I beg to move,
That this House has considered carers.
Imagine a day when 6.5 million people did not turn up to work as expected. They had a duvet day. They went to the beach. They subscribed to Netflix. They did some beauty therapy and some shopping therapy. They went drinking and they had fun—they might have taken a trip to the beach, or had a day at a theme park. What if those 6.5 million people made no arrangements for the care of their loved ones? What if those massive numbers of people simply took a holiday and did not arrange any cover? How many vulnerable people would go unbathed and unfed? How many would be unable to get out of bed to go to the loo? There would be no pills, no jabs, no dressings administered and no GP appointments attended. There would be nobody caring for the people who cannot do it for themselves. How frightening, gravely concerning and inhumane would that be? How many people would die? How many people’s conditions would deteriorate? How would our emergency services cope? Who would pick up the slack if those 6 million carers did not turn up for work one day?
In this country, 1.3 million provide more than 50 hours of unpaid care a week. The care they provide is worth £132 billion a year, which is what the NHS costs us. There are 150,000 doctors in the NHS and 87,000 soldiers in our Army. In Eastleigh, there are more than 10,000 carers, and the same number in Chippenham and Sedgefield. There are more than 8,000 in Stirling and more than 12,000 in North Antrim. An army of carers turns up every day—day in, day out.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She is right to highlight the financial value of carers. Does she agree that the personal value should also be considered? According to Carers UK, three out of four carers feel that their role is not understood in their community. Does she agree that community support is vital in helping to build carer-friendly communities?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I am delighted to have secured this debate today to highlight these issues. I know that she works tirelessly in her community to support carers and the people who need them. I agree that there is a human cost and an economic cost to caring.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for being so supportive in ensuring that this important topic gets time in the Chamber. I hope that this will be a wide-ranging debate. I am also grateful to the Government and to the Minister for Community and Social Care, who has been very supportive of my application to hold the debate this week, which is carers week.
We know the value of carers, but do we really understand what is involved? How do you become a carer? A loved one might get older or become disabled. A child might be born with challenges. Someone might experience an unexpected change in their health. There might be a car accident or an incident at work. An operation could go wrong. A mental health challenge could arise, resulting in the need for care. All of a sudden, you become someone who needs to be a carer. How do you manage it?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) has suggested, long-term caring can have a financial and emotional effect on families. It can have an impact on relationships. You lose friends. You lose leisure time. You also lose your freedom. Relationships between husbands and wives change. You become a carer rather than a lover or a friend. The impact of the need for mum or dad or a child to come first means a big change for families. You can develop a fear of the phone. You could be at work, out shopping, doing the chores or walking the dog when you get a phone call to say that something has happened on your caring watch. It is worrying for you as a carer when the phone rings. You are mindful of what damage could be done while you are not there.
Carers week represents an important collaboration by Carers UK, Age UK, the Carers Trust, Independent Age, Macmillan Cancer Support, the Motor Neurone Disease Association and the MS Society. The focus this year is on building carer-friendly communities, and that is why I have tried in my opening remarks to remind people that someone in their lives is taking on the extra responsibility of being a carer. How many hidden carers do Members have in their constituency? Who do we know who is taking on that role? This debate gives us a chance to highlight the need to ensure that all our communities are aware of the work that unpaid carers do. Local GPs should understand the restraints a carer might face—I am aware that GPs themselves face many pressures—and employers should be spearheading flexible working and educating their own organisations to support carers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this vital debate. Does she agree that some of the hidden carers are young people aged 12, 13 or 14? I have met some of them from Staffordshire and they do the most amazing work. They need our support.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I shall go on to discuss the importance of young carers in a moment. More than 700,000 of the 6 million carers in this country are young carers who are taking on at a tender age all the burdens that I have described. This has an impact on their education and their opportunities. Our schools should show understanding and foster an environment in which young people can be carers. They should forge an appreciation of caring in our ageing society. Three in every four carers do not feel that their caring role is understood or valued by their community. It is incredible that we have so much more progress to make before we can live in a truly carer-friendly Britain. I believe that we are now at the start.
As I have said, more than 6 million people in England provide unpaid care, with 1.3 million providing more than 50 hours a week. In my constituency, there are more than 10,000 unpaid carers. We have an army of carers quietly working away looking after their loved ones across this country, and they do it for humane reasons. We do not do enough to support and recognise them. Locally, the loss of respite has been a great cause for concern. Respite offers carers freedom and time to regroup, and a lack of it can be a great concern. Alternatively, the wrong type of respite might be offered or it might be poorly managed. I have heard about such experiences in my constituency surgery feedback.
I thank the volunteers in my constituency who support our carers. The One Community brings together many groups to support each other, including the Age Concern centre, Dementia Friends, the Alzheimer’s group and all the people who help carers by driving their loved ones to hospital or to the GP.
I also want to say thank you to everyone in my constituency who runs a lunch club or a social club, all of which provide important opportunities for social contact.
A recent Carers UK report highlighted the fact that many carers are struggling. Most of us will have to care for someone at some point in our lives, and we want to be able to do that. Three in every five people become a carer at some point. Members of this House and of the other place, and our staff, are carers too.
In leading this debate, I should declare an interest. I was a carer, although I did not realise it. I was a hidden carer. We are nothing if we do not bring our own experiences to bear in our work in the House. I was a “sandwich carer”—that is, someone with small children and older, ill parents. We became so friendly with the local ambulance service that we were on first name terms, and I thank them all for the kindness they showed me and my family. My dad was affected by an incident at work and was cared for by my mother for more than 25 years. That had a massive financial impact on me as I grew up and on our family. And when dad was gone, guess what, mum needed looking after too, because when you are looking after someone you often forget to look after yourself. People can go downhill quite quickly in those circumstances.
I found myself muddling along looking after small children, going to GP surgeries and getting mum up to London, where we struggled on the escalators and on the tube to get to vital hospital appointments. I did not realise that that was an ongoing role for me. I gave up my job and threw myself into it. I remember the phone calls. One came when I was about to go on air at a radio station just before 6 o’clock in the morning. Dad was unresponsive. There had been a problem with his insulin. Luckily, mum was awake because she was going to care for my children, covering for me while I was at work. She was caring for me, I was caring for her, and we were all caring for dad. When the phone rang, I had to drop everything and get there. For me, that was a snapshot of what people are doing day in, day out, and year in, year out. There is no break. If someone is lucky to get one, that is great, but it is still your watch even when they are not with you—are they in the right place?
A particular story that comes to mind was when my dad developed glaucoma as a result of the diabetes that was brought on by the head injury. He was given respite, but at that point he had not told people that he was losing his sight. He was in a respite centre and got lost going to the loo in the middle of the night. He got in the wrong lift and was wandering around a strange place. He was over 70, frightened and concerned though he was meant to be in a safe place. That story meant that no further respite was taken, meaning no further breaks.
I want to move on from my experiences, but please remember that all of us will be doing this. There are people in the House who do it already. I hope that we can recognise and understand the issue.
Will my hon. Friend allow me to add that each of our offices has caseworkers to whom we should pay tribute for their dedication in trying to help carers and others? That is only one part of carers week, but it is one that should always be remembered. We are grateful to them.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. My caseworkers have been into the community, meeting constituents who are unable to come to surgeries or drop-ins. They have been to refuges to see women with difficult disability issues. They are prepared for anything and we would be nowhere without them.
Today’s debate will allow us to realise that caring will only increase in importance. With an ageing population and advances in medical science, we are seeing a steady increase in those who need care and those who are willing and able to provide it. Since 2001, the carer population has grown by a staggering 16.5%. There is a strong economic case for doing more for our carers. The economic value of the contribution made by 6 million carers is £132 billion a year, which is nearly equal to the UK’s total health spend.
As the number of young carers grows to over 700,000, perhaps we need a national day to recognise them and to highlight and support what they do. They look after family members who are physically ill, mentally ill, disabled or perhaps even misusing substances. These young children miss out on many normal childhood experiences that they should be taking part in. Young carers can sometimes be isolated and bullied owing to the pressures they face at home.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I absolutely agree. Pointing out that there are difficulties at home can be a frightening experience, and young carers may wonder what it will mean for them. It may feel better to say nothing, but that is a frightening place in which to be.
Young carers often miss school days. When they become young adults, they are more likely to drop out of college or be unable to head to university. That is not good enough after all they have put into their families and given the impact on their lives. They need support when helping their loved ones. They display real human decency at such a young age and suffer as a result. We should be nurturing, supporting and applauding our young carers.
The vast majority of carers are of working age. Many of them want to work, and 3 million people juggle full or part-time work with their caring duties. At the House of Commons carers event this week, I spoke to carers who are juggling their desire to do it all and who are not dropping the ball even though their health is often suffering. They are sometimes aware that they are able to care for their loved ones only for a limited time: they need to stay in the workplace for financial reasons. It is often not a choice; it is forced.
It is bad for companies if they lose our carers because the carers feel they have no choice but to walk out the door, which is what I did. If I was not in this place, I would now be without any caring responsibilities—apart from the two small children who do not seem to have been adopted yet, so I have to remember to look after them! I would be looking for a job and would have been out of the workplace for some time.
Absolutely. Carers have a can-do attitude that they bring to the workplace. If I was rewriting my CV, I would hope to put that on there.
It is bad for carers to fall out of the workplace. When asked about their experiences, the results were astonishing. Over a third of carers felt that their employer simply did not understand their caring role, and a third said that their employer did not have policies in place to support them. Flexible working is a key support mechanism to help carers to do their valuable work. Some progress has been made in supporting flexible or agile working. A limited right to request flexible working was introduced in 2002, and I am pleased that the Children and Families Act 2014 extended that to all employees after 26 weeks. However, given the pressures that carers face, that is not long term enough. The Government need to look to do more. The new legal right also paves the way for a possible culture shift in flexible working, and I want employers to take up the mantle.
It is deeply worrying that there seems to be a strong gender bias, with caring falling mainly on women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Let us make it acceptable for all to take the time to care. One in four women aged 50 to 64 has caring responsibilities for older or disabled loved ones compared with one in six men, but I have met men in my constituency who have given up their jobs to care. I would like to see that as a real possibility. If someone wants to be there and can be there, it does not matter who they are.
This debate is an excellent opportunity to pay tribute here in the House to the crucial work of carers. Some 20% of carers currently receive no support with their caring work, because they simply have not put their head above the parapet. They do not realise that they are carers, and I know how that feels. Half of carers expect their quality of life to get worse in the next year, which people made clear at the carers event in the House earlier this week. People are concerned that they are not looking after themselves and simply do not know how to facilitate that. The national carers strategy is currently being written, and I am delighted that the Minister has written to me as part of the process and that I am involved. He is allowing time to focus on the matter to ensure that we get it right. I hope that the debate will give hon. Members the chance to set out clearly to the Government and to the country that we are not doing enough for our carers and that they are struggling.
I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing the debate. I am sure that this is an issue that touches many hon. Members. In my family, my father needs caring for, and the circumstances will be the same for many of us. As our population ages, the situation will only get worse.
I want to focus particularly on carers’ finances, as the struggle that many carers face in making ends meet has been raised with me repeatedly by my constituents, including Graeme McGrory, who cares for his partner Ann, and who has explained to me that the carer’s allowance—the main benefit for carers—is the lowest benefit of its kind. It works out at £1.77 an hour. If we compare that with £7.20 for the national living wage, we can see that there is a huge gap. In a 35-hour week, that gives a difference of £170 a week. I cannot imagine that there are many carers out there who work only 35 hours a week; I imagine most work much longer.
It is not just that the carer’s allowance is so low. The Government also need to make sure that when any changes are made—for example, to the minimum wage— or when any welfare reform is implemented, the impact on carers is properly assessed, so that they are not affected negatively. For example, at the moment the carer’s allowance threshold is £110 a week. Before April, if a carer worked for 16 hours a week on the minimum wage, they would earn £107.20 a week, but the rise in the minimum wage that came in in April means that the same person is now earning £115.20. That is not a lot more, but it is enough to take them above the earnings limit. That puts carers in a difficult position. What are they supposed to do?
This has happened to a constituent of mine, and I can tell my hon. Friend what she had to do: she had to drop her working hours from 16 to 15 a week, because working 16 hours a week put her £5.20 over the income threshold and took away every penny of her carer’s allowance. I implore the Minister to look into this, as it would only mean a £5.20 increase in the income threshold for carer’s allowance. I would really appreciate it if he could come back to this issue in his remarks.
I thank my hon. Friend for that incredibly important point. If someone has to choose between cutting back on work or losing their entitlement, they are between a rock and a hard place. I do not want to believe that the Government would want to punish carers in such a way. I agree with my hon. Friend that this needs to be reviewed urgently. I hope that the Minister will consider reviewing the threshold, and that in future any changes will be considered from the perspective of the impact on people in receipt of carer’s allowance, to ensure that they do not suffer unnecessarily.
There was the same problem of the Government not looking at the impact of new policies on carers when the bedroom tax was introduced. The Government introduced the change without considering the impact on carers, and without properly understanding why a spare bedroom can be so vital for families with a disabled, chronically ill or terminally ill member.
These are the reasons carers are struggling so much to cover basic living costs. That is particularly hard when family members have had to cut back on working hours to care for somebody; often, they will have given up well-paid careers. If the person being cared for has also had to give up their job—for example, because of an accident at work—that means that the family has to cope with a really steep drop in income. On top of that, if the family have children or are caring for elderly relatives, they are under a lot of stress and pressure. As the hon. Member for Eastleigh said, carers do society a huge service, saving all of us taxpayers a lot of money—an estimated £132 billion a year. If carers were to go on strike—perhaps they should if they want to get attention—imagine the impact on the NHS and local authorities. The people they care for could not just be abandoned.
The Government need to commit to helping, and to improving dramatically the situation for many carers. They also need to recognise that this dramatic loss of income often leaves carers with an increase in other costs. Carers UK’s recent inquiry found that carers can face higher utility bills, transport costs and shopping bills. On top of that, they might also need to bear the cost of adaptions in the home. The recent report by the New Policy Institute found that there are now 1.2 million carers living in poverty. That is simply not good enough.
If we consider ourselves to be decent, compassionate people; if we believe in society and community; and if we recognise that any one of us here might become a full-time carer, or might need care, we must pledge to do more. We must come together to support carers, who do such an important job in our society and who are often exhausted, both physically and emotionally. We have to say: enough is enough. It is time that the Government stopped the shameful situation in which carers and their families are pushed into poverty. It is time that we all said, “Enough.”
Many people think of carers as a small but dedicated group, yet as we have heard today, as many as three in five people will be carers at some point in their life. There are an estimated 50,000 carers in Wiltshire alone—roughly 10% of our county’s population—and 3,000 of those are under the age of 24. Mr Deputy Speaker, you or I could be a carer one day, but chances are that we would not realise our role. We would just think that we were caring for our loved ones. Some 70% of carers in Wiltshire continue to remain hidden, and it is believed that many of those people do not understand or recognise their caring status.
That is why this week and this debate are so important, and I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing the debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. We need to work together to raise the profile of these silent heroes, these astonishing individuals who give and give, time and again. Carers enable hundreds of my constituents to continue to live in their own home. Let us face it: without carers, our NHS would not cope, our care homes would be flooded, and the independence of thousands would be compromised. The care provided, unpaid, by the nation’s carers is worth an estimated £119 billion a year, but their role in our community and economy is invaluable.
I was delighted that the Government made an additional £400 million available to the NHS between 2011 and 2015 to provide carers with the breaks that they need from their caring responsibilities, and that we are developing a new national carers strategy to look at what more can be done for existing and future carers. That highlights an understanding and, importantly, appreciation of the role. Fundamentally, it shows the importance of caring for carers.
The charity sector plays a crucial role in enabling carers. An excellent example is the Independent Living Centre in Semington in my constituency, a charity that offers first-class impartial advice, and solutions for easier living. A support network is equally essential for carers. It can be an isolating role, and one about which non-carers often know little and have little understanding. In a study of more than 6,000 carers, half had let a health problem go untreated, or seen their mental health get worse, as a direct result of the time and effort that they had put into caring for their loved ones.
Fun4All is an impressive local charity in Chippenham. One of its aims is to improve the health and wellbeing of carers by providing social events and breaks, and crucially, it forges a network between carers. I attended one of its fish-and-chip lunches with entertainment, and I can assure the House that it is certainly fun for all.
Also based in my constituency is Carer Support Wiltshire, with whom I have volunteered. I saw at first hand its extremely high level of work and dedication, and its enormous impact on the lives of so many local people. Its role as a charity locally cannot be overstated. It helps carers to access support, services, education and training, as well as breaks from their caring role. This Sunday, it is organising an awareness and fundraising event called “Walk a mile in my shoes” in Chippenham. Last year it proved very successful. I look forward to participating once again, and wish it success.
A key hurdle for carers, as we have heard, is juggling their caring role with employment. Last year we made a massive leap forward when we extended to carers the right to request flexible working arrangements to help them balance work and care; but many problems remain, and it is still a huge challenge to balance the two. It is often about having the ability to cope, but also a level of understanding from the employer.
Carer Support Wiltshire has devised a scheme intended to raise awareness and understanding among employers. It has a strategic arm dedicated to that. I have worked with it on this, and although the strategy is in its early stages, it is a blueprint that could be replicated throughout the country. Employers need to understand the benefits that carers offer and not see them only as a strain on their business. It is important to stress that the issue of supporting carers needs to be targeted nationally and locally, and within the voluntary sector.
Nationally, the Care Act 2014 gave carers fundamental legal rights, and I hope that the national strategy will directly challenge the problems that carers face. Specifically, I hope that we will look at supporting more training opportunities locally to ensure that those in a caring capacity always have the confidence, abilities and skills to perform their role.
Wiltshire Council is finalising its local strategy on carers, which will bring many organisations together to support carers. A variety of services are already in action in my constituency, such as complementary therapies, outings, trips, counselling, befriending services, talk and support services, carers’ cafés—the list is endless, but still much more work is needed.
Fundamentally, there is a complete and utter lack of understanding of the role of carers and the support available. I have seen that time and again in my constituency surgeries. Very many constituents have come to me, complaining that they are struggling, stressed, worried. They do not know what benefits they are entitled to. If I had £1 for every time someone has come to me who is entitled to the carer’s allowance but does not realise it, I would have sent out a lot more leaflets by now. We need to address this head-on. We need to go even further, and I am confident that the national strategy will encompass strenuous efforts to address the awareness and entitlement issues.
Many of the constituents who come to me are pensioners, and they do not realise that if their state pension falls below the amount of the carer’s allowance, they are in effect entitled to a top-up. Alternatively, if they are not in that bracket, they have what is defined as an “underlying entitlement to carer’s allowance”, which means that when they are means-tested, that is reviewed. I mention these entitlements today because I am convinced that it is important to stress them, and to get the message out to any elderly carers who are watching.
My hon. Friend hit the nail on the head when she talked about the importance of better communication—of communicating to carers who feel isolated and vulnerable about the support that is available and the opportunities to make things better. As a result of today’s debate and through the Minister, we could look at communicating better with that group of people.
I thank my hon. Friend. I could not agree more with her comments today. Another thing that concerns me deeply is that it is very easy to stereotype a carer, yet the reality is very different from the stereotype. The 2011 census identified 166,363 young carers under the age of 18 caring for a family member or friend; more than 110,073 were under 16. The real figure, allowing for hidden carers, is very much greater. Yes, the Children and Families Act 2014 extended the right to an assessment of support needs to all young carers under the age of 18; and since 2010 the Government have created specific training guides for teachers and teaching staff, to enable them to identify and support young carers.
However, there is still a big problem, which we need to face up to. Around one in 20 young carers regularly miss school because of their caring role. Young carers often get lower grades; a recent survey showed their most common grade at GCSE to be D. Young carers are twice as likely as their peers not to be in education, employment or training. They are therefore more entitled than other groups to the support that we can offer. That is why it would be completely wrong for me not to stress that I completely and utterly support the campaign to allow the pupil premium to show its understanding of the stresses, strains and pressures on young people who are carers. Does not a young carer, like any other young person, deserve the best shot at life, the best chances, the best opportunities? It is extremely hard to be a carer at any age. Imagine combining that with struggling to cope with schoolwork, GCSEs or A-levels, while growing up. Imagine the impact of that—the emotional pressure it would create. In this country we have a pupil premium, which is designed to develop a level playing field. Surely it is time that young carers were allowed on the pitch too.
National Carers Week is all about highlighting the silent heroes, of all ages, in our community, whose dedicated love keeps people safe, secure and often living in their own home. Without them, the economy and the community that we all love in our constituencies would collapse. Today, I hope that we help raise awareness and understanding, show our support, and highlight the different ways that we can improve and develop our national strategy.
I would like to finish by thanking each and every carer in my constituency and in the country for all their hard work.
According to the family resources survey, there are at least 5.3 million informal carers in the UK, although the number might be higher. There are thought to be more than half a million carers in Scotland, 10,000 of whom are in my constituency. The good news for carers is that, under the Scotland Act, benefits for carers, disabled people and those who are ill are being devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
The UK Government are renowned for their disregard for the disabled. Disabled people have already taken a cut to their benefits, which will affect their ability to live independently, and consequently the support they require from carers. Those cuts not only affect the livelihood of disabled people but their carers, who will be impacted too by the overall cut in support for the person they care for.
The Scottish Government’s approach to social security recognises the need to ensure that disabled people and their carers are fully supported with dignity and respect. It is estimated that unpaid carers in Scotland save the Scottish economy almost £11 billion a year, so it is little surprise that the Scottish Government see social security as an investment in the people of Scotland. Unpaid carers are the backbone of community care, and play an indispensable role in supporting the needs of their loved ones, often at an enormous cost to their own health and wellbeing.
I often think “carer” seems a tiny, inconsequential word that is in total contrast to the reality of being a carer. What does being a carer mean? A carer is a personal assistant, undertaking duties such as washing and dressing, morning and night. A carer is a medic, administering medication, assessing health needs and determining whether to seek medical assistance. A carer is a cleaner, dealing with multiple changes of clothes throughout the day and cleaning up accidental spillages. A carer is a risk assessor, carrying out health and safety checks to ensure that the person they are caring for is in a safe environment—for example, away from kettles and cookers—and cannot wander out the front door. A carer is a driver, to the numerous health and hospital visits. An outing, however small, is not like an outing that you or I would have. It is essential to be ready for all eventualities—medication, if it should be taken at a certain time; emergency changes of clothing.
A carer is a negotiator, collaborating with the many services that are now part of their life. A carer is a cook and a waitress or waiter, ensuring that the person they care for has tasty, appetising meals even when their appetite is diminished. A carer is a friend who is there to listen and offer support, particularly when things are difficult. A carer is on constant night shift, sleeping with one eye and one ear open to make sure that nobody has got up during the night. A carer is an entertainer, looking for ways to brighten the day, and a Philadelphia lawyer to cope with and understand the mountain of paperwork that comes with the role and the services involved. A carer has to be strong, both emotionally and physically. That list is not exhaustive but, as hon. Members can see, the small word “carer” does not quite cut it.
Having cared for my lovely father, who has dementia and Alzheimer’s, I have first-hand experience of the juggling act that carers have to perform every single day. It is exhausting, mentally and physically, and often it is impossible to predict what will happen from one day to the next, which is why the support services are so important for carers. The fantastic East Ayrshire Carers Centre in my constituency provides invaluable respite breaks to carers, allowing them to recharge their batteries and continue caring. It also offers training for young carers.
As we have heard, young carers may struggle to balance caring with being at school and often feel isolated, and they do not have the same recreational opportunities as their peers. This can impact on the opportunities open to them when they leave school. The Dalmellington carers centre offers work placements to young people to give them skills, experience and the confidence to find work, but those skills and experience are of no use if employers are not able to offer flexible working patterns.
It is not just young carers who are affected. The majority of carers are of working age. Carers UK estimates that the economic value of the contribution made by these carers is £132 billion a year. However, according to the New Policy Institute, more than 2 million of them are living in poverty. Almost 1.5 million people of working age spend at least 20 hours a week caring for someone, and more than a third of them are living in poverty. As demand for care continues to increase—and as the state pension age rises—the pressures of managing care and work are becoming a reality for more and more people.
Working-age adults with substantial care commitments are sacrificing their income from employment to undertake unpaid care. Many are forced to give up work entirely. Women take on a disproportionate responsibility for care in the UK, which is further widening the gender pay gap and increasing inequality between men and women. Caring falls particularly on women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Research in 2012 found that women were four times more likely than men to give up work because of multiple caring responsibilities. Women pay a high price for time taken out of work, and this disadvantage persists well beyond the years they spend caring. Breaks in employment and part-time work have a long-term impact on women’s incomes across their lifetime, on their ability to progress in the workplace, and on their ability to save for their retirement.
A lack of carer-friendly workplace policies means that an increasing number of employees, more often than not women, are forced to either give up work at the peak of their careers or move to part-time working. Just last year the Prime Minister pledged to end the pay gap within a generation. If this Government are serious about tackling the pay gap, employment law needs to respond to the increases in unpaid caring. The extent to which the labour market is able to accommodate people with caring responsibilities is important. We have a responsibility to break down the barriers to carers’ access to employment opportunities. Increasing the availability of quality part-time, flexible work, as well as raising the awareness of the right to request flexible working, would be important steps towards supporting carers to enter employment that suits their needs.
There has been a tendency in the UK to see part-time working as the only solution to balancing employment with caring responsibilities, but part-time work means limited promotion and progression opportunities, and is much more likely to be available only in low-skill, low-pay sectors. Whereas women dominate part-time work, uptake is more evenly balanced between men and women where flexible working is available. I acknowledge that the Government have extended the right to request flexible working, but there are no policies in place to address the lack of jobs being advertised with that as an option.
In conclusion, this Government appear to accept the benefits of flexible working, but are doing little to expand its use as a mainstream employment model. If the Government are truly committed to supporting the ability of carers to work, they need to do more to address the issue of access to flexible work, supported by carer’s allowance and other benefits.
I am delighted to take part in today’s proceedings and I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing today’s debate. I thank her, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) for sharing their personal experiences. I am not a carer myself, but I have close family members who require care and I recognise the stresses that have been described.
The motion asks us to consider carers and their contribution to society. This debate has been organised to coincide with carers week, when we celebrate carers and thank them for the vital role they play in society. Carers not only perform an important role for the person whom they look after, but their selfless acts help ease the demand on our public services. Across the UK, this unpaid care is worth an estimated £100 billion each year. I often wonder what would happen to our public services if our unpaid carers decided not to continue to provide the care that they do. How would we respond to that?
Carers week is very worthwhile, but we as parliamentarians fail carers and those they look after if we debate, celebrate and take note of carers’ issues only in this week. This is just a normal week for our carers. I do not doubt that carers value our thanks and appreciation, but after speaking to a number of carers in my constituency, I know that some of them tend to avoid carers week. They are desperate for more than the usual “unsung heroes” soundbites or the “pat on the back” platitudes. This should be a week of celebration and thanks, but more importantly this should be a week when we talk with, not to, carers in order better to understand the experiences that come from being a carer.
As I said, I am not a carer and I do not pretend to know all the issues facing carers. Nevertheless, I have pledged to fight the corner for carers as I sincerely and honestly have the utmost respect for them. When I was first elected, I quickly set up 13 surgeries a month, one of which is a specific monthly carers surgery at Renfrewshire Carers Centre, which allows me to hear at first hand some of the issues and challenges that carers face. There are more than 9,000 known carers in my constituency and these surgeries can be heart wrenching, but they also motivate me to do more to help ease the burdens that our carers face daily.
My constituency office is only too well aware of the challenges and struggles that carers face, as one of my staff members, Lynn Williams, recently had to resign from her post in order to care for her husband full-time. This was a real blow for the office, because Lynn was, as we say in Scotland, a well kent figure in the caring and voluntary sectors. After three years working for the Princess Royal Trust for Carers and lobbying to improve the lives of carers, she went on to be asked to join the Scottish Government’s welfare expert working group, all the while combining full-time work with caring for her husband.
We often talk about the £100 billion a year that carers save the UK economy, but very rarely do we talk about the economic loss that occurs when our talented people such as Lynn are forced to leave the economy because of caring commitments. Carers UK and Age UK estimated that in 2012 £5.3 billion was wiped from the UK economy as a result of the lost earnings of carers giving up work to care. At a time when austerity is gripping our economy, it makes no sense whatever that we allow such a significant amount to be lost to our economy.
There is a clear and urgent need to reform the current care and support system to ensure that hard-working individuals are not forced to leave the workplace. We also need to create a working environment that raises awareness of the challenges that carers can encounter. I want to see an environment where employers are aware of the struggles and demands that carers face, and thus create a flexible working environment that can deal with those caring responsibilities. I support the Carer Positive scheme, which seeks to recognise employers who support carers. Around one in seven people in the workforce will have a caring responsibility, and with the number of carers expected to increase, we need to encourage more organisations to operate flexible working environments for carers. This will be good for business, good for the economy, and good for carers and the people they care for.
In Scotland, the SNP Government have a strong track record of working with carers to help develop policies that make carers’ lives that bit easier. We have invested around £114 million in programmes to support carers—more than ever before. A £13 million short break fund has provided around 15,000 carers and cared-for people with the opportunity to relax without feeling stress or guilt. The Carers Parliament has been established to provide carers, young carers and carer representatives from across Scotland with the opportunity to discuss and debate matters important to them.
My first ever speech to an SNP conference—to 3,000 people in Glasgow, incidentally—was about carers. In it I called for carer’s allowance to rise at the very least to match jobseeker’s allowance. As a bare minimum, our carers deserve parity with other income replacement benefits. I was therefore delighted when, just a few weeks later, the Scottish Government announced that, with new powers over social security, they would do precisely that—a commitment that will benefit carers by nearly £600 a year. I am aware, however, that many carers do not believe that this increase in carer’s allowance is enough, and they have a strong case. I hope that this is only a start and that the debate is now open about how we value and reward caring in Scotland.
Furthermore, only today the Scottish Government announced, through their newly appointed Social Security Minister, Jeane Freeman, that they intend to consult on a young carer’s allowance, stating:
“It is unfair that some young people who have the responsibility and pressure of caring for a loved one may experience financial difficulties. That is why we will now consider whether a Young Carer’s Allowance could bridge that gap in support.”
I call on the UK Government to match the increase in carer’s allowance in Scotland and to consider a young carer’s allowance, to ensure that carers both young and old right across these islands can benefit.
I am under no illusion that there is much more that we can and should do to help improve the lives of our carers. I am sure that I am not the only Member who has been keeping an eye on #RealCarersWeek, which has been trending on Twitter. This hashtag has provided a glimpse into the lives and struggles of our carers. Tweets have been posted raising awareness of the endless bureaucracy and form-filling, which other Members have alluded to. They refer to the sleepless nights and endless visits to GPs and hospitals, and to the lack of appreciation that certain Governments have for the role that carers provide for our society. Unfortunately, there have been many disgusting responses from some ignorant and small-minded people, many of whom, ironically, will require care at some point in their lives. When politicians rightly tweet their support for carers week using #CarersWeek, I strongly encourage them to read some of the tweets under #RealCarersWeek as well.
I want to challenge the UK Government directly on the pain that their polices are causing in the lives of carers and those they care for. The Government may want to hide behind soundbites such as “hard choices”, “fairness” and “empowering the claimant.” However, they are only soundbites that attempt to justify the pain and stress that is being caused. Carers are exhausted with the endless form-filling that they are expected to undertake, or the lack of appreciation that they receive. However, the biggest stress that they experience is seeing their loved one have to deal with their own personal pain. They are angry with the effect that personal independence payment assessments—often pointless but always demeaning—are having on the quality of life of the people they care for.
I am sure that I am not the only one who was upset and angry after reading The Guardian article that suggested that 500 adapted cars, powered wheelchairs and scooters are being taken away from disabled people each week. The article, by Dr Frances Ryan, states that PIP is a disaster for disabled people and asks whether welfare reform is becoming dangerous for them. I will let others make their own conclusions, but forcing 500 disabled people each week to become housebound is not productive for the person directly affected, for their carer, or indeed for the economy.
While it is right that we take time properly to thank and credit carers for the role they perform in society, let us give carers what they really want: a commitment from parliamentarians of all persuasions that we will listen to them, work with them and deliver for them.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) not only for securing the debate, but for bringing to the Chamber her powerful experiences and sharing them with us. I also want to thank the Minister for all that he does to ensure that carers are given the support they need and deserve.
I want to sign up to the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) that we should extend the pupil premium to all young carers. There are 160,000 young carers whose life chances are disadvantaged by the amazing duty that they perform. Extending the pupil premium to all those young people seems to me to be a very fair exchange for all that they do.
Looking at the other end of the age spectrum, 28% of my constituents in Bexhill and Battle are over 65. By comparison, the national average is 17%. Accordingly, I have a very high number of older carers in my constituency. That is what I want to focus my contribution on today. The 2011 census revealed that there are over 1.8 million carers aged 60 and over in England—almost 16% of the population in that age range. The number of carers aged 85 and over grew by 128% in the past decade, according to a report published last year by Carers UK and Age UK, and it is expected to double over the next 20 years, according to a Government report from 2014.
East Sussex has the highest proportion of over-85s in the UK. Again, that group will be highly pertinent to my constituency. Supporting this army of carers is absolutely essential if we are to ensure that our NHS continues to function. Given the Government’s welcome desire to support keeping people at home in their advancing years, rather than placing them in hospital, that support is even more important. I welcome the passing, by this Government when in coalition, of the Care Act 2014. The Act granted significant new rights to carers in England and placed duties on local authorities to ensure that support is delivered, advice is given and information is provided. It also placed a duty on NHS bodies to co-operate with local authorities in delivering Care Act functions, which, if the clinical commissioning groups in East Sussex can work as a whole, will lead to a “Better Together” integrated health system in East Sussex.
I am conscious that the delivery of those rights is contingent on local authorities having the necessary financial resources in place. I welcome the devolution of business rates to my county, but the yield in East Sussex is low and the demands from a population with above-average ageing is high. Our county will need more time to deliver and more investment in infrastructure to attract new businesses to the coast if this is going to provide for carers and other groups who need local authority finance and support.
I welcome the new 2% levy that local authorities can apply to council tax, provided that it is spent on adult social care. While I champion the rights of carers within the home, many carers are caring for loved ones who reside in care homes due to complex or advanced needs. It is absolutely essential that those carers have the comfort of knowing that their loved ones will be well cared for when they are not in the home to deliver it. I have championed the care home industry, which features heavily in my constituency. Funding them properly via the new 2% levy will, I hope, result in better Care Quality Commission ratings than those that have been awarded following recent investigations.
Across East Sussex, 60% of our care homes were found to be inadequate or needing improvement. It concerns me greatly that, because of these poor ratings, many of our carers may choose to soldier on at home when a care home would be the better choice for their loved ones. All the care homes that I have visited in my constituency have been fantastic. It is important that those that need to improve do so with the extra funding that the Government have procured.
In a rural constituency such as mine, social isolation can be a particular concern. This is exacerbated for older carers looking after loved ones. According to a report published in 2011, more than two thirds of older carers reported not getting breaks away from caring at all, with a further third getting a break only once every two or three months, or less. Let me therefore take this opportunity to thank all those constituents who do so much to give carers a break. While I am at it, let me name-check my mother and my two sisters, who regularly host teas at home attended by carers who do not get the chance to get out of the house and get looked after by someone else for a change. While it is right to look to the Government to be the ultimate support, very often it is the community and their acts of kindness, via visits, conversations, moral support and basic errands, who improve the welfare and wellbeing of our elderly carers. I salute all those who do it.
I am keen for the Government to look at the following suggestions that were made to me by the fantastic Care for the Carers team in East Sussex. First, we should help national partners reach more carers. Would it be possible to make it a duty for the NHS to identify carers, in the same way that the Care Act does for local authorities? Secondly, we should ensure that carers have good support. Would it be possible to ensure that local authorities do not charge carers for the support that they are entitled to? East Sussex is currently not charging carers, which I recognise and celebrate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point about the NHS having a duty to identify carers. I have tried three times to introduce that in a private Member’s Bill, so I am really pleased to find support for it among Conservative Members.
I am pleased, as a novice in the House, that there is agreement across the House on that cause.
Thirdly, there should be help for carers in complex situations—those caring for people with dementia or mental health problems. It seems to me to be an obvious ask to promote good practice recommendations to commissioners and health professionals and to promote it in national policy making.
Finally, I thank and express huge admiration for all those who care for others in my constituency and beyond. I know that they seek little praise, but it is right that we should praise them this afternoon.
I am very pleased to speak on this subject, which covers so many areas. I am especially pleased to support the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) in this debate, which I thank her for bringing forward. I also support her call for a young carers day, which is essential, and I congratulate her on that idea.
I was never involved in this field in my time as a councillor and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, so all I have learned about it has been through the casework in my constituency offices. I thank all my staff, who have dealt with everything and pulled this together. They are just a small group of all those who work every day in our offices to help everyone concerned.
In learning on the job, I have also learned about the policy changes. In Northern Ireland, two policy changes have suddenly thrown up different things. One was the closure of residential homes. It seemed right to move people to be looked after at home, but at the same time it actually took away some people’s chances of respite when their loved ones stayed in a residential home. At times, we need to rethink what we are doing. The other involved the mental health hospital that kept trying to send home one person who was having great difficulties. His family could not cope, however, and he eventually drowned himself after putting on his waders and walking into the local reservoir.
We all need to be aware—this week has been quite fantastic in making people aware—of how hard everyone is working in the caring industry. I have been hugely impressed by those, whether the families, the neighbours, the community or all the organisations in our constituencies, who are pulling together to provide help. I have been horrified just as much, however, by the stories I have read this week and heard about at other times through my offices. There are stories about those who have very little support, and about the sacrifices they have had to make in using their savings, selling their house, losing their job and all the awful things that go just because they are doing what is absolutely right in looking after their loved ones.
In Northern Ireland, there are some 220,000 carers—that figure has gone up nearly 20% in the past 10 years—which is one in eight of the population. Some 30,000 people care for more than one person, and some 26% of carers provide more than 50 hours of care a week. I am sure the figures are no different in all the other constituencies, but this debate today, and this week, is for getting across our points about the importance of carers. In 2016, it is estimated that carers in Northern Ireland save the state £4.6 billion. A massive amount is going on—I will not steal all the statistics from my colleague, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who I know has many more to cite—but I want to congratulate and salute all those involved.
From what I have learned this week, I believe that if we are to adopt the national strategy for carers, it needs to be pulled together into a longer-term strategy in the same way as happened with pensions. Caring covers many other fields, so a strategy needs to be worked out with those fields so that everything is joined up and they all work together. My age-old point is that it is phenomenally important to get all the countries in the United Kingdom working together.
One thing was really brought home to me during the particularly cold spell in Northern Ireland some five years ago when I was working with Home-Start to help families in Antrim. I think it was 18° below, and it came down to a heat or eat choice for some families so, by pulling together with local businesses, we helped to get food for people. The next day, those who delivered it said that two of the families broke down in tears when the food was brought to their doors because they had been pushed right to the limit. That is the sort of story we should take away from today.
There are so many points to mention, including about helping carers to be recognised by everyone and getting employers to be more flexible in looking after them with, for example, a tapering pay limit. So many things are now coming out, and this week has been fantastic in teaching all of us, so I congratulate everyone involved. I thank hon. Members for listening to me.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate, and to thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for bringing it forward for us all to participate in. This is the second such debate that she has led on this subject, and we look forward to many more on similar subjects in times to come. I also thank all those who have spoken—I understand that I will be the last to speak from the Back Benches before the shadow Minister and the Minister. The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) has just nipped out, but I look forward to her speech, and I very much look forward to the Minister’s. I have honestly found the shadow Minister and the Minister to be compassionate—we have a compassionate shadow Minister and a compassionate Minister—and I am convinced that their responses will both focus on the issues we have raised and those that it is important for us to be involved with.
Carers UK estimates that there are some 6.5 million carers in the UK. Over 1 million people in the UK say that they are supporting or caring for family members who have an illness that is terminal, which is also an issue. To put those figures into perspective, there are two carers for every person who died last year in the United Kingdom. Statistically, that is a massive figure. It is estimated that the NHS saves some £11.6 billion each year because of these unsung heroes. We have used that expression often today, but just because we use it often does not mean that it is any less appropriate. Their contribution as volunteer carers is immeasurably valuable.
Carers may end up providing more than 100 hours of care per week. From my knowledge of those who come to see me and those with whom I have worked in my constituency, I know that 100 hours per week is a low estimate. For some of them, caring is a 24/7 exercise, such are the medical and health difficulties of those for whom they care. All too often the outside world is completely oblivious of their efforts. Even those who know carers may be oblivious, because they do not always know what is happening once the door is closed and the carer is left alone to look after the cared for. We do not know what happens behind those closed doors.
I believe that employers are forcing some workers to forgo promotions. That is clearly stated in the background information that has been provided, on which I congratulate those in the Library. Its staff are not often thanked for what they do, but the background information they have provided—the stats and the paperwork—is very detailed and informative, and they deserve to be congratulated on how well they have prepared us for this debate.
Carers have said that they have had to forgo promotions, reduce working hours or leave work altogether. More than a third of them do not feel comfortable at work talking about caring, just over a third say their employer does not understand their caring role and exactly a third say their employer does not have policies in place to support carers. Some 60% of carers have given up work or reduced their hours to provide care, 25% have been unable to pursue or have had to turn down a promotion, 37% say their work has suffered and 42% say they have struggled financially. These are not just figures; these are people’s lives.
The figures illustrate very clearly what the issues are. Some 55% of carers have struggled financially, as it says in the background information. My colleague, the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), mentioned that. I suppose all MPs have personal knowledge of this, but we are certainly aware of how carers are struggling in Northern Ireland. Some 72% of carers have given up work or reduced their hours. Again, these figures tell us where the problems are.
As the hon. Member for Eastleigh said, Carers Week is being supported by all the health organisations, including Age UK, the Carers Trust, Independent Age, Macmillan Cancer Support, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, and the Multiple Sclerosis Society. I work with these organisations almost every day of the week. They are household names, unfortunately, because of the level of problems that we have across the whole of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.
A subject close to my heart, as is the case for many of those here, is dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A few months ago, we had a debate on that in Westminster Hall. I have not experienced it personally in my family, but I have certainly experienced it through meeting some of my constituents and their families. It is hard to explain to anyone who has not experienced it. These are very delicate issues to address; they are not just physical but emotional and mental. I have seen people with dementia who can often, unknowingly, become agitated or even violent. Night-time wandering can have a serious impact on carers’ sleep patterns, let alone the sufferer’s. Many people out there require someone close to them to give up much of their lives to provide the care that they need. Sleep patterns are just the tip of the iceberg.
I commend the groups in my area, particularly some of the church groups. For example, a Church of Ireland church, St Mark’s in Newtownards, has a group for the whole of Ards and North Down where people with dementia and Alzheimer’s come together to do painting and crafts. Music is a wonderful thing for helping those with dementia and Alzheimer’s. It helps to relax them, and for some people it takes them back to where they were many years ago—to their youth and their childhood.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking movingly about the challenges that dementia sufferers and their carers face. This week the Carers Trust raised with me concerns about patchy levels of support in dementia care around the country. Does he agree that local authorities need to go out and learn from best practice around the country, such as the church groups in his constituency and the successful dementia gateways in Dudley, to make sure that more carers and more dementia sufferers can receive the support they so desperately need?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I wholeheartedly agree; I think we all do. Those of us who are aware of this issue will understand the importance of all these groups. The issue that he touches on was frequently mentioned in the debate in Westminster Hall. Some 38 Members were involved in that debate, and it got a massive response. I thank him for his very important words.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh referred to young carers, as have other hon. Members. Crossroads Young Carers in Newtownards has been around for many years. We have a massive number of young carers in my constituency alone. I was rather shocked to find that they were so numerically strong. That illustrated to me the importance of the role of these schoolchildren, sometimes even primary schoolchildren, who almost become old before their time in looking after parents and family. The Carers Trust says that 80% of young carers miss out childhood experiences. They grow up before their time. They miss out on the leisure, the fun and the nights out with friends because they are looking after their mum, dad, brother, sister, or whoever it may be. They are almost hidden carers in the job that they do. I recognise the good work that Crossroads Young Carers does in my constituency.
We need an awareness campaign about carers so that they are no longer the unsung heroes but become the recognised heroes that they should be, not just in this House but in all our constituencies across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Too often, carers are left to suffer in silence. The services on offer are not publicised enough and, sadly, too often are not up to standard either. When we read the background material that explains some of the everyday events that carers have to deal with, we get a feeling for and an idea of what they endure each day. I am not sure whether this has been mentioned yet, but, if not, it needs to be put on the record: many carers suffer from bad health themselves as a result of looking after others. In an intense situation, looking after someone 24/7, they need some time to switch off—their brain and their body have to get a bit of rest. It is very important every now and again to get a weekend, or even an hour or two, away from it all.
The main social security benefit available to carers is carer’s allowance. This is for someone who provides more than 35 hours of care a week, and it entitles them to only £62.10. Furthermore, carers may incur sanctions on how much they can earn on top of the allowance. Dementia carers save the NHS more than £11 billion per year, to put a financial cost on it, yet they get only £62.10 per week for giving up their lives for someone less fortunate. I know that the Minister’s Department is not responsible for that, but, with respect, it is not a good reflection on Government, given the hours that carers spend on caring. I recognise that times are tough financially. You cannot produce a high-quality suit if you have low-quality cloth, and the same thing applies to finances. We therefore have to be realistic about what we can do, but it must be highly insulting to carers to see some of the things happening in the news when they are getting only £62.10 per week. Although the Minister is not responsible for benefits, could he give some pointer for carers with regard to benefits advice? I give them benefits advice when they come to my office. To be fair, the benefits system is very responsive. We just have to point people in the right direction and show them the right opportunity. Perhaps there is a role for Government in that. I understand that our colleagues in Scotland have considered upping the carer’s allowance. That was discussed in our debate on dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Carers UK calculates that the value of unpaid care is some £132 billion each year—the equivalent of NHS spending. Although it is hard to calculate how much of this relates to people who care for someone who has a terminal illness, research has found that carers who look after someone with one of the four most prevalent cancers—lung, breast, colorectal or prostate—provide care worth £219 million per year: a third of the total of end-of-life care costs. Providing end-of-life care—that difficult time for people emotionally and physically—saves the NHS a massive amount of money as well. Other people have referred to personal things in families. My mother looked after my dad before he passed away, and that was not always easy. My mum is a fresh 85-year-old, or she will be on 14 July. If it were not for the closeness and the commitment of family, we would face a lot of other serious issues.
According to research by Carers UK’s Northern Ireland subsidiary, Carers NI, 16% of carers cannot afford to pay their utility bills, while nearly 40% cannot afford their bills without struggling financially. I can vouch for that in my constituency, given the numbers of people who come to me who are finding it very difficult to make ends meet financially. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) raised the question of heating or eating during the cold spell. That is a reality today as well, perhaps even more so than in the past. A third of carers are using savings to pay everyday living costs, and a third have used up any savings they had and now have nothing to fall back on. Thirty-two per cent. of carers have ended up in debt as a result of caring, and over four in 10 carers—almost half—are cutting back on food or heating. Furthermore, carers experience higher levels of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK. We have the highest levels of fuel poverty in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Information given to us by the Library indicates that 51% of carers
“have let a health problem go untreated…Half of carers (50%) have seen their mental health get worse…Two thirds of carers (66%) have given up work or reduced their hours to care…Almost half of carers (47%) have struggled financially…Almost one third of carers (31%) only get help when it is an emergency.”
That is the reality for carers. Full-time carers are twice as likely as non-carers to be in bad health. Eighty per cent. of carers say that caring has had a negative impact on their health, and half of carers state that they experienced depression after taking on a caring role. Sixty-three per cent. of carers say that they are at breaking point, and one in six carers receive no practical support at all. Despite an ongoing rise in the number of carers in the UK and sharp rises in the number of people caring full time, the number of people who receive carers’ assessments and carers’ services is falling. When we hear all those stats, we need to remember that there are people behind them who have to deal with reality.
It is often said, and we need to say it again, that food banks have been extremely helpful. That is the case in my constituency and, I am sure, in others. Food banks operate out of compassion and heart. They bring together Government bodies, churches and individuals who want to do their bit for the community. The food bank in my area, run by the Trussell Trust, has done exceptional work with carers, those who are under financial pressure and those who are experiencing delays in benefit or not getting all the benefits that they should be getting. The food bank is very much a part of life in my constituency. By the way, I think it is good to have food banks in our constituencies. They bring a lot of good things to my area. I do not see them as a negative; I see them as a positive, because people reach out and want to help each other. That is good, because if we help each other, we do what we are supposed to be doing in this world, which is to make lives better as best we can.
Carers UK estimates that the number of carers will grow to 9 million by 2037. Will any of us in this Chamber be here in 2037? I am not sure. I probably will not be—if I am, I will be the oldest man in the world, but that is by the way. We have to look at the stats, because they take us to where we will be in a few years’ time. I hope that the Government take cognisance of the stats, because it is important to form a strategy.
It is clear already that the support provided to carers does not suffice. Independent analysis demonstrates that the gap in funding for social care is expected to reach between £2.8 billion and £3.5 billion by the end of this Parliament, and that does not even begin to cover what will happen if the Government do not take into account the fact that the number of carers is growing. This should serve as a wake-up call to everyone—the Government, the regional Assemblies in the devolved Administrations and all stakeholders—about the reality ahead. There will be significantly more carers than there are already, and appropriate planning is needed to ensure that support is there.
I conclude with these comments. I welcome the fact that the Government are developing a new carers strategy, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on that. It is important that we, as elected representatives, put forward this debate in a positive fashion to get a strategy and responses to our questions, which we can feed back to our constituents. On the issues that I and others have raised, I impress on the policy makers the need to remember that there are real people behind all the statistics. It is people such as carers whom we are elected to serve. I can only hope that the debate will raise awareness of the need for urgent and large-scale reform of the way in which the Government treat carers.
A number of carer support groups come together in the churches and the community centres of Strangford. They are wonderful people who do great work, and they deserve to be supported and helped by us, as MPs through our Government and through the regional Assemblies, in whatever way we can. Those groups bring together all the people of the Ards and North Down Council area who want to participate. They give carers much needed opportunities for rest and socialisation. The opportunity to socialise and interact with others, or to get a moment or two to themselves, can make a world of difference to carers.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing this debate in carers week. Frankly, one week in the year is not enough; carers care for more than just one week in the year. I will talk predominantly about informal carers—the people who are looking after family—but we should also remember the people who work in the care industry, because they support the carers and the people who need caring for. We have problems getting high-quality care because we do not value those people. We pay them very poorly. They work for companies that often treat them badly. Pay for travel time may not be included, and they may be doing 15-minute visits. These jobs are therefore short term and temporary, and people get out of them as soon as they have the opportunity. Unless we turn this into a profession that is valued and respected and includes development—as we have done with nursing, over the years—our relatives and loved ones will not be cared for by people who actually want to do the job. I would just like to open with that.
We have heard a lot of detailed statistics about informal carers. Across the UK, 10% of people—6.5 million—are involved in caring. In Scotland, the proportion is higher, at 17%. People often do not identify themselves. Those carers are not always the same people, because there is a turnover—a change—every year of one third, or 2.1 million people. Some of them, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, will be people caring for loved ones at the end of their life. When we lose that loved one, although we may face other challenges, we leave the informal care group, but other people take up that role. The same number of people—more than 2 million—enter and leave the role of informal carer each year.
We have heard about the cost that informal carers save the state. If we were to replace them with professional staff, the cost would be almost greater than that of the NHS, but how do we treat the people who deliver that care? A third of them live in poverty. That is because we have tangled things up so much around carer’s allowance, and we never seem to have a “health in all policies” view, so on different days of the week we make decisions that absolutely counteract each other.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson)—I hope I got that right—mentioned some of the changes that have been made, including to the personal independence payment and the employment and support allowance work-related activity group. Perhaps the Government think that those changes send people back to work, but the reality is that many of the people affected, particularly where mental health or waxing and waning illnesses are involved, will not get back to work. That household will simply become more impoverished. We need to realise that that has an impact. If someone cannot afford to do things, their quality of life goes down. People who are caring— 1.3 million of them for more than 50 hours a week—already have a pretty tough life without having to deal with poverty on top of everything else.
We have heard that carer’s allowance is some £62 a week; it is pretty insulting that that is less than jobseeker’s allowance. People tend to spend six or nine months on jobseeker’s allowance, but they may depend on carer’s allowance, along with other benefits, for much longer than that. To pay someone, in essence, £62 a week for the hours that they put in is derisory. In Scotland, if I may correct the hon. Member for Strangford, we are not just considering raising carer’s allowance to £72 a week; that is a commitment. It will become the same as jobseeker’s allowance. Even that is very much a baseline. It does not recognise what those people need.
Of course, there are people in caring situations for whom money is not an issue, because they have a pension or large amounts of savings, but they are not the generality of cases, if a third of carers are in poverty. Half of them have used up all their savings and have had to borrow. A quarter of them have had to re-mortgage their home. That all adds stress to people who contribute massively to society.
We have well over a million older carers, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) mentioned. What has not been mentioned in this debate is that people on retirement pension do not qualify for carer’s allowance. That seems bizarre, because one of the biggest groups of carers is people who are retired. In the past, people would have been caring for a partner as they became more frail, but as people are living longer, we are retiring people who are caring for a parent, or for a parent and a partner. The hon. Member for Eastleigh spoke of caring for little ones and older ones, but we actually have people who are caring for older ones and much older ones. That is massively challenging.
At the other end, we have heard mention of young carers, who are defined as those under the age of 16. They are completely excluded from carer’s allowance as it starts only at the age of 16, yet those children again play a major role and suffer major detriment. They will often be in a poor household, because the parent—as it usually is—for whom they are caring will have suffered from the various cuts to support. Their parent may have a physical or mental illness, may suffer from addiction, or may in other ways not be the parent in the family. If 12 and 13-year-olds are carrying that burden, and cannot afford to go on a school trip, and do not have time to do the little Saturday job or paper round that allowed the rest of us to invest in the height of fashion, we are allowing their quality of life to be lowered still further.
Young adult carers are defined as being 16 to 25. If they are students, they are automatically excluded from carer’s allowance, regardless of the fact that a quarter of them work more than 20 hours a week. If they work less than 35 hours a week, they do not qualify for anything. If they are official students, they qualify for nothing.
We have all these pockets of people who are working really hard, yet we as a state are offering no support to them. That is the minimum that we should be doing. They will still be doing a hard job and putting in long hours that save the country masses of money. We should all feel ashamed that they can have to choose between eating and heating, and that there are young people who have no opportunities and know that their job opportunities will be limited by going through that. Obviously, given my health background, I have looked at the health of these people, and they are twice as likely to be ill. Indeed, 8% of them are on disability living allowance as was, so we have someone who has frailty caring for someone else who has frailty.
One fifth of the people who are putting in more than 50 hours a week are not getting any services because, as has been mentioned, they do not identify themselves as carers, no one else identifies them as carers, and they have no idea where they should go to get help. I back the call that this should be part of the health service’s duty. If a doctor diagnoses someone with advanced cancer or dementia, or a child with disability, they should ask, “Who are the carers here?”. That is part of the primary care role in Scotland, but I am not sure what the roles are in England. Certainly, as part of the quality framework in Scotland, there must be that discussion. There is still room for improvement in our communities on that. People simply see themselves as looking after their family, but actually, they are looking after all of us.
We know that the ageing population will increase. We already have 800,000 people with dementia, who are being looked after by 670,000 carers. At the moment, 60% of us will be carers at some point. As the numbers increase, all of us must expect to spend a portion of our lives as a carer. If that always causes massive detriment to our work, our ability to do anything and our quality of life, we will have allowed the quality of life of everyone to deteriorate.
For women, there is a disproportionate hit, because 60% of carers are women, and one in four of those women will end up giving up work. As was mentioned, they end up in part-time, low-quality, low-paid jobs, and they do not get promotion. Right at the end, they get a rubbish pension, which, as we have heard in many debates in this Chamber, may be plucked out from underneath them. That is the last slap in the face. With modern technology, we should be able to have more home working and flexible working to allow people with talent and skill to remain active and have a career, even if they face a few years of having to commit to caring for someone. As we go into the future, whether we are carers or not, as politicians we need to make sure that we provide the basic funding and services to support carers as they support those who need help.
As individuals, we need to do more in our communities. We have heard mention of carer-friendly communities. I was honoured last Saturday to be part of the launch of one of my local towns, Prestwick, as a dementia-friendly community. It was a fantastic event, and the turnout of the community at the market cross for music, food, cupcakes, fiddling and singing by the wonderful Musical Minds choir, which is made up of people with dementia, was fantastic. The community is already coming forward, and local businesses have undergone training.
Within that, we have a group called Crossroads, which supports carers and allows them little informal breaks, so that they can try to keep some of themselves. Women are used to being recognised as somebody or other’s wife and somebody or other’s mother once they have got past being so-and-so’s daughter. The problem for somebody facing this intensity of care is that they can feel like they disappear altogether—that they as a person have no outside view at all. Their hobbies are gone and, as was mentioned earlier, their friends are gone.
It is important, not just as politicians and people in families, but as members of our communities, that we value and recognise carers if they are out and about, and accept the person they are caring for, no matter if they are a bit loud, if their wheelchair gets in the way, or if they need time to get on the bus. If we accept the person they are caring for, the carer will also feel more accepted in our communities. Basically, I call on everybody, because we all have a role to play.
Just as we must not lose our recognition of people, or identify them just by their disability, the fact that they need care or the fact that they are carers, it is important that we recruit carers to contribute to thinking on public policy—and not just when it relates to care issues; often, carers are disfranchised and disconnected from society because of their caring commitments. All of us at all political levels need to do more to engage carers, so that they contribute to a range of public policies.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I refer him back to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) about the Carers Parliament in Scotland, which looks at young carers, young adult carers and older carers. When they consult, the Scottish Government make great efforts to pluck people out of the voluntary world to come and tell them how it really is, because unless we hear how it really is, we are not going to fix it.
We all have a duty, including the Government, to look more at health in all policies. We cannot fix everything, but we should not be adding poverty on top of all carers’ other challenges.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate on carers. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for the debate and the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for the thoughtful way in which she opened it.
There have been some interesting and thoughtful contributions from hon. Members. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), the hon. Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson), for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). We also heard briefly from the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) and my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan).
There are more than 6.5 million carers in the UK. We have all used different figures in the debate, but I tend to use that one. In my constituency, there are nearly 11,000 carers. I have known ever since I became a Member of Parliament that many of them have a heavy workload due to the ill health in my constituency.
In many areas of the country, people are living longer. As the population ages, we are living with increasingly complex care needs. Three in five of us will become carers—the hon. Member for Eastleigh touched on that. There are also more older carers. In England and Wales, almost 1.3 million people aged over 65 give unpaid care to a family member or friend. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) spoke about the fact that, between 2001 and 2011, the number of carers who are over 85 increased from 38,000 to more than 87,000. More than half of carers aged over 85 give 50 hours or more of care every week. That is certainly something to think about.
We are failing to address key issues for carers. Inadequate support for carers and the people they care for damages carers’ quality of life. I will argue that Ministers must do more to recognise the importance of carers and to put in place policies to address their needs.
First, many carers continue to suffer financial hardship because of their caring responsibilities. As we have heard, a recent report by the New Policy Institute found that 1.2 million carers are in poverty. It is shocking to think that so many carers are struggling to make ends meet. In the Carers UK report, “State of Caring 2016”, half the carers surveyed reported cutting back on essentials such as food and heating. Others are having to borrow money, and more than a third use their own savings. The hon. Member for Strangford raised those issues. I feel very strongly that no carer should be pushed into poverty because of their caring responsibilities. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Workington for talking about financial hardship among carers. It is an increasing problem.
Secondly, too many carers are left to cope on their own with little or no support. As we have heard, one in five of the carers who give 50 hours or more of care each week receive no practical support with their caring role. More needs to be done to protect carers’ health and wellbeing. We must ensure that carers are identified at the earliest possible stage so that they can find the help and support they need. As I said earlier, in the past I have introduced private Members’ Bills to place a duty on GPs and NHS bodies to identify carers and ensure that they are referred for support. The last time I introduced such a Bill, the coalition Government did not support it. However, that duty on the NHS to identify carers was included as a pledge in Labour’s manifesto in 2015.
The Government have promised a new carers strategy to give carers
“the support they need to live well while caring for a family member or friend.”
However, to achieve that aim, any new strategy must include a duty on GPs and NHS bodies to identify carers. After all, the NHS is nearly always the first point of contact for carers as they begin caring, and so is best placed to identify them. I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle for a vital change that we can make for carers.
Thirdly, I want to talk about the chronic underfunding of social care and the impact on carers. I have raised that many times with the care Minister and most recently with the Chancellor. In the previous Parliament, there were five years of funding reductions for adult social care, totalling £4.6 billion. Local authority spending on social care for older people fell in real terms by 17%, even as the number of people aged 85 and over rose by 9%. Three hundred thousand fewer older people receive publicly funded adult social care now compared with 2009. In the Carers UK survey, 60% of carers who had seen a change in the amount of support they received said that that support had been reduced due to cost or availability.
I hope that the care Minister will not repeat the Chancellor's mantra about the 2% social care precept and the increases in the better care fund arriving by 2019-20. The 2% social care precept is inadequate to meet even the Government’s minimum wage policy. In my local area of Salford, the cost of paying increases in the national minimum wage in the care sector will be £2.7 million, but the 2% social care precept will raise only £1.6 million. In effect, the council tax payers of my local area are paying for that Government policy of increasing the national minimum wage. The Minister knows that there is no increase in the better care fund this year and only £105 million extra next year. It is hard to understand why Ministers have refused the reasonable request from the Local Government Association to bring forward £700 million of better care funding to address the financial pressures that it faces this year and next year.
We know that there are real concerns about the financial viability of many of our social care providers. In evidence this week to the Public Accounts Committee inquiry on discharging older people from acute hospitals, the president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Care, Harold Bodmer, said that the sustainability of the residential care and domiciliary care sectors was the main concern for social services directors. He also pointed to significant regional differences. He said:
“I wouldn't underestimate the impact of the differential effect on the social care market in different parts of the country, because there isn’t a domiciliary care problem in the north-east, but there is in parts of Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire and Norfolk. It is really difficult to get domiciliary care in north Norfolk."
I thank the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire for talking about home care not being valued. It may be that people in parts of the country where they cannot get domiciliary care are voting with their feet. People do not want to work in a sector that does not value or pay them properly. Home care should be a much more valued role.
I have real concerns that this fragility in care provision could leave more people without adequate care and put more pressure on unpaid family carers. This is worrying because more people are already providing care for more hours than ever before: 1.4 million people now give more than 50 hours of unpaid care a week, and that number is rising faster than the increase in the general population of carers. There has been an increase of 25% in people caring more than 50 hours a week in the past 10 years compared with an increase of just 11% in the total number of carers.
The Care Act 2014 entitles all carers to a timely assessment of their needs. However, one in three carers who have had an assessment in the past year had to wait six months or longer for it. Worryingly, nearly 40% of carers caring for someone at the end of life also had to wait six months or more for an assessment. That is unacceptable. Carers for people at the end of life should be prioritised. We have talked about that in different meetings here.
Timely assessments are surely one of the starting points in providing support to carers, but even when carer assessments take place it seems that they do not properly address carers’ needs. Almost 70% of carers in the Carers UK survey felt that their need to have regular breaks from caring was not considered in their assessment. Members have rightly repeatedly referred to the importance of breaks for carers. Seventy-four per cent. of working age carers did not feel that the support they needed to juggle care with work was sufficiently considered. We need those important assessments to be more than box-ticking exercises, but that can happen only if the Government invest in support for carers and give local authorities the resources that they need to provide care and support. I hope that hon. Members have been able to meet and listen to a number of carers this week—indeed, I understand from the debate that that is already happening.
At the carers week parliamentary event I met Katy Styles, who cares for her husband Mark, and she told me about a number of issues that she has encountered as a carer for a person with motor neurone disease. What I felt most in talking to Katy was that she wanted to be recognised and listened to as a carer, but she also raised issues of financial hardship. Katy and Mark Styles told their story to the all-party group on motor neurone disease, and Katy said:
“We told them about how we were once two professionals and how our lives had been devastated by Mark’s condition. I explained that as a teacher I had earned £150 a day and now I receive £62.10 a week in carer’s allowance for providing never-ending care and support for my husband. Mark explained how he was forced to retire at 46, that our income had fallen off a cliff, but our bills continued to increase. He told the group about how we travel miles and miles to receive care, and how we had to make adaptions to our home which were paid for with savings that we will never be able to replace.”
The MND Association found in its survey that more than half of carers for people with MND care for more than 100 hours per week, yet only a third have had a carer’s assessment, and four out of 10 people were unaware of their right to one. Caring for more hours each week can mean carers having to give up work and facing financial hardship, and we have touched on that in this debate. Some 2.3 million adults in the UK have given up work to care, and almost 3 million have reduced their working hours.
I do not want to leave the issue of financial hardship without mentioning women born in the 1950s who are carers, but who are now not getting their state pension until later in their 60s. I have spoken about carers such as Marian, who has given up work at the age of 62 to look after her mother and her brother, both of whom have dementia. Her only source of income is a small private pension of £2,500, and her husband will have to support her until she gets her state pension at 65. The Minister has probably not been involved in many of the debates on the state pension age, but many women born in the 1950s are in such a situation and now face financial hardship.
We have mentioned those who give up work to care or who struggle to manage their working hours, and about combining care with work, and the feeling in the debate has been that more needs to be done to ensure that employers provide carers with enough support. Some companies are leaders in providing support for their staff who are carers. For example, Centrica offers flexible working, access to counsellors, and an employee-led carers network that is supported by the company’s senior leadership. Its carer’s leave policy offers up to one month matched paid leave per year to help with caring responsibilities, and it also takes into account that caring responsibilities may fall to people who are not immediate family members.
I have concerns that members of this House are not able to provide those levels of support. IPSA contracts for Members’ staff offer only five days’ leave for caring reasons, and even that is stated as being for emergencies and dependants only. That minimal policy does not reflect good practice—the Minister will know what that is—and we could do better for our staff. I invite the Minister, the hon. Member for Eastleigh and others who have raised that issue, to join me in talking to IPSA to request a change in that policy. It is not good enough not to have better practice when supporting our staff who are carers.
As has been said, carers week is an important annual event because it provides us with an opportunity to recognise the contribution that carers make to society, and to highlight the challenges they face. I thank all organisations that support carers and provide hon. Members with so much information about caring issues: Carers UK, Age UK, Carers Trust, Independent Age, Macmillan Cancer Support, the MND Association, and the Multiple Sclerosis Society. My constituency contains the excellent Salford Carers Centre, and an amazing group of young carers are supported by the young carers project. I look forward to meeting them tomorrow. I also thank Marie Curie, which launched a report on end-of-life care for LGBT people in the House yesterday, as well as Together for Short Lives and the Rainbow Trust Charity for their support for children with life-limiting conditions and their families. Finally, I thank the UK’s 6.5 million carers, and especially the 11,000 carers in my constituency, for the essential role that they play in supporting our health and care system. Carers need and deserve so much more respect and support than they are currently given.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing this debate and on the way she opened it, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this important debate during carers week. I will start where the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) ended, and thank all those who are involved in caring in our society. As we have heard from every speaker, carers make an invaluable contribution to the UK that we could not do without, and perhaps I can illustrate that by citing some of the remarks made by colleagues during the debate.
I will touch on some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh in the remarks I have prepared for this debate, and I will also comment on her other points. She started with a graphic description of what might happen if carers were not around and if they decided not to do what they do every day, which brought the point home to us. She spoke about how people become a carer, and said that it could happen to any of us at any time. At last year’s national care awards I remember watching a video in which the point was made vividly that any of us in that hotel room could become a carer within 24 hours, and we can all understand that. As others pointed out, carers are no longer a minority group but people we all know—many of us are closely connected to carers, if not carers ourselves—and we are all only going to become more closely involved in the future. She, like others, made that point very well.
My hon. Friend also spoke, as did others, about the need to identify people not solely as carers but as husbands, wives, partners, employees—everything else they still are—and about the great danger of someone being pigeonholed because they have become a carer. It is important to remember that someone does not lose their identity when they become a carer. Hon. Members also highlighted the importance of carers week. I am proud to be the president of Carers in Bedfordshire—I have been for some years—and I thank it for its work. All hon. Members have thanked their local groups.
My hon. Friend was not the only colleague to speak of her personal experiences of caring. As I have mentioned from the Dispatch Box before, the range of Members’ experiences goes far beyond what the media are keen to portray and touches on virtually all aspects of life outside. When I hear the cares and experiences that colleagues bring to this place, I always hope that people outside read our debates and understand a bit more about us, why we want to be representatives in Parliament and the personal experiences we bring.
The hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) and others spoke about finances, on which subject I could spend the whole 15 or 20 minutes. I know that this subject is particularly important to the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South, the spokesperson for the Opposition. On carers allowance, which the hon. Member for Workington focused on, the Government keep the earnings limit under review and keep under consideration whether an increase is warranted and affordable. The increase of 8% in 2015 far outstripped the increase in wages. The earnings limit is currently £110 a week, but that is a net figure, and if allowable expenses, such as childcare and pension contributions, are deducted, a claimant might earn significantly more. The limit enables a carer to maintain some contact with the employment market and achieve greater financial independence, but I recognise and would not minimise the constant financial pressures and difficulties facing families. The limit is kept under review. Also, as I said, there is a wider review of the carers strategy, which has allowed a lot of people to make contributions on finance, not just the amount but the important interlinking of benefits. That point will not be missed, and I thank her for raising the matter.
Carers charities often raise with us the link with things such as the national minimum wage. The Minister talked about the figure last year, but the national minimum wage changed in April, and many of the carers trying to keep a part-time job going will be at that level, so it seems sensible to link the threshold with the national minimum wage so that when the national minimum wage increases, so does the threshold.
I cannot make that specific commitment, but I understand fully the hon. Lady’s point. As I said before, the earnings limit and all the factors affecting it are kept constantly under review, but I am sure that Treasury colleagues will not have missed the remarks made today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) also made the point about carers not being a small minority. She commended Carers in Wiltshire, and I commend her for being a volunteer—another example of the experience we all bring to this debate—and she raised the important issue of entitlement to benefits and signposting. In our call for evidence as part of the review of the carers strategy, respondents raised the importance of people being directed towards the things they need as soon as possible. The moment someone becomes a carer, their world changes, and they need as much information as possible at that time. She was right to mention the importance of signposting in particular. She spoke with great passion on the subject.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson), who also spoke from personal experience, made a point about access to work. I shall talk about employment later, but she made her point strongly, and again she was not the only person to recognise that, although we all wish for a world in which burdens are shared equally, in truth they are not. Women carry the biggest burden when it comes to caring, and will probably continue to do so for some time. Recognising the extra pressures on women is particularly important. The hon. Lady made that point very well.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) was particularly helpful in saying that although it is carers week for us, it is just another week for carers. I also liked it when he said that it was a week to talk “with”, not “to” carers. That was a particularly well made point. He spoke forcefully about the reality of life—the sleepless nights and other issues that carers experience.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) brought up the issue of care homes. I am not going to linger on that subject, but, as some colleagues know, I am particularly exercised about safety in care homes. It is my belief that someone in the care of the state, whether it be the NHS, local authorities or anyone else, needs to be as safe in a care home, a mental health institution or in learning disability facilities as they would be in an intensive care unit. As I expressed in yesterday’s debate about Southern Health, that is simply not the case.
I am very conscious of issues surrounding care homes. I have a round-table meeting on Monday with those responsible for the monitoring and regulation of care homes, and I pay tribute to the Care Quality Commission and others who are trying to do a good job of regulation, but this also involves some of the groups that are critical of regulation, want to see more done and want to ensure that there is safety in care homes. Some of the stories of abuse that we read about in the papers need to become fewer and fewer until they are extinct.
I want to praise the National Care Association because there are many good care homes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle said. It is important to keep the right balance in recognising the quality of good homes without minimising the pressures on them. When things that should not be happening are going on, it is quite difficult to maintain that balance. I appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend mentioned this important issue. I commend, too, the ideas coming forward from the carers team in East Sussex, and I urge members to ensure that the ideas put to my hon. Friend will be put into our national call for evidence. They have until the end of this month to do so. I do not envisage a statutory instrument to extend that still further, should there be a rush of evidence at the end of the month, but we never know in the present circumstances. Getting that information in would be very helpful.
The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) was not the only one to refer to the pressures on our own caseworkers, who do so much work to look after people in the House. I appreciated his mention of that point. He hoped that the carers strategy would be a long-term strategy. I hope it will, too. The strategy should be reviewed from time to time—this is the first review for two or three years—and that is certainly the aim. That is why I would like the strategy to look slightly beyond the immediate and consider how to build for the future rather than simply having a snapshot now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I call him my hon. Friend—is exceptionally generous and courteous to all Front-Bench Members when he speaks. I would like to tell him how much that is appreciated—it really is—when he is so genuine in expressing his views. He spoke of his personal experiences, pressures in Northern Ireland and the Crossroads young carers in Newtownards who particularly stressed the difficulties faced by young carers and the things that they often miss out on. My hon. Friend spoke about a singing group. A few weeks ago, I went to Biggleswade at the request of the Alzheimer’s Society to join a singing group, and I sang some songs with the people there. It was certainly an uplifting experience that morning. I commend those groups and the carers who work with them.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) made a considered and thoughtful contribution, as usual. She spoke about all the financial pressures. Particularly telling was her comment that although there are a relatively fixed number of carers and although it is steadily growing to 6.5 million, it is a replaceable 6.5 million and about a third leave for all sorts of reasons.
On bereaved carers, I was contacted through Twitter by someone in that position who asked whether the strategy and review would cover them, and I answered “Yes, it will and it should”. The moment that caring for someone stops because of bereavement, the carer’s life has changed—perhaps in an anticipated way, but it is has still changed. Caring for people in those circumstances is really important. We must not forget this group, so I greatly appreciated what the hon. Lady said. She also spoke of the need to ensure that social care is seen as a profession as much as nursing and domiciliary care are throughout the NHS and elsewhere, and I thoroughly agree with her.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), whose background in caring requires her to be listened to seriously every time she speaks about this issue, made a number of comments. I shall deal with the subject of finance a little later. Let me say first that I will ensure that the review that we are conducting will cover early identification in the NHS. We are trying to ensure that it takes place earlier and earlier. The issue of GP identification is very important, and I am pleased that the hon. Lady raised it again.
I have no doubt that those are already deep within the recesses of the Department of Health, but if it would speed things up and provide encouragement, I should be grateful if the hon. Lady did indeed do that.
The hon. Lady also made an important point about our staff in the House. She said that we should look after them. I appreciate the point that she made about the staff of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and I will look into how we can best ensure that we recognise properly—in line with best employment practice elsewhere—that those who work for us bear considerable burdens of caring from time to time.
I am grateful for the opportunity to come to the House and share the important work that is under way to develop a new cross-Government strategy for carers. I continue to be humbled by the many powerful, honest and informed contributions that we have heard throughout the afternoon from Members who have described the carers whom they know and represent, as well as their personal experiences. Those views, and the many others that we have received so far, will be fully taken into account as the Department works with Government colleagues, stakeholders and, crucially, carers themselves to develop the new strategy.
Today we have been reminded that behind the statistics stand spouses, partners, parents—in fact, all manner of relatives, friends and neighbours—who are providing care right now in our communities. Their commitment can scarcely be quantified or questioned, and we must ensure that our own commitment to support people is demonstrated clearly as well.
I pay tribute to the national care awards, which are sponsored by LloydsPharmacy, Carers UK and The Sun. I was at the awards ceremony a couple of weeks ago, and we met the winners at lunchtime. The Prime Minister was kind enough to offer No. 10 Downing Street for a lunchtime reception, and we took people round. We are always struck when people like that say that it is a privilege to be there. We say to them, “No, it is our privilege that you are here with us. It is the other way round.” Those people were a great group—great winners. We went to a dinner that night. Radio 2 was very good: there is always a table of wonderful people to support the awards. When we hear the personal stories—which have been reflected in some of what we have heard in the House today—we are all immensely impressed. Let me again pay tribute to those awards: they do one of the jobs that we have all been speaking about this afternoon—valuing and recognising carers for what they do in so many different circumstances.
Before we go any further, may I offer a small philosophical comment? I picked this up from a piece in The Guardian by a writer called Madeleine Bunting. I do not read The Guardian all the time, contrary to the belief of many of my colleagues, but every now and again I am struck by something that is really good, and what Madeleine Bunting wrote is important. She was writing about what care is. We talk about it—we talk about the facts and figures and the finance here in the House—but what is it precisely, and where is it going? Madeleine Bunting wrote:
“We recognise instantly when we experience it: an interaction that acknowledges a moment of human connection. It may be brief, but it expresses and confirms a common humanity, a recognition of the individual—and always involves a particular quality of attention.
But the characteristics needed to provide this kind of care are losing cultural traction. Attentiveness requires two crucial ingredients: patience and the willingness to put one’s own preoccupations aside and to be available to another. Yet in a myriad of ways we are all being groomed by consumerism and digital media—to be the opposite: impatient and self-preoccupied. That impatience makes us easily distractable, addicted to the next stimulus.”
I think that Madeleine Bunting was making a really important point. The people about whom we have been talking have avoided that: they have patience, and a commitment to others that is beyond many of us. However, there is concern about society—concern about where it is going and the pressures that it is under. Demographics suggest that we will need more care, and yet certain pressures are making it more difficult for that to be realised. What will carers be like in the future if they have become too distracted and too self-occupied? That is not the case with carers now, but it is a valid point to raise with regard to the future.
We owe a duty of care to this vast army of people, who show their patience and their compassion for others. I am talking about not just providing them with the support, tools and information that they need to care well, but ensuring that their own health, wellbeing and life goals are not compromised. Our respect is unreserved, but respect is not enough. We must never lose sight of that fact if a new carer strategy is to succeed.
I should say at this point that I do not wish to paint a negative picture of caring. Although personal sacrifices are made each and every day, many carers have told us that it remains a privilege to care, and that they have a strong desire to repay the kindness of others. Indeed, carers derive immense satisfaction and peace of mind from being the primary source of comfort and reassurance for friends and loved ones. However, that satisfaction must not be at the expense of carers’ own mental and physical health.
We have also heard this afternoon about the great diversity in types of caring. There is no such thing as a typical carer—carers are people of all ages and from all walks of life, and those for whom they care have different needs. In particular, we neglect at our peril the needs of children and young people with caring obligations. They are most at risk of having not just their health and wellbeing compromised, but their education and career ambitions too.
There is no “one size fits all”. We must be alert to that as we attempt to craft new and improved support for all those providing care in our communities. It is no surprise that one in six of us is currently caring. As lifespans extend and our population grows, caring for others has already become part of the fabric of our lives. All those who have spoken today have made it clear that they are not affected by the lazy mindset that tells us that carers are other people; carers are all of us. As a constituency MP, I have had the privilege of visiting carers and carers’ groups in Bedfordshire. As a Minister, I have spoken to carers’ groups in relation to pulling together the new carers strategy. I strongly commend those who work in my own county.
Almost 20 years after the Carers Act 1995 first gave official acknowledgement to those providing “regular and substantial” care, the Care Act 2014 now gives carers new rights, including parity of assessment, advice and support with those for whom they care. Those new rights are a historic step forward. We have provided local authorities with £433 million in 2016-17 for new burdens arising from the Act.
We know that the Care Act is taking time to bed in. The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South referred to the matters that affect assessment, and I understand them very well. Care varies from place to place. A group from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services working with the Department is looking at those variations in care, so that in places where assessments are much slower than in others, we are looking at what can be done and how things can be improved. That is very much on our mind.
Having been present during discussions about certain groups of carers, perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he believes that carers of people who are at end of life should be prioritised for assessment. It is pointless to have people waiting six months when the person for whom they care may have only a few weeks or a few months to live.
I will ensure that that is considered as an important point of the assessment. I will write to the hon. Lady in relation to that.
Let me turn to finance now. There is always concern about the amount of finance that is available. It is almost impossible to get the right amount. By spending around £2.5 billion a year on benefits in Great Britain, benefiting more than three-quarters of a million carers, we are trying to respond to the needs that are there. That money provides a measure of financial support and recognition for people who give up the opportunity of full-time employment in order to provide care. As I said earlier, those allowances remain constantly under review. As this debate has made clear, it is not just about finance, but about all the other things, including supporting young carers and making sure that they are not forgotten and remembering that employers play an important part. I commend NHS England for the important work that it has done in relation to carers and for its commitment to carers.
I also want to mention the results that our call for evidence has produced, just to give people some assurance that these things are on our minds. We have received 3,800 responses so far, 85% of which are from carers themselves. A great number of the responses have been candid and honest, and it will frighten my officials if I read them out. They describe financial hardship; a lack of recognition and involvement; the impact on carers’ health and wellbeing; the difficulty of maintaining life outside caring; and frustration with access to assessments and services. All these issues are on our minds.
The need to ensure that carers get the recognition they deserve has been well illustrated in the compassionate speeches that we have heard today. Carers are vital, and not just in carers week. There is also a young carers awareness day—it was on 27 January this year—sponsored by the Carers Trust. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for holding a round-table about carers recently. This matter is on the minds of everyone in the House and I appreciate the courtesy of hon. Members in giving their time to deal with this important issue this afternoon.
Thank you for allowing me a few more moments to speak at the end of this important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I want to thank all Members for their thoughtful and helpful contributions today. I also want to thank the Minister for his characteristically compassionate and understanding comments on the carers strategy and for taking on board the comments that have been made across the Chamber. I am grateful for the wide-ranging comments from those on the Opposition Benches, who have also been most helpful.
Carer signposting is vital. Recognition by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is also vital—a point that came up yesterday with the staff in my own office. I have also had women who were born in the 1950s coming to see me in my constituency about their roles as carers resulting in financial hardship. I also spoke about my own personal experiences of caring, which resulted in some challenging financial times and a drop in the quality of life. I therefore never underestimate the financial challenges that face carers and their tenacity in making ends meet. That is always astonishing.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) for talking about the brilliant work being done in her constituency and for championing the “Walk a mile in my shoes” event. That is absolutely the right way to manage these things. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) said that “carer” was just too small a word to describe such a big role. She also mentioned the variations in the different work that people do. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) talked about carers week being more than just a congratulatory event, and said that it was about identifying needs and opportunities for change. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) highlighted the need to look after carers and to allow them to have breaks. His own family provided a fine example of that. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) spoke powerfully about the wonderful success of carers week in Northern Ireland and about the measures that should be adopted. I have scrawled something here about joined-up thinking. It is easy to say those three words. If only we could achieve it sometimes!
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) characteristically picked up on many of the points made by other Members around the Chamber, particularly those relating to hidden carers. I have been contacted by people on Twitter and Facebook who have been listening to or watching the debate today—some people have also been messaging me—to say that they now realise that they are hidden carers. Perhaps they are looking after someone with vascular dementia, for example, and this is having an impact on their lives, day in, day out. Others have spoken about the effect of looking after children and other family members.
I welcome this opportunity for Members to talk about end-of-life care, which is a really important time for carers. It can involve financial pressures, costs, poverty, stress, borrowing, and perhaps re-mortgaging or losing a cherished home as the impact of the situation bites. We have also talked about the issues affecting student carers and young carers, and I am reminded particularly of the issues that come in weekly to our caseworkers, who deal with them so well.
In my summing up, I was also feeling slightly philosophical, like the Minister. Theodore Roosevelt said that people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. I thought of one of the last conversations I had with my dad before he died. I was in the hospital, helping him to bathe and go to the toilet, and he said to me, “Did you ever think that you would be looking after your old dad like this?” and I said to him, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Caring may be the most challenging, boring, difficult, monotonous or heart-breaking role, particularly at that end-of-life stage, but carers will never regret being there and doing it. Caring is a challenge, but carers look back and relish the fact that they made those last few moments and times better. Carers, we recognise and salute you today. You are special and a true carers army.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered carers.