Caring for the Carers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:51 pm on 1st May 1986.

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Photo of Mr Tony Newton Mr Tony Newton , Braintree 6:51 pm, 1st May 1986

The one thing on which all hon. Members are united is the importance of the subject that we have been debating for over two hours. In some ways, the time has been too short for such an important subject. In the past, the people about whom we have been talking have had inadequate recognition, perhaps from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Such people are worthy not only of the admiration that has been expressed by every hon. Member who has spoken, but of the support of the whole community for what they do.

Apart from the occasional rude remarks that have been made about the Government and the odd sour note that has crept in, I found the debate immensely encouraging. I suspect that five, or certainly 10, years ago such a debate would not have taken place, because nobody would have thought the subject warranted even two or three hours of the time of the House. That is a sign of a great and welcome increase in public and political awareness of the problems of carers.

I have no doubt that part of the trigger for today's debate was the Advocate General's opinion, issued on Tuesday of last week. However, that would not have triggered off the debate if there had not been a fundamental interest in the subject. That interest represents an important gain for our political discussion and for a solution to the problems of the disabled and those associated with them. I am happy to acknowledge that, because I can claim something that was implicit in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Health who opened the debate. While the Government can in no sense claim, nor would we seek to claim, that it is primarily our own achievement, we have contributed to that awareness by the policies and initiatives that we have taken in the past four or five years.

When the first results of the DHSS social work service—now the social services inspectorate—project on informal carers were discussed at a major seminar at Friend's House in London, I was in the job now carried out by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney). I remember making the opening speech at that conference which had been instituted to discuss the project. Those taking part included representatives from local authorities, health authorities, voluntary organisations and others. The conference sought to bring to their attention the need to think more about the problems of carers. A good deal has stemmed from that work, carried out only three or four years ago, and it is being built upon.

I know that the Opposition regard £10·5 million as a piffling sum, but we are contributing with our helping the community to care programme. That programme has its bits and pieces. Some are large, others are small, but they are all important in their way in developing further the recognition and awareness of this problem. Pilot projects are taking place in three local authority areas.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) spoke about the information and advice available to carers. The King's Fund work seeks to improve that information and advice. I know that people have occasionally rubbished such things and asked "What is information and advice?" In my experience both in this area and in a narrower way in social security, the improvement of information and advice fulfils a major need and ensures that people know where to go to get the help either in cash or in care that they need. I make no apology for those projects, because they play an important part in what we are all seeking to do.

My right hon. Friend touched on the development of joint finance and joint planning. I should like to join in the tributes that have been paid to many of the voluntary organisations. There has been a significant expansion of the amount of support given to those voluntary organisations by the Government to enable them to expand their work, to which the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) rightly paid tribute.

I have looked up the amount of grant aid paid to a number of those organisations, and it confirms my own recollection of what has taken place during the time that I have been in the Department. Broadly speaking, Crossroads and the Associations of Carers are getting three time the amount of grant aid now that they were getting just a few years ago. The Association of Carers was not receiving any grant aid when this Government took office, because at that time the association did not exist. We have not contributed to the association as much as it would like, but we have contributed significantly to the development of its important work. I hope that we shall be able to continue to do so and to develop financing methods that will assist still further its steady development and give it the greater security that it would undoubtedly like.

I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Member who made the most thoughtful speech in the debate—I hope that I am not offending any other hon. Member by saying that—my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price), who has considerable knowledge and a long involvement in these matters. It gave the debate the balance that it had previously lacked, because of some of the words uttered by the hon. Member for Oldham, West. I was struck by the point that I think my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh took from Judith Oliver of the Association of Carers about the tendency for local authorities and other service providers sometimes to assume too easily that if there is a carer there is no need for services. However, very often the opposite is true. Governments cannot change those attitudes by diktat from the centre, but they can help to change them over a period, and this Government have already contributed to that aim.

Much of the debate has focused on the argument about the invalid care allowance. I acknowledge the strength of feeling and the interest that exists on both sides of the House about that matter. We have heard quoted some huge figures of carers. Whether or not we quarrel with the size of those figures or the sums involved, the House should at least not run away with the idea that the extension of invalid care allowance to married women is a solution to the sort of problem that we are debating. At most, 70,000 of those millions of carers, about whom the hon. Member for Oldham, West spoke, would stand to gain. They would certainly not see this as a solution to their problems or as an alternative to the sort of services that have been spoken about so tellingly in the debate. For example, it must be recognised that an elderly carer would not gain at all from the extension of the invalid care allowance because, as part of her husband's pension, she already receives exactly the same amount of money that she would receive by way of invalid care allowance. If she were to receive invalid care allowance, the husband's benefit would be cut by a corresponding amount.

I ask people not to exaggerate the extent to which invalid care allowance presents a solution to this important issue, nor to exaggerate what would be achieved by what they are urging the Government to do. As the amendment says, we shall consider and report to the House on any judgment that the European Court may make in due course. Both the motion and the amendment in their different ways show the dilemma posed by many different needs. What they have in common is that they unequivocally recognise the needs of carers and the progress that has been made. However, much more needs to be done. The amendment invites the House to proceed in a considered and responsible way.