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I am pleased to open this debate on carers during national carers week. The way we look after people with care and support needs defines us as a society. Everyone, at some point in their lives, will know and love someone who needs care. Many of us will need care ourselves, for whatever reason. It is an indication of the strength of our society that every day, between 5 million and 6 million people care for their family members. They do an incredible job, often giving up a huge amount to care for someone they love. Carers are not a group separate from the rest of society—they are society.

Through the 10-year carers strategy, which, as some hon. Members will remember, we launched almost exactly a year ago today, the Government want all carers to be universally recognised and valued as being fundamental to strong families and stable communities. That is the unifying vision for the future of our long-term strategy. We want support that is tailored to meet an individual’s needs. We want carers to be able to care for the ones whom they love and still enjoy a life of their own. We demand recognition that both carers and the cared for are full and equal citizens.

We have a lot to do before we realise that vision but, one year on, we are on our way. One person who will help us to realise that vision is the chair of the standing commission on carers. I am delighted to announce to the House that Dr. Philippa Russell has been appointed to that role. I want to place on record my thanks to her and all members of the commission for the work that they are doing to develop, implement and monitor the strategic vision, alongside the cross-Government programme board that has been established, and of course the inter-ministerial group, which I chair.

I want to begin by recognising the particular contribution and needs of young carers. We have a special duty to support young carers and to protect them from excessive caring burdens and inappropriate caring roles. As part of our £75-million Think Family programme to support all families at risk, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has set up six extended family pathfinders for young carers. The Department of Health is supporting those pathfinders to test how we can better support families with young carers. We believe that young people who have caring responsibilities for a family member should not be denied the right to enjoy their childhood, and to grow up like every other child.

Yesterday, together with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who is the Minister with responsibility for disability, I met carers in Islington and Camden at the official launch of the new website and telephone helpline for carers, Carers
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Direct, which I will say more about in a moment. One of the concerns that people there raised was the lack of awareness of the needs of carers among the host of different organisations and individuals whom they encounter in the health service and on local councils. I agree with them that it is important that professionals and others who offer support for carers understand their needs. That is why, over the next two years, Skills for Care and Skills for Health will develop a range of new training programmes and awareness-raising modules about carers for those professionals. We have also commissioned the Royal College of General Practitioners to develop training for GPs, based on the new action guide for primary care, to help GPs better understand carers’ needs.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): Of course we all welcome training for professionals in the field. In common with many other hon. Members, I met some carers in my constituency on Friday. One of the issues that came up was training for carers, not the professionals. One constituent said that she had gone on a training course that had dealt with the particular complex issues affecting her son. She said that she could not express of what huge benefit that was to her in understanding his condition and disability. I know that some research projects are going on, but I ask the Minister to consider training for carers as well as professionals.

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that matter. I will say more about it in a moment. I know that he is a real champion for carers in his constituency. We have a training programme, which I shall say more about later, called Caring with Confidence, which is not for professionals; it is for carers, and is delivered by carers, which I think is unique. That is extra work that we are doing. He is right to highlight the issue, and we are responding directly to the concerns that he raises on behalf of his constituents.

It is really important that GPs understand the additional help that there is for carers, so that when a carer goes to them with health needs, they not only help to meet those requirements but signpost—refer—the carer to other sources of support in their area.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The Minister referred to extended family pathfinders, and I was waiting for a little more expansion on that theme, but he moved on rather quickly. Will he explain how the scheme will be co-ordinated? Will its co-ordination be the function of health services, social services, education or GPs?

Phil Hope: I shall happily write to the hon. Lady to give her those further details. The pathfinders scheme operates through the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Its purpose is to look at the needs of families—as a whole—that are in stress or in areas of disadvantage, which find it difficult to get through life as a family and have complicated caring arrangements and responsibilities, and to understand what works when building a package of support around a family. We want to pilot and test those things in different settings—rural, urban and so on—so that we can understand what families need. However, I shall write to her to detail where they are, how they are funded and so on, so that she understands those points.

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Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I thank the Minister for giving way on the point about support care packages, because one of my constituents sadly died after a support package was not put in place. Mr. Tonkin starved himself to death in a care home while waiting to return to his family. It took more than five months to begin putting a care package together, but still it never came together, despite the family wishing to support Mr. Tonkin’s return to his own home. I therefore caution the Minister, because introducing new structures might sound very good, but we currently have structures—in terms of carers and care packages—that are not working.

Phil Hope: The hon. Lady will understand that I cannot comment on a particular case, because I do not know the details. However, I do know that we have to do both: drive up the standards of residential and domiciliary care throughout the country. I am therefore delighted that the Government have given not only ordinary grants to local authorities, but an additional £520 million to help the process of transforming social care and raising the quality of care throughout the country. Responsibility for the quality of care rests with the Care Quality Commission, which conducts inspections of care homes and others who might provide the care to which she refers.

There is also a separate complaints process in place, which the hon. Lady—on behalf of her constituents and, indeed, the family of her constituent—can use, particularly in respect of local authorities, if an individual has not received the care that would be expected. She can use the complaints process to take the matter forward.

Anne Main: Will the Minister give way?

Phil Hope: I shall happily give way to the hon. Lady, although the debate is moving on.

Anne Main: I should not like to leave the Minister with the wrong impression that the care home was at fault; it was the inability to put a care package together, through the Department for Children, Schools and Families, so that the family could have Mr. Tonkin go home. The care home itself treated him very well, apparently. I do not wish to leave the Minister with the impression that it was a poor care home.

Phil Hope: I am grateful for that clarification.

I shall move on to respite care, because we know that caring for someone can be hard. Six out of 10 carers say that the biggest thing that we can do to help them is to give them a break. That message was repeated by the carers whom I met at Centre 404 in Islington yesterday. Since we introduced the carers grant in 1999, more than £1 billion has been provided to councils to do just that. The grant is worth £240 million this year and will increase to £256 million next year. It includes £25 million a year for councils to respond immediately to carers who are in a crisis and can no longer care for their loved one. Encouraging the national health service to recognise that support for carers is as much an issue for it as it is for local councils and social care, so we have allocated an additional £150 million to primary care trusts between 2009 and 2011 to work with their local authority partners to provide personalised breaks for carers.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): My constituency has a very high percentage of disabled people, because of past industrial disease, and a very high percentage of
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elderly people. Many carers are being short-changed by an outdated benefits system, which simply does not recognise the enormous contribution that carers make to looking after people who need them to stay at home and give up their jobs in order to assist them. What does my hon. Friend have to say on that point?

Phil Hope: I shall come on to allowances and benefits in a few moments, but my right hon. Friend is right to suggest that there is a concern about whether the combination of allowances and benefits works in the best way, because it is a complicated system. Whatever the processes are for reviewing, developing and reforming that process, however, right here and now help is at hand, because individuals can go to the new website that I have described, look at the benefits system and allowances, see what they qualify for and ensure that they get all their entitlements to help them get through the situation.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): I thank the Minister for this morning seeing the Swale carers group, whose members are listening in the Gallery. If we included Skype on that website, we could connect carers and enable them to talk to each other and share their experiences. It is the isolation that they feel most of all. Will that provision be on the site?

Phil Hope: I did enjoy meeting, just before the debate, the Swale carers group, whose members are here to—I hope—listen to and take back messages from the House about the support that is available for carers. Carers Direct, the new website, has an interactive facility, and my hon. Friend is right to point out that people feel isolated. I do not know whether many carers blog, but there is a blogging facility on the site. People can literally type in their thoughts, feelings and problems, and watch and listen to other people with similar problems and share information. That facility will break down the barriers for many people who feel isolated in the very important role that they carry out.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): The Minister talked about NHS funding and £150 million that has been allocated over two years, but will he say more about how carers and others will be able to track how it is spent in order to assure themselves that their primary care trusts allocate it and spend it on carers’ needs?

Phil Hope: I know that the hon. Gentleman, speaking as a Liberal Democrat, is fully supportive of devolution and of devolving responsibility for resources and decision making to a local level. He will know that the additional £150 million that we have put into PCT budgets, although not ring-fenced, is for the purpose to which he referred. Part of his responsibilities as a local MP, along with those of carers, might be to ensure that the local primary care trust understands the needs of carers, does the job that it should be doing to assess people’s needs and ensures that it allocates from its budget the money that the Government have allocated to it to support carers in the area. I hope that he works with local carers to ensure as much—and, indeed, that every Member works with local carers to ensure that local primary care trusts and authorities carry out proper needs assessments and the proper development of programmes and policies to support carers, who do such a fantastic job throughout the country.

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Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. He mentioned, in addition to health service funding, funding to local authorities. My constituents in Wiltshire will be slightly baffled by that, however, because the county is at the very bottom of the league table for revenue support grant to local authorities. Will he therefore say a little more about how the extra funding has been distributed among local authorities, and the formula that has been used?

Phil Hope: I do not have the facts and figures about the hon. Gentleman’s local authority, but I know that local authorities have had a record 45 per cent. increase in Government funding in real terms over the past 12 years. As a result, local authorities have improved dramatically the quality of a whole range of services in their areas. In addition, the carers grant that I mentioned has been distributed to local authorities. I do not have the figures on how much his local authority has received, but I assure him that it will have had some. I hope that he will put pressure on his local authority, which is almost certainly controlled by members of his own party, to ensure that it gives to local carers the priority that we expect in its assessment and delivery of services, and that it makes the right choices to provide resources to the most vulnerable and caring people in our society.

We want innovation to be at the heart of everything that we do for carers, so, as part of the carers strategy, we are setting up 24 sites to test, demonstrate and evaluate good practice in support for carers. That action will improve outcomes for carers and provide value for money, and the sites will look at health and well-being checks for carers, breaks for carers and how the NHS can better support them.

Yesterday, on the first anniversary of the carers strategy, we launched Carers Direct, which will give people from all backgrounds—young, old and those with disabilities—access to the information and advice that they need. They will be able to support and talk to each other through the website.

Mr. Kemp: With the best will in the world, Members of Parliament will have met, and national carers week will have involved meetings with, a minuscule number of carers. Millions of carers out there have a sense of isolation because of the 24/7 nature of the caring that they do. Any investment in technology that will link and bring people together, so that they can get over the sense of isolation, is great. Furthermore, can Members of Parliament have information so that through our local press we can try to make people aware of the issues? Carers often live in isolated conditions.

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For those people—I shall not stereotype them—who find it less easy to access websites, there is also a telephone helpline. Anyone can ring that and get direct, face-to-face—or mouth-to-mouth—contact, so that they can discuss their needs. [Interruption.] I am not sure that I got the phrasing right there; never mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker—you know what I meant.

The helpline, as well as the website, is important. We need to break down people’s isolation. Carers need advice. We know that the system is complicated and that people do not understand the benefits and allowances
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available to them. They may not know what is available in their areas. If they get on the website or use the helpline, they can find out more and access the support that they need to do their job better and reduce the sense of isolation mentioned by my hon. Friend.

A comprehensive strategy goes far wider than the remit of the Department of Health, so we are working across Government to improve the lives and conditions of carers. Like other constituency MPs, I regularly meet carers and take up their individual concerns in my own constituency. I have had the privilege of meeting lots of carers this week, as part of carers week. One subject that has continually come up is carers benefits. The Government accept that we have to look again at that issue. I remind the House, however, that we have already given a lot of support. Last year, for example, we provided nearly £1.5 billion in carer’s allowance to support carers. That, along with the carer’s premium and other income-related benefits, forms a vital part of the financial package of support for carers.

For carers who work or want to work, the Department for Work and Pensions has increased the amount that someone can earn while still receiving carer’s allowance, from £50 a week in 2001 to £95 a week now—one of the highest earning limits of any benefit. Given the complexities of the benefit system for pensioners, we have also taken steps to simplify the claiming process for pensioners who are carers—they might, for example, qualify for the carer’s premium in pension credits.

We need to do more. Even now, as I discuss pension credits, allowances and benefits, I know that people will worry about the complexity. Last December’s welfare reform White Paper reaffirmed our commitment to look carefully at carers benefits. We do not want to make the benefits system even more complex; frankly, carers’ lives are complicated enough already. That is why the Department wants to make any changes to benefits not only in the context of the social care system, but alongside its wider ambitions for welfare reform, so that the changes lead to a long-lasting and tailored system of support.

For many carers, there is more to life than simply fulfilling their caring responsibilities. If carers want to work, we want to help them do so. We want to step in, not step aside. Let us give—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am afraid that the Minister has used up his time allocation. He has been generous in allowing interventions, but time has been added for that.

12.53 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): It is good to have this opportunity to debate the issues affecting carers across the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to all those who care for relatives and friends. It is a taxing and often thankless task, and it is right that the House should pay tribute to them. Well over 200 right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have signed early-day motions 1519 and 1355 in support of carers week. That stands as our debt of gratitude.

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