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Carers report that they suffer less stress and anxiety and are better able to cope with their caring role if they have access to good information and support. A carers plan identifying the range of support available to carers could only be of benefit.
The voluntary sector is highly successful in providing information. The better carers are educated, the better they are able to cope with the changing nature of the disease. Carers have said that the early provision of support and training for family members and friends not only improves the quality of care for the person with dementia, but relieves some of the anxieties of carers. Access to the early provision of support and training would be facilitated by the publication of a carers plan.
Early support would also help carers understand their own emotional responses and need for support. It is worth noting that when a person with dementia moves into residential provision, carers often continue to provide care, albeit in a different role. Moreover, many carers continue to share their experiences with others, offering support and advice for many years after their own caring responsibilities have ended. A carers plan would enable former carers with experience of the health and social care system to contribute to discussions about the type of services that carers should be given. Former carers would also help to hold local authorities to account over the support that they give to carers.
Many carers suffer financial hardship, which often compounds their emotional and social problems and can lead to a deterioration in their mental and physical health. Information about the support available to carers through the benefit system could be properly identified in a carers plan, and would therefore be of immense benefit. I hope that the Government's changes and improvements to the benefits system will include increased support for carers. A carers plan would inform carers about those changes.
Carers are often less able to participate in social activities. They provide most of the care given to people with dementia, and it is essential that they are not penalised as a result. Again, access to information about the benefits available from the Department of Social Security and through the tax system would be part of a carers plan.
Mr. Burstow: I have listened to the hon. Gentleman's speech closely, and I agree with much of what he has said about the idea of a carers plan. However, he seems to be describing two very different purposes for the plan: one purpose seems to be to inform carers about their rights and the services available to them, but the second purpose seems to be that it should act as a planning document and a tool for making local authorities--the service providers--more accountable. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those purposes do not fit well together?
Mr. Thomas: I do not agree. I believe that the two purposes fit well together. A carers plan would be an opportunity to provide information to carers and, by highlighting what was available for them, it would be a useful document in terms of holding local authorities accountable. In addition, a carers plan would help to inform the planning and delivery of services.
Information for carers would be one of the most profound benefits of a carers plan. I have already flagged up the Department of Health's excellent carers website, which was launched on 8 February. That will provide Departments with the opportunity to put on the internet details of the services and benefits affecting carers that they provide. I think that carers plans, particularly those of the highest quality, should be linked in to such a website, making it easier for carers who have access to the internet to get information about what services the Government are providing.
Carers plans must properly reflect the needs of black and ethnic minority carers. I understand that the Department of Health has forged strong links with national and London black carers forums. I contend that carers plans would enable local authorities properly to identify what support they are providing to those groups of carers.
In the course of my preparation, I consulted the Parkinson's Disease Society. People caring for someone with Parkinson's disease might want specific information in a carers plan, such as where specialist clinics are available in the health service. They might want to see evidence of work by the local authority and the health authority that shows that efforts are being made to increase awareness of the disease among other professionals in the area, through better education and training. They might also want access to information on drugs given in everyday language. The carers plan could help to indicate where such information would be available. Carers might also want to know how to get access to information about new therapy changes and new support for carers at crucial times. Again, a carers plan could help to identify where such support was available locally.
The Parkinson's Disease Society is campaigning hard to achieve the target of having some 240 Parkinson's disease nurse specialists. At present, there are 75 in post, and they provide particular support to patients and carers across the United Kingdom. A carers plan could help to identify which local authorities have access to such nurse specialists, and could help to encourage other local authorities to put pressure on the health authorities with which they are in partnership to make funding available for more Parkinson's disease nurse specialists.
The Parkinson's Disease Society has made it clear that respite care is extremely important, and that it wants an increase in the provision of high-quality respite care services. A carers plan could help to show which local authorities were expanding their respite care services for those with Parkinson's. The society has said that the provision of emergency respite care is also crucial, so that a crisis affecting the carer does not result in the patient being placed in a residential setting. In an emergency, carers want immediate access to information on getting respite care as soon as possible. A carers plan might help to ensure that local authorities provide such information.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) spoke in the same debate about carers of people who are mentally ill. A carers plan could make a powerful contribution to identifying the support available to carers.
Mr. Hutton: I am reluctant to intervene on my hon. Friend while he is making his speech. However, the national health service framework for mental health, which was published in September last year, makes it clear that it is the responsibility of local authorities to provide a written care plan for those looking after people with mental health problems. That is also a sign that the Government are trying to ensure that carers feature prominently in service improvement right across the range.