My Lords, the love, commitment and sheer hard work of Britain’s unpaid carers have saved lives and made a huge difference to the country’s most vulnerable. The nation is hugely grateful. I completely recognise the impact the pandemic has had on access to support and breaks. Local authorities have an important responsibility to assess carers’ needs, and I pay tribute to the efforts of local authorities as we work together to reopen day and respite services.
My Lords, I commend to the Minister Carers UK’s excellent 40-page report produced for Carers Week. In it, we hear from carers themselves, not just on the lack of essential breaks and respite but on caring during the pandemic, their own health and their worries about when key day care and other services vital to the loved ones they care for, and suspended during lockdown for over a year now, will be reinstated. If he reads the report carefully, he will see the reality of everyday life for thousands of carers. Funding given to councils during the pandemic has not been anywhere near enough for the vital role they have been expected to play, and the funding the Minister repeatedly refers to has simply not reached carers. How will the Government address this appalling situation and ensure that unpaid carers are given the funding and support they need and deserve?
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the Carers UK report. I read the very moving personal testimonies in that report and for that reason I took a call with Carers UK this morning in order to understand the recommendations it has made. There is an enormous amount to do. The practical role of the department is to work with local authorities to ensure that day centres and care services are reopened. There are massive infection control issues, but we are working extremely hard with local authorities to ensure that that reopening can happen quickly so that carers get the support they need.
My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the Archbishops’ commission on social care. Given that there are 750,000 young carers in England and that some 27% of them regularly miss school because of their caring responsibilities, can the Minister tell us whether Her Majesty’s Government have any plans to identify these children and offer them extra support, not least in the wake of the added disruption to their education that has been caused by the pandemic?
My Lords, the testimony from the right reverend Prelate is entirely right and is echoed in the Carers UK report. The point he makes about identification is key. One of the good things that came out of the pandemic is that we made progress on identifying and putting together registers of carers. That was seen in the delivery of the vaccination, when nearly 1.6 million of them received the vaccination early as part of priority group 6. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that more needs to be done on data collection.
My Lords, will my noble friend join me in commending the work of unpaid carers in this country who have done so much to help through the pandemic? Will he request that Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions consider increasing the carer’s allowance, which pays anyone caring for somebody less than £2 an hour for at least 35 hours a week of care? The complexity of the current system, with overlapping benefits, would certainly be advantaged by significant simplification. At the moment, people need advice before they understand whether they can claim carers benefit.
My Lords, I completely agree with my noble friend on commending the role of unpaid carers. We could not have got through this pandemic in the way we did without them. The system is complex and work is under way at the DWP to try to simplify it. As my noble friend knows from her significant expertise, this is a difficult task but we are very focused on it.
My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-president of Carers UK, and in that capacity and further to his phone call this morning, will the Minister agree to meet Carers UK and interested colleagues in the House to discuss further the contents of this important report? I know he understands the moral and ethical case for supporting carers, as he has made that very clear on many occasions, but I want to ask him about economic issues. If carers reach breaking point—this report shows that many of them are at that point—and they give up caring, any other form of care costs vastly more, so will the economic contribution of carers be taken into account when proposals for social care reform are brought forward? Might we even hope that they could influence the Treasury?
My Lords, I can reassure the noble Baroness that economic considerations absolutely will be borne in mind. It is a huge challenge to take on the massive economic benefits of unpaid carers, and I will be glad to meet Carers UK—I have in fact already begun scheduling a follow-up meeting to this morning’s call.
Too often, the family carers of children with the most serious and complex health needs are at the back of the queue for care breaks, and many had no breaks during the pandemic at all. Research by Together for Short Lives has found that cash-strapped English local authorities fund just 1% of the care costs of children’s hospices which provide these short breaks. Does the Minister agree that the Government need to fill the £400 million funding gap in social care for disabled children as a matter of urgency, to ensure that these carers get the breaks they desperately need?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, we have worked very closely with hospices to fill the funding gap that hit them hard during the pandemic, and I pay tribute to those who worked so hard looking after younger vulnerable people. The pressure on care breaks has been intense during the pandemic.
My Lords, 81% of carers are taking on more care since the start of the pandemic and, as the Carers UK report says,
“Most striking is the lack of confidence that carers feel about support in the future.”
Carers UK is calling for a new deal for carers, with an urgent review of breaks provision by the Government, better respite care, an uplift in universal credit and sufficient funds for local authorities to provide support. The Minister has already said he will meet Carers UK, which is very welcome. Will he also be prepared to meet other interested parties to see what can be implemented?
The noble Baroness is undoubtedly right that carers have taken on a hugely bigger burden. More carers have been involved in looking after loved ones and families; those already working have worked longer hours; and the kinds of work they have done has been extended because some local authority provision has not been possible during the lockdown and the pandemic. I recognise that it is taking time to reopen many of those services, but I reassure the noble Baroness that we are working hard, we recognise the issue, and the issue of breaks in particular is one that concerns us. I will be glad to meet anyone she recommends.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the millions of unpaid carers across the country; they contribute and sacrifice so much on a daily basis. We recognise the great demands and burdens that have resulted because of the pandemic. I urge the Minister to think what more can be done to provide these people with breaks. They need them to counter social isolation and loneliness and for their mental and physical well-being. I thank the Government for what they are already doing. What more can be done?
The noble Lord puts it very well. Breaks are key. Some 6.5 million carers work flat out throughout the year. It makes all the difference to them if they can have moments of respite when they can lift their heads, conduct their usual tasks and get a little mental clarity. We are very focused on this issue, but I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising it.
My Lords, I also join colleagues in paying tribute to the millions of unpaid carers. Even before the pandemic, they were keeping the whole system going. The Minister has paid tribute to their need for respite care. Can this be translated into something tangible? How many weeks respite care can an unpaid carer have? I know unpaid carers who are desperate to have just a small break from their 24/7 commitment and work. How much time should this be? Furthermore, local authorities are in desperate financial difficulties. Surely, there should be some help for them so that they can provide residential respite care and give unpaid carers the chance to continue.
My Lords, I cannot provide a direct answer to the noble Lord’s reasonably broad question, which illustrates the very wide range of care undertaken by Britain’s unpaid carers. As the noble Lord rightly says, some are working 24/7, almost without respite, in incredibly demanding and challenging circumstances, others are dropping in to see a neighbour for an hour or two a day, and there are many permutations in between. It is really important to have local provision so that there is tailor-made support by people who are close and in the community. I am afraid there are not the kind of blanket measures that the noble Lord seeks, which is why we work through charities and local authorities to provide the support that people need.