Previous Section Index Home Page

11 Jun 2009 : Column 971

Schools are as supportive as possible of pupils in those circumstances, but we must find ways to ensure that those children do not fall below their educational potential. There is a direct link here to the next debate, as young carers may self-exclude from entry into the professions, not from a lack of ability but from a lack of personal aspiration and ambition and from a sense of duty to caring. There is a challenge here for schools and social services to work together to prevent this from happening, particularly in families with no history of further or higher education.

I am particularly involved with autism in my constituency, and the spotlight has been on autism recently. Those of us who took part in the “walk in our shoes” day had the opportunity to see at first hand how autism in one child affects the life of the entire family. The daily routine is arranged around the needs of the autistic child, and I was surprised to learn of the associated additional costs involved, including the frequent replacement of damaged items in the home and unusually large quantities of laundry, for example.

Parents of children on the low-performing end of the autistic disorder spectrum have a continuing long-term caring role. Their children are unable to reach the usual periodic milestones in development that gradually reduce the parental supervision and caring role. Special schools play a hugely supportive role, providing not only education for their pupils but a period of respite during the day, which is often the only opportunity for parents to sleep. Some children with autism are very bad sleepers; I have heard parents say that their child can go without sleep for a week. If there are other children in such a family, the mother often stays awake all night trying to keep the autistic child quiet and occupied so that the rest of the family are not disturbed. The children might have to go to school in the morning; the father might have to go to work.

I pay tribute to the three superb special schools in my constituency—Dycorts, Ravensbourne and Corbets Tey—for the quality of the education that they provide and for the endless patience and respect that they show to their pupils in teasing out every last ounce of potential for development. The end of statutory education is often dreaded by parents, as the days are long and difficult to fill. The wonderful ROSE—realistic opportunities for supported employment—project at Havering college of further and higher education is a boon to students with learning difficulties and their parent carers. The supported employment project started in a very modest way, with a small number of job tutors and students, but it has grown more than anyone dared to hope. It has gone from strength to strength.

Instead of a life of boredom at home on benefits, the young people with learning difficulties—many of them are young people with autism—are able to have paid employment with support that is gradually withdrawn until they are able to travel and spend their working day independently. They have proved themselves to be reliable, cheerful and anxious to please their employers. Moreover, their parents benefit from the daily respite. When the ROSE project started, its organisers went out to local employers in my constituency to try to persuade them to provide placements for students with learning difficulties. Over time, the students have been so successful that the employers approach the project to ask whether it has students available.

11 Jun 2009 : Column 972

People with Down’s syndrome now have a good life expectancy because of improved health care, but independent living is not always possible for them, and the caring role of parents can often extend into the parents’ old age. Caring parents have real worries about their physical ability to continue to care and, worse, about the future of their children when they are gone. How will they adapt to changed living circumstances and cope with bereavement?

Alzheimer’s sufferers present particular problems when the condition comes on late in life, as it often does. Their carers are usually their spouses, who are themselves elderly and may not be in the best of health and fitness. There is added stress when the sufferer no longer recognises the carer. Even though they might have spent decades living together in a loving relationship, they often end their days in very different, stressful circumstances.

Older people are probably the least likely to seek help, particularly the very elderly people who do not like to make a fuss. They do not like to bother the doctor as they feel they must be terribly busy looking after other people. This means that situations often reach crisis point before help is sought. That can result in the person with Alzheimer’s being taken into professional care and the very elderly spouse making daily visits but not being recognised. That is a very sad situation.

I have in my constituency the wonderful Havering Association of Disabilities, which is an umbrella organisation for carers and people with a wide range of disabilities, run by the inspirational Mary Capon. It provides an effective support network, including a befriending service that is invaluable for disabled people living on their own. The befrienders form a real relationship with people. They visit them at home and also take them out, which often provides the only opportunity that those people have to leave the house.

The organisation also provides a good range of social activities, and opportunities for training in information technology and in preparing a CV, in preparation for seeking employment. Without even asking Mary Capon, I say to the Minister that I know that she would love the Havering Association of Disabilities to be involved with the family pathfinders project, whatever form it takes.

I know that all hon. Members are very much aware of the huge contribution made by carers in enabling their loved ones to remain in their own homes in familiar surroundings, and in reducing the size of the health and social services budgets by putting their owns needs in second place. But we always need to ensure that carers’ continuing efforts are appreciated. We all know individual carers and discuss their circumstances with them regularly, but the acknowledgement and appreciation need to range wider, so that no carer feels isolated or overlooked, and so that all possible practical and financial help is made available to improve the quality of carers’ lives.

1.49 pm

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and I substantially agree with many of her points. Indeed, I agree with a great deal of what all contributors to the debate have said—including the Minister, who opened it and whom I am delighted to see still in his place. He knows better than
11 Jun 2009 : Column 973
most that this policy area requires consistency of approach, which is difficult to achieve when we have a different Minister every few months. It is a pleasure to see him still in his post.

I shall make just a few points in order to allow the Minister time to respond to the debate. My first is about the number of carers, although I am in agreement with my hon. Friend that, in a sense, it does not much matter whether there are 5 million or 6 million. My point is that the argument should be, at least in part, about how many of those who are carers identify themselves as such. Many do not: they see themselves as doing right by their families, looking after family members in the way they believe is incumbent on them to do—without wishing, as she said, to make a fuss or to draw attention to what they do, and without seeking recognition or reward for it.

Carers are often very modest people, with every reason not to be so. The recognition that we rightly give to them—and it should not be just annually in debates such as this; I agree with those who say that we should recognise them more frequently, more regularly and more consistently—comes not because they ask for it, but because they richly deserve it. We need to persuade those carers to identify themselves as such before we can offer them the sort of assistance the Minister set out and to which others have referred. The offers of help and support, the information exercises and so forth are linked with the opportunity that we should take to recognise carers and encourage those who do not yet recognise themselves as such to do so in order to access all those streams of support.

Angela Watkinson: I agree that carers do not often fit readily into a definable box. The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) may recall that I visited her in her previous ministerial role. I came to see her with a young lady from my constituency who was trying to balance work and benefits with her mother, who did not regard herself as a carer because the daughter was ostensibly living independently. However, the mother spent most of her life dashing back and forth from her own home to her daughter’s home to give her the support that she could not manage without.

Jeremy Wright: I entirely agree, and I think that the lady my hon. Friend describes is one of those whom we should try harder to reach and offer the sort of support that we all want carers to receive.

Mr. Burstow: According to the last census, there were about 19,000 carers in my constituency, but we have identified only about 4,000 or 5,000 in the borough. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one group of professionals most likely to come across carers—either because of a carer’s ill health or the ill health of the person for whom they are caring—is general practitioners? GPs need to get training in order better to identify carers and then act as the facilitators in passing the information on to others.

Jeremy Wright: I entirely agree; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why, as I said, I was encouraged by what the Minister told us about opportunities to train those who are professionals to understand how to
11 Jun 2009 : Column 974
help those who are not professionals but who are still making a substantial contribution to the care of people we are most concerned to look after.

It seems to me that this is more than a matter of gratitude or just saying thank you to carers—however much we rightly do so in the debate—because we need to offer them real and practical support. As the Minister rightly said, we must try to ensure that carers have the maximum opportunity to combine their caring responsibilities not only with a fulfilling social life but, just as importantly, with a fulfilling career. That should enable them to get back into work, succeed on their own terms and still maintain their caring responsibilities. Once again, it is important for carers to identify themselves to receive the recognition they deserve; in circumstances of better and greater recognition, it should be easier for them to go to their employers and ask for the flexible working they need. It should be easier for that to happen if employers automatically understand what carers do and how important it is for them to continue with it.

It is also important to ensure that health and social services professionals—the people mentioned by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow)—can recognise the importance of a carer’s responsibilities and a carer’s understanding of the individual for whom care is being provided. Too many carers—we all talk to them—are frustrated because they are treated as people who do not understand what is going on, when in fact the opposite is the case and the carer is the one who spends the most time with the person for whom care is being provided. He or she knows that person best, and their opinion of that person—what they need and what they will best respond to—should be fully taken into account.

I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) that it is important to reconcile that viewpoint with the occasional desire of the person being cared for to take a different view from that of their carer on any subject. In the majority of cases, however, what the person cared for will want is for their carer’s view to be taken fully into account. Rarely is it in fact taken into account as fully as we would wish by the professionals involved in their care.

I wish to refer to two specific groups. The first was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster and, indeed, by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland), who both rightly highlighted the interests of young carers. It is right to pay particular attention to their needs, but equally we should not forget those at the other end of the age range. Older carers have particular needs and particular requirements. They are the ones whose health suffers disproportionately as a result of their caring responsibilities. We know that about a quarter of the 5 million or 6 million carers are of retirement age. That is a very significant number of people, and I believe that there are about 8,000 carers over the age of 90! How those people manage, I simply do not know, but we must be aware of their particular needs and requirements when we consider how best to help carers.

The second group is, as my hon. Friend said, an overlapping group—those who care for people who have dementia. The Minister would be disappointed if I failed to mention dementia at some point in my remarks. It is important to recognise the particular requirements on those who care not just for people with dementia but
11 Jun 2009 : Column 975
for all who have a mental illness or disability as opposed to a physical one. I am not saying for a moment that it is easier to care for someone with a physical disability, but it is different, and there are different requirements on carers looking after someone with a mental difficulty.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, one of the main differences is that the carer starts to lose something of the person they knew as the illness or condition progresses. More often than not, the person being cared for requires more and more from the carer, just as the carer is losing more and more of the one for whom they are caring. That is an extremely distressing situation to be in for anyone with a caring responsibility. We need to take account not just of the physical health needs, but of the mental health needs of those who are carers, and ensure that the risks they run—in exposure to depression and other conditions—are adequately catered for.

I have a couple of final points about the specific and practical action that we can take. The first, which the Minister mentioned, is respite care. It is right to provide for the availability of such care. No one can do a caring job 24 hours a day, seven days a week—they simply could not cope; people need a break sometimes. A break will help them to do a better job for the rest of the time; that is well understood by everyone. It is also worth acknowledging that simple provision of respite care will not do the job, because we also need to provide for quality respite care. If we do not, it will not be a real break at all. We have all spoken to carers who tell us, “I put the person I care for into full-time care. I had a week’s holiday, but it was the worst week in my life, because I spent the entire time worrying about whether my loved one was being properly looked after.” That is not respite care. We need to ensure that the respite care we provide is of sufficient quality to provide that reassurance, and that information about its quality is provided to carers so that they enjoy the break that we can offer them.

My last point is about simplicity. When it comes to the benefit system, we will all have difficult decisions to make about how much can be afforded, but it is beyond question that when people look at a website or call a phone line to understand what is available, the information given must be easily digestible. Whether the advice is there or not, the actual provision of benefits needs to be simpler. That is why we have to talk about the cliff edge or the distinction between retirement and non-retirement so that there is some continuity and simplicity in the benefits that those who provide care can receive.

We shall never be able to make the lives of those who care easy—that is beyond all of us—but we do have a responsibility to make those lives slightly less difficult, and I think that both this and the next Government should focus their attention on that.

2 pm

Phil Hope: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall respond to the debate.

I thank all hon. Members for their valuable contributions. I particularly thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) and the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) for their clear and moving speeches. I am pleased that carers week gave us the opportunity to engage in this debate, and also to give other hon. Members and organisations an
11 Jun 2009 : Column 976
opportunity to engage in debates throughout the country. I thank all the organisations that work to support and represent carers, not just national organisations, but the organisations in Members’ constituencies of which we have heard today, which do such fantastic work all over the country.

The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) reminded us of the role played not just by carers but by volunteers and befrienders. The fact that 20 million people offer their services voluntarily to the community is, along with the number of carers, a sign that we have a strong society with its values in the right place.

Let me try to clarify the question of numbers. I understand that the 5 million figure given yesterday relates to the number of carers in England, while the 6 million figure given by Carers UK relates to the whole United Kingdom. However, as we were told by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), the figures may be even higher, because not all carers identify themselves as such.

Hon. Members pointed out that GPs provide an important gateway to the necessary resources, and drew attention to the need for support for both young and older carers. They also mentioned dementia. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, who chairs the all-party group on dementia, spoke of the importance of responding to the individual needs of different people in different ways and tailoring support. Caring can sometimes be very distressing and demanding.

Let me say a few things that I did not have an opportunity to say in my opening speech. Hon. Members referred to carers who want both to care and to go on working. We want to help them to do that. Jobcentre Plus is recruiting specialist care partnership managers, who will be responsible for improving information on carers support for both staff and customers. We want to try to remove some of the barriers faced by carers who wish to return to paid employment. We want to stand up and represent their employment interests in a variety of partnerships. The aim of Employers for Carers, an organisation launched earlier this year, is to identify and promote the business benefits of supporting carers at work. Many employed people also have caring responsibilities, and Employers for Carers offers practical support for the development and benchmarking of good practice.

I do not have time to respond to all the points that have been raised, but I will say to the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), who listed a number of demands and complaints, that I did not hear from him a single commitment or pledge of support for any particular policy. I feel that he struck a discordant note in choosing to create a party-political divide by calling for an election. That was silly. He made a sad, slightly whingeing and unhelpful contribution to an important debate which should have united the House. Similarly, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) asked questions but offered no information about the Liberal Democrats’ proposals—

One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 24A) .

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry that the Minister has had to suffer a double whammy, but we must now proceed to the next debate.

11 Jun 2009 : Column 977

Social Mobility and the Professions

[Relevant document: The uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Children, Schools and Families Committee on 8 June 2009, on Social Mobility, HC 624-i.]

2.4 pm

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): I beg to move,

Next Section Index Home Page