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I appreciate that caring for someone with dementia is difficult and that dementia is not the only condition that requires full-time care. To learn more, I recently visited the Medway carers centre, which is run by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers. There are 21,000 carers across the Medway authority, which includes the Chatham part of my constituency, but only about 5% of them are known to the centre, which demonstrates, as all of us in the Chamber know, that a huge number of carers out there are forgotten, unrecognised and probably inadequately supported.

I had the good fortune to meet some carers who were at the centre on the now departed caring with confidence course-I would welcome an opportunity to speak to the Minister further about his announcement about that in his opening remarks. As I spoke to those carers, a number of things became clear. The first supremely obvious point was that carers come from all backgrounds-rich, poor, male, female, old and young. Requiring care does not discriminate. I met carers who looked after their husbands and wives, and a carer who looked after her mentally ill son. I met a carer who looked after her mother and her children-she was part of the sandwich generation that the Minister mentioned. I met a carer who looked after two disabled children, but who never had a day off because respite services would take only one of them at a time.

That leads me to my second point: no two carers are the same. They might share experiences, but their needs are often very different, so the support for them needs to be flexible so that it recognises those different needs. As the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) mentioned, what a young carer needs is very different from what a senior carer requires. We talk a lot in policy terms about flexible working for carers, which is welcome, but many carers require flexible living, and respite care is still patchy. Supporting carers' physical and mental well-being is essential if we are to help them to carry out their role safely and effectively.

Although direct payments are excellent in principle, we still need to ensure that carers are supported so that they can make the right budgetary decisions. The carers I met were genuinely anxious about becoming, in their words, "self-employed business men". The fear of doing the wrong thing and making the wrong decision should not outweigh the benefit of giving carers more control and purchasing power. There are agencies and charities that can help, but the signposting needs to be strong and available at the earliest possibility.

I made it clear at the start of my speech that I am no expert and that I would talk only briefly. I have only a new interest in this issue as a result of meeting so many dedicated carers recently. As someone who will turn 35 shortly, and who is at the start of what I hope will be a long political career, I cannot begin to comprehend how other people suddenly change their lives to care for a member of their family or a loved one. However, I am sure that I would join the 6 million carers who do that if I needed to.

Of course, people who care for their loved ones often want to do so, but they do so more often because they need to. When I think of the many young carers who give up playing on their bikes or going out with their friends because they need to look after mum or dad, or of the working woman who gives up her job to wash and bath a parent who struggles to remember her name
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but can recall the time she bought a loaf of bread, my heart breaks for them. Carers really are the unrecognised heroes of society, and it is our responsibility as a Government to do as much as we can to support them.

3.15 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton, although the matters that I have to deal with are somewhat distressing. I wish to address the proposed closure of the Hammersmith and Fulham carers centre, which is the main carers centre in my constituency. Hammersmith and Fulham council is closing the centre at the end of July in the most irregular and arbitrary way, and that will leave no service for carers in the borough for the foreseeable future.

I should perhaps begin by declaring an interest. The centre was set up in 1998, when I was the leader of the council, and I have been a strong supporter of it over the past 12 years. The centre occupies substantial premises in Hammersmith road, which is about five minutes' walk from Hammersmith Broadway, so it is located in the centre of the borough and highly accessible for the carers who use it. It has a lot of space, so it can run activities, and it has-or had-six staff. It has provided a service to many thousands of people, and I shall read some of their testimonials in a moment, but let us just say for present purposes that it has run a good service. It should now be delivering a service to adults and young people using its budget of £300,000, which is split roughly 70:30 between those two groups. In addition to providing services in the main building, it also provides outreach services across the borough.

In 2008, the then relatively new Conservative council decided to conduct a tendering exercise. It is a moot point as to whether that was necessary, and the council failed to identify whether the body involved should be voluntary or whether staff would be employed by the council, but it went ahead. The problem was not the exercise itself, but the fact that it was so incompetently managed that three separate tendering exercises were carried out over the ensuing two years with no successful resolution. Despite the council going to great lengths and spending a lot of money on the process, the most recent exercise had only one bidder, which was the existing carers centre. The centre passed its appraisal, at least as far as the adult part-the majority part-of the quality assessment was concerned, so it anticipated being awarded the contract. However, at that point-again, entirely arbitrarily-the council decided that it would terminate the contract with immediate effect. Indeed, it should have been terminated yesterday, on 30 June, but a winding-up extension has now been granted until the end of July.

Some people thought that these events might be connected with the fact that the council, as part of its fire sale of most of the borough's capital assets, wanted to sell off the building for an estimated £1.7 million. It had initially tried to move the centre into small, unsuitable premises in a less accessible location, which had to be accessed through another charity's premises, but it then decided to get rid of the centre altogether.

Events then take a more remarkable turn. The chair of the management committee, Kamaljit Kaur, who has an extensive background in the voluntary sector, has
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been trying to run the centre in an exemplary way over the past few years since taking over that role. She met the council's director of adult services on 23 June and failed to persuade him-because his mind had already been made up by politicians-to reconsider or even to extend the centre's tenure while alternative provision was made. We now know that there will be no alternative provision until at least April. After the failure of that meeting, she wrote a letter to carers and other interested parties, including me, in very mild terms given the circumstances. Part of her letter read as follows:

That is quite likely, because that is a method that the council has used before-getting rid of local organisations and bringing in national ones that they believe can handle matters cheaply if not as well.

The response to that letter, which also explained how people could protest about what was happening, was an extraordinary six-page letter from the director of adult services making serious personal allegations against the chair, including an allegation of an improper family relationship with someone who had a pecuniary interest in the contract. Late last night, the councillor responsible-Councillor Carlebach-and the director of community services had to issue an apology:

They state that they are

to them that the individual in question

The letter continues in an exculpatory way to try to excuse them for what happened. The chair informed me earlier that she now feels under an obligation to resign and is taking legal advice with a view to an action for defamation. I do not want to pursue that matter, but I simply set out those facts to show that the local authority is out of control and behaving in a highly improper way-as it is in many other respects.

Leaving aside the process, what is the effect on carers? Hon. Members might have seen in the debate pack an article from The Guardian of 16 June, part of which I shall quote:

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Later the article says:

Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that I have received an extraordinary number of letters about this matter. I will not take up too much time, but I want to read excerpts from some of them, as I think that hon. Members should realise what a serious matter this is for thousands of carers in my constituency. I shall not give names, but one letter states:

The letter continues:

Another carer wrote:

Another of my constituents writes:

A further letter reads:

This is the letter that touched me most:

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There is, of course, substantial resistance to the decision. There are daily pickets outside the town hall. I have written to the leader of the council to ask him, at the very least, to extend the contract until alternative provision is in place, and to allow the carers centre to bid again for the contract. The matter was debated at full council last night on a motion from the Labour opposition, but of course that was voted down by the Conservative majority on the council. Given the exceptional circumstances that I have set out, I ask the Minister to take a personal interest and to look at the matter. I believe that the situation has arisen not simply because the council is a Conservative one; the local authority is acting without its jurisdiction, in a highly improper way.

What I have described is not an isolated incident. Some hon. Members might know about the council newspaper in Hammersmith and Fulham. Last weekend, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, referring in part to the Hammersmith and Fulham council newspaper, said:

To read the paper in question one would think that everything was well at the carers centre. According to its front page, the leader of the council says:

Last night, the council announced a fire sale of most of the public buildings in the borough, ranging from the Irish centre in Hammersmith Broadway, which has an international reputation, to Fulham town hall and many voluntary sector buildings, including one that was referred to in the article in The Guardian, Palingswick House, which is home to more than 20 voluntary groups but is to be sold later this year.

Lest there be any doubt, the incident that I am recounting is not a mistake or isolated incident; it is a calculated attack on the poorest and most vulnerable people in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, in the guise of putting through a policy that was never agreed. It is being put through not just callously, but without the remit of the local authority. I ask the Minister to take a particular interest in what is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham not just because of the staff and the build-up of expertise in the past 12 years, which will be lost for ever at the end of next month if a stop is not put to what is happening, but on behalf of the thousands of people-we believe that there are more than 11,500 adult carers and many young carers in the borough-who rely on an excellent service, but will be without it from next month.

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, I ask all hon. Members to ensure that they have switched off their mobile phones.

3.30 pm

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. After 24 years as a doctor, I do not need to be told how
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important carers are, and I pay tribute to the many whom I have met in my experience as a doctor-they really are extraordinary people.

I would like to focus on young carers in particular, and to draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that the average age of a young carer is 12, which is extraordinarily low. The 2001 census showed that there were 175,000 young carers in the UK, 13,000 of whom cared for more than 50 hours a week. Those young carers provide not only help with cooking, cleaning and shopping, but often very intimate and personal care, and emotional support to parents with severe mental illness. Organisations such as Barnardo's need our thanks for their work, particularly in helping young carers to cope and in identifying them before they find themselves in crisis.

My constituency takes in much of Torbay, where there are 350 identified young carers. Those children suffer low attainment at school, which is partly due to their poor attendance as a result of their caring work. They are also particularly prone to living in poverty. I would like to draw the Minister's attention to a particular subset of young carers: the 20% of the children and young people in the Torbay area who are carers as a result of alcohol and drug abuse, and associated mental illness. Those who have been identified are the tip of the iceberg. Some fear coming forward for help because they worry that they might be taken into care. Those children have no access to the carer's allowance. They are particularly prone to living in poverty and to going on to misuse drugs and alcohol themselves, and also at risk of domestic violence.

My interest is in prevention as well as cure. We know that drinking adversely affects up to 1.3 million children in the UK, and that group especially needs our help. Police forces estimate that 40% of all child abuse cases and 62% of incidences of domestic violence are directly related to alcohol. I would like the Minister to look again at the evidence on what works to reduce alcohol-related crime and violence, and therefore the number of children becoming young carers. The evidence shows that that is about pricing and availability, so I hope that there will be support for the Health Committee and NICE, which is clearly on the side of minimum pricing as the way forward.

I pay tribute to the caring organisations in my constituency. A fortnight ago, I was privileged to attend the opening of the Brixham carers centre. Brixham is particularly fortunate as it is also home to Brixham Does Care, which supports 150 carers and has 150 volunteers. Those organisations asked me to raise with the Minister the time that volunteers' Criminal Records Bureau checks take. Only this morning I was told that some checks submitted in April were still pending. We need to look closely at how we reduce the barriers to volunteering, because volunteers are a lifeline for carers. I welcome the review of the vetting and barring procedure that has been announced by the Home Secretary, but I would like the Minister to look at the time that the checks take.

Respite care is another concern of carers in my constituency. Will the Minister consider the issues facing the John Parkes unit, which provides respite care for some of the most severely disabled children in my constituency and is used by many of my constituents?

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