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9.50 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) on securing this debate at just the right time, with next week being carers week. I am sure that most of us here will be participating locally in that event.

It is hard not to express the most enormous gratitude and respect for all carers. We must all ask ourselves: would we be able to do what they do? As has been said, the contribution that carers make in removing costs from the state is enormous. I was recently visited at my surgery by an east Dorset carers support group for carers of relatives with mental health conditions. The group came because it was troubled about its future funding and whether it would be able to continue. The group had been set up with a lottery grant, but that had ended and was not continued as had been expected. The group was fortunate to receive support to continue from all the local authorities, but its concern was for the future. Anything that the Minister can say about what will happen regarding the carers grant will therefore be helpful.

I shall focus my comments on young carers, which obviously, given my portfolio, is an issue in which I have a great interest. Probably the most moving part of the story is that invisible army of very young people—perhaps even of primary school age—caring for up to 50 hours a week. That is an enormous burden, but we do not really know the scale of the situation because young carers are reluctant to come forward and identify themselves. Research by Barnardo’s has shown that a young carer will typically not receive any support for about four years after taking on a caring role. That shows that we must be more outward looking.

The first national carers strategy was an important step in acknowledging the existence of young carers and the impact of caring upon them. At events and debates in the House, we all acknowledge the problems that young carers face. The Government have put in place frameworks that, in principle, should provide support, and they are funding a number of initiatives directly, such as the Children’s Society project to develop best practice for all sorts of professionals working with young carers. That is all excellent, but I fear that there is a degree of complacency if we say, “Well, we’ve got this framework”. The recent teenage suicide to which the hon. Lady referred highlights that point. It shocked the nation, but it is not a great surprise, if one talks to young carers and understands the pressures on them. It was particularly interesting that the presiding coroner called for

of young people coping with such heavy responsibilities. That showed that, despite all the frameworks and all the documents, we need to ensure truly joined-up thinking and practice and consistency in what young carers are offered, which is clearly patchy across the country.

I concur with the hon. Lady that perhaps one of the most frequently raised problems is the difficulty of adult social services and children’s services working together. We all applaud the emphasis on “Every Child Matters”, but one downside has been the separation of
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those functions. An holistic approach to assessing the needs of the family is needed. There are examples where one service gets precious, saying, “No, the adult doesn’t need this type of support at night—the needs aren’t high enough,” when for the child who is getting up during the night and having their life and schooling disrupted, the need is so much greater. That problem needs to be sorted out.

The children’s commissioner has identified the need for the services to be joined up, commenting that there is a great danger of

In a 2005-06 report, the Commission for Social Care Inspection said:

We must use the strategy review to make progress in that major area. Just think of the case that went to heart of our country.

Funding and its continuation are also important. We recently held a big meeting in the House. Lots of young carers came and talked to us, and voted on what the most important issues for them were. The No. 1 issue was ensuring that their local support group survived. I remember one very articulate young lady saying, “The trouble is that my support worker isn’t there at the end of the phone when I need her.” That was not the support worker sloping off; it was that there were not enough hours available for all the support that was needed. We must ensure provision throughout the country for support groups, because it is definitely the No. 1 issue.

We also need to work on the training of professionals. We have made great progress in schools through guidance from the Department for Education and Skills, but there is still no duty to have a lead member of staff responsible for young carers in schools. Even if that is not made a duty, we must give much more guidance and encouragement to local authorities to ensure that it happens anyway. Having a young carers’ champion in the local authority is also an excellent way forward. I also commend the proposal to give training to our health care and social care professionals, so that we can pull everything together and ensure that there is a complete package for young carers and that they do not fall through the net.

9.58 am

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): It is a pleasure to contribute to this important Adjournment debate under your wise and, dare I say it, progressive chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) on securing the debate and on the tremendous work that she has done on behalf of carers both before entering the House and in the two years since. She is certainly a valued colleague on the all-party carers group.

I should explain at the outset my interest in the matter. I was a carer for 16 years and the promoter of the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004, as we have
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heard. I am proud to be vice-president of Carers UK and I also chair the all-party carers group. I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for the work of our Labour Government over the past 10 years under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. His early enthusiasm for the cause of carers was greatly appreciated. It is should also be recorded and acknowledged that all the progress that we have made has received broad cross-party support. That is manifested in the strength of cross-party support in the all-party group.

We have already heard that much has been achieved, but much more is needed. The debate is opportune because not only is it the week before carers’ week, but the review is being undertaken. The voice of carers is, quite rightly, being heard more loudly and is much better organised than 10 years ago. It is having an increasing impact on much of the legislation that affects carers’ lives, whether it involves flexible working, education, the rights of young children, respite care or, most challenging of all, pensions. That is all as it should be.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend has a remarkable and admirable track record in this area. Does he agree that one of the major drivers of change that we are encountering is the demographics of the caring community? There are 6 million carers and they churn 2 million carers a year, but there is an underlying steady growth of 300 carers a day and 100,000 a year. Over the next 30 years, from 6 million, the number of carers will grow by 3 million to 9 million. That pressure of change is behind all that Carers UK and MPs such as he and my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) do.

Dr. Francis: I agree entirely, and I commend the work of Carers UK in identifying that important phenomenon, which is having an impact on all social policy legislation. My purpose today is to ask a simple question: how can the national carers strategy review take account of the impact, or lack of it, of our legislation?

Dr. Gibson: Before my hon. Friend starts to get into the details, I want to compliment him and our hon. Friend the Member for Worsley on their sterling work. I just had a thought: I have been involved in work on eating disorders, and when we changed the name of an organisation it suddenly became very dynamic and reached a new plateau of support. I often wonder about the words that are used. Perhaps the word “carer” is just a little less aggressive than it could be. We might need something much more positive to define the sterling work that people do in that field. “Carers” sounds like they are depending on someone, when it is the other way around. I do not know whether the organisations have thought of a new way to define it.

Dr. Francis: That would probably require a separate debate. I can imagine my hon. Friend wanting carers to be called “revolutionaries” or something as radical as that.

I was talking about the purpose of the debate and posing a simple question: how can the national carers strategy take account of the impact, or lack of it, of
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our legislation on the rights of carers and their quality of life? In the course of my constituency work, through working with carers’ groups and as chair of the all-party group on carers, I am constantly being made aware of the—rightly—rising expectations of carers. I recently commissioned a piece of research by the Bevan Foundation, and the result, “Caring and Working? A Welsh Case Study”, is a challenging report by Dr. Victoria Winckler. I should declare an interest as an unpaid trustee of the foundation. I commend the report to the Minister, not only because it is powerfully radical in its recommendations, but because the voices of carers are to be heard loud and clear on every page. Although the report’s recommendations have a Welsh focus, because caring is a devolved matter, they are universally applicable. I want to draw the attention of hon. Members to three of those recommendations, as they could apply to the rest of the United Kingdom. The first is:

The second recommendation is:

Finally, the report recommends:

I believe that the new national carers strategy should have an impact on all Departments. It is not a matter merely for the Department of Health. The Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act was about providing work opportunities, and the recommendations of the Bevan Foundation refer to that important aspect of that Act. The Act also paid attention to education and training opportunities. Recently I have been impressed by the work of the National Extension college with carers, and I shall elaborate on that point in a moment.

Another aspect of my Act dealt with the right of carers to have access to leisure opportunities. My neighbouring authority, the city and county of Swansea—in the true spirit of cross-party recognition of the work of other parties, I acknowledge that it is led by Liberal Democrats—has an innovative collaborative project that is funded by the Big Lottery Fund to encourage carers to engage in more physical activity. Called “Mentro Allan”, which means “Getting Out”, the projects involves more than 100 carers in a variety of outdoor activities and, crucially, provides respite care. Such initiatives need to be more universally available.

When the national carers strategy was launched in 1999, the landscape was very different. Carers had few rights and were expected to care with little recognition or reward. One of the key changes in the past 10 years has been the acceptance, enshrined in Government-supported legislation in the form of the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act, that carers have a right to a life beyond their caring responsibilities—what one carer in my constituency called the right to an ordinary life. That perhaps is a much better way to describe the challenge before us than to argue about equal rights. The evidence so far is that that Act has begun to bring about a culture change, albeit rather slowly,
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particularly in the way in which carers are viewed by social services. It has also improved information to carers and a new raft of initiatives has been developed to give carers opportunities to learn, train and work. However, those initiatives are fragmented and, by definition, locally focused.

The developments that have arisen from the Act have been backed up strongly by the Government’s legislation, particularly the Work and Families Act 2006, which gave carers the right to request flexible working from their employer. We have a long way to go to change workplace culture so that carers’ responsibilities and needs are as well understood as those of parents. The Work and Families Act is a good place to start and I hope that employers will embrace the opportunities that it brings and adopt a constructive approach. I salute the work of the trade unions, particularly through the Warwick agreement, in bringing about the legislation, especially the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which has championed the cause of working carers.

I feel that those two pieces of legislation have been critical in raising awareness of carers’ issues among crucial groups such as social services, employers and other service providers. Work done by the action for carers and employment project, led by Carers UK, has helped to embed the legislation, and it also provided much of the evidence on which the legislation was based. That evidence indicates that legislation does indeed change culture and practice. It has often been argued that good practice guidance is all that is necessary, but the experience of Carers UK is that legislation is needed to provide a strong framework for such guidance, because guidance on its own is a blunt tool.

Barbara Keeley: My hon. Friend is giving a thorough explanation of the employment issues and of the needs of carers in the context of employment. It is worth making the point that work needs to be done in organisations such as Jobcentre Plus in developing flexible employment. Does he agree with me that the need is not only for good practice, but that the Government must take a lead in working with employers to set up structures such as flexible jobs? We have discovered in recent months that that concept is difficult for jobcentres to get their heads around, and that designating a job as a flexible job is perhaps not something that has been done customarily, despite the fact that it would help carers.

Dr. Francis: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Government needs to take a lead in legislating to bring about such changes.

We must ensure also that the vision enshrined in my Act is delivered on the ground. Carers UK has found that the most common reason that carers give for being unable to work is the level and complexity of care that they provide. If services are not in place to support them both in providing that care and in working or studying, real choice for carers will be an impossible dream.

It must be acknowledged that, over the past few years, the Government have made significant progress by putting more than £1 billion of money into respite
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care. However, we know that that does not stretch far enough; there is still a shortage of good quality respite services. I particularly welcome the Treasury and Department for Education and Skills report, “Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families”, which was published last month. That begins to show a way forward, particularly for the most severely disabled children, and I pay tribute to the hon. Members who supported it.

Carers’ organisations feel very strongly that the carers grant—an important stream of funding that provides carers with breaks—must remain a discrete grant rather than be rolled into the revenue support grant. Carers UK hears strong concerns from its wide membership that the funding for carers’ breaks will be reduced if the grant loses its clear identity. That is a critical part of the discussion, as it will affect the delivery of break services in the future.

The fact that the responsibilities of one Department—the Department of Health—have an impact on the ability of other Departments, particularly the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Work and Pensions, to fulfil their own objectives reminds me that we must keep up the campaign for a carers’ champion, and I am pleased that that cause has been mentioned several times already. Such a champion would be at the heart of Government and would ensure that all Departments recognise carers’ needs.

The success of the similar campaign in Wales with which I was associated, and the appointment of the Deputy Health Minister in the previous Welsh Assembly Government—Assembly Member John Griffiths—as carers’ champion were great steps forward. That has made a huge difference to the coherence of policy making in the area. Having someone whose responsibility it is to, as they say, “carer-proof” legislation would have prevented some of the contradictory pieces of legislation that we currently have. The Welsh Assembly Government is also updating its carers strategy.

I am particularly pleased that my Labour-led local authority, Neath Port Talbot county borough council, was among the first to appoint a carers’ champion, before there was such a champion for the whole of Wales. Councillor Paul Thomas has done excellent work in that field for the past year or so. I should therefore like specifically to ask the Minister whether the UK review will link with the Welsh Assembly Government review to ensure that the strategies learn from one another and that they share good practice and good policy development policy across the country.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: As a corollary to his reply to that question, the Minister might like to address cross-border issues. As a Member whose constituency has a Welsh border, I see notable differences between approaches to carers, depending on whether one lives on one side of the River Dee, in my constituency, or 200 ft across the river in Holt in Wales. It would be useful to highlight those differences as part of the process of moving forward.

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