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Carers

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 12:53 pm on 11th June 2009.

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Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien Shadow Minister (Health) 12:53 pm, 11th June 2009

It is good to have this opportunity to debate the issues affecting carers across the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to all those who care for relatives and friends. It is a taxing and often thankless task, and it is right that the House should pay tribute to them. Well over 200 right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have signed early-day motions 1519 and 1355 in support of carers week. That stands as our debt of gratitude.

I also pay tribute to the organisations that support carers, particularly Carers UK, the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, the countless local support groups and the online carers' chat rooms and information sources, which are increasingly important for mutual support—a point made by Mr. Kemp a moment ago. I pay tribute also to all those involved in organising carers week. That it is now in its 14th year is testament to its effectiveness in highlighting carers' concerns and needs.

According to Carers UK, there are about 6 million carers in the UK and more than three in five people will become carers at some time in our lives. I was interested that the Minister said yesterday in the departmental press release that there were only 5 million carers, as opposed to the 6 million identified in the 2001 census. Have the Government done a recalculation? If so, will the Minister put into the Library evidence of how many carers there are? Perhaps he will catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to cover that point.

Too often, carers bear the brunt of inadequate provision of care and support. They are among those who are suffering the most because there has been prevarication on reform, not least on the part of the Government. Help the Aged and others have called for carers to be supported as an integral part of the care and support system. I am sure that other hon. Members will speak in more detail about the Select Committee report. It is one of the indicative issues of this debate that a Department of Health Minister and his shadow should be leading the discussion on a Department for Work and Pensions report—a report that certainly has ramifications for the Department for Communities and Local Government, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the Cabinet Office, among other Departments. It is important to note that the health and well-being of carers rightly dominate the concerns and focus of carers and those for whom they care.

The report can be condensed into two main areas. The first is soft support for carers—inclusion in Government policy across the board, information services and so on. The second is discussion of carers' wages and benefits and the issues faced by carers who are in employment. That raises pertinent questions of the Minister about where we are up to on the carers strategy. We want not a list of pledges, but a list of what has been done to date. One specific issue is whether primary care trusts are actually using the money provided for emergency-only respite care for the purpose for which it was intended. Will the Minister clarify that point, which relates to what Mr. Burstow said a moment ago?

The Government are very good at dragging their feet on such pledges. Yesterday, the Minister announced a hotline for carers in Islington. Carers had called for that and welcomed it, but it was first promised in the 1999 carers strategy, on almost the same day as I first entered the House following a by-election. The hotline was reannounced in the updated strategy and was supposed to have been in place early this year. The House will be aware that the Government have been similarly slow in setting up the national flu helpline—a key part of their pandemic flu plan. What confidence can anyone have in a Government who take 10 years to set up a phone line?

Last year, the Prime Minister and the previous Secretary of State for Health trailed a carers' wage in the press before the publication of the strategy. Will the Minister confirm that that, in the end, was just more spin? It only ever referred to an extension of direct payments to spending on carers—and not even that has happened. Obviously, the biggest step forward for carers will be reform in the long-term care system. The Government's financial squeeze has led to rising eligibility criteria at the local level, and too often carers bridge the gap. So I ask the Minister again: in carers week, of all weeks, and before spring technically ends in a few days' time on 21 June, where is the Green Paper that the Government have categorically promised and guaranteed?

For 11 years, the Government have ignored a particular issue. Tony Blair told the 1997 Labour party conference that he did not want his children to grow up in a country where people had to sell their houses to fund their long-term care. Since then, we have had the Wanless report from the King's Fund, in 2006. We also had a "zero-based review", announced by Mr. Byrne in response to the Wanless report in 2006, but there is no evidence of any serious work having been done on it.

Mr. Lewis said in the House that he thought that the comprehensive spending review 2008 would deliver a solution. The CSR announced a Green Paper, to be preceded by a consultation on the future of care and support. A Green Paper is, by definition, a consultation too. That Green Paper was due in early 2009, March 2009, spring 2009, and June 2009. Can the Minister confirm that the timetable in the departmental plan is now—surprise, surprise—summer 2009: that is, by September?

Next week, we will be taking the Health Bill through its Committee stage. I was pleased that Lord Darzi, under pressure from his peers, amended the Bill to add carers as a group who must be consulted on the NHS constitution. I was astounded by that omission and the neglect on the part of the Government. The Bill currently defines carers as

"persons who, as relatives or friends, care for other persons to whom NHS services are being provided".

That seems a somewhat draconian contraction by the Government of the definition of a carer already inscribed in the Health and Social Care Act 2008, which has the broader definition of

"people who care for service users as relatives or friends", with no other qualification. Why are the Government seeking to reduce the statistics on carers?

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