Caring for the Carers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:31 pm on 1st May 1986.

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Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South 5:31 pm, 1st May 1986

The Minister for Health has just proved that he is incapable, not only of taking care of carers, but of making a decent speech on the issue. He accused my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) of being pessimistic, but my hon. Friend was reflecting the deep and profound pessimism of carers. The right hon. Gentleman should ask his hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security, who has responsibility for the disabled, what was said to him by the deputation of carers I took to see him a few months ago. The carers were profoundly pessimistic, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West explained. That was the reason for my hon. Friend's pessimism. He was reflecting the reality of the situation.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to an article in The Sunday Times. I cannot see how any Minister could read such an appalling and tragic article and refuse to do anything positive and constructive for carers. It beggars belief that the Minister could use the example of an article in The Sunday Times and make the bromide speech that he made today. The right hon. Gentleman said he wa glad that the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) was making progress, but he surgically removed from the Bill the provision relating to carers.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the figures cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West were fanciful. The right hon. Gentleman does not know the real figures, so he attacked my hon. Friend. The right hon. Gentleman has not taken the trouble to find out what they are. He said that the figures would emerge in 1988, but carers cannot wait until then. The Conservative party has been in power for seven years and Ministers for Health have had sufficient time to ascertain the position. The Minister said that he recognised the importance of carers, but he still made a wordy speech which offered no real progress. He has not satisfied the House on all those issues. In fact, I am sorry to say that he made a bad speech. His speech disappointed me, because I had hoped that hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree on this issue.

The debate is not about compassion; it is about justice. People have become carers because they love the people for whom they care and because they have compassion for them. It is unjust for society and it is wrong for the Government to expect those people to become virtual slaves in caring for disabled people. Severe disability damages people's lives. It is wrong that a disability should damage the lives of those caring for disabled people. In fact, it devastates their lives, yet that occurs all too often. It is unjust, unfair and intolerable.

The Government's amendment seems similar to the early-day motion which was supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but there are some significant differences. The early-day motion asked the Government to ensure that … adequate respite care … a considerable improvement in the level of support … a flexible system of cash and other … services, such as home helps and home nursing"— and that the invalid care allowance is made available to married women". The amendment pays warm tribute to carers. We can all say that we pay tribute to carers. However, the amendment uses the phrase in line with its stated policies … and the availability of resources". We all know that that is shorthand for saying that funding will not be provided and that the money is not available. That is what the Government are saying. The Minister's fine words mean Only that, because of a lack of resources, the carers will not receive the money.

The amendment refers to the European Court judgment and says that the Government will carefully consider it. That is not good enough. We do not want the judgment just to be carefully considered by the Government. We want it to be accepted by them. There is a great difference between considering and accepting.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the issue to women. There are some men carers but basically it is a women's issue. A few months ago, in the presence of my wife, I attended a meeting of carers at county hall across the river. I went as their friend. In the 20 years that I have been a Member of Parliament I have never had such a rough ride. Those women carers, of many creeds and kinds—some black, some brown and some white—were unanimous in their bitterness at being exploited. When I tried to explain that, along with many hon. Members, I was campaigning for carers, they were vindictive. They said that it did not matter what we were trying to do. The only thing they cared about was what we were doing and what we had accomplished. I could not say that we had accomplished anything. I have never known women who felt so bitter. They are treated badly. They feel that they are abused by authority. A loving task to them has become a prison sentence, where no adequate support is provided.

Some of the country's 1·25 million carers are driven to despair, are in ill health and in need of care. Some carers are prisoners of their own conscience. Cash is the most important requirement. It has been estimated, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West said, that more than £5 billion is saved every year. I pay a warm tribute to Judith Oliver of the Association of Carers for the marvellous work that she and her colleagues have done and to Pat Osborne of the Crossroads association for the wonderful work that that group has done. Those associations are demanding cash, and rightly so, because cash is crucial.

Back-up services are also being demanded. There is no round-the-clock nursing help and carers are neglected, especially at weekends. There is little respite provision. Above all, carers need a break. They cannot stand the eternal grind 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Yet often, when they contact the emergency services, they find that they get little help. Carers are not given adequate training. They are given a rough deal. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West rightly emphasised, the more disabled a person is, the more difficult it is to get help. Carers are taken for granted by national Government, local authorities and the public.

I have no doubt that the main reason why carers are shabbily treated is that they are women. This is a women's issue. If most men were carers, responses and attitudes would be very different. People look down on women. The Government look down on women. Women are shabbily treated, and women carers are the most shabbily treated of all. That is the main reason why the Government pay scant regard to them. I hope that the Government will pay due regard to this debate, because carers can easily sink and become submerged non-persons unless we can help them. There is a strong feeling among carers that they want not just cash but recognition and a sense of identity. That is what they require.

I suggest that we should provide for carers a genuine new deal, which includes eight points. First, we should give carers an honoured place in society. Secondly, we should recognise their wonderful value and make civilised and adequate provision for them. Thirdly, there should be adequate Government recognition of the serious problems hidden behind the sad curtains and the lonely wheelchairs. Fourthly, there should be an end to discrimination against married women and co-habitees. They should be paid the invalid care allowance now rather than have to wait until the Government are dragged kicking and screaming by the European Court to undertake reform. Fifthly, there should be a careful assessment of the role, capacity and functions of all carers and the burdens that they relieve. Sixthly, home helps and nursing helps should be made available when needed and for as long as required. Seventhly, the provision of expert care is needed so that carers can have a break, rather than a breakdown. Eighthly, there should be planned provision of information and advice about benefits, services and options.

Carers are exploited because they care and are dutiful, because they love their dependent relatives, because they want to help and because they are women. It is time that we ended this scandal and gave them justice.