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This important debate is taking place in carers week. Indeed, I shall be attending carers day in my constituency tomorrow, as I am sure many colleagues will be in theirs too. It is right that Parliament should draw full attention to the important contribution that carers make to the quality of the lives of their family members with a chronic illness or disability.
Carers make an impressive collective saving of £87 billion a year to the public purse. Indeed, it is doubtful whether our public services would have the capacity to intervene for the number of people being cared for if their families were no longer able to cope. An estimated 6 million people are caring currently, and we must not take them for granted. It is important that we acknowledge that that huge saving to the taxpayer, which is higher than the total NHS budget in 2006-07, often comes at great cost to individual carers, in terms of limited access to education and training opportunities, availability for work, which seriously limits their earning potential, and social contact outside the home.
All too often, carers experience impaired health, which results from the daily demands that caring places on them. Carers are not noted for complaining about their lot in life. Old and young carers alike put the needs of their loved ones before themselves, and they do it cheerfully, but on a very tight budget. I welcome the Minister's comments about a benefit review, which I hope will happen soon.
The situation for carers is quite complex, because they are allowed to earn only £95 a week if they wish to have access to the carer's allowance. They are also limited in their ability to make themselves available for employment, given the logistics of their daily lives. The number of hours that they can leave home every day may be limited, and they need to balance that responsibility with the needs of the person for whom they are caring. So we are not only talking about a financial equation; there are other practical problems relating to the earning capacity of carers.
I welcome the Minister's comment about family pathfinders. That was news to me, and I was pleased to hear it. I want to say a little about young carers. I have been surprised to find out how many young people are caring for a parent who is disabled or who has a chronic illness. The London borough of Havering, of which Upminster forms a part, presents young citizens awards every year for a range of special achievements including sport, education and volunteering. Young carers are always represented.
The routines and daily lives of young carers are very different from those of their peers. Many children need to be chased in the morning to get dressed, eat their breakfast and remember their PE kit and their homework, but these children do all that for themselves as well as caring for their parent. They help to wash and dress them, then perhaps write a shopping list for the food for family meals that they need to collect on the way home from school. Lunch time for those young carers is not taken up by clubs or sports or playing with their friends. It is an opportunity to go home and check on their mother. After school, they collect the shopping, go home and help to prepare the evening meal. These responsibilities, although carried out willingly and cheerfully, can be emotionally and physically exhausting for a child.
Schools are as supportive as possible of pupils in those circumstances, but we must find ways to ensure that those children do not fall below their educational potential. There is a direct link here to the next debate, as young carers may self-exclude from entry into the professions, not from a lack of ability but from a lack of personal aspiration and ambition and from a sense of duty to caring. There is a challenge here for schools and social services to work together to prevent this from happening, particularly in families with no history of further or higher education.
I am particularly involved with autism in my constituency, and the spotlight has been on autism recently. Those of us who took part in the "Walk in our Shoes" day had the opportunity to see at first hand how autism in one child affects the life of the entire family. The daily routine is arranged around the needs of the autistic child, and I was surprised to learn of the associated additional costs involved, including the frequent replacement of damaged items in the home and unusually large quantities of laundry, for example.
Parents of children on the low-performing end of the autistic disorder spectrum have a continuing long-term caring role. Their children are unable to reach the usual periodic milestones in development that gradually reduce the parental supervision and caring role. Special schools play a hugely supportive role, providing not only education for their pupils but a period of respite during the day, which is often the only opportunity for parents to sleep. Some children with autism are very bad sleepers; I have heard parents say that their child can go without sleep for a week. If there are other children in such a family, the mother often stays awake all night trying to keep the autistic child quiet and occupied so that the rest of the family are not disturbed. The children might have to go to school in the morning; the father might have to go to work.
I pay tribute to the three superb special schools in my constituency—Dycorts, Ravensbourne and Corbets Tey—for the quality of the education that they provide and for the endless patience and respect that they show to their pupils in teasing out every last ounce of potential for development. The end of statutory education is often dreaded by parents, as the days are long and difficult to fill. The wonderful ROSE—realistic opportunities for supported employment—project at Havering college of further and higher education is a boon to students with learning difficulties and their parent carers. The supported employment project started in a very modest way, with a small number of job tutors and students, but it has grown more than anyone dared to hope. It has gone from strength to strength.
Instead of a life of boredom at home on benefits, the young people with learning difficulties—many of them are young people with autism—are able to have paid employment with support that is gradually withdrawn until they are able to travel and spend their working day independently. They have proved themselves to be reliable, cheerful and anxious to please their employers. Moreover, their parents benefit from the daily respite. When the ROSE project started, its organisers went out to local employers in my constituency to try to persuade them to provide placements for students with learning difficulties. Over time, the students have been so successful that the employers approach the project to ask whether it has students available.
People with Down's syndrome now have a good life expectancy because of improved health care, but independent living is not always possible for them, and the caring role of parents can often extend into the parents' old age. Caring parents have real worries about their physical ability to continue to care and, worse, about the future of their children when they are gone. How will they adapt to changed living circumstances and cope with bereavement?
Alzheimer's sufferers present particular problems when the condition comes on late in life, as it often does. Their carers are usually their spouses, who are themselves elderly and may not be in the best of health and fitness. There is added stress when the sufferer no longer recognises the carer. Even though they might have spent decades living together in a loving relationship, they often end their days in very different, stressful circumstances.
Older people are probably the least likely to seek help, particularly the very elderly people who do not like to make a fuss. They do not like to bother the doctor as they feel they must be terribly busy looking after other people. This means that situations often reach crisis point before help is sought. That can result in the person with Alzheimer's being taken into professional care and the very elderly spouse making daily visits but not being recognised. That is a very sad situation.
I have in my constituency the wonderful Havering Association of Disabilities, which is an umbrella organisation for carers and people with a wide range of disabilities, run by the inspirational Mary Capon. It provides an effective support network, including a befriending service that is invaluable for disabled people living on their own. The befrienders form a real relationship with people. They visit them at home and also take them out, which often provides the only opportunity that those people have to leave the house.
The organisation also provides a good range of social activities, and opportunities for training in information technology and in preparing a CV, in preparation for seeking employment. Without even asking Mary Capon, I say to the Minister that I know that she would love the Havering Association of Disabilities to be involved with the family pathfinders project, whatever form it takes.
I know that all hon. Members are very much aware of the huge contribution made by carers in enabling their loved ones to remain in their own homes in familiar surroundings, and in reducing the size of the health and social services budgets by putting their owns needs in second place. But we always need to ensure that carers' continuing efforts are appreciated. We all know individual carers and discuss their circumstances with them regularly, but the acknowledgement and appreciation need to range wider, so that no carer feels isolated or overlooked, and so that all possible practical and financial help is made available to improve the quality of carers' lives.
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