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Often, carers do not know that they are entitled to a carer’s assessment, and many local authorities, perhaps for understandable reasons, do not prompt people to think about asking for one. If such major social care rights for carers were incorporated in primary legislation, it would be the first time that a Government had taken such a step. It would therefore be helpful to know whether the Government intend to accept the Law Commission’s recommendations on carers. The only difficulty with the Law Commission’s proposals is that they deal only with adult carers. Any legislation needs to address the rights of parents of disabled children as well as the rights of the growing number of young carers.

Secondly—I will not repeat the points made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East—will the Minister help the House in relation to carer’s allowance? To get it, people need to get a certain level of disability living allowance or, in future, personal independence payment. There is some concern and, indeed, confusion about who will be entitled to carer’s allowance in future. It is a significant allowance for many carers, because it is a non-means-tested benefit that signals and validates the fact that someone is a carer. It is therefore a valuable allowance in terms of not only the monetary value, but the recognition that someone is a carer. It would be helpful to have some clarification on that point.

3.19 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter—let us hope that we do not have too many more interruptions.

There cannot have been a more worrying time to have caring responsibilities, given the abuses at Winterbourne View; there must be a real worry that such things are happening in other care homes or hospitals. There are real worries about the future of Southern Cross, which is still very uncertain. There are also the issues that we are discussing, including the cuts to council budgets, which are resulting in the downgrading or loss of packages of care services. Carers have a range of worries and fears, some of which I want to cover, because these are serious problems for many families and it is right that we are debating them today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on securing the debate and on the excellent way in which she opened it.

It is 10 years since I started to meet carers in the course of research that I undertook for the Princess Royal Trust for Carers. In that work, I met many hundreds of carers, who opened my eyes to the issues with which they live day in, day out. Some time after I entered Parliament in 2005, I introduced the Carers (Identification and Support) Bill—not all Members were here when I said that I will send a copy to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), and to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) because he seems to support the ideas behind it very much.

This year, the theme for carers week is, “The true face of carers”, and its aim is to highlight what life is like for carers and the challenges they face. New research for carers week shows that 80% of carers are now worried about the consequences of cuts to services. As has been

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mentioned, the survey of social service directors showed that adult social care services face cuts of £1 billion. The Minister has been asked this question, but I would like to emphasise the point: what assessment have the Government made of the impact on carers of the estimated £1 billion in cuts to social care services? I have some detail on impacts being felt in Greater Manchester.

Whatever we think about it, many councils are having to struggle with the Government’s swingeing front-loaded cuts, amounting to 27% over four years—that is the figure in the Budget. Many have found themselves having to cut grants to voluntary organisations, which is having an impact, and many are increasing or removing caps on care charges. As we have heard, the survey undertaken by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) showed that 88% of the councils that responded were increasing charges for social care and 54% were cutting support to the voluntary sector. It is a double whammy—cuts in support and increases in charges.

Like everyone else, carers are hit by increases in the cost of living, which we must also take into account. Fuel costs and VAT affect them in the same way as they affect other people. Most carers are financially worse off than other people, because many have had to cut down on or give up work so that they can care.

For this debate, I asked local organisations in Greater Manchester to tell me exactly how cuts or fears about cuts are affecting carers. A staff member at the Bury, Salford and east Lancashire branch of Parkinson’s UK told me of her experience. She said that there had been a big increase

“in calls from people who are living on very tight budgets with no chance of increasing the family income due to disability and caring responsibilities, distressed because they can’t afford day to day living costs.”

The calls that she receives are about the knock-on effects of lack of money—stress, not eating well, relationship difficulties or breakdown, anxiety and depression. They can lead to illness worsening, and if a carer becomes ill and cannot cope, it can lead to hospital admission. She also said something that ties in with points made earlier in the debate:

“More people with Parkinson’s disease are being turned down for”—

allowances such as—

“disability living allowance and attendance allowance. There is no sense to who gets the benefit and who gets turned down…The distress this causes families is huge because they feel that they are begging. I can only imagine that families who don’t have support miss out completely. The benefit is meant to pay towards the extra costs of having a disability, the fact that genuine people are being turned down means that carers”—

would end up—

“having to do even more.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East raised carers’ eligibility for benefit, which I think is and will become the key issue due to the Government’s programme of cuts and the uncertainty. The Minister has already been asked the question, but will she tell us in this debate what the impact will be if those carers who lose their carer’s allowance decide that they can no longer afford to care? The responsibility for caring will then fall to the local council and the state.

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Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I do not think of my constituency as different from anyone else’s, so I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that young carers clearly play an important role. Those who are 16 years old and under do not qualify for any financial assistance, but their role is critical for the family, parents and those they look after. Does she feel that the coalition Government should address the importance of young carers?

Barbara Keeley: I very much agree. I have a point to make later about that topic, because the staff who work on the young carers project in my constituency have said that they are very concerned about carers losing their education maintenance allowance. That is the one support that the state gave young carers and it is going, which is a worry.

To return to the testimony from Parkinson’s UK, the final points were about more carers contacting the staff member to ask for help finding respite because they are struggling to cope; financially, they cannot now afford a break, a treat or a holiday. I am glad that the hon. Member for Banbury raised that point. The staff member said:

“I know of one carer who has had to take on a part time cleaning job in the early evening because money is so tight. She puts her husband to bed before she leaves”—

for work—

“at 4pm so that he is safer and so she won’t worry that he will fall while she is out.”

I think that we would agree that we would rail at care agencies that put a person to bed at 6 or 8 o’clock, yet this carer has to put her husband to bed at 4 o’clock because that is the only way that she can do the cleaning job that she has to do.

I also had some input from a branch of Age Concern in Greater Manchester about how cuts to grants are affecting its dementia support service, which is important because it is another line of support. Cuts to grants of 40% over the next three years are affecting its capacity to deliver individual and group support. That goes against objectives 5 and 7 of the national dementia strategy. The staff member told me:

“Carer support groups have had to close. These are groups where carers can get a break, have a chat to other carers and get advice and information from staff. These groups help to maintain morale and prevent carers from becoming socially isolated.”

Even though there are personal budgets, which will come in in Greater Manchester, carers of people with dementia often find it hard to mix in other social groups because of the “different” behaviour of the person with dementia. Carers have described the groups as a “lifeline” and something “to look forward to”. The fact that they are being cut back is important.

The proactive support to carers of phoning them every few weeks is another aspect of Age Concern’s work that is being cut. The staff member said:

“We now have to wait for them to contact us for time-limited intervention. We know that many older people are proud and longsuffering and will often suffer in silence rather than ask for help.”

Before the cuts, branches of Age Concern in Greater Manchester ran special events for carers such as a carers day each year, parties and trips. The reduction in funding means that it can no longer offer the extras that it knows give people a better quality of life. I am very concerned to hear that carers in my area in Greater Manchester are starting to suffer.

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I want to return to the two sides to the debate—values and choices. We are fortunate in Salford because, due to the way in which the cuts and the organisational turmoil in the NHS are being managed, we are not suffering as much as other areas. There are choices. Labour-run Salford city council is now one of only 15% of local councils still providing support to people with moderate care needs, as well as to those with substantial or critical needs. We are fortunate to have an excellent carers’ centre run by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers. Salford has tried to ensure that carers continue to be supported through these difficult times. As I mentioned earlier, however much the council and our local NHS bodies support carers and try to maintain what they are providing, the national changes and cuts affect our carers.

The young carers project will be affected when the young carers lose their education maintenance allowance. The centre manager told me of two other concerns: the changes to benefits and disabled people being called in to take work capability assessments. The extra worry of having to take them and of having benefits curtailed are starting to affect carers.

The centre manager also said that a major concern for her organisation was that although the carers’ centre was very well established, the service has to go out to tender through the joint commissioning process next year. She said:

“We are aware of a number of carers’ services which have gone out to tender in other areas, and bids have come in from organizations and agencies which have no experience, knowledge or expertise in carers and carer issues, including organizations from abroad.”

What reassurance can the Minister give to staff of the carers’ centre that an established, trusted and effective organisation such as theirs will not be undercut in the tendering process by organisations with no local knowledge and no experience or expertise with carers or in carers’ issues? Our carers in Salford would lose out if they lost the valuable support that they get from their carers’ centre.

The Government’s economic policies are damaging support to carers. Government cuts to local council budgets have gone too far, too fast. Councils pleaded not to have their budget cuts front-loaded. We have lost £1 billion from adult care services at a time of rising need, and we have lost billions in grants to the voluntary sector, but the worst thing is that we are only a few months into the first year of cuts, and we can already see the impact on carers. Carers are fearful about the cuts and distressed that they cannot manage financially. People with serious conditions such as Parkinson’s are being turned down for attendance allowance and made to feel like beggars if they appeal. Young carers are losing their education maintenance allowance. Carers are now unable to afford a break or holiday. It is shameful that a carer should have to take a part-time cleaning job and put her husband to bed at 4 pm.

That is not a record of which the coalition Government can be proud, and it is so early in this Parliament. I hope that carers week gives Ministers time to rethink the impact of the cuts that they are making.

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Colleagues, three Members have sought to catch my eye, and we have 19 minutes before winding-up speeches begin, so can we regulate ourselves to about six or seven minutes each?

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3.31 pm

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Thank you, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. First and most importantly, I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on securing this debate. It is the most timely debate that we could imagine, given that this is carers week. The hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and I were asked by Carers UK to act this week as carers’ ambassadors in our constituencies and elsewhere to promote some of Carers UK’s key messages.

On the true face of carers, the reality is that there are so many different faces, stories and anecdotes. As we have heard, there are 175,000 young carers. There are carers in work or grappling with the prospect of staying in work while managing their caring responsibilities—I will say a little about that in a moment—as well as elderly carers. We receive many different stories in our e-mails and postbags every week.

Let us celebrate carers week. It is about celebrating the invaluable work that carers do and showing our appreciation of those who give up their time, sometimes at a cost to their own health and financial well-being. That message has come loud and clear from many Members in this debate, and I echo it. I will focus my remarks on some of the personal experiences that constituents relay to us.

We as a society unquestionably rely on carers to provide a service, and there are clear benefits to people caring for their loved ones: not only do they make them more comfortable, but they reduce pressures on health and social services. I was privileged this week to launch a carers week event in my constituency. It involved the book “Dywedwch ‘’Dwi’n iawn’…a’i Olygu”—the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) might be able to understand that—or “Say ‘I’m Fine’…and Mean It”. It is a good book that promotes some of the services available in my constituency and more widely. It was produced by Ceredigion council and a local project called Mind Your Heart to give carers advice on maintaining their physical and mental health. It is an excellent project. I agree with the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that the voluntary sector has done and is doing much, although that is being impinged on by the scale of the decisions made here and, in the context of my constituency, in the Welsh Assembly.

The outcome of a Wales-wide survey of carers—we heard the UK figures from the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley)—revealed the extent of their concern and worry. As many as 71% of carers have suffered health problems as a result of caring, 64% have had to give up their career ambitions and aspirations since taking on their caring roles and 63% of carers were surprised at how hard it is to be a carer. Sometimes, at comparatively short notice—even very short notice, such as after a car accident—carers suddenly discover that they must undertake a life-changing role. Some 43% of carers have a disability, condition or illness themselves. I met an 88-year-old constituent on Sunday evening who had cared for his wife, also in her 80s, for many years. Carers week is an opportunity to highlight such issues and concerns, given the inevitable decisions on the deficit that the Government must take.

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The title of this debate, commendably, refers to the effect of spending reductions on families. I will address that, but it is important to recognise that some decisions and prospective decisions made by Government could be good news for carers. However, there is a great deal of work to be done. The Government are embarked on a consultation on proposals to extend the right to request flexible working. I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill earlier this year to extend the definition of carers within current flexible working regulations and provide for so-called day one rights, allowing carers to request flexible working from when they start a job, rather than after waiting six months. I launched a lottery-funded project in my constituency with Crossroads Care and various local chambers to assist carers and boost their confidence in returning to the labour market where their circumstances permit it. The challenge of finding the confidence to return to the labour market after caring should not be understated.

We have had good news that the Government plan to introduce a right for all workers to request flexible working, which is to be welcomed as a big step forward. The Government have recognised that many successful modem businesses acknowledge the importance of respecting that their staff will have other responsibilities and that the best way to ensure that they remain motivated and reach their potential is to give them the flexibility that they need. It is a big issue. More than 150,000 people in Wales who are in paid employment have unpaid caring responsibilities. However, the Government have been less forthcoming on day one rights. There is a perception that it is somehow unfair for people who have just been appointed to a job to request flexible working. I contend that people should have the right to request flexible working at the outset. Many of us share the view that if carers wish to work, they should be given as much support as possible, but there is a barrier.

I have one minute, so I will rattle through my next points. I agree with colleagues about the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Banbury, and consistently by Labour Members, on the arrangements for carer’s allowance, changes to disability living allowance and the uncertainty involved. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said, clarity is lacking on those matters. I also agree with the principle that if we embark on major changes, there must be a process for monitoring, evaluating and reporting back on them. Work on the awareness of benefits is fundamental as well.

To return to my original point, a quote from a carer in my constituency illustrates why carers week is so important in highlighting cases. A lady in my constituency who will remain anonymous cares for her disabled son. She says:

“I note the activities locally for carers week in Ceredigion, in which you are involved. I cannot attend such activities, as I am trapped at home looking after my son. When I do have time without him (when he is at school) I am at work trying to retrieve our family’s financial affairs from the effects of my son’s disability and trying to keep some semblance of a life for myself apart from my son. Disabled people and their carers are very often voiceless for these reasons. This sounds dramatic, but it is a very small divide between coping and not coping. And the implications of not coping are horrific.”

That is why this debate is important, why carers week is important and why it is crucial for all of us to continue to press the case for carers’ rights.

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3.39 pm

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, for the first time in a Westminster Hall debate. I echo the tributes to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), whom I congratulate on securing this important debate on the effects of spending reductions on families with caring responsibilities, not least because of the important changes being made in the House of Commons in the Welfare Reform Bill.

I want to confine my remarks to a couple of issues, because of the shortage of time. A survey of more than 2,000 carers was recently carried out for carers week. It shows that 80% of unpaid carers are worried about cuts to services and that about 50% are unsure how they will be able to cope without the vital support that they currently receive. For the record and for anyone who is not involved directly as a carer, it is worth stating that three out of every five people will be an unpaid carer at some point during their lives. To respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), those unpaid carers save the economy a huge sum. It is difficult to quantify it, but it may be more than the total NHS budget—£103 billion each year.

We have done some research in County Durham. I am proud to speak up for the vulnerable, the disabled and for carers. My county alone has 61,000 carers and the estimated moneys saved to the public purse by the very important work that these unpaid carers carry out are £1 billion a year. We should not be dismissive of their needs and requirements. Each carer who works for nothing saves the Government, the taxpayer and the Exchequer the cost of a care worker, which is about £18,000 a year.

My own constituency of Easington is characterised by long-term ill health. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) has mentioned, many carers, particularly in my area, are themselves victims of ill health. That was highlighted by a recent report by Carers UK. The legacy of coal mining and heavy industry has left many thousands of people debilitated in later life by long-term disabilities and in need of care, which is often provided not by the state, but by close family members.

I shall speak briefly about a number of issues. In particular, I want to draw Members’ attention towards, and place on the record, the effects being felt by some of my constituents as a result of the transport costs they now face due to local government cuts, and towards respite care, which has been mentioned. I also want to ask the Minister a couple of questions—I hope that she will answer them—about carer’s allowance and the provisions in the Welfare Reform Bill.

A constituent who came to see me recently is a full-time carer for her husband. She has one day a week of respite care. Her husband attends a day-care centre in Grampian House, in Peterlee in my constituency, once a week for four and a half hours. That is the only break she has. It is an excellent facility and I pay tribute to its care staff. I have visited it myself and a close relative of mine is in there. They do tremendous work in terms of physiotherapy and rehabilitation. However, from September, due to the front-loading of cuts of £67 million this year to my local authority of Durham county council, transport to the centre will be cut. It

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will cost my constituent £72 for specialist transport, which means that she will not be able to take her break and take advantage of the respite care.

The issue of transport has been raised by many of my constituents. They understand that cuts to social care by local authorities are due almost entirely to the swingeing, front-loaded cuts that the Government have imposed. Councils are struggling to cope with massive funding reductions from central Government.

People are also aware of the impact that the Government’s £18 billion package of cuts to the benefits system will have on carers in particular. The Government accuse Labour of rejecting welfare reform, but I am proud to say that we stand firm on the principle that the most vulnerable should not be paying that £18 billion when some of the richest in society—most notably, the bankers and the banking sector—contribute only between £2 billion and £5 billion to the cost of the deficit.

I shall conclude my remarks, because time is short. Another big issue that has been raised is that of ring-fencing moneys for social services, with a distinctive sum identified for carers’ services—the carer’s grant. Although it was not ring-fenced under the previous Government, councils at least knew how much money they were receiving for that purpose. The Minister has responsibility for public health and I would like to congratulate my own soon-to-disappear primary care trust, County Durham PCT, on clearly ring-fencing, identifying and spending its allocation from the Department of Health on the provision of respite care for people with disabilities and their carers.

How will the Government fulfil their pledges to improve the support for carers in the face of massive cuts to local government? How will the Government ensure that the proposed reforms, outlined in the Welfare Reform Bill, do not result in carers losing their carer’s allowance? The Government could give two promises that would give confidence to those who are most vulnerable and most in need. First, budget cuts should not result in carers losing the services that they rely on. Secondly, carers should not lose out under changes to the benefits system.

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): I call Rosie Cooper, who has four minutes.

3.46 pm

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Streeter, for the opportunity to contribute to this vital debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on securing it. I will not rehearse the arguments that we have already heard, because time is short.

As a carer for my 86-year-old father, who was born deaf, I have a deep personal understanding of the issues and challenges that many carers face. I am deeply concerned that the decisions taken by this Government will massively compound the financial and emotional pressures that carers face. Others have discussed the national policy changes, but I would like to talk quickly about issues that affect my constituents.

Both of the two cases that I wish to address relate to services provided by Lancashire county council as the social care provider in my constituency. The Derby day

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centre is a fantastic facility in Ormskirk. The staff are committed to providing high-quality care and support to people who use the centre. It offers a wide range of facilities to meet the needs of the individual, whether they have dementia or a physical disability. I have visited the centre many times and I am always impressed by it.

In a shock move, however, Lancashire county council has announced that it is increasing the daily cost from £5 a day to £30.75. That is not a small increase, but an increase of nearly 500%. I wonder how that fits with the mantra of not affecting front-line services. The council says that, this year, it will not charge users more than £30 a week extra. However, next year that will also increase so that people will not pay more than £60 extra. It is clear that, before long, anyone attending or wanting to attend the centre will have to pay the full cost of using it. Today, my office received a call from a centre user’s family who were angered by the scale of the increases. For them, the cost will rise from £40 a month to £160 a month for two days a week at the centre. That is just one issue in Ormskirk. There are many cases in which the elderly or disabled are being impacted by Lancashire county council decisions. The dial-a-ride service, for example, has been almost decimated. Some families will grumble about the cost but will be able to pay. Others will not be able to meet the costs and the council will help. However, a great number of families in the middle will be sitting at home wondering whether, financially, they can afford to continue to use the centre and, conversely, whether, emotionally, they can afford not to.

The second case is a group of mums who told me of their concern about funding for Aiming Higher for Disabled Children. That programme finished at the end of March and since then no short breaks or activities have been available for families, even for a day or a few short hours. The county council has said that it will consult parents on how the scheme will work but, in the meantime, there are no services—zilch, nothing. No support is being offered whatsoever, and that is a huge burden. I understand that the summer holidays are coming up and that interim arrangements will be made, but that still does not address the proper concerns that exist. In 2010-11, the funding for Aiming Higher was £4 million. Officers are now telling us that only £3.5 million will be available for two years. That is a reduction of a half. Does the county council believe that half the need for the scheme will evaporate while it is considering its budget cuts, or is it dumping the care, responsibility and the cost of children with disabilities back on to hard-pressed parents?

I will end my remarks because I have to cut them short. I am really, really sad that when the local newspaper asked me about the matter, I said, “Well, this is now the typical Conservative attitude. They know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” I find it gut-wrenching that the elderly and the most vulnerable will have to live with the consequences of the Government’s decisions. We keep hearing that we are all in this together. Families with caring responsibilities in West Lancashire are now realising that some people are in this more than others. How can the Minister justify this, and look carers and their families in the face?

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3.51 pm

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. The debate could clearly have gone on for twice or perhaps three times as long. A feature of it has been the number of people who wanted to speak and have not been able to. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) wanted to speak, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) had also prepared something, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) had told me that he wanted to make a contribution. The fact that many people have shown an interest in the matter demonstrates its huge importance.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on securing the debate. It is very easy to come out with a number of platitudes about carers, but carers want to hear what we will do to help them. Carers probably save this country more in money than is spent on the national health service. By 2017, it is likely that the UK will reach a tipping point, as the number of older people needing care will exceed the number of people of working age with families. There will be a crisis and we need to ensure that we are up to dealing with it. We must be able to support those people on whom we rely entirely. As has been said, if anyone is demonstrating the Prime Minister’s big society, it is carers up and down the country, so we need to look after them.

Where is the good news? There is some good news, which has come from the Law Commission. It has published a report that has largely received broad support from social care groups. A number of proposals are well thought out and will be well received, for example, rather than the carer needing to request an assessment, the local authority will have a duty to provide one. In addition, those assessments should be made for people who provide some care, rather than being restricted to those providing substantial care. Both those proposals are sensible. The third proposal is to ensure that a national system of eligibility assessments will provide some consistency across the country and allow people to move from one local authority to another without there being a huge time lag, which causes great distress to families. That will allow some portability of care.

The Under-Secretary’s brother Minister who is responsible for care, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), has so far welcomed the Law Commission’s report. In his pre-coalition past, he expressed support for many of the ideas it recommends. However, many of the issues will not come within the Department of Health’s ambit, but within that of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Given that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has indicated that he wants to conduct a review of local authority duties, there is some concern that he may be resistant to a new duty being put on local authorities to ensure that carers are assessed as well as the person needing care. I hope that that is not the case and that people are speaking strongly in his ear, so that the Law Commission’s recommendations can be implemented in full because they are to carers’ advantage.

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The other piece of good news may be the Dilnot inquiry. I met Mr Dilnot again today. He is very generous with his time and is meeting a broad range of people. The meeting he had with me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) was the first of eight meetings that he is holding today. Of course, we all agree that we need to make fundamental changes, that the status quo will not do and that we must have a fundamentally reformed care system. The Opposition believe that there should be high-quality care for those who need it and that care needs to be funded in a fair way, with proper accountability for those who deliver it.

We repeat the Leader of the Opposition’s invitation, which was made on Tuesday 7 June. We welcome cross-party talks and we would like them to happen as soon as possible. We will come with an open mind because we want to be able to work together for the best way forward. I understand that the Prime Minister has welcomed that approach, but we still have an empty diary and we want to be able to get on with it. If the failures of the past are repeated, we will not be forgiven by those who use the care system or their families. It is important to remember that, even with co-operation and a fair wind, we are unlikely to see any of Dilnot’s suggestions implemented until 2014-15. The current problem for carers is what is happening now to the social care system and their support .

I am afraid that that takes me to the end of the good news and into the bad news. As has been said very eloquently by my hon. Friends, social care cuts are clearly having a fundamental impact on the lives of carers. I was going to congratulate the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam on finally taking his fingers out of his ears, stopping singing, “La la la la la,” and accepting that the cuts to social care will affect front-line services. That is inevitable; there is no other option. Given that social care is top-tier councils’ biggest area of discretionary spending, we simply cannot have 27% cuts to local authorities without there being cuts to social care. It just does not work. Unfortunately, the Government have ignored the advice of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and the Local Government Group, who know what they are talking about.

Although no centralised assessment of the impact of the cuts to local government on social care was carried out, several people have done the Government’s job for them. A wealth of evidence has been provided by ADASS, the BBC and my own survey. As has been mentioned, my survey of the directors of social care received 61 replies from councils and shows some very worrying results. I am pleased that the Minister of State, has complimented my survey as being robust, accurate and, indeed, more reliable than that done by the BBC. However, he needs to look at the impact of it and what it means. We will do the survey again next year and the year after, and I am afraid that we will not get good news.

ADASS has shown this year that the shortfall to adult social care spending is £1 billion. The Government have done their best not to affect adult social care, but next year they have to cut again and the year after they have to cut yet again. If things are bad now, as has been so eloquently reported by my hon. Friends, where are we going? Do the Government have any idea of the impact of these cuts on carers? This has already been

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asked, but I repeat: how many of those who no longer meet councils’ very narrow eligibility criteria will need to rely on the informal care provided by their families? Do the Government know how many carers will have to go without support from their local authorities and will, as a result, be forced to give up work to meet their new obligations?

I was particularly pleased to hear what the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said about respite care—I support him in that. The Government are right—our Government was right—to ensure that money is put aside for respite care. The difficulty is that the mechanics do not work. Primary care trusts have been given that money. It is not ring-fenced. It is not clearly labelled. There is no accountability. The Department of Health is very unclear about which PCTs have spent it, in what way, how much they have worked with local authorities, or how much they have worked with carers—there is no overall picture. Frankly, is that not the sort of thing that the Government should do? It is not just a question of handing out the money. Surely there needs to be some form of accountability.

The Princess Royal Trust for Carers has been doing its best to conduct an audit of that, just as I am doing an audit of local authorities and the impact of the cuts on social care, but surely that should be a job for Government. Surely the Princess Royal Trust for Carers has things to do other than conduct an audit of whether the money given by the Department of Health to PCTs for respite care for carers is actually being spent on carers. That is part of the knock-on effect of the chaos that has been created through the proposed partial abolition of PCTs in the Health and Social Care Bill. What action will the Government take if PCTs do not work with local authorities and carers of organisations to publish plans and budgets?

The other piece of bad news, which has been mentioned, is welfare reform. We welcome the Government’s announcement that carer’s allowance will be outside universal credit. We also welcome the news that disability living allowance will be excluded from the overall benefit cap. However, the bad news is that, when the Government talked about introducing personal independence payments, they said that there would be a 20% cut to DLA. It is not just a 20% cut to DLA. Those people will not be springing from their beds, suddenly well. People with dependants will still be there. Not only will they, but their carers will lose their money, because carer’s allowance will be attached to DLA. There will, therefore, be a huge impact on the families of those people who are losing their DLA. Do the Government have any idea of how many carers will lose out as a result of moving DLA to the personal independence payment and the 20% cut? Are the Government aware that carer’s allowance is not excluded from the proposed benefit cap, while DLA is? I am sure that the Minister would agree that that is, at the very least, not consistent, let alone fair.

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Order. It may help the hon. Lady to know that the debate ends at 4.10 pm, and I want to give the Minister some time to respond.

Emily Thornberry: May I just come back to this last point? It is shocking that, at a time like this, carers suffer in the way that they do. It is a question of

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priorities and hard choices. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) so eloquently put it, it is not right that a woman has to put her husband to bed at 4 o’clock in order to do a part-time cleaning job to pull things together. It makes “We are all in it together” hollow rhetoric.

4.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Time is very short. I have about seven minutes, so I say up front that I will ensure that hon. Members receive a note to answer the questions that I will not be able to address. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) knows, this is an important debate. Like her, I would like to feel that this is about more than just press releases this week. Indeed, we praise carers this week. We should praise them every single week and every single day—those we know about and those we do not.

As the hon. Lady knows, in her constituency the Scottish Government have overall responsibility for devolved budgets and I am sure that she will therefore take up some of the issues with them. I note the cautionary tale about ring-fencing—mentioned by a few other hon. Members—and also tracking funding. Local authorities, however, have a duty to provide community care to those who meet eligibility criteria. The Department has set out an eligibility framework, which is important to bear in mind.

Who cares for the carers? Somebody first said that to me a very long time ago—in fact, when I was a district nurse. Those with caring responsibilities need care themselves, so that they can maintain their own health and well-being. Although it has not been mentioned today, the figures on the physical, mental and emotional health of carers are shocking.

Care and support services from both the statutory and voluntary sectors face challenges, irrespective of funding, like never before. Demographic changes mean that most of us will either become carers or need care. Some of us already care for children with disabilities and are often lifetime carers. Others care for partners as they grow older; some for ageing parents, neighbours or friends. Carers come in all shapes and sizes, and with different needs. It is important, when government at any level tries to meet the needs of carers, to recognise that they need specialist and personalised help, which is why personalised budgets are an important step.

I will run through some of the money that is coming through, so that hon. Members can raise, with their local authorities, what is happening to it. The spending review allocated an additional £2 billion by 2014-15 to support the delivery of social care. Some of that funding is already getting through. Some £162 million went in during January, which was money transferred from NHS budgets to support care services that improve people’s health and support carers. A further £648 million will pass to local government in England in the same way. A further £1.3 billion is now supporting the transfer of funding and the commissioning of learning disabilities services from PCTs to local councils, which will help. One hon. Member raised the issue of integrating services. That is very important. It applies to several Departments, and it is also true at local authority level.

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Taken together, that is the biggest ever transfer of hard cash from health to social care. That is an important development and comes on top of the £530 million for social care this year from the Department of Health, which we rolled up into the Government grant formula. The Department for Education is providing more than £800 million in the next four years for short breaks—they are absolutely critical; respite breaks are a lifeline to parents of children with disabilities—as part of the new early intervention grant.

We recognise that the current funding system needs overhauling. We cannot avoid the wider challenges that demography brings us. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) was 100% right about how the money is spent, and the hon. Member for Edinburgh East also mentioned monitoring. It is extremely important that we identify carers early, so that we can meet their needs early and they can continue to do what, essentially, they want to do, which is to care for those who live with them.

The Dilnot commission will report in July and will help us find new ways to modernise the funding of social care and ensure that it is more in line with the demands and expectations of the 21st century. The carers strategy, which we published in November 2010, sets out our priorities. Those priorities are important because we measure what central Government and local authorities do against them. They are: to support those with caring responsibilities to identify themselves as carers at an early stage, and involve them in designing local care provision and planning individual care packages; to enable those with caring responsibilities to fulfil their educational and employment potential, which is absolutely critical as young carers do not necessarily get to any step on any ladder as far as education and employment are concerned; to personalise support for carers, which

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is critical, and to support carers to maintain physical and mental wellness, because the physical burden of providing care for a friend or family member can be significant. Ideally, carers who are identified at an early stage can get the help that they need.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury mentioned the work that Sainsbury’s is doing. We should congratulate it. Of course, it is not a substitute for other things, but it is an important addition. Tomorrow morning, the Minister with responsibility for care services will launch a new e-learning tool for all GPs, developed in partnership with the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers. That will be an important tool in enabling GPs to do what we need them to do. The Department of Health has made a further £1.5 million funding available for other initiatives to support GPs to help carers further. Alongside the carers strategy, we published examples of how the principles of personalisation have been applied locally, emphasising the value of finding ways forward that make sense and work best locally.

I have to say to Opposition Members that the country is financially where it is because that is where we found it when we took over from the previous Government. The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) shakes her head. We cannot get away from the fact that we inherited a massive budget deficit that we are now having to tackle. Opposition Members look as if they are in denial. The hon. Lady, who is a sensible person, asked how we could look carers in the face, but how can members of the previous Government look carers in the face? We have been left with some difficult decisions. We have to ensure that every £1 of taxpayers’ money actually buys £1-worth of care, to support carers in the ways in which they need it.

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Eyesight Tests (Drivers)

4.10 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have secured a debate on eyesight regulations for drivers, especially as we are in the middle of national eye health week. As I speak, an event to mark the week is taking place in Parliament, and in my home city of Sheffield a wide range of organisations is holding an awareness day in the city centre. South Yorkshire police, in conjunction with the Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind, are focusing on the issue that brings me here today: the importance of good sight for driving and, in particular, drivers who do not realise that their sight is deteriorating.

I have been engaged on the subject for some time. I was contacted by my constituent Joy Barnes, whose niece tragically died in a road accident caused by a driver whose eyesight was not up to the necessary standard. Joy’s niece, Fiona Buckley, was just 43 when she died. She was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, so spent much of her adult life in a wheelchair. Fiona worked in the city centre Shopmobility service and in the Royal Hallamshire hospital as a welcomer. A bubbly person, she enjoyed a lively social life and, in her younger days, was an accomplished swimmer, later becoming an avid photographer and Scrabble player. Her family describe Fiona as a generous and courageous spirit.

At 10 pm on 6 December 2008, Fiona was crossing the road, with her friend Kay Pilley walking just behind. Witnesses said that the car approaching did not attempt to overtake or brake, but ran straight into them, and Fiona was thrown over the vehicle. She suffered a major head injury and her pelvis, spine and leg were broken. Six weeks later, she died in hospital from multiple organ failure. Kay suffered head and knee injuries and was treated at hospital; she could not remember what had happened.

Police officers subsequently tested the 87-year-old driver’s eyesight, and found that he could not read a car number plate from the required distance of 20.5 metres. He was later found to have cataracts in both eyes, which had probably been there for some 18 months. A doctor said it would give him “foggy or hazy” sight that could have rendered Fiona almost invisible to him. He also suffered from age-related macular degeneration, which blurs the central vision. With his right eye, he could see only from 6 metres what people with good vision can read from 24 metres. The driver admitted causing death by careless driving, but the judge decided not to punish him for killing Fiona. The driver was given only three penalty points. Fiona’s aunt, Joy Barnes, speaking on behalf of her wider family said:

“Fiona’s death hit us all hard. The driver should not have been on the roads with such poor eyesight and it is a travesty that nothing is done to make sure that drivers meet a minimum standard of sight. If this driver had been made to have a sight test to keep his licence then Fiona would still be with us.”

During the current driving test, the examiner gives the driver three chances to read a number plate, from 20 metres for vehicles displaying the new-style plate or 20.5 metres for old-style plates. Following that, the drivers of cars, small vans and motorbikes need not take any form of eye test for the rest of their life, unless

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they voluntarily report that they have a serious vision impairment to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Once drivers have reached the age of 70, in order to renew their licence they are asked to confirm that they have acceptable vision, but they are not required to prove it.

The Department for Transport has been consulting on the medical standards that should apply to eyesight tests for safe driving. Astonishingly, the Department is proposing that the testing distance should be reduced from 20.5 metres to 17.5 metres. The Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind is extremely concerned that any relaxation in the requirements could be detrimental to road safety. Can the Minister give me details of the evidence that was considered before reaching that proposal? What is her evidence to suggest that such a test is adequate in any way?

The current eyesight test is simply no longer fit for purpose. In contrast with the tragic death of Fiona Buckley, it is not possible to attribute many road accidents directly to poor eyesight. Eyesight is often only one of the factors that might be involved; others include the time of day, the weather, the condition of the road and tiredness. However, it is common sense that poor vision will impair any driver’s performance, even taking into account all other conditions.

The distance number plate test has been in place since the 1930s and is outdated. It has remained unchanged, despite increased numbers of vehicles on the road and developments in road safety standards and clinical technology. It is not scientifically based and does not reflect modern day knowledge of vision. The number plate test also only measures visual acuity—put simply, the ability to see at a distance. It does not produce consistent results and can be affected by environmental conditions. Drivers can fail the test in different lighting or weather conditions. Several scientific publications have questioned the accuracy and reliability of the number plate test as a method of screening visual acuity. Also, it does not test visual field—put simply again, the ability to see around while looking straight ahead. Visual field loss can advance significantly without a person becoming aware of a problem. For instance, glaucoma is a condition that someone can have and yet pass a number plate test with insufficient field vision.

The current system also requires self-reporting and therefore relies on individual drivers being aware of the required standard, realising that they do not meet it and knowing that not notifying the DVLA of any problem is a criminal offence. However, many drivers do not notice what can be a gradual change in their vision, remaining unaware that they fall below the required legal eyesight standard.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I can suggest one method of checking everyone’s eyesight, including mine. I register an interest as a diabetic—type 2 of course, controlled by diet. If people visit an optician every year, the optician tells them about their eyesight. Might that be a method whereby people can check if their eyesight is deteriorating?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about what could be done if the current system, which puts the onus on the driver, continues. I will argue, for good reasons, that an eye test should be a requirement.

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Many people with glaucoma do not have any symptoms until the condition is quite advanced. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidance advises that once vision loss becomes apparent, up to 90% of optic nerve fibres might already have been damaged. The general manager of Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind, Steve Hambleton, said:

“when people are diagnosed with an eye condition that impacts upon their ability to drive safely, the onus is on the driver to notify DVLA. We encounter too many people who do not do this and continue to drive. In these days of data protection etc., it is extremely difficult if not impossible for organisations such as ours to advise DVLA of our concerns.”

Last month, I attended the launch of the UN decade of road safety, which was addressed by the Secretary of State for Transport. The UK has a proud record: Great Britain had the fourth fewest road deaths per million people, we have been in the top five performing countries throughout the past decade and we were in first place in 2009. Yet on eyesight testing, we are lagging behind many countries and many of our neighbours in the European Union. The EU has recently published directives to standardise driving licences and to harmonise European standards. The UK lags behind best performance of most other European countries in assessing drivers’ vision. A report released only this week outlines that a majority of EU member states assess visual acuity and visual fields in advance of issuing a first full driving licence. The UK is among the minority that requires no further assessment of vision throughout a driving career.

The 2006 and 2009 EU driving licence directives continue a long path to harmonise driving licences with the overall aim of improving road safety and facilitating enforcement throughout EU countries. Is the Minister really content to see our otherwise excellent record on road safety lag far behind the best practice of our near neighbours? Given that the EU directive recommends a visual field of at least 120 degrees, how can the number plate test be sufficient to comply?

The only way to make sure that drivers continue to have adequate vision is to make eyesight testing mandatory at regular intervals throughout the time they hold a licence. Drivers should have to provide regular proof that they have had their eyes tested by a medical professional and that they meet minimum standards for visual acuity and visual field. That should happen at least every 10 years, coinciding with drivers renewing their photo driving licence. That would be a simple and inexpensive step that would vastly improve the eyesight of drivers throughout the UK. I also recommend that when drivers reach the age of 70 and have to self-certify that they are fit to drive, they should be required to submit evidence from an appropriate professional that they have a safe and legal level of eyesight.

The present inadequacies must be addressed. That view is supported by the Optical Confederation, which represents 12,000 optometrists, and the 6,000 dispensing opticians and 7,000 optical businesses in the UK. Those organisations and many others concerned with road safety have submitted their concerns to the Department for Transport's consultation. Will the Minister report on the outcome of the consultation, and when will the Government respond to it?

Having good eyesight is one of the most basic requirements for safe driving. It is widely recognised that 90% of sensory information when driving comes

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from vision, which underlines the importance of always driving with good eyesight. Being an experienced and skilled driver who is aware of the dangers of the roads is simply meaningless if one is unable to spot hazards in time. Research shows that one in six drivers cannot see well enough to pass a very basic eyesight test. People who are reluctant to give up their driving licence cannot be relied on to inform the authorities if they have eyesight problems.

Making the changes that I suggest would have public support. In vox pop interviews this morning, my local radio station, Radio Sheffield, spoke to five people—only a few, but four of the five thought that those changes were sensible and saw no problem with them. BRAKE, the road safety charity, released a survey, which no doubt involved a few more people than the five in Sheffield, showing that 75% of drivers support compulsory eyesight testing for drivers every five years.

Continuing with a system of drivers self-reporting any problems that they may have is not the answer. Poor driver eyesight kills, and every death is devastating to the people involved. The Government should act on the professional advice, which commands support among drivers, and change the driving test to ensure that all drivers can see what lies ahead of them while on the road.

4.23 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on securing this debate, on her speech today, and on her long-standing work on this important issue. It is a welcome opportunity to highlight the crucial point that those with defective eyesight that does not meet the required standards should not drive on our roads.

I want to put on record my sincere condolences for the hon. Lady’s constituent, Joy Barnes, on the tragic death of her niece, Fiona Buckley, in the incident that the hon. Lady described. The case was tragic, and I offer my sympathies to Fiona’s family and friends for their loss.

In responding to the issues raised by the hon. Lady, it may help if I reiterate and clarify the current arrangements for renewing the entitlement to drive. Most drivers do not need to renew that entitlement until the age of 70. They must then renew every three years for as long as they remain fit to drive. Someone at the age of 70 could be fitter, more alert and more active than some individuals who are younger, which is why licensing decisions are based on health rather than age. Although age is not always a reliable indicator of an individual’s physical and mental health, it is widely accepted that health can deteriorate in old age in ways that may affect the ability to drive safely.

When renewing their entitlement to drive, drivers must, as the hon. Lady said, complete a self-declaration affirming their ability to read a number plate from 20 metres away. They must also confirm that they do not have any medical condition that affects their ability to drive safely. That allows attention to be focused on those individuals who declare that they have a medical condition, those who have been found to have one, and those who need some sort of investigation to determine

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whether they can retain their licence to drive. Those detailed investigations into medical fitness to drive may include the collection of information from the driver and their doctor, a physical examination or a driving assessment.

The hon. Lady expressed concern about drivers who do not tell DVLA that they can no longer meet the level of fitness, including eyesight, needed for driving. One may speculate that that is because they worry about the impact of losing their licence, or because a medical condition makes them unaware of the implications of their failing health. That is why DVLA accepts notifications from third parties, and that is an important element of the enforcement process. Around 8,000 notifications of concern received from doctors, police and family members are investigated each year. Guidelines produced by the General Medical Council for doctors confirm that they are justified in telling DVLA about a patient who fails to stop driving following medical advice to do so. Similar guidelines have been produced by the College of Optometrists for its members.

DVLA forms and literature remind drivers of the ongoing requirement to meet the eyesight standard, and specifies that failure to meet the standard is an offence. Whenever DVLA contacts drivers, consideration is given to whether it is possible to highlight the continuing obligation to notify the DVLA of defective eyesight and appropriate medical conditions. We also seek to give information to drivers about the conditions that they must tell DVLA about relating to field of vision. That is an important part of the enforcement process. Directgov has an A-Z of medical conditions to help drivers to decide whether they need to tell DVLA of any aspect of their health. Detailed guidelines for doctors are also available to help them to advise their patients on medical notification requirements.

The Government’s view is that the current arrangements strike the right balance between road safety and personal mobility. There is not sufficient evidence to suggest that a more burdensome and costly regime would have a significantly positive effect on road safety. The majority of older people continue to drive safely, and to retain insight into their ability to do so.

Meg Munn: I understand what the Minister is saying about conditions, and being able to look things up, which is fine if someone knows that they have a problem, or someone has suggested that their sight is deteriorating, for example, but much of the evidence is that people simply do not know. Providing information does not help them, and unless they have a test they may not know that they are suffering a problem.

Mrs Villiers: As I said, whenever possible, the communications that DVLA sends to drivers refer to those conditions to alert them to the continuing need to ensure that they can pass the 20 metres test. One of the benefits of that test is that it is simple, and people can do it if they walk outside this building. We seek in those ways to alert people to the importance of doing that test regularly. On the whole, older people make sensible decisions about when and how they drive, and some older drivers voluntarily engage with local services to improve their driving skills and get independent advice.

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The hon. Lady made a number of points about the effectiveness of the number plate test as a way of testing vision. As she said, the standard of vision required for safe driving requires someone to read a number plate at a distance of 20 metres. For people with visual field problems, other specific standards have to be met. All drivers are required by law to meet the appropriate eyesight standard at all times while driving. If they are unable to read a number plate, even if that is only because they failed to wear the appropriate prescribed glasses or lenses, they are committing an offence. Driving licence applicants must declare that they are able to read a number plate to obtain a licence. They will be asked to prove their ability to do that to their driving instructor during the practical driving test.

I assure the hon. Lady that we comply with EU directives on the visual field. The number plate test is not expected to test the visual field. A visual field problem is caused by an underlying medical condition, and those with such conditions are required by law to notify the DVLA, which has long-standing procedures in place to assess whether the minimum visual field requirements are met. Those requirements include referral to an optometrist for a specialist examination and report. The Government believe that the number plate test is an effective screening tool. Its use as a means of assessing whether a driver meets the required eyesight standard has been subject to departmental and Scientific Advisory Committee scrutiny, and it has stood the test of time.

The hon. Lady referred to a consultation document that was issued in relation to a possible revision of health standards for driving. That consultation looked at whether, instead of maintaining our current higher standard, the UK standard should be brought into line with the minimum required by the European Union. No decision has yet been made, but if it were proposed to align our standard with the minimum standard required by the EU, the distance over which someone is required to read a number plate would be reduced. Responses to the consultation are being analysed; some issues need further consideration and that is under way at the moment. It is important that any proposed changes are evaluated fully and that appropriate consideration is given to their potential impact. The points raised by the hon. Lady this afternoon will no doubt feed into the process of reaching an ultimate decision. Once an evaluation of the consultation responses is complete, the Government will take an informed decision on how to proceed and issue a formal response to the consultation.

In the meantime, there is much to be said in support of the current system. The number plate test is a simple and functional assessment of vision that can be easily carried out in the driving environment and reproduced regularly by an individual, as opposed to a periodic appointment with an optician. Although it is largely a test of visual acuity, to some extent it can test glare and contrast sensitivity. It provides a good indication that the licence holder meets—and continues to meet—the required visual acuity standards for driving. The test is easily reproduced at Driving Standards Agency test centres by examiners, and at the roadside by the police.

At a modest estimate of £20 per test, it would cost more than £20 million each year if an optician’s certificate or eyesight test were required by the 1 million motorists who apply for their first driving licence. If such a test were compulsory for each of the 2.5 million motorists

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who renew their driving licence each year because their photograph is 10 years old, it would cost more than £50 million a year.

Meg Munn: The Minister is generous in giving way again. Given the cost of motoring, the figures she mentions are tiny amounts of money compared with what people spend on learning to drive. Does she understand how complacent she sounds, and how angry my constituent will be at her response? Given her inability to offer any comfort to my constituent, will the Minister take on board the need to do a great deal more to raise awareness of this issue?

Mrs Villiers: I completely refute the allegation of complacency. The Government are very focused and place high priority on road safety. We are determined to continue the UK’s good record on road safety, but we believe that the current arrangements are an effective means of maintaining safety on our roads. We must take into account the costs of what the hon. Lady proposes. Household budgets are stretched at the moment and it is tough for people to add to those budgets commitments of this kind. If each of the 1.5 million motorists who renew their driving licence at the age of 70 were required to undergo such a test, that would cost a further £30 million each year—a significant sum of money. As all drivers over 70 are entitled to a free eyesight test, that additional burden and cost would fall on the Department of Health and the devolved Administrations. Added to that is the caution that, while an optician’s certificate, or equivalent, might provide assurance that someone has had their eyes tested, it would not guarantee that they could meet the current eyesight standard while driving, or that they used their prescribed glasses or corrective lenses. The optician’s test does not provide all the answers.

In conclusion, the Government are confident that current arrangements are effective and working well. The UK has one of the safest road networks in the world and I am afraid that we simply cannot justify the cost that indiscriminate, mandatory eyesight screening would impose on individuals, the Government and the devolved Administrations. Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that compulsory formal eyesight tests would have any marked positive effect on road safety.

The coalition Government take road safety seriously and are determined to maintain and improve the country’s long-standing and strong record. Any road death caused by defective vision is an avoidable and unnecessary tragedy, and all of us who use UK highways must take personal responsibility for ensuring that we have an appropriate level of vision for driving. I take the opportunity to place on the record how important it is that all drivers, regardless of age, do not simply wait for their next eye appointment, but check regularly that they can read a number plate from a distance of 20 metres. That simple test can alert individuals to a deterioration in their vision that they may not have noticed, and to the need to make an appointment to see their optician. The number plate test is saving lives on our roads. It is an effective test in which the Government continue to have confidence.

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Housing (Bradford)

4.37 pm

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I do not think that our paths have crossed, Mr Streeter, but I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship and to face my colleague the Minister. This is a wonderful opportunity to highlight an important issue, and I hope that I do it justice.

A famous statistic alleges that Bradford once had more Rolls-Royces per head of population than anywhere else in the world. If that were ever true, I am sad to say that it must have been a long time ago. I remember being a young councillor during the recession of the 1980s—that really was a recession—and one council estate I represented had 70% male unemployment. Most of the unemployed men on that estate walked out of school in the ‘50s, ‘60s or even the ‘70s, and went straight into jobs. Sadly, when made redundant, many never worked again. Sadder still, their children went on to have children who have never worked.

Believe it or not, two thirds of the entire Bradford district is rural, and it is one of the most diverse areas in the country. It ranges from the prosperous Ilkley, where house prices are, surprisingly, at their highest ever level at present, to areas such as two wards in my constituency where, in some parts, 68% of children are categorised as living in poverty.

Bradford has gone from being one of the wealthiest cities in the world to being a city with deep economic and social problems. Over 30 years, Bradford has had millions of pounds of regeneration funding from every scheme that was on offer. The schemes were not without success, but the fundamental weakness of the economy has led to deep-rooted problems of poverty, high unemployment, low educational attainment, dire health outcomes in many areas, a decaying housing stock and, at times, as we know, frightening social tensions.

The housing problem stands out as one of the many consequences of economic failure in Bradford. I started this speech on housing by referring to the declining economic history of Bradford because, in addition to the contribution that housing policy can obviously make to meeting housing needs, it can make a contribution as a fundamental element of the regeneration of the community’s economy.

I must admit that there are many concerns about some of the proposals that the Government are considering. Those include changes to the shared room rate and paying the rent element of universal credit directly to tenants. That may have severe consequences: 80% of the tenants of the largest social landlord are on benefits. The changes include flexible tenancies, restricting housing benefit for tenants who are under-occupying and capping local housing allowance at the four-room rate. Many of those changes will potentially have adverse effects on people in Bradford. I will continue to campaign on those issues on other occasions. Today, in the limited time available, I want to focus on the most crucial aspect of housing policy—its contribution to economic regeneration.

The Government’s housing policy as it affects Bradford can at worst impair economic regeneration, or, if delivered with consideration of and adaptation to local circumstances, play an integral part in fulfilling the deep need for

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economic regeneration. I am sure that the Minister is well briefed and is well aware of the scale of the difficulties that we face. On current projections, Bradford’s population will increase by 150,000 in the next 20 years. To meet the projected growth, we need at least 2,700 homes each year. Currently, we are missing that target by a long way.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate to the House. As he knows, there are two proposals for big building developments in Micklethwaite and Menston, in my constituency, on beautiful, picturesque green fields. Does he agree that building houses on the outskirts of the district does nothing to alleviate the housing need in the centre of Bradford and that at a time when the council and all of us are trying to regenerate the centre of Bradford, it is rather counter-productive to build houses in that part of the district, the residents of which will shop in Leeds, regenerating Leeds even more, rather than Bradford?

Mr Ward: That is a massive issue. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the fact that, as people progress up the housing chain, they move out of the inner-city areas. There is a long history of that happening in Bradford. The simple answer is that the housing must come from somewhere. We are missing the targets on new houses: at the peak of the housing boom in 2008, just over 2,000 houses were completed, but by last year the number had fallen to just 700.

Bradford’s low-wage economy and high unemployment in the areas where housing demand is strongest mean that about half the homes required will have to be in the social rented sector. There, the gap in delivery is even greater. Currently, fewer than 300 affordable homes are built each year—it is little wonder that there are 20,000 people on the social housing waiting list.

Added to the high demand for new homes is the fact that much of Bradford’s private sector accommodation is not fit for people to live in: 40% of Bradford’s private sector accommodation currently fails the Decent Homes standards; 10% is overcrowded; and across the district more than 7,000 properties stand empty and, often, derelict.

How could a national housing policy contribute to the economic regeneration of the Bradford district? Bradford has the youngest, fastest growing population outside London. That could be a great opportunity for Bradford’s economy, but only if there is somewhere for those people to live. Meeting the demand for new housing and stock improvement would provide much needed jobs in the construction industry. The Home Builders Federation has calculated that, for every £1 of public money spent on social housing, a further £3 of private sector investment is generated. Tackling poor-quality housing could change the image of Bradford. Our housing is critical to the way in which we are perceived as a district and to the confidence that investors require to put money into the district. In addition, improving basic housing conditions would remove many of the factors that contribute to the poor health and low educational attainment that perpetuate cycles of deprivation.

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My concern is that the array of housing measures proposed by the Government will fail the test of delivering the quantity and quality of housing that we need to underpin the economic revival. Bradford’s ability to meet its targets for affordable housing will inevitably be hit by the halving of national capital funding. The Government’s much lauded affordable rent model is seen as a way forward in terms of replacing direct Government funding. We are told that it will generate 150,000 new affordable homes. It may well offer a viable replacement for lost grant funding in many parts of the country where market rents are high, but it is unlikely to be the answer in Bradford.

There is very little difference in Bradford between target rents and 80% of the market rent. I know that the Minister is aware of that. Taking into account the fact that the areas with the highest turnovers also have the lowest rents—of course, this measure will apply only to re-lets—Incommunities, the largest social housing provider in the district, which manages two thirds of the social housing, has projected that using affordable rents alone would generate for the whole of the Bradford district only an additional £120,000 a year. That would be almost but not quite enough to build two or three houses.

I am sure that the Minister will be keen to mention the new homes bonus—a key plank in the Government’s housing policy and one that in principle we have to support. The danger is that the policy simply gives more to those who already have, where land values are higher. Because of the distribution of funding being based on council tax bands rather than the grant formula of the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is based on levels of deprivation, Bradford will again lose out.

My fear is that funding will be skewed to areas with healthy housing markets at the expense of more deprived grant-dependent local authorities such as Bradford. Certain areas will gain additional homes because the affordable rents model will work, but on top of that, they will get the new homes bonus. I stress that the new homes bonus and the affordable rent model, as the two key policy levers for increasing housing supply, will not work sufficiently in areas such as Bradford and that broader consideration of other policy mechanisms is needed. It is not enough to say, “It cannot be expected to work everywhere.” We need measures that will work in a place such as Bradford.

It is not as if we are not trying as best we can with the limited resources available. The council has been attempting to tackle poor-quality housing through equity share and home appreciation loans, which in the long term would provide a small but self-sustaining pot of funding. However, the loss of the private sector renewal grant means that when the scheme comes to an end, there will be no provision to help vulnerable people to fund improvements to their properties.

The role of the private sector in realising economic benefits is crucial, and I am sure that the Minister welcomes the good cross-sector work that is going on through initiatives such as the Bradford Together procurement partnership, a public-private sector partnership that links construction contracts with the development of skills and jobs, which will benefit local communities. Over the last five years, Incommunities, the largest registered social landlord in the district, has built 400 homes,

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which has created jobs and provided 30 apprenticeship places. There are successes—they do exist—but they have to be set against the context of complex and large-scale housing needs.

What am I asking for? I seek a commitment from the Minister that he will speak in Bradford to those engaged in the challenge of increasing the quantity and improving the quality of housing in the district; they know far more about the subject than I ever will. I would welcome a response from the Minister about the possibility of the large surpluses generated in some parts of the country through the affordable rents model being redistributed to areas such as Bradford, that gain so little from the scheme. In a recent case, a registered provider, Affinity Sutton, considered investing in affordable housing in Bradford, using a surplus generated in the south, but it was unable to take that forward because the Homes and Communities Agency was unwilling to allow it to reallocate surpluses between regions.

The Minister may also like to say whether he believes that it would be sensible to take account of the difference in additional revenues generated through the affordable rents model, and to see whether they can be taken into account when calculating the allocation of grants through the HCA. Should not the remaining grants be targeted at those areas that have an acute need for affordable housing but are without the conditions required to benefit from the affordable rents premium?

I welcome the £100 million of additional funding to bring empty homes back into use—I have already mentioned the 7,000 empty properties in our district—but that amounts to only £338 per empty private home in the country. When considering the scale of the problem in places such as Bradford, I question the adequacy of the amount being made available. I ask that it be reconsidered. My plea is that the Government should resist the temptation to micro-manage and centrally control how the money is used—avoiding that is localism at its best. We have creative and innovative people working in the housing sector in Bradford, and I would welcome the Minister’s assurance that the Government will trust them to do what works best in our area.

The challenges that Bradford faces can at times appear daunting, but they are not insurmountable. Housing can be part of the solution to unlocking Bradford’s economic potential, but only if we get the policy levers right. Conversely, if we are not able to tackle housing effectively, Bradford’s problems will be compounded by the growing cost of homelessness, overcrowding and squalid conditions. As these problems escalate, households’ basic needs will not be met, and the search for a job will take a back seat for those affected as they try to deal with their living conditions.

If the Government are to be judged a success, they need to understand places such as Bradford when considering legislation. To take the time to understand places such as Bradford and to respond accordingly would be a much more critical test of the Government, and would be evidence of the extent to which they actually care about them. We await the outcome of that test with desperately keen interest.

4.54 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): It is a pleasure, Mr Streeter, to serve under your

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chairmanship. I am pleased to have the opportunity to have the opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward).

My hon. Friend said that he was a councillor as a young man; those in the Chamber can see that it can only have been a year or two ago. He has a long history of serving his constituents with great diligence as a member of the council and, since last year, as a Member of Parliament. He painted a clear if at times rather bleak picture of Bradford, and of the extremes of poverty and riches there and the problems for his constituents in respect of education, health and, as he rightly said, housing.

The Government certainly share my hon. Friend’s view that housing is an important component of building a growing economy. That is why we are continuing to invest in housing, through the Decent Homes programme, to bring social housing up to an acceptable standard, and through a new-build programme. We are not simply rolling forward the programmes that we inherited, although we are continuing with them, but developing a new programme using the affordable rent model. I hope that I can give my hon. Friend some comfort that the Government appreciate the problems that Bradford faces—and other places, too, but my hon. Friend highlights Bradford—at a time when, of necessity, the UK economy is in a period of stress.

My hon. Friend asked a number of specific questions. One is easier to answer than most. I think that he has invited me to speak in Bradford. I am happy to speak in Bradford—and, indeed, more or less wherever I am invited—and to say something about the Government’s policies.

Mr Ward: I invited the Minister to come to Bradford to listen.

Andrew Stunell: That was a very proper correction, from a most diligent constituency MP. I would be even happier to go to Bradford to listen than to have to give any kind of response or speech. I am sure that we can come to a way of operating that provides both of us with what we need.

My hon. Friend asked whether the affordable rent model might work to Bradford’s benefit. I shall say something about that in a moment or two. He also put in a plea that the Government should not try to micro-manage how Bradford chooses to operate. I hope that he will take some comfort from the actions of the Government so far; in particular, I draw his attention to the fact that we have de-ring-fenced—a new phrase—many of the specific grants that were the bane of local government when budgeting and making policy. That gives Bradford far more flexibility to decide its priorities and how it should spend its money for the benefit of its citizens. Further measures will assist, under the local government resource review, details of which are likely to be published next month. I can promise to visit Bradford, and I can promise that there will be ever less micro-management, although we doubtless need to keep prudence thoroughly in mind.

The Government are committed to increasing housing supply across the country. We have an investment programme designed to achieve that—in fact, we will add 150,000 affordable and social homes during the life of this Parliament. Included in that is bringing back

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into use 5,000 extra empty homes, which I hope will be some consolation to my hon. Friend. However, I cannot guarantee that they will all be in Bradford. Clearly, we are also looking at ways in which we can bring empty homes back into use, stimulate action and promote good practice without necessarily requiring money to be spent either by us or by Bradford. We are investing in new homes and in getting empty homes back into action.

My hon. Friend mentioned the new homes bonus. Let me remind him that Bradford has benefited from the new homes bonus to the tune of £2.8 million this year, and that was without Bradford even trying. The figures that were used in allocating that money were simply based on the number of additional homes that became available in Bradford during last year, before the council or anybody else knew that that was how we were measuring things. In future years, there is the opportunity for Bradford and its partners to work harder and more diligently to bring empty homes into use, for which the new homes bonus is payable, and also to bring new homes into use.

The growth that my hon. Friend has reported for Bradford is part of a general growth across the whole country. More households are being formed each year. They are being formed at their highest level since the 1940s, and yet the number of homes being built is at its lowest level since the 1920s. The previous Government left the country in a position in which house building was at its lowest peacetime level since 1924. We inherited social housing waiting lists at record levels. There are currently 250,000 families living in overcrowded conditions. The reality is that the number of social homes in the country has gone down by a significant number. We have seen a reduction of more than 400,000 social homes available for rent since 1997. Of course that frustrates people. It frustrates my hon. Friend, and it certainly frustrates his constituents who are left on the waiting list. We have a clear intention to address that situation.

Let me pick up on my hon. Friend’s point about how our new policy of affordable rents might benefit Bradford. I want to make it clear to him and to the partners who deliver housing in Bradford that there is no ring-fence on funding from the conversion of re-lets to prevent money being generated in Sutton by Affinity Sutton and used to fund development and build in Bradford. It is true that the affordable homes framework document encourages partners to reinvest the capacity generated from affordable rent in the area from which it was generated, but that is all that it does. It encourages such practice; it does not place a ban on doing something else. My hon. Friend has it in mind that there was a scheme for Affinity Sutton to build 200 homes in Bradford, but because it offered us a reason for not going ahead with it, a rule was passed that prevented it transferring the benefits of affordable rent elsewhere to use the money to invest in Bradford. That is not the case. Perhaps we can discuss that separately. If he needs me

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to reinforce that point, I would be happy to join him in meeting the Homes and Communities Agency .

The affordable rent model allows the Government to build more social and affordable homes than they would have been able to do if they had kept in place the model that they inherited. That model required more than £80,000 of subsidy per home in order to produce a home for someone to occupy. The model that we have will require less than half that money per home. We are stretching the resources so that we can build the largest number of affordable homes possible. There is nothing in that model that prevents money being spent in Bradford to deliver the homes that my hon. Friend wants.

I have spent a long time dealing with some of those points, but I hope that my hon. Friend gets some sense that the Government take seriously the kind of situation that he has so eloquently outlined.

I also want to make it clear that among the other things that are available is the green deal, which will allow many homes, especially in the private sector but not exclusively so, to have investment to bring them up to a more acceptable standard and to make real inroads into fuel poverty for my hon. Friend’s poorest constituents. That plus the energy company obligation, the money that we are investing in empty homes and the other work that we are doing to make more efficient use of the social housing stock will, I hope, give my hon. Friend some comfort that we are making a good attempt to deal with the problems that he has identified.

My hon. Friend said that the test for this Government would be whether we took seriously the towns, the cities and the communities, such as his constituency in Bradford. I say to him that we are taking all parts of the country extremely seriously. That is reflected in the way in which we amended our grant-making formula at the start of this year to increase the amount of stress that we place on poverty and the way in which money should be distributed. It is why we introduced the transitional payments and why we have the regional growth fund. Areas such as Bradford could bid for RGF funds which could then be matched by European regional development funding.

My understanding is that Bradford did not submit a bid to the first round of regional growth fund applications. I do not know whether it has bid for the second round, but a route exists for investment to be made in Bradford, using the Government’s regional growth fund.

I look forward to my visit to Bradford and to listening to my hon. Friend’s constituents very carefully. I hope that I can reassure him that Bradford will be free to deliver as it sees fit with the money that it has available. I look forward to working with him over the next few years to make absolutely sure that at the end of this Parliament he has the satisfaction of knowing that he has improved Bradford with the help of the Government.

5.8 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).