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2.7 pm

Mrs. Spelman: I shall endeavour to make my contribution short because I know that several Members would like the opportunity to give the Bill their blessing and send it on its way. However, I understand that the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) has a declared interest, having worked for the Carers National Association. We understand that when this issue is a core interest, one will have strong feelings about the Bill making progress.

May I congratulate, once again, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry)? He definitely backed a winner with this Bill. Certainly, having the Government on one's side is a tremendous help in succeeding with a private Member's Bill. In my three years in Parliament, it is the first time that I have seen such a Bill reach this stage. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that.

We can all take satisfaction from knowing that today we shall send a strong signal to the 5.7 million carers in our society who for a long time, out of good will, have made a contribution that is worth £34 billion of care. That is a phenomenal contribution towards care for those who need it. We can all take pleasure from the fact that the Bill has progressed to this stage, and that is why we have supported it. We very much wanted to send a signal to carers that we applaud what they do and that we want them to continue to do it. That is important for those for whom they care, for themselves and for us. We all have an interest in sustaining them in their very important role.

The little phrase that comes to mind is "a stitch in time saves nine". As a result of the Bill, we all hope that respite will come to those who might be on the verge of throwing in the towel, having a breakdown or giving up their key role. I hope that we have contributed to that stitch in time, which for some people will be so important.

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I very much liked the modesty of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde. He said that the Bill was a start. I am always wary of politicians who claim too much for what their policies will achieve, so he is right to be cautiously modest. Perhaps, we can all share in that.

The assessment process, how it works in practice and the experience of the carers who are on the receiving end of it will be crucial. Whether what they are assessed as needing is delivered will be the test by which we shall know whether we have succeeded or failed collectively as a group of politicians.

In recent days I have encountered people who strongly dislike the style of politics in which we all gratuitously make remarks about each other. However, we can all agree that the discussions today, the Committee proceedings on the Bill and its Second Reading have been, for those who have been able to watch, an example of what can happen when there is constructive opposition in the House and we work together. As an Opposition, we have combined with other hon. Members to refine and improve the Bill, and we take satisfaction from that.

We hope that the Bill will see the light of day as soon as the Government can find time for it. The real test will be whether those who are directly concerned--carers and the cared for--experience an appreciable improvement in their situation and whether carers receive the help that they need to carry out their important task.

2.10 pm

Mr. Burstow: As the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, the test of the Bill will be the services that result from the assessments that will be provided.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) on his initiative in securing a private Member's Bill slot, on choosing this important subject and on skilfully piloting the Bill through all its stages in the House. This is the first private Member's Bill that I have followed through all its stages, and it has been an interesting experience that is very different from my experience of Government legislation. I hasten to add that I do not intend that to be a criticism.

We have had the opportunity to debate the Bill on the Floor of the House. Amendments have been moved, ideas discussed and concerns explored, and there has been a genuine response that has led to the Bill's improvement. The result is a Bill that we can pass to the other place and which will, we hope, make its way into statute and make a real difference to the lives of millions of carers.

I know that the Bill will make a difference to the 20,000 carers in my constituency. When I spoke on Second Reading, I explained that I had spent a day with a carer in my constituency during national carers week last year. Her name is Lillian, and she felt very isolated because of her caring responsibilities, looking after her husband. She felt that she had had to struggle to navigate her way through the various services that were available, and she was not told that those services existed to give her support.

This is a Bill for the millions of Lillians who give years of their life out of love for their partners and others in their family, to support them, informally, in the community. Through the Bill, the House signals that it wants to support those carers and values them highly.

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Liberal Democrat Members support the Bill because we believe that it is a much-needed addition to the legislative framework governing carers. The Government amendments in response to debates in Committee are welcome and have improved the Bill. They send the right signals to carers that the Government are committed not to introducing charges by stealth but to improving services for carers.

2.13 pm

Mr. Hutton: Before I comment on the Bill and the proceedings today, in Committee and on Second Reading, I must go through one or two necessary and important formalities. In the Government's view, the Bill is fully compatible with the European convention on human rights.

I echo many of the comments of hon. Members. The Bill has benefited from the cumulative experience of the many hon. Members who know a great deal about its subject matter. It is probably unfair to pick on individual Members who have made important contributions, because we have been lucky to have had the commitment of many hon. Members, in Committee and today, in improving the Bill. However, I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal). She has been heavily involved in carers' issues for a long time, and we have been fortunate to have the benefit of her experience and opinion.

Most important, we have been lucky to have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry). Without his commitment to the cause and without his dedication to working with all Members to improve the Bill, we would not be in the position that we are in today, so I pay a warm and personal tribute to him for his work and vision in taking the Bill forward.

As the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, sometimes we actually get it right in this place. I will not say that we do it all the time--clearly, we do not--but during the passage of the Bill, we have shown that it is possible in the House of Commons to work together on common objectives that transcend party allegiances and that inspire and motivate many Members. In fact, they may often explain why Members are driven to serve as Members of Parliament.

Many of us have a strong and deep commitment to improving not only public services, but the quality of life of many people in our society who, without our commitment and support, will never get the quality of life that we are fortunate enough to take for granted. That is what the Bill is basically about. It is ultimately about creating a fairer society. It is about providing better services for carers and disabled children, too, but it is profound legislation. I will not make the mistake of using hyperbole, but it is an important Bill.

There are several reasons why the Bill should receive a Third Reading. First, it will enable local authorities to provide a much wider range of services directly to carers themselves. That is something that carer organisations have long called for, as my hon. Friend has said. The Bill will ensure that that can happen, ending the unacceptable limitation on local authorities' ability to support carers properly.

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It is clear from some of the discussions today that, in moving forward in that area, we must be alert to the sensitivities that exist. It is not part of the Bill--my hon. Friend has been clear about it, as has everyone else who has spoken today--to do anything to compromise the position either of carers themselves or of those who are being cared for. I believe that the way in which we have improved the Bill today will mean our avoiding that particular mistake.

Secondly, the Bill takes a further important step forward in recognising the role of carers as key partners in improving services to people who need support at home. Fortunately, the days are long gone when carers were the invisible people whose contribution usually went unacknowledged and whose own needs for support were rarely, if ever, addressed effectively. The Bill represents a significant advance for carers in both those important areas and is therefore a significant advance for carers as well as for the whole care system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), who spoke very well on Second Reading and again on Third Reading, is right to have identified what has been characterised as an enormous gap in social care policy in Britain for many years, which we are now beginning to close, properly recognising the role of carers. He explained that much more eloquently than I could, but I hope that he will share my view that the Bill is a significant advance, as I have shown, because it plugs that gap. Carers are not invisible. They are crucial partners in care, and the Bill acknowledges their important role.

My hon. Friend mentioned his constituency and the carers in Monmouth who will benefit from the Bill. He gave a timely reminder that the Bill will apply to Wales, too; it is not an England-only measure.

Thirdly, the Bill extends new opportunities for carers and disabled people to have more direct control over the services that they need. Its changes to the 1996 direct payments legislation will transfer more power and more choice to carers and to disabled children to determine for themselves who may provide the services that they have been assessed as needing and when they should be provided. In that way, the Bill will enable and empower disabled people and their carers in a significant new way.

Most important, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde has listened to the concerns that have been expressed by carers organisations about his Bill's drafting. Today, he has introduced some very important changes to the Bill that strengthen it considerably. Parent carers' right under the Bill to ask for an assessment has been put beyond any doubt. We have also resolved the concerns that have been expressed about the nature of charging for both carer services and community care services. Now, there can be no risk at all that local authorities can label services as carer services rather than as community care services if it appears that the carer has greater means than the cared-for person.

The Bill also provides that carers cannot be required to pay a charge for community care services that are provided to the cared-for person. It is a significant clarification and confirmation of the original intentions that both my hon. Friend and I had for the Bill. I pay tribute to him for his ability to argue that case and to press for the necessary changes to the Bill. He was absolutely right to identify that as an important issue, and I am grateful to him for his role in making the necessary changes to the legislation.

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I know that all hon. Members value the contribution that carers can make to our community and to our country. Today, hon. Members can show their support for carers by giving the Bill the strongest possible support.

I should like to conclude by expressing once again my appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde. By promoting his Bill, he has performed a huge service for carers, for disabled children and their families and for those who are being cared for. We are doing a good thing by sending the Bill to another place, where their lordships will have an opportunity to contribute their wisdom and insight to the legislation. Some of those who are in another place have enormous experience on the issue.

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