I am fast reaching the stage when I find it hard to take seriously the views expressed by the Labour party, because its answer to all difficulties is the profligate application of a cheque book—somebody else's. I have been closely involved in caring for carers for many years. It is no news that their difficulties are not only financial. There has been a certain amount of rivalry over voluntary organisations, and I speak on behalf of the National Council of Carers and their Elderly Dependants, now reaching its 21st birthday and so well in advance of many others who have more recently joined the debate on the needs of carers.
The council was founded at a time when nearly all the caring for elderly relatives was done by unmarried women—the single daughter staying at home looking after the elderly relatives. The invalid care allowance, which was introduced in 1976, was brought into existence largely under the pressure of organisations such as the council.
I share the views of those who hope that the Government will find it within their power to find the £100 million necessary to pay the invalid care allowance to married women. I am content for that to wait for the fully considered judgment from the European Court, and until it has been considered by the Government and they have made it the subject of a report to the House. However, having been through all those necessary steps, I have every confidence that the Government will do the right thing by the many married women caring for dependants. I pay tribute to the Government for the steps that they have already taken in extending the invalid care allowance to non-relatives and doubling the amount of part-time earnings that can be allowed before entitlement to the allowance is affected.
I wish to speak particularly about the carers of the elderly. It is easy to throw all carers into the same discussion, as they have many aspects in common, but they also have distinguishing features. For example, there is no doubt that elderly parents will be very much a growing part of our community as the number of residents over 85 doubles in the next century. Increasingly, elderly people will be looking after the very elderly.
Many contributors have said that it is too easy to take carers for granted, and to assume that all is well for them until they reach breaking point. I hope that the debate will highlight some of their needs and the ways that they can be given help before they reach that breaking point.
We have spent too little time concentrating on some of the good practices that have been established throughout the country. In my constituency, I have been consistently impressed by pioneering projects and ideas about meeting the needs of the elderly and carers. It has become fashionable to say that we always want more without looking carefully at what is being achieved, learning from our successes and then trying to spread good practices to other areas.
In my constituency I have visited many projects for sheltered housing, cluster housing, good neighbour schemes and, above all, schemes using telecommunications systems to keep in touch with dependants. The recent census returns showed a doubling of the number of people living on their own. People are increasingly reluctant to live with their relatives, whether semi-dependent or independent. Using telecommunications networks is the way to ensure that the welfare of the elderly is provided for without their losing privacy.
It is too easy to say that we need more resources for health care, but we have had a 24 per cent. increase in real terms in spending on the Health Service. Above all, I applaud the 63,000 more midwives and nurses since 1979. I hope that we shall be able to discuss the role of nurses in the light of the report by Julia Cumberlege. Nurses are independent professionals who should have increasing scope for practising on their own, and are particularly important in meeting the needs of dependants.
During the autumn, I was fortunate enough to spend a morning in my constituency with a district nurse and a health visitor and I was constantly impressed by the new practices, developments and schemes available for the elderly. It is more fashionable to say that we do not have enough, and in many areas there is room for improvement, but when one goes out on the twilight scheme, which offers help to put dependants to bed in the evenings, and many other schemes, one realises the recent remarkable achievements.
I should like to share with the House my pride in the new geriatric hospital in my constituency, which has cost 1·2 million to build. For too long, health care has too easily concentrated on the dramatic, exciting and acute operations rather than on the less exciting Cinderella services for the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped and the elderly. It is too easy not to recognise the great redirection of resources, not always met with favour by the power leaders in the NHS, but making an enormous difference for those in need of health care.
Much mention has been made in the debate about the role of voluntary organisations. These organisations do the best work and the work which we can be most proud of in our country. Many voluntary organisations have not been mentioned—for example, the Alzheimers Disease Society and the Red Cross. Many voluntary organisations organise schemes and work together with statutory authorities.
We have not so far in the debate mentioned the needs of former carers. Reference has been made to those people who give up five, 10, 15 or 20 years of their lives to care for a young or an old dependent relative. That may result in the carer becoming extremely isolated as the dependent relative's needs take up all the carer's time and attention. When that relative dies, the carer can be quite bereft and take some time before he is ready to return to employment. I hope that the Minister will consider whether it is possible in the provision of benefits to give that carer longer after the death of the dependent relative before the relevant benefits are lost. As a member of the National Council of Carers and their Elderly Dependants said, "Carers cannot walk from the graveside straight to the jobcentre."
Carers have financial needs and there are extra burdens to caring quite apart from the loss of earnings. I am confident that, with due consideration and careful planning, the Government will find their way to keep in line with the rulings of the European Court. Carers also have practical needs—relief and respite care, day arid night sitting services, day centres, lunch clubs, recreation and leisure facilities. It is vital that there should be joint planning and careful surveys of the needs in specific areas. It is also vital that there are mechanisms for offering information and advice to carers.
There is, above all, one area which is so easily undervalued by those who see everything in basic financial terms which requires consideration—the emotional needs of carers. Carers are isolated and unacknowledged. Their status needs to be raised in the eyes of us all, and local authorities, voluntary organisations and professional bodies at every level must be aware of carers. I hope that the tributes paid in the debate to the commitment of informal carers will lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of those unsung heroes throughout the country.