to lower the age threshold to 14. For all the reasons given by my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and in the context of the Government's pursuit of our wider objectives, I think it would be wrong to make that change in the legislation.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will feel able to withdraw his amendment, not because we are turning our backs on young carers--we most definitely are not--but in recognition of the fact that, in the context of the Bill, the amendment would be counter-productive.

Mr. Dismore: I think we are all singing from the same hymn sheet, although we are perhaps approaching the issue from different directions. I certainly agree with the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)--I certainly would not want my amendment to be seen as sanctioning the practice of young people engaging in such caring activities. I was merely trying to recognise the sad reality that some children are in that position. I agree with all those who spoke in the debate that we have to try to address the issue within the bigger picture. I am also very grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry).

In moving my amendment, I have tried to put on the agenda the issue of young carers. However, I certainly take on board the point about direct payments, which is a valid argument against the amendment--there could be difficulties if people in that age group received potentially substantial sums. My objective was to raise the issue of identifying those young carers and empowering them to ask for assessments of their needs. However, as has been said, perhaps that issue could be better addressed as part of the general legislation to protect children.

In those circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Dismore: I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 11, after "assessment", insert "within 42 days".

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 4, in page 1, line 14, leave out "may" and insert "shall".

No. 5, in page 1, line 15, leave out--

', so far as it considers it to be material,'.

No. 8, in page 1, line 26, leave out "considers appropriate" and insert--

'shall agree with the carer'.

Mr. Dismore: The amendments in this group are relatively straightforward, and I should be able to explain them relatively quickly. The purpose of the amendments is to tighten up clause 1 a little.

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Amendment No. 2 provides that, if a local authority conducts an assessment at the request of a carer, it should do so within a fixed time limit, which I have suggested should be 42 days. I should think that six weeks is ample time for an assessment to be made. I am concerned that some, although by no means all, local authorities do not give the priority that they should to carers' issues, and that, without some type of time limit, the performance of an assessment could be delayed and end up on the back burner, so that carers who ask for an assessment could wait weeks or months for an assessment. I am sure that we have all heard of cases in which there have been such delays.

As statutory responsibilities have not been drawn sufficiently tightly, assessments are sometimes delayed. In amendment No. 2, I am simply trying to establish a time limit. Although I am not wedded to a 42-day time limit, I think it is reasonable to expect local authorities to conduct an assessment within six weeks. Nevertheless, I realise that, across the country, the ability of local authorities to perform such assessments will vary. I hope that, if 42 days is not acceptable to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) and the Minister, they will propose an alternative time limit.

Mrs. Spelman: Although we all perfectly understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, there is one small point. He wants to ensure that the assessment occurs within a reasonable time. However, consultations that I have had with local authorities have exposed one problem, which is that the process can be delayed by the lack of medical information. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has taken account of that factor.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Lady has made an important and interesting point, and perhaps I could have improved the phrasing of my amendment by saying that the time limit would commence after the receipt of medical evidence from a general practitioner, consultant or other medical practitioner. It is a fair point.

Equally, it is important that we should establish a time frame in which the assessments should be performed. Although there may well be practical difficulties such as those she described, I am sure that we could establish a time scale that took account of those difficulties. If 42 days is not a practical time limit, I should be happy to consider alternative suggestions. Nevertheless, it is important to incorporate a time limit in the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are related, and both are also an attempt to tighten up clause 1. Clause 1(2) mentions assessments under the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995. The clause appears to leave it to the local authority to decide whether to take an assessment into account and suggests that it does not much matter either way. That is wrong. If an assessment has been conducted, it should be taken into account.

Amendment No. 4 would delete "may" and insert "shall". I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is not in his place, because when he was a Minister at the Home Office and I was a campaigning solicitor, we spent many happy hours in the law courts arguing about whether "may" meant "shall" and "shall" meant "may". The case ended up in the House of Lords, where I am pleased to say that I won the argument and he lost, at great expense to the then Conservative Government. Whenever I see the word "may" in legislation, I think that "shall" would be clearer.

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Amendment No. 5 would delete the superfluous words

because an assessment under the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 must be material to some extent.

Amendment No. 8 is not in my name, but I should like to mention it briefly, because empowering carers is important. This goes back to points that were made on a previous group of amendments about the need for carers to be involved at every stage of the process. We should not simply give local authorities what may amount to dictatorial powers to decree what people will get whether they like it or not. We must ensure that local authorities and carers work together--although I hesitate to go back to arguments about care plans--and try to involve carers more in agreeing a package of care and how assessments should be conducted, rather than simply leaving it to the discretion of the local authority.

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