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1 July 2010 : Column 329WH—continued

I want to pick up on the references that were made to the operating framework because the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South was right to point out that, in the operating framework that the Government issued just last week, we identified a requirement in the local priorities for the publication of dementia strategies. We think that that is an important signal. It was a signal to local PCTs that we wanted them to be more public facing and accountable to their local communities, and that they should account for why they have chosen not to spend money on dementia strategies. The signal was not specifically about dementia, but that we expected more of that sort of transparency in general. People should not need freedom of information requests to get information from PCTs about how public money is
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being spent, and I hope that that message will be understood by our local organisations that deliver such services.

The hon. Lady also talked about ring-fencing more broadly. The Government are determined to ensure that there is as much flexibility as possible for local authorities to make choices about how they prioritise their resources to deliver what is necessary to meet the needs of their local communities. We have made it clear that because we see the social care transformation grant as such a priority for investment in changes to services, so that they are genuinely personalised in the future, the budget for the final year in which it is available to local authorities will continue to be ring-fenced. We wanted to send the signal that we considered that grant to be important, and we want to ensure that local authorities deliver that grant during the course of this year.

The hon. Lady made a number of very useful points about good practice and the way in which GPs, schools and others play a part in delivering early identification of carers, whether those carers are young, old or otherwise. That should certainly inform the thinking of any Government when it comes to delivering a good carers strategy.

The hallmark of this important debate has been the great consensus about what needs to be done and the value that Members from all parties place on carers. I shall now try to address some of the other points that have been made.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) talked about financial issues and benefit changes, and such concerns were echoed by others. The carers cross-government programme board, which is charged with providing cohesion around the carers strategy, will look at those issues and hold cross-government discussions about them to ensure that the way in which we go about simplifying the benefit system actually delivers the right results at the end of the day.

The hon. Lady also expressed concern about the impact of public service cuts, which was also referred to by several hon. Members. Again, it is important to remember that some of the measures that are already in place were not initiated by this Government. Nevertheless, we have to be mindful about the impact of any budget decisions that we make through the spending review process. That will certainly be at the forefront of Ministers' thinking in the coming weeks and months as we consider all the options that will have to be considered as part of the review.

The hon. Lady also talked about the difficulties faced by carers coming back into the workplace-the cliff edge, as she described it. The coalition Government's programme sets out very clearly a desire to improve this country's tax system significantly so that we raise the amount at which someone starts to pay income tax to £10,000. We believe that as we move towards implementing that change, we will begin to smooth out some of that cliff edge and start to have a significant impact on easing people's return to work.

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) made a very good speech in which he set out a number of the challenges that we face. In particular, he rightly discussed the current complexity in the benefit system and the way in which it can be an obstacle to take-up of benefits.

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The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) made a very good speech. He set out a range of issues relating to young carers in particular, but he also raised other points. He made a very important point about the Hartlepool carers centre, which he mentioned a lot in his speech, and it clearly provides an important service in his area. He also cited the £150 million a year that it saves taxpayers by reducing pressures on NHS resources. We need to ensure that such examples of social enterprises playing a part in easing pressure on public services and helping carers are considered. Such mutual operations can really make a difference.

The hon. Gentleman, like several hon. Members, talked about the role of GPs. He also made some comments about benefits. I refer him to what I have said about how we intend to move forward on benefits.

The hon. Gentleman also asked specifically about young carers. The key point I would make is that the Department of Health is piloting personal health budgets. In my written ministerial statement on Monday, I announced how we intend to evaluate those schemes. The schemes should give us yet another way of smoothing and removing some of the cliff edge that we have heard about by providing access to resources for care and health in a way that allows people to exercise real control over them and therefore much more control over their lives. That is particularly important for managing and smoothing the transition from childhood into adulthood, and we all want to ensure that that transition is made smoother.

The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) spoke about the key issue of the identification of carers. She said that only 5% of carers in her area had been identified by the local carers centre. A large number of people are hidden at the moment and do not necessarily identify themselves as carers. The identification of carers is a key challenge as part of the process of refreshing the carers strategy.

We have heard about the importance of flexible support for carers. Again, that is why personalisation will remain an absolutely central part of how the Government take forward the development of services. Such services should be tailored to fit around people's lives, rather than requiring people constantly to navigate around them, often for the convenience of the service provider rather than the convenience of the person or family themselves. We want to accelerate towards achieving that vital aim, and we also need increased use of more user-led organisations that are much closer to the circumstances of the family, meaning that they can play an important part in advocacy, brokerage and helping families to navigate around the system.

I think that I have already addressed the main point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, who clearly put on record a number of powerful testimonies from his constituents about the value that they place on the centre to which he referred. However, as I have said, I will not attempt to micro-manage the decisions of local government colleagues of any particular party persuasion, as it is for them to account to their electorate for the way in which they spend public money.

The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) discussed young carers and talked about the devastating impact that alcohol can have on people's lives. She offered
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advice about some of the ways in which the Government might tackle that issue, such as a pricing policy, and cited advice that the NICE has given. I can tell her that we will be publishing a White Paper on public health later this year setting out the Government's approach on such challenging issues. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will say more about that White Paper in the not-too-distant future.

The hon. Lady also talked about safeguarding, and we have announced a review of the vetting and barring system. I am one of the Health Ministers with responsibility for safeguarding, so I will receive the recommendations from that review. We need to ensure that the system is proportionate to the risk and that it delivers the appropriate safeguards, but it must not be so bureaucratic and difficult that it actually becomes a barrier to people participating as volunteers, so that is one of the tests that we will apply to the system.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) talked about the USDAW campaign, as well as the importance that she attaches to the role of carers in her constituency, some of whom she has already visited. She also discussed the plight of working carers, their interaction with the benefits system and the need for an examination of tapering as a way in which people could retain an element of carer's allowance. All I can say at this stage is that the Government are committed to reviewing the system with a view to simplifying it.

The hon. Lady also asked how we could ensure that there is greater awareness of the right to seek flexible working. Again, that is not just a challenge for the Department of Health. We will need a cross-government approach on the issue involving my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions. Together, we have a part to play in ensuring that people are genuinely aware of that right.

The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) spoke very effectively. I was in the House when he made his maiden speech and it was one of the most impressive that I have heard. I know that his speech was excellent compared with mine 13 years ago.

Mr Wright: Hear, hear.

Mr Burstow: I wish that I had not put it that way, but there we go. That is the trouble with putting things on record.

We heard about the National Audit Office report on Jobcentre Plus, and it is important that the Government pay close attention to the work of the NAO. I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee during the last Parliament, and when the NAO identifies opportunities to obtain value for money and get more out of existing resources, it is important that we take them. If the report is not already required reading for DWP Ministers and officials, it should be.

The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys also discussed the care to share forum that was set up to consider respite. We see peer support as a powerful part of what the big society is all about. It enables people to step up and support each other, rather than seeing local authority services as the solution to everything. The right to respite has been discussed a lot in this debate. It is often not the case that a carer wants a week off; a
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matter of hours can make a huge difference. When I was visiting some services in Newham recently, I met the people who run a telecare project and several carers who had benefited from it. It was clear that what was important to them was the knowledge that the person for whom they cared was safe so they could have a cup of coffee with a friend, a chat and a bit of real life, as that refreshed them. We need more such opportunities for many others.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) discussed how we can ensure that carers can both stay in work and return to work. She also mentioned Alzheimer's and dementia, and research into those diseases. I am sure that she will know that, in the coalition programme for government, we indicated a clear commitment to prioritise dementia research. I am the Minister who chairs the board with responsibility for considering the issue, and we will be making announcements about how we will take it forward in due course.

The hon. Member for Banbury said some kind things, as a result of which I now feel immense pressure-thank you very much! He also made a good point about carers week that I read in this way: carers week is not an annual event; it is every week. We need to find ways to make that not just a platitude but a reality for carers throughout our country. He spoke a lot about the role of GPs as commissioners and the difference that they can make. They are one of the universal services and they see many carers. We must ensure that all GPs understand that when someone comes to see them because of a sickness or disability, the person with them is often the carer, who needs to be identified and offered the signposting and support that will make a difference for them.

The hon. Member for Banbury mentioned the caring with confidence programme, as did several other hon. Members. I purposely included it in my opening remarks because I wanted to be up front about what I had decided to do. My view, having considered the evidence about the programme, was not that the training materials were not excellent-they are well regarded by the carers who have been through the programme-but simply that we were not getting value for money from the delivery. Not enough carers had been through the programme, and there was no evidence that delivery would accelerate significantly. Now the money will be reinvested into delivering more training-including GP training, which has been mentioned-and more support for carers. We will make further announcements in due course.

Barbara Keeley: As with other developments, I did not hear about this in the House; I heard about it from carers organisations. Does the Minister realise the extent to which carers support groups and organisations are concerned? They were geared up and trained to deliver
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the programme. Having useful materials will be a good thing, but materials are not enough to run a course. They need somewhere to run it, a trained person-probably paid-and resources during the day. It would be useful if some of the money could be diverted to training GPs, but that is a mainstream NHS matter. I emphasise that there is a great deal of concern among carers organisations about the programme, so anything that the Minister can do will be a help.

Mr Burstow: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that point. I spent time earlier this week on the phone with all the carers organisations that have a direct interest in the matter. We are discussing actively with them the best way to reinvest the money to deliver good outcomes for carers. As and when that becomes clearer, I will certainly make further announcements to the House.

Tony Baldry: Will my hon. Friend tell us when the general issue of funding for carers will be addressed, and whether it will be addressed in the carers strategy?

Mr Burstow: I am looking at my notes on the points about benefits that the hon. Gentleman made and the precise time scales. Obviously, I am not the Minister responsible for the review of welfare benefits, which several hon. Members have mentioned, but it is clear that the timetable is quick and that reports back will be made during the spending review. Hon. Members who have representations to make about how we ensure that carers' interests are served within those changes should therefore make them now. This debate is a good part of that process, and I will ensure that the matter is kept in the minds of Ministers and officials.

There will be tough decisions, one of which has been my decision about caring with confidence. We will need to ensure that every penny we spend has an impact on the lives of carers, but we must make no false economies. One of the themes of this debate is that we must ensure that the investments that we make deliver good outcomes, and that when we must reduce public expenditure, we do not just shunt costs around the system. We understand that point.

I hold to the view that carers are an important thread that holds communities together. We need to do more to support them. Their value will grow as our society ages and people with disabilities live longer. We must ensure, both across parties and within the coalition, that the refreshed strategy delivers tangible results, rather than being just a statement of intent. It must be clear about delivering change for carers. That is this Government's commitment, and I look forward to making the difference, along with colleagues, as we go forward.

Question put and agreed to.

5.8 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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