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6.29 pm

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I support the main thrust of the motion, especially where it talks of the care and dedication of carers, but we need to be clear about the definition of carers. They can be relatives, friends or neighbours who look after someone who cannot manage without help because of sickness, age or disability. Carers look after people of all ages and can be of all ages themselves. They can be male or female, although they are more often women. Parents who care for a child with a long-term illness or disability are also carers. Some carers look after someone for a few hours a week; others do so for 24 hours a day, every day. Many carers care in their own homes, while others support friends living nearby or miles away.

My constituency is located in the Dudley area, where there are 35,000 carers, of whom 7,500 provide more than 50 hours a week. In addition, there are 900 young
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carers between the ages of five and 17. That caring support is given willingly, but it must never be taken for granted.

It has been said that carers need society’s support as well as its thanks, and that support has led to a great deal being achieved by the combined efforts of organisations campaigning on carers’ behalf. Those achievements should also be considered alongside the raft of progressive policy initiatives introduced by this Labour Government.

This Government are the first to recognise the needs of carers as well as the needs of those who are cared for, and I have seen the effects of their progressive policies on the lives of carers in Dudley. Those carers are also assisted by a dedicated and well organised network that is most ably co-ordinated by a great lady named Christine Rowley.

In addition, we in Dudley are fortunate to have a dedicated helpline that gives carers the opportunity to talk to other carers. That excellent service is staffed by volunteer carers, whose experience ensures that they understand what callers are going through. The aim is to provide a listening ear, carer to carer, and the service is invaluable to many people in my constituency.

As well as the advice line, carers have access to a vast amount of information on financial matters, health, respite care and employment issues. That access to information is vital, and it is a matter that comes up again and again when I talk to carers in my constituency. They want to be recognised for the care that they provide: they make a strong plea that they should not be called informal carers but that they should be considered to be the real professionals.

I want to highlight the vital area of training opportunities for carers. In Dudley, we have established the care link scheme, which is aimed at people who want to find work in health and social care. Its dedicated team gives full support to job seekers, providing them with the skills needed for a satisfying role in the care industry. The scheme is also open to anyone between the ages of 24 and 59, and full support is given throughout.

Carers can also work for the City and Guilds learning for living certificate, a personal development and learning qualification for unpaid carers. The expert patients programme helping people with long-term illnesses has been welcomed by local carers, and a new programme, “looking after me”, has been developed specifically for carers who themselves have long-term illnesses. Tutors are just finishing their training, and the first course will be offered shortly.

Dudley is well served by a service called Crossroads—named after the much loved soap opera based in a midlands motel—that provides caring for carers. The service was praised in 2005 by the Commission for Social Care Inspection for the work that it does in providing sitting services to help carers take a break. It is fully funded from Dudley council’s carer’s grant, and is backed by the Big Lottery Fund.

All of the carers grant is still allocated to carers in Dudley. The money is directed specifically at carers who want to use it to enable them take a break.
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Flexibility is the key, and some 200 carers will benefit from the funding next year.

I also want, however, to draw attention to the needs of parents of children with disabilities. Those of us who are parents of able-bodied children generally expect our responsibilities to decrease over time, but that is not so for the parents of children with disabilities. Their caring responsibilities generally increase as their children get older and less help is provided by the support services.

In that connection, I want to pay particular tribute to the Orchard partnership, based in Stourbridge. That unique and vital service for vulnerable children with disabilities and their families was set up by a group of parents co-ordinated—and, as is often of the case, chivvied and coerced—by one parent in particular. That parent is Madeleine Cowley, who is now the chairman of the organisation—a volunteer, of course.

Many children now survive illnesses that they would not have survived even 10 years ago, and the Orchard partnership was set up to address their needs and those of their carers. It helps them to have the same quality of life that other children enjoy. I have paid several visits to the Orchard: I have watched its Saturday club run drama workshops, met parent and carer support groups and seen children and carers benefit from short breaks. There is also a special youth forum that is focused on raising the profile of the issues facing young disabled people and their families during the vital period of transition to adult life. The parent-led committee continues to support the services offered by the Orchard partnership and all the services benefit from the contribution of volunteer support workers. All the volunteers are a valuable asset and really enhance the services provided to the children and their families. The Orchard provides a toy library and I was proud to become patron of that last year, at the launch of the story sacks. That is a great initiative that allows parents to use puppets when they are telling stories to their children. I do not quite know who enjoyed that more—me or the children—but it is certainly a brilliant initiative.

On a more serious note, I draw the Minister’s attention to the problem that such services face when funding streams approach their end. Lengthy waits are often endured before hearing about confirmation of continued funding for future development. Perhaps he can offer some hope of stability or ring-fencing of funding for such projects in the future.

To sum up my contribution to today’s debate, I will paraphrase my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister: a lot done, a lot more to do. I am proud to have been part of a Government who recognise that caring can affect both the health and the financial status of carers and their families, that access to employment opportunities helps to maintain financial security and self-confidence, that training and education enables people to return to work when they want to or to work flexibly according to their needs, and that access to leisure services gives carers time to themselves to recharge their batteries. It is vital that that is where we target this support. Carers are entitled to the same benefits as anybody else. Put simply: they have earned them. Some ask, “Can we afford to support carers?” We should answer, “Can we afford not to?”

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6.36 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I have scythed through my speech and will get through it in seconds. I just want to touch on some of the points that have been raised and add a few of my own. In west Berkshire, I am lucky to have an excellent volunteer centre, which is run by its director, Garry Poulson. He and I talk regularly about what encourages people to volunteer and what makes the voluntary sector tick. He keeps interesting statistics showing who walks through his door and the different areas of volunteering that he guides them towards. It is fascinating to see the number of young people who are volunteering, the gender difference and the type of activities that people wish to go towards.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) touched on the important subject of what prevents people from volunteering. I will touch on that in the few minutes that I have left. As the vice-chairman of our local citizens advice bureau, I completely take the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I have spent hours discussing governance issues such as the accounts, the reserves policy, and whether we should be incorporated. All those sort of things sap one’s enthusiasm for volunteering. We are interested in what the organisation does and not necessarily how the mechanics of administrating it work. We have to look seriously at the pressure that we put on volunteers in terms of the administration of voluntary bodies—whether we are talking about the Criminal Records Bureau, the fear of litigation, the cost of insurance, compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, or all the financial regulations that are involved.

There is a wonderful book by Robert Putnam called “Bowling Alone”, which looks at the problems of American society—many of which are reflected in this country, as well. He identifies one of the key factors—it was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire—that limits people’s availability to volunteer: time. Professor Putnam has calculated that every 10 minutes of commuting cuts all forms of social engagement by 10 per cent. That is 10 per cent. fewer family suppers and 10 per cent. fewer local club meetings and other community activities. So, the knock-on effect of the successful battle that we fought in west Berkshire to protect our rail service was to increase to a small degree, or at least sustain, the amount of volunteering. Professor Putnam makes the poignant point that people who want to volunteer get home from work exhausted and it is easier to sit down and watch “Friends” than go out to find and interact with real ones.

Can Government make more people volunteer? Of course, in a direct sense, the answer is almost universally no. However, they can incentivise and make it easier for people to volunteer. I want to point to one key example in my constituency: Vodafone. Vodafone has not had a very good press in recent days, but it continues to be a force for good in west Berkshire. There is scarcely a voluntary body that it does not help financially and, matching that, it encourages employees to participate in environmental working parties and community reading projects. It creates a virtuous circle of a diminution in sickness and increase in
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productivity. I thus urge the Government to examine the incentives that they can give to companies.

In conclusion, I ask the Government to accept that it is crucial to understand the difference between the voluntary sector and the not-for-profit charitable sector. The latter is an arm’s length deliverer of Government services, with a huge call on financial resources, while the other is a wonderfully anarchic network of social and emotional interaction. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) said, the voluntary sector should be allowed to exercise its will—sometimes in the wrong direction, but always with enormous enthusiasm and in the direction of ultimate right—within the framework of the Government’s plans for the sector.

6.40 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): We have had an excellent and brief debate, during which we have heard good and succinct—in most cases, I am glad to say—contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband), to his post. I welcomed many of the comments that he made in his maiden speech from the Dispatch Box, especially when he talked about the Government’s enabling role and said that the work of volunteers should be complementary to state action, not a substitute for it. However, some of his other language betrayed the perception among many in this country that volunteers and carers are too often used as cheap labour, or that we have volunteering and caring on the cheap.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) rightly said, with his great expertise in the area through the Centre for Social Justice, too many volunteers are discouraged by the fear of the heavy hand of big government and the box ticking and regulation that goes with that. Additionally, too many small volunteer groups are crowded out by a higher tier of the bigger charities, which seem to be perhaps too close to the Government in many cases.

There are also worries about the complementarity of funding. The national lottery has not been mentioned today, but there is a real feeling that many of the things that are funded by the various national lottery funds should be paid for with mainstream funding for the health service or education. This week, I was at the annual general meeting of the Friends of Worthing hospital, of which I am vice-president. Half the money that we raised in the past year was spent on equipping bathrooms in the local hospital. That is not complementary funding, but core funding, and there is thus a worry about the way in which volunteers’ time and effort are used.

We have had a good debate on a subject that is important to everyone inside and outside the House. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) should be rightly congratulated on moving the motion without a bead of sweat on his brow after completing the mile in six minutes 22 seconds—I am afraid that he was way ahead of me.

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The timing of our debate on this worthy subject is good, given that we had volunteers week last week and it will be carers week next week. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have been involved in all sorts of projects. I have been asked to point out that Conservative Welsh Assembly Members have recently visited hospices, the ChildLine operations in Wales, projects promoting Welsh produce and superb projects operating with some of the least privileged and most at-risk children in the United Kingdom—there is a plug for Wales.

I declare an interest in that I have been a national trustee of Community Service Volunteers since 2001. The body has operated for more than 40 years as the largest volunteer organisation in the country and is under the excellent leadership of Dame Elisabeth Hoodless. The body is responsible for make a difference day, with which I am sure most people are familiar. I am sure that hon. Members have participated on the day by working in charity shops, on environmental projects and with social workers or NHS hospitals. This year, 100,000 volunteers contributed to make a difference day.

For the past five years, as the shadow children’s Minister, I have been to the young carers festival in Southampton. Some youngsters do the most remarkable jobs in enormously stressful situations. They need to be congratulated, but also helped. However, I shall concentrate on corporate volunteering, and on young carers in particular. I will not go into all the figures about the number of people who volunteer and why they are motivated. It should be noted that 45 per cent. of people who volunteer have a disability. Of people who volunteer, 44 per cent. are from the black and minority ethnic communities, while 38 per cent. of those who volunteer are without formal qualifications. It is an inclusive activity. Volunteering is a great leveller and a great satisfier for people who involve themselves in it.

There is corporate social responsibility. Recently, we had the Edith Kahn memorial lecture, during which Jeff Schwartz , the chief executive of Timberland, made an enormously inspiring speech about how volunteering has worked in his corporation and in other companies in America. Every employee of Timberland automatically receives 40 hours of paid time to do volunteering work. That is from the chief executive right down to the person working on the front desk. That time is shown on their pay slip every month—how much time they have used and how much time they have still got. Everyone is encouraged—it is not compulsory—to take up volunteering.

On one day last year, across eight different countries, Timberland alone contributed 50,000 hours of human service for volunteering. Other companies in the states had similar big programmes. Hallmark has recently hired a senior leader to be involved in market-based solutions to social challenges. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) about the work that Vodafone does. Many of our big companies do a great deal of work in this area, but we need to do a lot more. Jeff Schwartz said:

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He had a vision that commerce and justice are not just antithetical notions. His definition of citizenship allowed a business run for profit to demand that sustainable returns were generated from shareholders, and also that business should be actively implicated in the strengthening of the civic square. He talked about inviting the engine of commerce to fit into the chassis of civic society. There is great complementarity, and it is a rich vein of volunteering, along with help and persistence for the advancement of all that we should be doing in this country. How do we go about it? We need to encourage more corporate schemes. We need to encourage more people to become involved individually. We need to make it easier and more convenient for people to become involved.

I move on briefly to young carers. One in eight people in England is a carer. Three in five carers look after someone with a disability. There are 855,000 carers who provide more than 50 hours of caring per week. The 2001 census estimated that there were just 17,000 young carers. The real estimates from the Princess Royal Trust for Carers suggest that the total is nearer 100,000. People are doing remarkable work in looking after, in most cases, relatives with serious physical and mental disabilities.

Sixty five per cent. of UK carers believe that their career prospects have been affected. Seventy four per cent. of carers are currently in paid employment and use their annual leave for caring. As the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) mentioned, the effect on carers’ health is considerable and we need to do more about that. Any projects that are designed for carers caring for carers should be applauded. Young carers come to Parliament, as they did recently with the all-party children’s group. They face a problem with their school careers. In most instances, there is not an understanding linked teacher in a school who can appreciate the particular needs of a young carer.

A young carer may need access to a phone at work because mum or dad, for whom they are caring, needs to have a visit or needs to be checked on at various times during the day. Young carers do not have time to grow up. They do not have the opportunity to spend time with their friends and to participate in a normal social life that any normal teenager would hope and expect to enjoy. They chose—often they did not have any choice—to look after their parents. We should be in the business of making that job easier, not in the business of putting obstacles in their way.

There is so much that we can do and I have so little time to set things out. Certainly, we should have a linked person in each school. Ofsted should have a role in examining young carer strategies in schools. Best practice should be disseminated more widely to make the role of young carers easier, and the Minister could make a start by attending the young carers weekend later this month, where he will learn that impressive work is under way.

Finally, the strength of volunteering is its independence, the harnessing of people’s good will, freely given, and the diversity of their interests and involvement. We must appreciate volunteers and carers more. We must make their jobs easier, not put obstacles and bureaucracy in their way, including Criminal Records Bureau checks, which are necessary but must be balanced. Government Departments should do more to promote volunteering,
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and they should sign up to a code of practice on volunteering. We should streamline funding, as hon. Members have said, as there is too much paperwork for voluntary organisations, which constantly have to reapply for funds.

There should be a level playing field for partnerships with volunteer organisations, and we must acknowledge young carers and do much more for them. We should offer assistance in schools, and make genuine provision for respite care. Hon. Members have had a good opportunity to plug voluntary organisations in their constituencies, and the whole House has had good opportunity to thank the millions of volunteers and carers up and down the country who do an invaluable job, day in, day out, that would otherwise cost the Government an enormous amount. It is time, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, to butter parsnips and do more than offer warm words. Hon. Members should look beyond the House and acknowledge the contribution of volunteers and carers, as well as the serious problems that they face, and produce a timetable for action.

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