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Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will certainly keep my comments within that time.
I welcome this hugely important debate, in this hugely important week. I echo the comments of other hon. Members in paying tribute to the amazing contribution to society that carers make up and down the country, in enabling loved ones to continue living their lives in a loving environment and with dignity, which is something that we would all warmly support. I also pay tribute to Carers UK, which does a wonderful job as the voice for carers in ensuring that all of us and people throughout the country are aware of carers, their needs and the role that they play.
It is interesting that this year's carers week, under the heading of "Carers: the UK's secret service", focused on the health of carers. It is also interesting that we are having a health debate about carers; I was speaking in a work and pensions debate on carers only a few weeks ago. The cross-departmental responsibilities involved create challenges, and we do not always get joined-up thinking. Some of the figures from the health perspective of caring are particularly interesting. Figures from a Carers UK survey show that more than half of all carers have suffered from a stress-related illness, that more than half have suffered from a physical illness as a result of caring and that 95 per cent. disguise illness because they want to continue with their caring responsibilities. Those are stark figures. It is therefore right that we should concentrate on the health aspects of caring, as well as on the financial implications.
I would like to ask the Minister some questions about the £150 million that has been earmarked for primary care trusts to spend on respite for carers. First, can he supply us with a breakdown of how much of that money has gone to each primary care trust? How has the Department made PCTs aware of their responsibilities and of what the money is intended for? Most importantly, however—this is what carers want to know—how many carers have benefited from that money? Bluntly, how many carers have received a break? The information that I have received from Carers UK suggests that possibly not many have, which I am afraid means that the money is not getting through. I would ask the Minister to consider that point carefully and give a response.
A year on from the launch of the carers strategy—an initiative that was welcomed—the Minister has to say how much has changed for carers. Clearly some initiatives are happening, including some that should already have been happening. However, he must accept that if one speaks to carers, as I know many hon. Members have, one will hear from them that very little has changed, and that is not enough. Crucially, the fundamentals have not changed. The fundamentals relate to how we regard carers in this country. The simple reality is that, through the historic development of the carer's allowance, we have asked, "What benefits should we give carers?" However, we should turn that question on its head. We should instead ask, "How as a society can we adequately recognise carers and what they do, and recompense them for the contribution that they make to society?"
We have heard the figure of £87 billion that is saved for the national health service by the contribution of our 6 million carers. However, I wonder what the cost to the NHS would be of not properly supporting carers. The figures for how many carers are suffering from illnesses as a direct result of their caring responsibilities suggest that the cost would be huge. That is something that we must look into. Many carers are older people who care for loved ones, and we know that their numbers will increase simply because of demographics.
We have also heard about younger carers, who are covered in the report by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, of which I am a member. As has been acknowledged, young people who are carers cannot do the things that other young people do, such as sport. Therefore, they cannot keep themselves as healthy as other young people if they are not given proper respite. There is also an impact on their earning potential, their chances of going to university and the other things that come under the work and pensions banner.
However, the crux of the matter, as several hon. Members have said, is that we simply do not have a system that adequately reflects the contribution made by carers. The level of the carer's allowance remains a source of shame and embarrassment to this country. I echo the calls made by Mrs. McGuire and my hon. Friend Mr. Burstow—we need a timetable. This Government are running out of time; they have a matter of months. Surely the Minister, who I know cares deeply about the issue, wants to bring forward a proper timetable for the reform of those benefits.
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