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Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Benton, or made a speech in Westminster Hall, and I am delighted to be taking part in the debate.
Two recent experiences in my constituency have led me to understand better the challenges faced by many people who care for a parent, child or other dependent. I recently spent a morning at the Liverpool carers centre, which is run by Local Solutions, a social enterprise in my constituency. I heard at first hand about the experience of many carers, who come together weekly for a couple of hours in a supported environment to do activities such as tai chi and to use the gym. Many carers told me about the numerous challenges they face, such as feeling isolated or seeing a loved one's condition deteriorate. Those carers were the fortunate ones, however, as they were able to join a support group at which they could share their load each week.
Unfortunately, not every carer has the opportunity to have some respite and to mix with other carers and share experiences, as I saw when I spent time at a local supermarket for parent and carers day-a campaign run by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. Its object was to raise awareness among the staff of the help available. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) highlighted, while it was striking that most parents knew of the support available to them, carers were significantly less aware of the support that they could access, such as carer's allowance, help at home, aids and equipment, vouchers and direct payments. I met a teenager who had left school at 16 to care for her disabled mother. She was working at the supermarket for 20 hours a week, but did not qualify for carer's allowance as she was earning slightly more than the £97 limit. She was struggling to get by and to pay her bills.
That leads me to the focus of my speech: the plight of working carers. I support USDAW's campaign to end barriers to work by extending the carer's allowance to low-paid workers who earn up to £150 a week. If the allowance was tapered at the same rate as tax credits, all full-time carers earning up to £300 a week would receive some support. I also support USDAW's call for carer's allowance to be improved. It is £53.90 a week for anyone who cares for more then 35 hours a week, but that is one of the lowest rates in Europe, amounting to £1.54 an hour-less than a third of the national minimum wage. I would like carer's allowance to be increased to at least the same amount as jobseeker's allowance, as that would provide better support to the estimated 4.8 million carers of working age. Yes, that would come at a cost of about £1.1 billion at a time when cuts are being made, but considering that carers save our economy an estimated £87 billion a year, I believe that that is a small price to pay.
USDAW recently carried out a survey of its members that highlighted some of the pressures faced by people who juggle paid work with caring for a disabled, elderly or vulnerable relative or friend. Some of the comments highlight the challenges that a working carer can face, such as
"pressure and more pressure, the dreadful feeling when the phone rings and you have to ask for time off."
"My mum is regularly committed to hospital, usually at the drop of a hat. My personnel manager refuses to recognise me as a carer because my mum's condition fluctuates."
"The pressure of looking after my elderly mum and working full-time was getting too much for me. I had no support whatsoever from my employer. I had to leave because I felt if I had a breakdown I would be no use to my mum."
The situation for carers at work has to be improved and the enormous pressures on those with caring commitments who work must be relieved. What will the Minister and his Department do to ensure that carers know about their rights? He mentioned the right to request flexible working hours, but has he considered introducing the right to paid time off work at times of family illness or emergency?
During the week before last, we celebrated carers week in the House. Its theme was that carers deserve a life of their own. Whether we are talking about the 4.8 million working carers or the 1.2 million carers not of working age, whom many hon. Members have spoken about this afternoon, I urge the Minister to do everything to ensure that carers have a life of their own.
I was pleased to hear from the Minister that we will have a new carers strategy-it is very much needed. I would like to focus today on three aspects that I believe are important in allowing carers to have a life beyond caring.
The first aspect-working carers-has been touched on by the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). I would like to take a slightly more specific approach than they did when they spoke about the cliff-edge factor in earnings, and look at the needs of carers who want to work and go to Jobcentre Plus hoping to find a job. When they get there, they do not get the help that they need, for several specific reasons revealed in a National Audit Office report, "Supporting Carers to Care", at this time last year. I shall highlight those reasons for the Minister.
There is an enormous army of carers, as we have recognised today, but they form a small part of the work load at Jobcentre Plus. Many advisers rarely deal with more than one or two carers each month. It is vital that the centres have specialist advisers to deal with carers who are looking for employment. Because of their caring duties, many carers do jobs that, inevitably, are part-time. Therefore, they do not form part of what Jobcentre Plus has to submit to meet its targets for placing people in full-time employment. Because carers do not help Jobcentre Plus to hit the targets that central Government want it to achieve, they are seen by Jobcentre Plus not as a priority but as a marginal part of its business.
I am also concerned by what I read in the NAO report about many Jobcentre Plus advisers not being certain of what they are doing. For example, the report found that two thirds did not realise that carers who claim only carer's allowance do not need to attend
work-focused interviews. It worries me that two thirds of the staff do not understand a crucial part of the needs of carers. Finally, as an example of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy gone mad, Jobcentre Plus advisers are encouraged to hand out carer's allowance application forms but are not allowed to help fill them in. "Here's a form, but don't ask me any questions, please, because I can't answer them"-I am afraid that we hear that so often. I hope that the new carers strategy will try to address some of those specific issues so that those who go to Jobcentre Plus to look for work get the help that they need.
The second area that I would like to focus on is the need for respite care. I welcome what the previous Government did in recognising that it is good to give carers respite care, but I regret the fact that, for one reason or another, as the Minister said, much of the money never quite made it to the front line. That shows the danger of raising expectations within a group of people that are then not fulfilled.
I pay tribute to organisations such as Vitalise, a charity that provides space for 7,000 people to have respite breaks each year. Its work stretches from Cornwall in the south to Southport in the north; I regret that it cannot manage an extra 20 miles to make it to Blackpool and provide breaks there, but perhaps I can encourage it to do that bit more-who knows? As its part of carers week this year, it set up a care to share forum, which was an opportunity for people who need respite breaks to share experiences of what they had had and, indeed, what they did not get, having expected something as a result of the previous Government's announcements. That was a useful thing for Vitalise to do, because carers' nervousness about going abroad, going away, or leaving the person for whom they care, is a significant issue. There are many hurdles to overcome if they are to have that ambition, and the more that we share information and allow carers to feel more confident about leaving the people for whom they care, even for just 24 hours, the easier it will be for respite care to become an established part of the caring agenda.
Will the Minister therefore ensure, in the national health service operating framework and in NHS Vital Signs, that provision of carers support is not just an optional extra for primary care trusts but critical-either tier 1 or tier 2? By having it at tier 3, PCTs are basically given permission not to bother with it. Unfortunately, that is just one of the ways in which micro-management from the centre can become an excuse for not providing a service.
I would also ask that when this or any Government make new moneys available, they make the announcement only when they are confident that they can monitor implementation and ensure that the money is spent on what it is supposed to be spent on. It is not acceptable to raise the hopes of vulnerable groups so that they think that they will get something but then, through no fault of Ministers, the Government or Departments but just because the layers of bureaucracy absorb the money bit by bit, it does not happen further down the line. That simply is not fair.
I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said about young carers. She was right to identify in particular the needs of the 20% who do not do what I would call traditional caring, where the relative has a progressive disease associated, perhaps,
with old age. I think that the figure is higher than 20% in a constituency such as mine. Blackpool North and Cleveleys is a deprived area with many public health needs, and I would have thought that many younger carers are dealing with relatives who have a drug addiction, alcohol or mental health problem.
At the back end of carers week this year, I went to the local branch of Frankie and Bennys near the Odeon cinema in Blackpool. The local carers centre, which is funded by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, as so many carers centres are, has a particular interest in the needs of young carers. Nigel McMurdo, who runs the project, does a fantastic job in trying to give them treats every now and again. One of the treats was dinner at Frankie and Bennys, so I trundled off to meet them, to listen to their stories and to understand a bit more about what they go through.
Nigel told me one tale about how caring can impact on education. A young man caring for his mother, who had a mental health problem, had a geography exam one day, but she would not let him out of the house. There was a real battle just to get him to school to sit the exam. That demonstrates how caring for parents, as an act of love, can be a bar to educational attainment. For many of our young carers, caring has an impact on their health, education and ability to have a social life.
The inadequacy of child and adolescent mental health services is a long-standing problem. If mental health services are the Cinderella service of the NHS, CAMHS is Cinderella's daughter-it is a Cinderella service within a Cinderella service. I have raised this matter with the Minister in respect of autism but, more widely, I have great concerns about the condition of CAMHS in this country, and how it excludes far too many people who need help. It is a real problem.
In addition, in terms of education, bullying has a major impact on the lives of many young carers. It occurs when someone is seen to be different. If they have a caring responsibility, it means that they cannot hang around outside the school gates after school, or they might be 15 minutes late, or they might not always get their homework done on time. Inevitably, bullying takes place, and young carers need support in relation to that.
Young carers in Blackpool are at present trying to draw up a young carers charter. At the top of their list is a demand that every school should have a nominated teacher who can pay attention to the needs of young carers, as a kind of early warning system. Such a system is needed, and I do not think that we can place the burden entirely on general practitioners, as we always seem to try to do, to act as early warning gatekeepers. There is a difficulty in identifying young carers. We know of about 200 in Blackpool, but we are certain that there are some 600 more whom we simply do not know about-we cannot find them, they are not there. We often speak about the unmet need and how to reach the hard to reach. I fear that that is a perennial question in public health policy.
Platitudes abound in the debate on carers. I desperately try to avoid platitudes in anything that I do, but it is often difficult to avoid them when mentioning this topic. I should like some concrete steps to be taken that benefit carers, including benefit simplification. I have lost count of the number of times that I have tried to explain to people in my constituency that to be able to
apply for the carer's premium they must first apply for pension credit, which they know that they are not entitled to. The people that I explain that to find it illogical, and so do I, but it still seems to go on. Can we please try to change that?
When I first became involved in health policy some 10 years ago, the file in my office marked "Care" focused on the width of doors for wheelchairs as described in the Care Standards Act 2000. I watched the Minister raising care issues many times in the House of Commons. Carers week was regarded as a peripheral matter 10 years ago. The large queue in Portcullis House during carers week, for the photo opportunities and so on, was testament to the progress that is being made, but I still think that we have to go one step further. I may be a new MP, but I am already a little bit tired of photo opportunities-during which I stand beneath a Perspex stand, smile and shake hands-that are somehow meant to provide evidence of my commitment to an issue. I would rather MPs took fewer photo opportunities and visited more local carers centres, as many hon. Members in this Chamber have, to hear what is going on and speak to real carers. That would bring a bit more reality into this place.
It was good that the previous Government recognised that carers have a role to play, and I welcome that. However, we now have to focus on how we enable carers to live a more ordinary life: a life beyond caring. We need to start to fit provision around the needs of carers. As with too much in public life, we expect people to fit into existing tick-boxes on forms and woe betide them if their circumstances do not enable them to fit neatly into those boxes. That is not good enough.
We need to build provision around the individual. I know that that will be difficult, but not every carer wants to play bingo and not every young carer wants to go to the cinema of an evening. We all have individual requirements as carers. We are all individuals, after all, and we should remember that. I hope that the carers strategy that is being drawn up over the summer will mean that we will start to regard carers not just as a group with a label attached and a set of demands, but as individuals who need to be empowered. I look forward to seeing what emerges after the summer.
We all recognise the huge savings that carers make for the economy-some £87 billion a year-and we recognise that they are not just economic savings. With some understandable and notable exceptions, the majority of people who are cared for by carers have a far better quality of life if they can stay at home, being looked after by their friends and family, and can take part in their social life as fully as possible, rather than going into an institution, no matter how good it is. However, unless we put in the support yet more people will reach crisis point, with carers not being able to cope any longer. Other solutions have to be found. However, some of the solutions are often not satisfactory, either for the family or the person being cared for.
Of course, for economic reasons, carers like to stay in work if they can. Many people become carers gradually over time, rather than suddenly, so they try to keep going, but they face a number of barriers. I am a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and I have supported its campaign for carers. I am pleased that the Labour Government introduced the right to request flexible working for carers some four years ago, but as hon. Members have mentioned, there is still a mentality in some workplaces that does not allow that. This is a serious issue, because it affects not only whether people can ask for flexible working, but attitudes towards promotion. Women carers are particularly affected, and although they might like to do something different or something new, they do not like to ask because they feel that they might have to go through an interview and explain about being a carer, and they feel that that might be viewed negatively. We are missing talent and not using people to the full.
It is well documented that, often, carers take a job below their qualifications or have to compromise what they do in other ways. That is a great shame, because we are missing out on a lot of talent. Yet with a bit of flexibility and understanding-as long as employers understand that there may be certain needs: people should be able to take their loved ones to hospital, or whatever-a lot more can be done to help.
Many carers suffer financial hardship because they cannot work much or have to give up work altogether. I implore the Minister to make certain that there is no cut to the carers allowance. I am worried about the current economic situation, because the rise in VAT will put additional pressures on families with the lowest incomes. I implore the Minister to ensure that, in addition to not reducing the carers allowance, at every opportunity an increase is made to it to try to keep up with the increasing costs of living.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) explained, a great step forward would be to increase the earnings disregard to £150, for example, with an additional tapering-similar to how tax credits work-so that people earning up to £300 a week receive some benefit from it; doing so would target help to people who need it most. Targeting is important during a period of economic restraint throughout the country.
I am considerably worried about the provision of respite care. Many carers can only cope throughout the year if they have the opportunity to take advantage of respite care, even though doing so may be difficult, as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said, because they worry about leaving somebody, even for a short while. Respite care is not just an opportunity for carers to gallivant around the world. Often, it allows them to paint a room in the house, for example, because it would not be practical to do so while the person they care for was there. Perhaps the carer wants to attend their son's wedding a couple of hundred miles away, or to do something similar. Without some respite care, such simple tasks can become impossible. This is not just about residential respite care. Respite care can involve someone sitting and looking after the person being cared for, allowing the carer to do the shopping.
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