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Young Carers

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Chope. I am delighted to have been granted the opportunity to secure a debate on the sensitive and somewhat emotional subject of young carers.

Across our country, it is estimated that 700,000 young people support their mother, father, brother, sister or grandparent as a primary carer. Each and every one of those brave young people has a unique story to tell, and all of them face a range of difficulties as a result of the compassion and love that they show toward their cared-for relatives. As I am sure all new MPs will agree, attempting to visit as many community groups and local organisations as possible was, and remains, a key priority following last May’s general election. I was fortunate enough to be invited to visit York Young Carers last October. I shall always remember meeting some of York’s most valuable young people. Listening to some of the young carers’ stories made me immensely proud to be one of the MPs of our great city of York. I cannot praise highly enough our young cares’ courage, compassion and utter dedication to their role.

The visit also opened my eyes to the vast responsibilities that young carers find placed on their shoulders at such a young age. Their wide-ranging roles include providing physical and mental support, organising hospital visits, paying bills, cooking meals, cleaning, organising medication and liaising with social workers. Given that the average age of young carers is just 12 years, it is remarkable that so many have the capacity to care while also studying at school and developing emotionally themselves.

In addition, my meeting gave me a fascinating insight into the tremendous work carried out by the York Young Carers charity, and I know that many other charities across the country do similar things. I take this opportunity to highlight the dedication of the organisation’s staff and volunteers. From offering young carers one-to-one support to providing an environment where they can come together to socialise, support one another and share their experience, the charity is an invaluable source of support and stability for the young people.

One of the most important support mechanisms that the charity provides is organising away-day trips. Young carers spend so much of their time acting with the responsibility and maturity of adults that it is important to remember that they are, in fact, just children themselves. By providing trips and away days, charities such as York Young Carers provide welcome relief from the everyday challenges of caring. For a brief period, young carers are allowed to enjoy being children again.

I would also like to draw attention to the “Young Carers Revolution” media campaign set up by York Young Carers to highlight the difficulties facing young carers across the country. A promotional DVD is available on YouTube, and I encourage all interested Members to watch it to see for themselves what young carers go through, and to hear about it through their own words.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this incredibly important debate. Does he agree that the work of York Young Carers is important because of the great stigma that is often attached to young children who care for relatives? Authorities, whether school or social services, are often not aware of the work that they do to try to support their family. That is why what York Young Carers does is so valuable.

I agree entirely with those comments. The essence of the debate is to try to raise awareness. I shall go into more detail later about the educational side and potential bullying, but my hon. Friend is right that awareness is crucial. It is sad that the work of so many young carers, not only in York but across the country, goes unrecognised. We must remember that, and the essential contribution that they make not only to their own family but to society as a whole.

The national focus of the “Young Carers Revolution” campaign requires us to look at the state of play for young carers up and down the country more generally. In particular, I am extremely worried by research by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers which concludes that one in three young carers face educational difficulties, while two in three experience bullying at school.

There can be no doubt that young carers live under huge pressure. As I have said, their roles and responsibilities are great and many. We must all expect that such unenviable circumstances will, in most instances, have an adverse effect on the time and ability of young carers to contribute fully to their educational studies. With a young carer’s first priority being the relative for whom they care, it is only right that schools and education providers understand and are sympathetic to their role. One of the greatest frustrations outlined to me by York Young Carers was that too few people, including some teachers, fully appreciate the pressures, both time-wise and emotionally, under which young carers operate. Sadly, 60% of young carers say that they would not be able to talk to a teacher about their caring role, which I find disappointing.

Given that the research by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers shows that some young carers spend up to 50 hours a week carrying out their caring role in their family home, the subject needs greater exposure. It is essential that schools not only show great understanding towards students who are carers, but take on the role of educating others about the pressures faced by their peers. I know that Members on both sides of the House fully support the “Stand Against Bullying” campaign, and I hope that the Minister will be able to commit Government support to those who are working hard to challenge negative attitudes in our classrooms. It is simply unacceptable that two out of three young carers are subject to bullying, and I would welcome his thoughts on how central Government, in conjunction with local authorities and schools, can work in a co-ordinated manner to tackle that form of harassment.

On the academic side, I urge all schools and colleges to provide additional learning support to known young carers who may struggle with their grades as a result of their responsibilities. I am concerned that a childhood of care can sometimes lead to limited options for the individual concerned as they move into adulthood. It would be a tragedy if that were to prove to be the case, so I would like universities and employers to take a more informed view when being approached by those who have spent a sizeable part of their learning years operating as carers. Ensuring accessibility to education, higher study and employment for young carers is vital.

As well as educational difficulties, young carers face struggles relating to additional social support and financial assistance. Less than a month ago—it might seem longer to some Members—the country was celebrating Christmas, a wonderful festive season. As a father of two young children, I know how important it is to families and children, yet it is at that time of year that the plight of young carers can be captured most vividly.

Sadly, more than one quarter of young carers had to wrap their own Christmas presents, and one in five found Christmas day tougher or sadder than the rest of the year because support services are reduced and family finances are under greater pressure. For most of Britain’s children, Christmas day is an opportunity to relax, enjoy presents, watch TV and share family time, but more than one third of young carers spend more than six hours carrying out their caring role on Christmas day itself. The chief executive of the Princess Royal Trust for Carers stated:

“Many of the young carers we surveyed wished for their family member to get better rather than get the latest toy. Sadly for them Christmas is just like any other day.”

My purpose in highlighting young carers’ difficulties during the festive period is not simply to praise their magnificent contribution, though that would be a worthy enough reason in itself, but to pick up on the amount of support that is available to them. Without question, a number of fantastic social services staff work with young carers across the country, but what worries me is that, on average, it takes four years for young carers to receive any support at all.

Such delays are often a result of fear or embarrassment. Sadly, a culture of fear seems to be prevalent among young carers, and I can absolutely understand why. Asking for help is never easy, particularly if someone fears that their family home may be broken up or disrupted as a result. It is the job of the authorities and the voluntary sector to break the cycle of fear, and I welcome the new national carers strategy commitment to early identification of carers. Such identification and the subsequent focus of support towards young carers are essential.

The recent report commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation in association with the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, “MyCare: The challenges facing young carers of parents with a severe mental illness”, found that young carers are at greater risk of isolation than any other youth group. Also, many young carers lack the information to understand a relative’s mental health problems, and they disproportionately face their own physical and mental health risks.

I share the sentiments of the senior researcher at the Mental Health Foundation, Dr Robotham, who led the “MyCare” report:

“While there are examples of good practice such as young carers’ support groups, much more needs to be done to meet young carers’ needs more effectively.”

That is an accurate assessment. The work of the York Young Carers charity will, for example, be further enhanced if some of the following report suggestions are implemented locally and nationally.

First, I support the report’s suggestion for young carers to be included in discussions of their relative’s treatment. Indeed, young carers in York raised that very issue with me when I met them last year. Our young carers often know the most about the cared-for’s condition and yet, frequently, they are overlooked by health professionals and GPs. I would be most grateful for the Minister’s specific views on that, because it is an important aspect of how young carers are dealt with by the medical profession.

Secondly, as I have touched upon, it is essential that every school has a policy on provision of support for pupils who are young carers. Such a measure would ensure that all teachers and education professionals were aware of the sensitive issues involved.

Thirdly, our health, mental and social services should be encouraged to work together, to be more effective in their offer of support not only to the cared-for but to the carer. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed whether he has had any discussions with appropriate agencies to promote any such increased co-operation.

Lastly, the issue of funding is of great concern to many carers and related charities. As a firm supporter of the localism agenda and the Localism Bill—sadly, I did not get to speak yesterday, although I was one of the 52 who put in a request to speak—I strongly believe in providing local authorities with greater flexibility about how best to spend their budgets. However, I urge local authorities, including City of York council, to prioritise the needs of young carers highly.

Following the publication of the “MyCare” report, the chief executive of the Princess Royal Trust for Carers stated:

“The aim of this project is to help children’s services, education and mental health services to work together to better identify and support young carers, making the little changes to services that can make a huge difference to their lives.”

That is a key point in the whole process.

Some of the individual concerns that I have discussed today might seem small or insignificant when viewed alongside the wider social services agenda. However, for our young carers, more recognition from health services, greater support from teachers, firmer guarantees about future support provision and simple understanding from wider society would make their pressurised lives a bit easier.

Having spoken with local experts, agencies and, more importantly, young carers themselves, I believe that the issue could and should attract cross-party consensus and action. Our young carers carry out remarkable work, often in unimaginable circumstances and under tremendous pressure. We must do all we can to promote their cause and to ease their burdens.

Britain’s young carers have spent their lives loving, supporting and caring for a member of their family. It is now time that we begin to champion them, and to ensure that each and every young carer has a strong voice and clear access to as much support as possible.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Chope.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate and on his exceedingly articulate and measured way of making a strong case. I echo most of the sentiments in his excellent speech, which I hope is heard more widely beyond today’s not overly crowded Chamber.

I am pleased, in particular, to be here to respond as a Minister. As shadow Minister for Children, I took a particular interest in the subject, and I have met many groups of young carers and the organisations involved with them. I pay tribute to those various organisations, some of which my hon. Friend has mentioned, for their excellent and often unrecognised work in a really important area, which affects many more children than some estimates suggest.

Supporting vulnerable children, including young carers, is, of course, a priority for the Government, which is why I am pleased to have the opportunity to articulate our approach to that subset of young people. Helping to care for a family member is something that many young people are happy and proud to do—it helps them to develop a sense of responsibility and skills that are important in later life. Such young people play an absolutely vital role in their families and in society as a whole, for whom they save an awful lot of money. They deserve our recognition and support. However, inappropriate or excessive levels of caring by young people—even if at their own behest—can put their education, training, social development or health at risk, preventing them from enjoying their childhood in the same way as other children. Too many young carers are trapped in harmful caring roles without much hope of fulfilling their potential. That can be for a number of reasons: they do not recognise themselves as young carers or, if they do, they do not seek help; services are not identifying them as carers; or they fear involving children’s services and outside agencies.

That is not, of course, the full picture. Thousands of carers, through admirable resilience and sheer determination, achieve so much despite the odds stacked against them. I have met many young carers, including at the annual young carers festival down in Southampton, which is organised by the Children’s Society—in particular, by Jenny Frank, who has devoted so much of her career to helping young carers—and by the YMCA Fairthorne Group. I have attended for most of the 12 years that that incredible festival has been running. I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer to attend, if he can—it is usually on a weekend in July. I never cease to be impressed by the commitment of the people whom I meet there and their determination to do the best not only for the person they care for but often for other members of their families, such as their brothers and sisters. Some of those young people have done all that and still succeeded at school and gone on to university or successful employment, but not all of them cope so well.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for making the issue a priority and for finding time to meet the York Young Carers—I shall certainly look at the group’s excellent film on YouTube. As he has said, a new Member is at the call of many organisations wanting to familiarise themselves with new MPs. However, young carers, such as those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, have made it clear to me that they want their schools, GPs and the mental health and other health services with which their family members come into contact to be more supportive and more carer aware. My hon. Friend made a good point, which young carers often make to me, about how the doctor, social worker or professional from another agency, who is seeing the parent or whoever is being cared for, often talks over the head of the young person.

If that young person has the day-to-day responsibility, that young person has some very grown-up responsibility placed on them, they know an awful lot about their loved one’s situation, and they need to be talked to and involved in the process. That is a common plea, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue. Professionals, therefore, need to be more carer aware. Young carers want professionals to recognise that the young carer, despite being a minor, will often be the responsible person in the house and might understand better than anyone what kind of support is needed and when.

It is shocking that so many young people lose the opportunity to live a normal childhood because of their caring role. Such young people are often hidden from everyone but their families. I agree with my hon. Friend that all of us, including those services I mentioned earlier, need to be mindful of the impact that caring can have on a young person’s education, training or employment opportunities. Indeed, that is why providing carers with vital information about the illness or disability that they and their family are coping with and involving them in the decisions about how best to provide care and manage their health is one of the key principles in the carers strategy, “Recognised, valued and supported: next steps for the Carers Strategy”, to which my hon. Friend has referred.

I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), for the speed with which he and his Department, with support from the Department for Education and others in the Government, published the new strategy. I am pleased to say that carers’ views, including those of young carers, are very much at the heart of it. If we listened to the views of young carers, it would go a long way to helping them.

I shall take this opportunity to praise the young carers in York for producing their “Young Carers Revolution” media campaign, and for the sterling work that they have done to raise awareness and reach out to young carers. They come to the annual festival and have interesting things to say.

The new carers strategy recognises that there are hidden young carers. It sends out a strong signal that effective support for young carers requires adult and children’s services, including health services, schools and the voluntary sector, to work together and prevent young carers from taking on harmful or excessive caring roles. The early intervention grant, worth £2.2 billion a year over the period of the spending review, provides local authorities and their partners with the freedom and flexibility to decide how best to prioritise their resources in accordance with local demand.

The Government strongly believe that such support should be targeted at those children and families who are most in need, and I encourage local authorities to identify appropriate services for young carers and prioritise them. Local authorities can do that by adopting the “Working together to support young carers” programme, which is a memorandum of understanding published jointly by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. The memorandum is unambiguous in stating that no care package should rely on a young person taking on an inappropriate caring role. I urge local authorities—including that of my hon. Friend—as does the Government’s carers strategy, to consider adopting that memorandum.

All too often, as an Ofsted report highlighted in 2009, services do not work together effectively and young carers fall through the gaps. Training can be an effective way of raising awareness of young carers among professionals who might not otherwise recognise that a young carer is involved. I am grateful for the work done by the Children’s Society, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, the Social Care Institute for Excellence, and others, to train a range of professionals to be more carer aware.

There is already much good practice in this area, and I join my hon. Friend in saluting the dedication of staff—including thousands of volunteers—who through hundreds of young carer projects, mostly in the voluntary sector, provide young carers with the respite and one-to-one support that they need, giving them the opportunity to take part in activities or go on breaks with friends with whom they can share their experiences. Often, young people who find themselves as carers need to get together with other young people in a similar situation who can appreciate, understand and sympathise with the challenges they face at home. It is about having the opportunity to take an evening off to go and see a film with other people, or to go bowling, or whatever. There are lots of interesting projects, largely set up through the Children’s Society by Jenny Frank and others, and we have entertained many such projects in this House over the years. They could be something simple that make young carers feel that they are not alone and that other people understand and look out for them.

The voluntary sector plays a vital role in supporting those young people, and I am pleased that through the innovation fund, the National Young Carers Coalition is extending the support that it provides to the whole family. The carers centre in York is another example of a voluntary sector project that provides invaluable support.

It is not for Government to micro-manage and prescribe what is best for local authorities—local authorities should know what is most appropriate for their residents and communities. Practice and approach, however, varies across the country and I am committed to encouraging the sharing of best practice—something that we are often not terribly good at—so that all areas in the country can share knowledge about what works from areas that are doing well. I am pleased that the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, will, on behalf of the National Young Carers Coalition, showcase the learning from the innovation fund.

My Department has already made available the interim findings from the young carer pathfinders scheme. It shows that where intensive support was co-ordinated by a key worker and focused around the family, between entry and exit from the project, there was a 35% reduction in the number of young carers in those families, and a 41% reduction in the number of young people for whom caring was having a negative impact.

An improving picture is emerging as more young people are referred to receive the support they need as a result of their parents’ mental health or substance misuse problems, and more schools are becoming aware of the support that they need to provide. However, there is much still to do, and a number of families will be facing a range of other complex problems. For example, research highlights that family violence can be an issue at home. That is why I am pleased that on 10 December last year, the Prime Minister announced a new national campaign for families with multiple problems. That campaign sets out to support the most vulnerable 120,000 families, a number of whom will have a young person or persons in a caring role. It represents a new and determined effort to improve the lives of those families and those who live around them. It will trial innovative new approaches to providing tailored support to the whole family where there are complex problems, and it will provide personalised and holistic support to help a family deal with its problems. I look forward to seeing the benefits of that new approach.

From a young carer’s perspective, schools are arguably the local service with which they have the most contact and which play the greatest role in helping them. Young carers have told us that they want their schools to be more supportive and understanding about their caring role and education, and I support that. Young carers want teaching staff to recognise that they may need flexible learning arrangements and additional support. That is a major issue, and it comes up when I go to conferences and meet people. Young carers need an understanding teacher who knows the demands on them and can put in a word if, for some good reason, homework is in late or it is necessary to be in telephone contact with a doctor or another professional because a relative has taken a turn for the worse, or whatever. Good practice is for each school to designate somebody in that role, but that does not always happen.

Although many schools have systems in place to support young carers and have a lead person to support them, that does not happen enough. Some schools may like to consider whether a governor should have an oversight role, just as we recommend for children in the care system who have particular requirements. To increase the support available to young carers in schools, the Department for Education is working closely with the Department of Health to provide the National Young Carers Coalition with an e-learning module for teachers and staff as part of the healthy schools approach to help better identify and support young carers.

Another issue that affects young carers—I am aware of the research by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers that my hon. Friend has mentioned—is bullying. Unacceptably, and incredibly, nearly two thirds of young carers are bullied at school. Perhaps they are often late, do not have time to take part in social activities or do not dress in the same way as others. All those things can mark them out as different from their peers. The Government, the Secretary of State for Education and I, take that issue very seriously. It is unacceptable for any child to be victimised, and even more so when they have the responsibilities of a young carer on their shoulders.

We can be proud of the vast majority of young people, but when bullies are identified we cannot just suspend them for a couple of days and allow them to saunter back into school to torment their victims again. We will put head teachers and teachers back in control and give them a range of tough new powers to deal with bullies. Head teachers will be able to take a zero-tolerance approach and will have the final say. We trust that head teachers will use those powers but I hope they do not have to. By educating young people to appreciate, respect and empathise with the pressures on people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in an adult caring role, I hope that we can eradicate that completely unacceptable form of bullying.

When bullying occurs, schools need to respond promptly and firmly. They need to apply disciplinary sanctions and work with bullies so that they are held to account for their actions and accept responsibility for the harm they have caused. Schools must also support those who are being bullied and, above all, they must educate bullying out of the school and classroom. All of us in society have a responsibility in that area. I hope that this debate and the other initiatives for young carers, such as the fantastic weekend at Fairthorne manor and the meetings in which we speak to young carers to understand their problems from the sharp end and look at how better we can accommodate them, will raise the profile of this issue, so that more people recognise the particular challenges faced by those young people.

The Department for Education will continue to work closely with the voluntary sector and local authorities to break down barriers to supporting young carers and their families effectively, which is the least we can do. We have a duty as a society to help those people, and frankly it is a false economy both socially and financially not to do that as actively as possible. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this subject and putting his case so strongly. I hope that he is a convert, an advocate and an ambassador for the issue of young carers, and that he will ensure that as many people in his constituency—and beyond—are aware of the challenges faced and do their bit to make the role of young carers as easy as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.