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Family Carers: Government Strategy

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 24 February 1999

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2.47 p.m.

Whether they will introduce tax, benefit and housing policies which more closely reflect the social and economic contribution made to society by those who care for elderly or disabled members of their own family.

My Lords, the Government published a national strategy for carers on 8th February. It includes a range of proposals to improve support for carers including a new charter of what people can expect from long-term care services; reducing council tax for more disabled people; new legislation to allow authorities to address carers' needs directly; support for young carers, including help at school; and a new special grant to help carers take a break.

My Lords, I greatly welcome the Answer which the noble Baroness has given. Does she agree that the Government are to be greatly congratulated on instituting a major change in emphasis away from the emphasis on institutionalised care and towards partnership with those 5.7 million unsung heroes around the country who are looking after disabled and elderly members of their own families, often at great personal sacrifice? Are the Government satisfied, however, that the £890 million over three years which has been set aside for this scheme—which, spread over 5.7 million carers, amounts to £52 per carer per year—will be adequate to fulfil the excellent and ambitious programme set out in this report?

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's comments on what I believe is an important, major change in emphasis which has been warmly welcomed by carers' associations. Like him, I pay tribute to the millions of our fellow citizens who do so much to support those people who receive care from them.

On the question of resources, substantial resources are being made available which will help us to provide new money for practical policies to support carers and to make sure they can have a break from caring. It is important to recognise the role of new legislation to allow authorities to address carers' needs directly, not simply the needs of the person who is receiving care. The Prime Minister made it absolutely clear when he launched the strategy that it is just a start. We believe it is a substantial and important start on which we will all have to build.

My Lords, with regard to the position of a carer looking after a sick husband, who now finds that if he dies after 6th April next year the pensions he expected will be halved, can the noble Baroness say whether the Government have any plans to compensate or help such people if they have taken mistaken financial decisions as a result of not being informed of the true position by the Department of Social Security?

My Lords, this is a serious issue. It is one on which I do not have full information. If the noble Lord will allow me, I will write to him on this specific point.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are precedents from long ago of paying for carers? Carers existed long before there were hospitals or social workers. In the 17th century, substantial grants were made frequently from the poor law to those who cared for their own parents, and to those who cared for their own children in a good number of instances. Does my noble friend agree that where mothers wish to look after their own children, that is preferable to paying childminders or nannies? Do the Government have practical plans to encourage those mothers?

My Lords, the contribution of those who care for others—whether they are children they are bringing up, disabled children, the elderly, people who are sick, or the long-term sick—is tremendously important. As regards parents, the whole basis of the Government's policy is to make sure that there are real choices for people who have caring responsibilities. We need to support those people who choose to combine their caring and parental responsibilities with working through the sort of employment policies that allow them to do so in a way that does not act to the detriment of their families.

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that, by forcing people—particularly those on invalid care allowance—to attend a compulsory interview to discuss full-time work, the Government are giving out the wrong signal that carers who in effect give their lives towards looking after somebody else are not doing a full-time job?

My Lords, I do not think it is the wrong signal. Interviewing those who are not working enables them to understand what support would be available if they chose to work and what the options are. That is tremendously important. We are not talking about compulsion, about people having to go out to work, but about making sure that people are aware of the choices available. For some people the choice of being able to obtain financial security and the self-respect that, on occasions, can come from going out to work is a very important choice.

My Lords, as this welcome policy initiative for the support of carers unfolds, can the Minister give an assurance that special attention will be paid to the needs of those families who care for severely disabled children, often for very many years, and to the needs of young carers who support their parents, often before they go to school and on their return? Will their needs receive particular attention?

My Lords, the needs of young carers were particularly highlighted in the strategy. They have perhaps not been acknowledged sufficiently in the past. That is why we are very anxious that a member of staff should have a responsibility for addressing the needs of children who combine being children with being carers. The noble Lord also mentioned children who are long-term sick, and particularly those who have life-threatening diseases. I hope that the new children's nursing teams that are being established in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, and which are currently being piloted, will provide tremendous support for those families.

My Lords, can the Minister estimate the annual savings to the nation made by those who care for members of their family?

My Lords, as I understand it, there has never been a government estimate of the exact economic contribution made by carers. The figure of £34 billion has been estimated by some groups outside government. Obviously it is a very difficult figure to quantify—no one can be certain about it—but none of us should underestimate the enormous role that carers play. Nor should we underestimate the responsibilities—financial and otherwise—which would fall on the community if they were not caring for their relatives.

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness about carers knowing their options. Does she accept that care in the home will almost always be cheaper and more cost effective than care in an institution? Will the Government therefore look very carefully at pension credits in respect of full-time carers?

My Lords, the pension needs of full-time carers has to be addressed; that is why we are looking in terms of the second pension. We need to make sure that people who have not made contributions because they have taken time off work to care for someone will be allowed credits for that. As to the cost of caring in an institution or in someone's own home, one cannot always say that it goes one way or the other; it depends very much on the quality of care provided in the institution and the quality of care provided at home. I accept that many people would prefer to have care in their own home. Allowing someone to stay at home while their carer has a break, rather than having to go into an institution for respite care, is exactly the sort of flexibility that we are trying to bring in and allow under the terms of the strategy.