Caring for the Carers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:56 pm on 1st May 1986.

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Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Mossley Hill 5:56 pm, 1st May 1986

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) has spoken with considerable knowledge and a good track record in putting forward his point of view. He has set up an interesting agenda of proposals which will probably find cross-party support in this Chamber. Above and beyond the debate tonight, there is plenty there for which we can gather a consensus. But such is the nature of these debates that this evening at 7 o'clock we shall have to decide which way to vote on the motion. I can find nothing in the motion with which to disagree, and I am glad that it is before us for debate.

I might perhaps enter a number of caveats and additional points, but some of these have already been touched on and, because I know that other Members want to take part in the debate, I shall try not to detain the House.

The first of my three caveats is a plea for a proper balance in dealing with carers between the voluntary sector and the statutory sector. I know from my experience as president of the Liverpool old people's hostels association and from discussions with the Merseyside council for voluntary service and Liverpool young persons advisory service that they are very stretched for funds. They believe also that they are having to deal with a local authority which almost seems philosophically opposed to the spirit of voluntarism, and that can make life difficult for the voluntary organisations. If adequate support is to be given to those who care and who do the caring work, resources and support must be provided for voluntary organisations. Although I am glad to see a reference in the motion to increased support for voluntary organisations and agencies, I should like the Government to look at ways in which their position might be better protected.

Another caveat concerns the division of responsibility between health and social services departments. Often they are hopelessly unco-ordinated. To rectify this, I would like to see the health and social services provision for adults amalgamated under directly elected regional government. I would also like to see the social services provision for children integrated into a family courts system.

My third caveat is about flexibility, of which there needs to be more if we are to give more help to carers—a point on which the hon. Member for Eastleigh touched. Flexibility in the provision of care requires the breaking down of the entrenched intransigence of some groups of people, regrettably some of them trade unionists who defend working practices and insist that care may be provided only at certain times—for example, not at weekends. I hope that the Opposition Front Bench will use its considerable influence with the trade unions to ensure that some of this inflexibility is broken down.

In addition, we should like to see a charter for carers that would establish their inalienable right to an income that is independent of their dependants. Secondly, there should be access to information, which is often denied by the professional to the carer. Thirdly, as other hon. Members have said, there must be respite care, which is so important. Fourthly, there must be increased governmental encouragement and support for organisations such as the Association of Carers, with opportunities for more training to be provided under their aegis.

Enhanced nursery provision would enable women to have more flexibility in caring for children or relatives and would increase opportunities for women generally. Our record is not good. In France, 90 per cent. of three-year-olds attend nursery. In West Germany, the figure is 70 per cent. Here, it is only 2·8 per cent. My city of Liverpool intended to open six new nursery classes in 1985–86, but the Secretary of State withheld his approval. The authority will again seek approval for 1986–87. I hope that this time the Secretary of State will give the go-ahead.

These are the caveats and addenda that I would enter, while supporting the Opposition motion. Like the Government in their amendment, we commend the estimated 5·5 million people who are supporting disabled or elderly relatives at home. We have all been sent details of how many it is estimated are in our constituencies. I am told that there are 9,500 carers in my constituency. However, we repudiate the Government's contention that they are giving adequate support to the carers. Like the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), I feel that the Social Security Bill, which should have been a golden opportunity, makes no specific provision for carers, and some will be up to £6·90 a week worse off because of the changes being made to long-term supplementary benefit.

What thanks is that to people who have sacrificed so much for the good of others? What sort of thanks is that to those who save the state millions of pounds? If just 10 per cent. of those who are cared for at home had to be looked after in residential institutions, the public cost would be over £1 billion a year. In comparison, the cost of extending invalid care allowance to married women—a move for which there is all-party agreement, and which would be of real help to the carers—would be less than one tenth of that £1 billion a year, at approximately £85 million a year.

The key to the Government's intentions comes in that immortal phrase used by the Minister for Health, "the availability of resources". If a Government can find, as this Government did a few weeks ago, £1 billion to give away in tax reductions, and can look next year to a further £4 billion for cuts in taxes, why can it not find greater resources to support the carers? That is the touchstone on which the Government's sincerity should be judged. By that touchstone, we shall vote against them tonight.