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I entirely agree; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why, as I said, I was encouraged by what the Minister told us about opportunities to train those who are professionals to understand how to help those who are not professionals but who are still making a substantial contribution to the care of people we are most concerned to look after.
It seems to me that this is more than a matter of gratitude or just saying thank you to carers—however much we rightly do so in the debate—because we need to offer them real and practical support. As the Minister rightly said, we must try to ensure that carers have the maximum opportunity to combine their caring responsibilities not only with a fulfilling social life but, just as importantly, with a fulfilling career. That should enable them to get back into work, succeed on their own terms and still maintain their caring responsibilities. Once again, it is important for carers to identify themselves to receive the recognition they deserve; in circumstances of better and greater recognition, it should be easier for them to go to their employers and ask for the flexible working they need. It should be easier for that to happen if employers automatically understand what carers do and how important it is for them to continue with it.
It is also important to ensure that health and social services professionals—the people mentioned by Mr. Burstow—can recognise the importance of a carer's responsibilities and a carer's understanding of the individual for whom care is being provided. Too many carers—we all talk to them—are frustrated because they are treated as people who do not understand what is going on, when in fact the opposite is the case and the carer is the one who spends the most time with the person for whom care is being provided. He or she knows that person best, and their opinion of that person—what they need and what they will best respond to—should be fully taken into account.
I take the point made by Mrs. McGuire that it is important to reconcile that viewpoint with the occasional desire of the person being cared for to take a different view to that of their carer on any subject. In the majority of cases, however, what the person cared for will want is for their carer's view to be taken fully into account. Rarely is it in fact taken into account as fully as we would wish by the professionals involved in their care.
I wish to refer to two specific groups. The first was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster and, indeed, by Greg Mulholland, who both rightly highlighted the interests of young carers. It is right to pay particular attention to their needs, but equally we should not forget those at the other end of the age range. Older carers have particular needs and particular requirements. They are the ones whose health suffers disproportionately as a result of their caring responsibilities. We know that something like a quarter of the 5 million or 6 million carers are of retirement age. That is a very significant number of people, and I believe that there are about 8,000 carers over the age of 90! How those people manage, I simply do not know, but we must be aware of their particular needs and requirements when we consider how best to help carers.
The second group is, as my hon. Friend said, an overlapping group—those who care for people who have dementia. The Minister would be disappointed if I failed to mention dementia at some point in my remarks. It is important to recognise the particular requirements on those who care not just for people with dementia but for all who have a mental illness or disability as opposed to a physical one. I am not saying for a moment that it is easier to care for someone with a physical disability, but it is different, and there are different requirements on carers looking after someone with a mental difficulty.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, one of the main differences is that the carer starts to lose something of the person they knew as the illness or condition progresses. More often than not, the person being cared for requires more and more from the carer, just as the carer is losing more and more of the one for whom they are caring. That is an extremely distressing situation to be in for anyone with a caring responsibility. We need to take account not just of the physical health needs, but of the mental health needs of those who are carers, and ensure that the risks they run—in exposure to depression and other conditions—are adequately catered for.
I have a couple of final points about the specific and practical action that we can take. The first, which the Minister mentioned, is respite care. It is right to provide for the availability of such care. No one can do a caring job 24 hours a day, seven days a week—they simply could not cope; people need a break sometimes. A break will help them to do a better job for the rest of the time; that is well understood by everyone. It is also worth acknowledging that simple provision of respite care will not do the job, because we also need to provide for quality respite care. If we do not, it will not be a real break at all. We have all spoken to carers who tell us, "I put the person I care for into full-time care. I had a week's holiday, but it was the worst week in my life, because I spent the entire time worrying about whether my loved one was being properly looked after." That is not respite care. We need to ensure that the respite care we provide is of sufficient quality to provide that reassurance, and that information about its quality is provided to carers so that they enjoy the break that we can offer them.
My last point is about simplicity. When it comes to the benefit system, we will all have difficult decisions to make about how much can be afforded, but it is beyond question that when people look at a website or call a phone line to understand what is available, the information given must be easily digestible. Whether the advice is there or not, the actual provision of benefits needs to be simpler. That is why we have to talk about the cliff edge or the distinction between retirement and non-retirement so that there is some continuity and simplicity in the benefits that those who provide care can receive.
We shall never be able to make the lives of those who care easy—that is beyond all of us—but we do have a responsibility to make those lives slightly less difficult, and I think that both this and the next Government should focus their attention on that.
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