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11 Jun 2007 : Column 600

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Ivan Lewis): Given the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, will he withdraw the Conservative party’s opposition to electronic data sharing, which is at the heart of our capacity to reduce bureaucracy in public services?

Mr. Hunt: Let me put the Under-Secretary right: we have no opposition to electronic data sharing when it happens in a Department for a defined purpose such as simplifying the assessment process.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Would the hon. Gentleman and his party object strongly to data sharing between the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions to fulfil the objective that he identified in his comments?

Mr. Hunt: If there is a good reason, such as simplifying the complicated assessment processes, we would be happy to consider data sharing. However, we oppose building a national database, such as that required for the identity card scheme. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will tell me how many carers it would help if we scrapped the ID card scheme, which will cost £5.7 billion. We object to that, not to sharing data for a valid purpose.

Does the Under-Secretary of State for Health acknowledge that the system that was designed to help carers and disabled people has become so burdened with bureaucracy that it adds massively to their daily stress? I will now let him off the hook, unless he wants to respond to that question, and move to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. She knows that more than half of carers are forced to give up work to undertake their caring role. To what benefits are they entitled?

Carers are entitled to five different benefits: the carer’s allowance; the carer’s premium in income support; housing benefit; council tax benefit, and the community care grant. I have all the forms that carers have to complete. Can the Under-Secretary guess how many questions we ask people to answer if they want to apply for all five benefits? Does she have any idea? I shall put her out of her agony and tell her that the answer is 769 questions over 170 pages. The state is therefore saying, “We understand and value the role you’re performing and we’d like to help you. Kindly complete the attached 769 questions over 170 pages and we’ll tell you if you’re eligible for help.”

It might be justifiable to ask a lot of questions if we needed lots of unique information, but of those 769 questions, only 148—20 per cent.—ask unique questions, with 80 per cent. repeated. No wonder Carers UK says that the application for carer’s allowance leaves carers

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I launched North-West Leicestershire carers week in the Marlene Reid centre, Coalville, this morning and many of the remarks I heard relate to what the hon. Gentleman has said. Would he be surprised at the figure provided to me by a Department for Work and Pensions representative on a stand in the exhibition—
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that only 500,000 people of the 6 million carers, 3 million of whom are not in work, actually apply for and receive carer’s allowance under the current system? I have not had a chance to ratify it, but is it not a surprisingly low figure? Does he agree and can he authenticate that figure?

Mr. Hunt: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am not surprised by that figure, as there is a total of £740 million of unclaimed carers’ benefits. The result is that many carers fall into poverty. A third are in debt, a third cannot afford to pay some of their utility bills, while another third cannot afford essential repairs to their homes. We need to recognise that, just as there is a direct link between disability and poverty, so there can also be a direct link between caring responsibilities and poverty.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman also accept something that I have encountered in dealing with carers in my constituency—that many are of an age at which they do not feel they want to claim benefit? It is rather similar to pensioners and pension credit. An elderly woman said to me, “What’s a carer? I have always looked after my disabled daughter”. This is another barrier that has to be overcome. It is not just the fact that the money is not claimed: there are reasons for that, just as there are with pension credit.

Mr. Hunt: I would agree, but one of the reasons many people do not want to claim it is that the form is so complicated and difficult. Yes, there are barriers in people’s thinking—and these are difficult problems to overcome—but there are also practical barriers that we, as a state, can do something about, and the complexity of the form is one of them.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): In my constituency, there are also many children who care for their disabled parents. Are they expected to fill out those 750-odd questions as well?

Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend makes an important point. If he had attended the debate earlier this year about the life chances of disabled children, he would have heard in my speech that for families with disabled children, the number of questions that have to be answered is not 769, but 1,118. The situation is actually worse for those parents.

What is most worrying about this complexity in the benefit system is how it makes it difficult for carers to work. All these benefits have different rules about the work that can or cannot be done. On carer’s allowance, it is possible to earn £87 a week, but any more and the benefit is lost. For income support, anything above £20 is deducted pound for pound. With housing benefit, anything more than £20 is deducted at a rate of 65 per cent., while with council tax benefit it is deducted at the rate of 20 per cent. More than half of carers give up work because of their role, but nearly half would like to work if they could, so why are we penalising them?

This is not simply a moral question; it is also, because of the demographic crisis on our doorstep, a practical question. I was trying to think of a way to personalise this issue for the select group of hon.
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Members in their places this evening. The average age of an MP is actually 50. By the time the average MP becomes 75, there will be an additional 3.2 million 75-year-olds compared with the number of them today. In that period, because of the ageing population, there will be 500,000 fewer children; yet there will be 500,000 more disabled children and all of them will need carers. Six out of 10 men and seven out of 10 women will become carers at some point in their lifetime, but this involves children as well. There are also 175,000 child carers, and that number is growing.

The choice is simple. Do we want family and friends to remain the mainstay of the caring that takes place in our society, or do we want to gamble by doing nothing to reform the bureaucracy of the social care system and the complexity of the benefits system? Do we want to risk those carers giving up and passing that responsibility on to the state, which would be the worst possible outcome for cared-for people?

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case and I totally agree with him about streamlining the benefits system; carers certainly call for that. Do they not also call for a bit more help from the state—that is, from all of us—to enable them occasionally to have access to respite care and short breaks? Many of those wonderful people and hard-pressed families are at breaking point. Is not there a lot more that we could do to provide respite care and short breaks? Will my hon. Friend address that point for a few moments?

Mr. Hunt: No one has done more than my hon. Friend to campaign for respite care provision. We made significant progress this year, following the Treasury review, when respite care for an additional 40,000 families was announced. He is absolutely right. According to Mencap, eight out of 10 families with disabled children are at breaking point because of the lack of respite care. This is a pressing issue. Dealing with the complexity of the benefit system and the bureaucracy of the social care system is one of the major pressures that these families face, and we could do something about it.

We need to stop talking and start acting. As a shadow Minister, I can offer only the shallow comfort of words. Ministers, however, can offer the real hope of action. We have told them what to do and when they must do it. Six million carers will be watching this week to see whether they are listening.

8.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I beg to move, To leave out from “review” to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

This issue should unite all sides of the House. National carers week provides us with an important opportunity to pay tribute to the remarkable contribution of carers to their families, friends and our society, and to shine a light on many remarkable and inspirational personal stories, but also to face up to our solemn responsibility to build a system and a society that address the needs of carers, both in fulfilling their caring role and as people who have a right to a life of their own. Observing national carers week is like throwing a pebble into the sea. It will generate a ripple but leave the vast expanse of ocean—the lives of 6 million carers—largely untouched. One week is a catalyst; our challenge is to make a difference 52 weeks a year and 365 days a year to the carers in every community in every part of the country who are coping with unique situations, but also with common problems.

As we face this responsibility, we should not make the mistake of believing that Government or Parliament have all the solutions. We must listen to and learn from individual carers and the organisations who are their voice. I want to pay tribute to national organisations such as Carers UK, Crossroads, the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, Partners in Policymaking, the Children’s Society and all the organisations that are part of the Every Disabled Child Matters coalition.

I also want to pay tribute to the hundreds of self-help groups, voluntary organisations and local authorities up and down the country that support carers and enable them to have the best possible quality of life, as well as the individual heroes who exist in every hon. Member’s constituency. In my own constituency, Geraldine Green is a remarkable person. As a grandma, she is full-time carer to grandchildren who have autism. As a social entrepreneur, she runs Hurdles, a voluntary organisation offering a range of support services to disabled children and their families. In her spare time—I use the term jokingly—along with a team of volunteers, she has just opened a café with the aim of providing training and work opportunities for young people with learning disabilities so that they can develop the skills and confidence necessary to secure a job of their own. Then there is Jill Pay, whom the Chancellor and I met when we launched the new deal for carers recently. She looks after her daughter Rowan, who has severe learning disabilities, and is supported in doing so by her eldest daughter, Camilla. Geraldine, Jill and Camilla’s spirit, tenacity, courage and flair are inspirational, but their frustration and anger at the system must be a wake-up call to us all.

In many ways, that frustration is summed up by a mother I met recently in my constituency. She has a son with autism, and two things that she said stuck out, and could have been articulated by far too many carers: “Why don’t the professionals seem to understand that I am the expert on my son?” and “Why do I have to shout before anybody listens?”

As the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) said, it is estimated that the country has 6 million carers overall—arguably, about one in every
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street. Given the likely consequences of changes in our society, that figure will become one in every family. As the hon. Gentleman said, the vast majority of us are likely to become carers. It will no longer be somebody else’s concern.

Mr. Hunt: The Minister has talked about the number of people who are likely to become carers. Can he explain why his Department is currently refusing to fund the inclusion of a question about caring responsibilities in the 2011 census? Such a question was included in the previous census. Many carer organisations are worried, however, that if his Department is not willing to put up the funds for the same question to be asked in the 2011 census, we will not know how many carers society has.

Mr. Lewis: As part of the review that we are about to undertake, that is exactly the kind of issue that we need to address. That will be part of the fundamental review of the new carers strategy, which we shall develop and work on in the period ahead.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): On the subject of the census and listening to the organisations listed by the Minister at the beginning of his remarks, I hope that he will listen to the representations made to his Department today by Shropshire Partners in Care. Its petition, which I delivered with other Shropshire MPs, highlights the problems of process whereby the Government rely on out-of-date 2001 census data to determine the allocation of funding for the elderly, adults with learning difficulties and others in care. Demographic changes, and changes in health, are moving faster than the census data can catch up with them.

Mr. Lewis: In a moment I shall talk about demographic change, which is why, in the next two decades, the vast majority of people in this country will become carers. Of course I have sympathy with constituents who have strong passionate feelings about their areas, but neither the hon. Gentleman nor the hon. Member for South-West Surrey made one policy or spending commitment during their contributions to the debate. Theirs were all fine warm words, many of which I, as the Minister responsible in the Department of Health, would have no problem with. But they made not one extra spending commitment in relation to the needs of carers.

Mr. Hunt: In that case, will the Minister give a policy commitment about reducing the bureaucracy of social service provision?

Mr. Lewis: As part of the review of the needs of carers, we will listen— [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman referred to the review being all talk. To be clear, he therefore wants a process in which senior civil servants and Ministers sit in offices in Westminster and Whitehall and impose a new strategy on carers, rather than engaging with people in the real world who experience services daily, and ensuring that there is a bottom-up strategy in which carers identify the priorities and what they expect from the state.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend confirm that a key Government recommendation was that local councils should appoint lead people to liaise with carers and co-ordinate the
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services that they need? That should overcome a lot of the difficulties that, as the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) suggests, many people experience.

Mr. Lewis: I entirely agree, but localism—in which the Conservative party also believes—means that we do not impose any one model on care services run by local authorities or primary care trusts. The outcome of the review of the needs of disabled children and their families illustrated the importance of the lead professional who helps families to navigate the system, which is at the heart of the provision of modern personalised public services. Those are the changes that we need to see, in the context of reform of social care and of public services more generally.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I am sure that all carers would like to be helped to find their way through the problems that becoming a carer throws up, but would not the adviser’s job be much easier if the benefits system, in particular, were much less complex? The Government could do something about that.

Mr. Lewis: Let me say gently that this is the Government who introduced a national carers strategy in the first place, in 1999. This is the Government who introduced the annual carers grant that goes to every local authority, and this is the Government who gave carers the right to request flexible working. We will take no lectures from Opposition Members. There may still be issues to be addressed, but that is precisely why we are now going to engage in the most extensive consultation ever, with carers in every community in the country, to ensure that we can make the necessary changes.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): As chair of the all-party parliamentary carers group, I want to record my thanks to the official Opposition for initiating the debate and giving us an opportunity to showcase the tremendous advances achieved by this Labour Government over the last decade. Will my hon. Friend reiterate his warm response to what I said last week in congratulating the Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government on establishing, in that Government, a carers champion—an example that we should follow here in England?

Mr. Lewis: If there is a vacancy for such a role in this Government, I think that my hon. Friend would be an excellent candidate—although it is not for me to hand out ministerial appointments, especially at this stage in the political cycle. On the basis of his personal experiences of caring, he has been a tremendous champion and advocate of change in our society, to transform the experiences of carers in Wales and throughout the United Kingdom. Over time, the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004, which he promoted, will make a massive difference to the opportunities available to carers. He should be very proud of the difference that he has made.

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