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1 July 2010 : Column 299WH—continued

2.52 pm

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): As a member of the Select Committee on Health and secretary of the all-party group on disability, I take a keen interest in this important matter, and I am very grateful to the Government for arranging the debate.

The figures mentioned in the debate are clear. As a nation, we rely on a silent army of carers-some 6 million people or 10% of our population-to look after and support the most vulnerable in society. Those people dedicate and sacrifice their own time and lives for the sake of those whom they love. Family members depend upon such people-as we all do-to ensure that those in the greatest need live the best possible lives, as they deserve.

We should not have this debate today without admitting the enormous emotional and, at times, physical cost that the role of a carer can bring. Some 1.9 million people care for more than 20 hours a week and around 1.25 million people care for more than 50 hours a week, although I suspect that the hidden figures-those that no Department is able to calculate-are probably far greater. Often the people who have to care for a relative, husband or wife-with whom they have spent their entire lives-who is incapacitated by dementia or physical frailty are themselves elderly. It is estimated that over-65s account for around a third of all carers who provide more than 50 hours of care a week. As a result, it is sadly of little surprise that carers are twice as likely to suffer from ill health, because they are providing such substantial care.

As the Minister said, caring comes to dominate the lives of such people, and as the recent figures released by Carers UK reveal, 76% of carers have no time left at all in their lives to do anything other than care for the relative concerned. We know that carers, through their selfless dedication, make an enormous contribution to society-estimated at some £87 billion a year-yet we must realise that carers do not do what they do for money or see their role in terms of the economic benefits. Carers looking after a relative or a member of their close family-a son or daughter, their father or mother-do so because of love.

I suspect that each of us in this Chamber has in some way cared for a relative-either in the final days of their life or through some period of illness or accident-and at times have been the single person responsible for that person's well-being. That is an awesome burden to bear on one's shoulders, yet we must consider that it is carried by some people every day, with tireless devotion. However, with that devotion, comes the sheer exhaustion of wanting to do one's best to ensure that a loved one is best looked after. There may also be frustrations caused by the fact that such love is not reciprocated by the person being cared for and that, for whatever reason, they are unable to say thank you.

If a relative has a degenerative condition, a carer will also have anxiety about what the future might hold. At the same time, for a carer, considering having a few hours break or a temporary escape seems a betrayal of
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the love that is so clearly there. Too often, it is easy for politicians and policy makers to revert to statistics and jargon that is in many ways all too familiar to us in such debates. We must not forget that every carer has a personal story that cannot always be easily told-one that we can never put a price upon. However, we must accept that caring will take an ever greater role in the structure of our society.

As a result of improvements in the quality of treatment and medical technology, more children and young people are surviving with complex health conditions. It is estimated that 1.7 million more people will need care and support by 2026, because they are living longer, and they will need that care and support for a longer period. More people are living longer, with the number of people expected to live beyond 90 soaring. However, one in four of those people will probably suffer from some form of dementia. We must therefore recognise that, in this decade, more people than ever before will become carers.

The new Government are determined to do all that they can not just to recognise, but to improve the lives of carers across the nation-we must do so at every level-and I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said that the Government want to

of carers-

There is a need to ensure that the benefits system is easier for carers to access. Carers UK has said that:

The welfare system that was inherited from the previous Government is hugely complicated, and simplifying the system should encourage fairness and responsibility. It is encouraging that the Government have stated that they

I, for one, thank them for that.

There is an urgent need to balance the needs of carers who work-something that has been touched upon already in the debate. It is estimated that as many as one in five carers have left or turned down a job because of their caring responsibilities or because they feel social care support is insufficient. As the Minister has outlined, there is a strong case for increased flexible working. Currently, flexible working is available to employed parents of children aged under 17, disabled children under 18 and carers of certain adults. Therefore, approximately 10.5 million employees benefit under the current legislation, including 8 million parents and 2.65 million carers of adults, yet Carers UK points out that up to 79,000 carers do not request flexible working

That must change.

Extending the right to request flexible working to all employees should help those carers. The coalition agreement contains the commitment to

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Following on from that, the Government have maintained that extending the right to request flexible working to all will ensure that individuals within the wider caring structure-for example, grandparents and neighbours-can also take a more active role in caring and managing their work and family lives effectively. That extension will also remove the stigma attached to flexible working requests, as the Minister has mentioned. Both those developments are welcome.

I welcome what the new Government are setting out to achieve in improving the lives of carers and in granting them greater independence, so that they can live their lives as best they possibly can. As the Prime Minister has said,

Carers across the country do so much for so little. We must do even more to ensure that they are supported and looked after, which I know the new Government will do their best to achieve.

2.58 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I remember with affection the long hours we spent together on the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I know that you will keep us in order to the best of your ability. I welcome the Minister to his new role and I wish him all the best in making sure that there is a real champion for carers in Government.

I shall concentrate on some of the issues for carers in my constituency. I know that many hon. Members will disagree with this, but I am fortunate to represent Hartlepool, as it is the best place in the country. Hartlepool is a strong, close-knit community, and a sense of community and family remains an enduring part of the Hartlepool character. Despite the knocks and disappointments that we have had over the years, and the social and economic challenges we have faced, that selfless sense of wanting to help one's neighbour down the road, or to assist one's partner, parents or grandparents as they get older, runs strongly through the Hartlepool character.

It might often be derided in sophisticated, metropolitan circles, but in Hartlepool it is not unusual for three or four generations of the same family to live on the same street or in the same estate, all providing help and support to each other. That could be a grandmother caring for her grandchildren so that the parents can work, or a son or daughter caring for older relatives. That sense of caring is very strong in Hartlepool, where people do it almost without thinking and where it is seen simply as part of being a member of a family, or as part of the "in sickness and in health" vow.

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) referred to the silent army of carers-an apt phrase-in his excellent and thoughtful contribution, and he is absolutely right. The strong sense of community is obviously demonstrated by the high quality of carers in my constituency. In a town that has a high-quality third sector, a local charity, Hartlepool Carers, stands tall with its great blend of professionalism and informality.
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In the past 12 months, Hartlepool Carers has provided help to more than 1,200 people. Led by Tracy Jeffries, chaired by Ruby Marshall, and with 11 paid members of staff and more than 100 volunteers, the charity provides long-term support to 560 adult carers and 125 young carers. It is estimated that the charity saves taxpayers about £150 million every year by reducing pressure on NHS resources and keeping those being cared for out of care homes and the formal care system.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the overall national bill for the work done by carers. If we were to send such a bill to the Exchequer, it would be for more than £87 billion, more than four fifths of the NHS budget, which puts into perspective the invaluable contribution carers make. Carers provide not only an invaluable and personal service for their loved ones or neighbours, but a huge and often unrecognised contribution to the national finances. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

I think that we all agree that, as a country, we should be doing much more to assist carers. As the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) have said, carers often feel isolated and unsupported. Caring for someone can be physically demanding, and if a loved one has dementia or some form of degenerative disease such as Alzheimer's, that can be psychologically distressing. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, that can affect a carer's own health. They might feel a failure, or they might need a stiff upper lip to keep going.

In Hartlepool, many carers have given up employment because of their caring responsibilities. Not going out to work can be not only isolating, but result in real financial hardship. That is why the events that charities such as Hartlepool Carers provide are so vital for carers' well-being. They provide drop-in services so that carers can take a break and have a good cup of tea and a chat. In addition, the charity provides volunteer services, which offer carers access to low-level, but vital, support services such as gardening, dog walking and collecting prescriptions. That extra help and support might not sound like much to us, but it is absolutely vital in providing a degree of respite.

I have several questions for the Minister, and my main line of questioning follows the comments on finance made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston. Frankly, I was worried by some of the comments the Minister made in what was, I thought, a decent and civilised speech, as he might have been lining us up for further cuts to the care sector. Rather than cuts, I would like to see some of the £87 billion that has been saved given back to carers. What can the Government do to encourage carers to receive what they are entitled to? Carers in Hartlepool, in keeping with the Hartlepool character to which I have referred, are far too modest and reticent to request all that they are entitled to, but it is right and proper that we should do our utmost to ensure that that happens.

I genuinely do not want to make narrow, partisan points on the matter-the remarks I am about to make do not apply to the Minister-but I am concerned that the rhetoric from the new Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions somehow suggests that all benefit claimants are not to be believed or that they are somehow scroungers. Given the enormous contribution carers make to society and the savings to the public finances that have already been outlined in the debate, what steps
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will the Government take to ensure that carers are able to come forward and receive what they are entitled to with confidence? In an era of tight public finances, what will the Minister do to ensure that some of those savings are handed back to carers?

In a similar vein, some of the low-level support services that Hartlepool Carers provides, which really enhance a carer's quality of life, are very much dependent on finances from local government. There is a strong partnership between Hartlepool borough council, Hartlepool Voluntary Development Agency and Hartlepool Carers, but the local authority is expected to find £1.7 million of savings from its area base grant this year and is bracing itself for cuts of about 30% from its total budget over the next couple of years, so tensions will naturally arise between local government and the voluntary sector. What reassurance can the Minister give to carers in my constituency that those vital services will be safeguarded?

That brings me to a particular concern about young carers. Those young people have their whole lives ahead of them and should be able to fulfil their potential, but because a family member might be ill and require support, they often sacrifice their education, their free time, their friends and their future, all because they love their family and want to help. Young carers in my constituency are ably helped by Karen Gibson of Hartlepool Carers, but I would like the Government to do so much more for them. When I was a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, I looked into the life chances of young carers, which was absolutely heartbreaking. Young carers tend to underperform in educational attainment, which in turn limits their job prospects. The Government should be giving them as much help and support as possible in order to break that artificial barrier.

Again, I do not want to make narrow party political points, but I am concerned that the Government are cutting specific programmes that could be used to help young carers, such as the future jobs fund, the working neighbourhoods fund and, in Hartlepool, a quarter of the education element of the area-based grant, which was helping young carers fulfil their potential. When I had some responsibility in government for apprenticeships, I tried to prioritise young carers for places. What work will be done across the new Government to ensure that more help will be given, particularly to young carers, to help with training places and apprenticeships that will allow them to fulfil their potential so that their love for their family is not a barrier to a successful future?

My final point relates to foster carers. This week I received an e-mail from a constituent, Dawn Robinson, who demonstrates her commitment to the local community not only by being joint secretary of the Burn Valley North Residents Association, a great residents' association where I enjoyed a fantastic pie and pea supper on Saturday night-I urge hon. Members to come along and sample the next one-but by being a foster carer and a carer to her husband. Dawn has expressed concern about the lack of flexibility for young people in foster care, as support tends to end abruptly when they reach the age of 18. She has been looking after a young person for about three and a half years, and he is fast approaching 18. She writes:

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When he is 18, he will have to leave Dawn's home, and a carer and a warden-run placement will have to be found, which will obviously put additional pressure on hard-pressed resources. It would be reasonable to have the flexibility to allow Dawn to continue the current situation for several years beyond the age of 18, so will the Minister ensure that greater personalisation? He mentioned direct payments and personalisation in his opening comments, so what extra flexibility can be put into the system to ensure that the artificial break point at age 18, when the young person becomes an adult, does not hinder their progress?

The positive role that carers play across the country, especially in Hartlepool, is absolutely invaluable, as other hon. Members have said, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that in his closing remarks, as he did in his opening comments. I also hope that he will ensure that the appreciation of the role that carers play, which has been evident throughout the debate, is demonstrated by giving hard-working carers something back.

3.10 pm

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): This is not my maiden speech, but it is the first time that I have spoken in Westminster Hall and under your chairmanship, Mr Benton, and it is an honour to be doing so in this debate.

I want to speak briefly to signal my interest in the important issue of supporting carers. I am not an expert, a carer or a mother, and my parents are, thankfully, still physically and mentally well, so I literally have no personal experience of caring for anyone. However, in the past few years of being a candidate, and now as an MP, I have met many people who care or have cared for loved ones, and that has opened my eyes to an area of policy, a set of issues and a group of almost invisible workers who need our support.

The first carer I met in my constituency was a man called Maurice. He wrote to me about dementia and his views on the service that his wife had received. When I went to see him, I asked him to explain what had happened from start to finish. The point of the story that had most impact on me was when he started to tell me how his wife had ended up in full-time residential care because he could no longer cope with caring for her. This brave man, who has served his country and who now fights and fights for improved health services for other local people with dementia, welled up in front of me as he recalled his guilt when he realised that he could no longer care for his wife. Although so many parts of his story needed attention, it was that very point that made me wonder why he had felt so alone and unable to cope. What help had he received? Where was the support network? It might well have been there, but if a man who wears a military badge with honour suddenly realises that he cannot cope, something is not quite right.

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