Hywel in Parliament - Debates

National Carers Strategy

6th June 2007

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): It is a pleasure to contribute to this important Adjournment debate under your wise and, dare I say it, progressive chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) on securing the debate and on the tremendous work that she has done on behalf of carers both before entering the House and in the two years since. She is certainly a valued colleague on the all-party carers group.

I should explain at the outset my interest in the matter. I was a carer for 16 years and the promoter of the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004, as we have heard. I am proud to be vice-president of Carers UK and I also chair the all-party carers group. I share my hon. Friend's enthusiasm for the work of our Labour Government over the past 10 years under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. His early enthusiasm for the cause of carers was greatly appreciated. It is should also be recorded and acknowledged that all the progress that we have made has received broad cross-party support. That is manifested in the strength of cross-party support in the all-party group.

We have already heard that much has been achieved, but much more is needed. The debate is opportune because not only is it the week before carers' week, but the review is being undertaken. The voice of carers is, quite rightly, being heard more loudly and is much better organised than 10 years ago. It is having an increasing impact on much of the legislation that affects carers' lives, whether it involves flexible working, education, the rights of young children, respite care or, most challenging of all, pensions. That is all as it should be.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend has a remarkable and admirable track record in this area. Does he agree that one of the major drivers of change that we are encountering is the demographics of the caring community? There are 6 million carers and they churn 2 million carers a year, but there is an underlying steady growth of 300 carers a day and 100,000 a year. Over the next 30 years, from 6 million, the number of carers will grow by 3 million to 9 million. That pressure of change is behind all that Carers UK and MPs such as he and my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) do.

Dr. Francis: I agree entirely, and I commend the work of Carers UK in identifying that important phenomenon, which is having an impact on all social policy legislation. My purpose today is to ask a simple question: how can the national carers strategy review take account of the impact, or lack of it, of our legislation?

Dr. Gibson: Before my hon. Friend starts to get into the details, I want to compliment him and our hon. Friend the Member for Worsley on their sterling work. I just had a thought: I have been involved in work on eating disorders, and when we changed the name of an organisation it suddenly became very dynamic and reached a new plateau of support. I often wonder about the words that are used. Perhaps the word "carer" is just a little less aggressive than it could be. We might need something much more positive to define the sterling work that people do in that field. "Carers" sounds like they are depending on someone, when it is the other way around. I do not know whether the organisations have thought of a new way to define it.

Dr. Francis: That would probably require a separate debate. I can imagine my hon. Friend wanting carers to be called "revolutionaries" or something as radical as that.

I was talking about the purpose of the debate and posing a simple question: how can the national carers strategy take account of the impact, or lack of it, of our legislation on the rights of carers and their quality of life? In the course of my constituency work, through working with carers' groups and as chair of the all-party group on carers, I am constantly being made aware of the—rightly—rising expectations of carers. I recently commissioned a piece of research by the Bevan Foundation, and the result, "Caring and Working?A Welsh Case Study", is a challenging report byDr. Victoria Winckler. I should declare an interest as an unpaid trustee of the foundation. I commend the report to the Minister, not only because it is powerfully radical in its recommendations, but because the voices of carers are to be heard loud and clear on every page. Although the report's recommendations have a Welsh focus, because caring is a devolved matter, they are universally applicable. I want to draw the attention of hon. Members to three of those recommendations, as they could apply to the rest of the United Kingdom:

"As a first priority, carers need to be recognised in all areas of Welsh Assembly Government policy including economic and employment policy, as well as social care policy".

The second recommendation is:

"The final refocused carers' strategy needs to be much more visionary and robust. It should give much greater emphasis to employment for carers".

Finally, the report recommends:

"Better training should be available for social workers to undertake carers assessments so that they do not reproduce gender (and other) stereotypes and to help them to offer services to meet carers' needs."

I believe that the new national carers strategy should have an impact on all Departments. It is not a matter merely for the Department of Health. The Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act was about providing work opportunities, and the recommendations of the Bevan Foundation refer to that important aspect of that Act. The Act also paid attention to education and training opportunities. Recently I have been impressed by the work of the National Extension college with carers, and I shall elaborate on that point in a moment.

Another aspect of my Act dealt with the right of carers to have access to leisure opportunities. My neighbouring authority, the city and county of Swansea—in the true spirit of cross-party recognition of the work of other parties, I acknowledge that it is led by Liberal Democrats—has an innovate collaborative project that is funded by the Big Lottery Fund to encourage carers to engage in more physical activity. Called "Mentro Allan", which means "Getting Out", the projects involves more than 100 carers in a variety of outdoor activities and, crucially, provides respite care. Such initiatives need to be more universally available.

When the national carers strategy was launched in 1999, the landscape was very different. Carers had few rights and were expected to care with little recognition or reward. One of the key changes in the past 10 years has been the acceptance, enshrined in Government-supported legislation in the form of the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act, that carers have a right to a life beyond their caring responsibilities—what one carer in my constituency called the right to an ordinary life. That perhaps is a much better way to describe the challenge before us than to argue about equal rights. The evidence so far is that that Act has begun to bring about a culture change, albeit rather slowly, particularly in the way in which carers are viewed by social services. It has also improved information to carers and a new raft of initiatives has been developed to give carers opportunities to learn, train and work. However, those initiatives are fragmented and, by definition, locally focused.

The developments that have arisen from the Act have been backed up strongly by the Government's legislation, particularly the Work and Families Act 2006, which gave carers the right to request flexible working from their employer. We have a long way to go to change workplace culture so that carers' responsibilities and needs are as well understood as those of parents. The Work and Families Act is a good place to start and I hope that employers will embrace the opportunities that it brings and adopt a constructive approach. I salute the work of the trade unions, particularly through the Warwick agreement, in bringing about the legislation, especially the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which has championed the cause of working carers.

I feel that those two pieces of legislation have been critical in raising awareness of carers' issues among crucial groups such as social services, employers and other service providers. Work done by the action for carers and employment project, led by Carers UK, has helped to embed the legislation, and it also provided much of the evidence on which the legislation was based. That evidence indicates that legislation does indeed change culture and practice. It has often been argued that good practice guidance is all that is necessary, but the experience of Carers UK is that legislation is needed to provide a strong framework for such guidance, because guidance on its own is a blunt tool.

Barbara Keeley: My hon. Friend is giving a thorough explanation of the employment issues and of the needs of carers in the context of employment. It is worth making the point that work needs to be done in organisations such as Jobcentre Plus in developing flexible employment. Does he agree with me that the need is not only for good practice, but that the Government must take a lead in working with employers to set up structures such as flexible jobs? We have discovered in recent months that that concept is difficult for jobcentres to get their heads around, and that designating a job as a flexible job is perhaps not something that has been done customarily, despite the fact that it would help carers.

Dr. Francis: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Government needs to take a lead in legislating to bring about such changes.

We must ensure also that the vision enshrined in my Act is delivered on the ground. Carers UK has found that the most common reason that carers give for being unable to work is the level and complexity of care that they provide. If services are not in place to support them both in providing that care and in working or studying, real choice for carers will be an impossible dream.

It must be acknowledged that, over the past few years, the Government have made significant progress by putting more than £1 billion of money into respite care. However, we know that that does not stretch far enough; there is still a shortage of good quality respite services. I particularly welcome the Treasury and Department for Education and Skills report, "Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families", which was published last month. That begins to show a way forward, particularly for the most severely disabled children, and I pay tribute to the hon. Members who supported it.

Carers' organisations feel very strongly that the carers grant—an important stream of funding that provides carers with breaks—must remain a discrete grant rather than be rolled into the revenue support grant. Carers UK hears strong concerns from its wide membership that the funding for carers' breaks will be reduced if the grant loses its clear identity. That is a critical part of the discussion, as it will affect the delivery of break services in the future.

The fact that the responsibilities of one Department—the Department of Health—have an impact on the ability of other Departments, particularly the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Work and Pensions, to fulfil their own objectives reminds me that we must keep up the campaign for a carers' champion, and I am pleased that that cause has been mentioned several times already. Such a champion would be at the heart of Government and would ensure that all Departments recognise carers' needs.

The success of the similar campaign in Wales with which I was associated, and the appointment of the Deputy Health Minister in the previous Welsh Assembly Government—Assembly Member John Griffiths—as carers' champion were great steps forward. That has made a huge difference to the coherence of policy making in the area. Having someone whose responsibility it is to, as they say, "carer-proof" legislation would have prevented some of the contradictory pieces of legislation that we currently have. The Welsh Assembly Government is also updating its carers strategy.

I am particularly pleased that my Labour-led local authority, Neath Port Talbot county borough council, was among the first to appoint a carers' champion, before there was such a champion for the whole of Wales. Councillor Paul Thomas has done excellent work in that field for the past year or so. I should therefore like specifically to ask the Minister whether the UK review will link with the Welsh Assembly Government review to ensure that the strategies learn from one another and that they share good practice and good policy development policy across the country.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: As a corollary to his reply to that question, the Minister might like to address cross-border issues. As a Member whose constituency has a Welsh border, I see notable differences between approaches to carers, depending on whether one lives on one side of the River Dee, in my constituency, or 200 ft across the river in Holt in Wales. It would be useful to highlight those differences as part of the process of moving forward.

Dr. Francis: Indeed. As Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee I am very conscious of cross-border issues. There are differences not only between Wales and England but between county boroughs, and I agree that account should be taken of those matters in the two respective reviews, so as to minimise contradictions.

Looking to the future, I hope that we can build on the Acts that I have mentioned and consider ways of ending the remaining discrimination faced by carers. It is still legal to discriminate against someone who is a carer, whereas, as we know, it is illegal to do so on the basis of someone's race or disability. A crucial part of the review of the national carers strategy is to evaluate equality legislation and examine how carers can be brought into the existing framework. A human rights approach is very important. As we have already heard, when Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, recently addressed the all-party carers group, he assured us that he would give proper priority to carers' rights from the earliest stages of his work.

There is a need also to renew the focus on carers' access to work, education and training opportunities, as the Bevan Foundation report recommends. It is predicted that 2 million extra workers will be needed in the next 20 years to keep the UK economy buoyant, and that there will not be enough young people to meet that demand. It is also predicted that 3 million more people will become carers during that time. It is therefore self-evident that we must address how carers can gain access to learning and work opportunities—for the sake of both equal opportunity rights and the economy.

Many carers want to return to work. 85 per cent. of the carers taking distance-learning courses on the lottery-funded project run by the National Extension college are of working age—younger than 60—and the majority take courses because they are thinking ahead to a time when they can return to work after their caring responsibilities have ended. For some carers, particularly older ones, education also has social value that should not be underestimated. It gives relief from the isolation created by the caring role, allows for personal development and leisure activity, and for obvious reasons, reduces social exclusion.

Current barriers to education and training are the cost of courses, the lack of alternative care services during the time of study, the inflexibility of the courses on offer and a lack of understanding of carers' needs by colleges. A big issue is that a carer cannot study for more than 21 hours a week and receive carer's allowance. At a time when more and more courses can be delivered online, that seems ludicrous. The review of the national carers strategy should include a full review of how the benefits system works, because there are too many rules like that.

May I end on a personal note? My hon. Friend the Minister has been enthusiastic in his support of carers, and he gave me unofficial support in the preparation of the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004. I hope that he will be the newly appointed carers' champion and that he will drive forward the carers' cause across all Government Departments.

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