Unpaid Carers

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:00 pm on 25th February 2009.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 2:00 pm, 25th February 2009

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-3261, in the name of Margaret Mitchell, on behalf of the Equal Opportunities Committee, on unpaid carers. We have no time to spare in the debate and, therefore, members should stick to the times that they are allocated.

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative 2:04 pm, 25th February 2009

I am sure that members will wish to join me as I express on behalf of the Scottish Conservative party our sorrow and condolences to David and Samantha Cameron, who have tragically lost their son Ivan. Ivan was blessed with parents who loved and supported him, and dedicated national health service staff who nursed and cared for him. Our thoughts and prayers are with Ivan's family today.

Unpaid carers are affected by issues that are definitely to do with fairness. They are therefore affected by equal opportunities issues that cut across most, if not all, of the equality groups. This debate marks a departure from the norm, in that it is not about a committee inquiry report or a stage 1 report on a bill; rather, it results from two round-table discussions on unpaid carers that the Equal Opportunities held. Quite simply, having heard the evidence that was given, the committee wanted to bring the issues that were raised by various groups and organisations that represent unpaid carers and providers of services to those carers directly to the chamber and the Scottish Government.

To put the evidence in context, it is important to note that it is estimated that there are currently 660,000 unpaid carers in Scotland. It is a sobering thought that anyone can find themselves becoming a carer at any time. That fact was graphically brought to the public's attention only last week with a moving revelation from the Independent Television News presenter John Suchet. He described the full impact of his new role as carer to his wife Bonnie, who now suffers from dementia.

An unpaid carer has been defined as someone who looks after

"a partner, child, relative or friend who cannot manage without help because they are physically or mentally ill, frail or disabled. The carer may or may not live with the person they are caring for."

It is not difficult to begin to understand that the issue affects a huge number of people who live in our constituencies and communities. By carrying out the taxing and invaluable work of caring, such carers save the Scottish economy a staggering £7.6 billion every year. The costs to carers—not only financially, but emotionally and socially—are less easy to quantify, as they often involve carers sacrificing their career, education and personal development to improve the lives of others.

That was confirmed in the committee's two round-table discussions. In the first evidence session, the committee sought the views of organisations that represent unpaid carers on the barriers to and the challenges and the impact of becoming a carer; the gaps in services; and accessibility to those services. It is encouraging that good practice was highlighted. Cases in point were the support strategy for carers and the opportunities for flexible working that the Scottish Court Service has implemented. However, I will focus on areas in which there is still room for improvement.

Although carers have a statutory right to an assessment, they have no right to services after they have been assessed. There should be a duty on local authorities to fulfil those assessments.

Respite care is crucial to enable unpaid carers to perform their roles. Despite that, there is no uniform standard of respite care among, or even within, local authorities—hence the suggestion that the Parliament should recommend a minimum standard.

Much of the evidence that was given focused on local authorities. However, it was suggested that carers should have an annual health MOT and that general practitioner practice nurses should take their blood pressure and do blood tests on them on the basis that it is better to prevent carers from becoming ill than to wait until a crisis point is reached at which there will be two casualties: the person who is cared for and the carer.

The impact that caring responsibilities can have on young carers was highlighted. Young carers can sometimes irritate teachers because their minds are always elsewhere and they lack concentration, for example. One simple solution that was proposed was that the child could be given a card that they could discreetly pass to the teacher, with no questions asked, to allow them to leave the classroom for five minutes to phone home.

One of the witnesses who spoke about young carers pointed out that the 2011 census will not include young carers at all. I promised to raise that matter with the Scottish Government, and I would appreciate the minister clarifying the situation in her speech.

It was observed that the largest number of complaints come from older carers who care for another older person, as they often have the most difficulty in accessing the full package of services that is required. Such difficulties often result in the person for whom they care having to go into a residential home.

The committee was made aware that caring is often hidden within communities. People from ethnic groups, or those who care for people with alcohol or drug dependency or the children of individuals in prison, do not come forward, either because they do not understand the system or because they fear the stigma that is associated with their caring role. Equally, in some communities, there are high expectations, particularly of women, that the caring role will be kept within the family. The second evidence session, too, highlighted groups of carers who do not always get the support that they need, namely carers of people with mental health difficulties, including dementia; carers of children with disabilities; and carers in rural areas, who can find access to centralised services far too costly.

Four further compelling points were raised. First, despite the age profile of carers, there is little specific support for older carers, who have changing and different needs. Secondly, a culture of risk aversion has arisen around handling and moving disabled children, which means that parents have to undertake those tasks because professionals are being advised not to do so. Thirdly, in England, there is a commitment to establish a national helpline for carers, and carers organisations in Scotland would like a helpline here. Finally, in broader terms, the take-up of carer assessments has been very low and carers do not routinely have their needs assessed.

I realise that the origin of the debate is unusual, but I hope that the approach will inspire similar committee debates in the future, so that when a committee hears important evidence that is relatively non-contentious, it can bring that directly and quickly to the Scottish Government's attention, thus helping to influence policy without having to undertake a full committee inquiry. I very much hope that the content of this Equal Opportunities Committee debate will help to inform the development of the forthcoming carers strategy from the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. I look forward to the minister's comments and to an update on progress on the strategy.

I move,

That the Parliament notes evidence gathered by the Equal Opportunities Committee on unpaid carers at its meetings on 25 March and 7 October 2008, which highlighted that there were around 660,000 unpaid carers in Scotland, a figure that represented one in eight of the population; recognises the valuable contribution that unpaid carers make in saving the Scottish economy £7.6 billion a year; further notes that around 40% of unpaid carers surveyed reported that their access to services was poor or that available services did not meet their needs, and calls on the Scottish Government to take into consideration the evidence gathered when developing the forthcoming Scottish Government/COSLA carers strategy.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 2:12 pm, 25th February 2009

I join Margaret Mitchell in passing on our condolences to David and Samantha Cameron for the loss of their son.

I welcome this debate on unpaid carers, which provides us with an opportunity to recognise the huge contribution that they make to Scottish society, which Margaret Mitchell pointed out, and to highlight the importance of supporting that dedicated group and exploring how best we can do that. I commend the previous Administration on its work to advance the unpaid carers policy. Its response to the 22 recommendations in the care 21 report—"The Future of Unpaid Care in Scotland"—provided a robust framework within which to develop unpaid carers policy. We intend to take that work further. The Government is fully committed to improving the identification of and support for Scotland's unpaid carers. I am confident that that commitment is shared by our local partners.

I am aware that there is cross-party agreement on the issue. However, more needs to be done to ensure that all carers have access to the support that they need. In recognition of that, as Margaret Mitchell notes in her motion, later this year, we will revise our national carers strategy in partnership with COSLA. The strategy will be informed by a review of progress against the recommendations of the care 21 report and by input from stakeholders. I welcome the efforts that the Equal Opportunities Committee has made to gather evidence on the issue. That evidence will inform the development of the national carers strategy, which will be a key document that will set out the long and short-term priorities in carer support for the Scottish Government and our local partners. It will be an aspirational strategy that puts unpaid carers firmly at the heart of health and social care policy. It will focus on the specific needs of young carers, with a standalone section on improving identification and support to prevent young carers from taking on inappropriate levels of caring. I hope that that gives Margaret Mitchell the reassurance that she requires on that point.

The strategy will be the driver for the development of future carers policy. However, since the Administration came into government, we have made support for carers a priority. We have already put in place several measures that will improve support for Scotland's unpaid carers. That includes the commitment in our concordat with local government to make progress towards an additional 10,000 respite weeks a year. We provided an additional £4 million, on top of the existing resources in the local government settlement, to enable local authorities to deliver that commitment by 2011. To support local planning of that vital service, we published jointly with COSLA short breaks guidance to promote the development of personalised, flexible short breaks from caring, which meet the needs both of carers and of those for whom they care.

The Government recognises the need to provide carers with information and training to support them in their caring role. That is why we have invested £9 million over three years to support health boards in the implementation of the NHS carer information strategies. Those strategies are supporting improvements in carer identification and the provision of carer information and training throughout Scotland. They must include measures to meet the specific needs of young carers and carers from black and minority ethnic communities. We have assessed the strategies rigorously before granting ministerial approval to ensure that they meet all the minimum requirements that are set out in guidance.

We recognise the adverse effects that young caring has on the development, educational attainment and wellbeing of children and young people. Young carers should be enabled to be children and young people first and foremost. It is absolutely crucial that such young people are identified early and provided with support to enable them to reach their full potential. It is unacceptable that many of Scotland's young carers are falling through the net unidentified and unsupported. We have a responsibility to ensure that they are identified and supported in classrooms and communities throughout Scotland.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

I do not doubt the minister's commitment to identify young carers, but in my constituency in West Lothian, we have a well-organised carers organisation, which is currently funded through national lottery funding. It is about to come to an end, which means that young carers will cease to be identified and supported. What does the minister say about that?

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

As part of the work that we will be doing with young carers, we will look at where projects and services are in Scotland, where they are not and what more we can do to support young carers services throughout Scotland. It was clear to me in talking to young carers at the young carers festival that there is a mixed bag of support for young carers throughout Scotland and we need to get better at ensuring more consistency. That is why COSLA's involvement is critical.

To support our work around young carers, we have developed a young carers services self-evaluation guide, which focuses on positive outcomes for young carers and their families, with an emphasis on partnership working.

In response to Mary Mulligan's intervention, I mentioned Scotland's first national young carers festival, which we funded. The event provided young carers attending with a break and some fun, which was important, but it was also important that it provided a national voice to a group that is often hidden. They certainly used that voice and without a doubt the festival raised the profile of young carers, with both local policy makers and the media. I was delighted to attend the festival, and the issues that were raised by young carers who attended will inform the development of the young carers section of the national strategy.

Quite simply, Scotland's health and social care services could not cope without the dedication and expertise of unpaid carers. It is vital that we provide the support that they require and this Government is committed to doing so by working with carers to achieve that end.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour 2:18 pm, 25th February 2009

On behalf of the Labour Party, I extend our deepest sympathies to David and Samantha Cameron and their family. Of all that we have to deal with in life, I can think of little worse than the loss of a child.

Today's debate is important and all too short. I urge the minister to consider making a bid for a more substantial debate on the subject to allow us to track properly the situation, how policy needs to be developed and how resources must be directed to meet the needs of those who are being cared for as well as their carers. I am always amazed by people's capacity to care for others, the power of the love that drives daily self-sacrifice and the daily battle that they wage on behalf of their loved ones, rather than themselves.

Respite was mentioned. In my constituency, I know that people do not take up respite care places, at great cost to themselves, because they have no confidence in the quality of the respite care that is available. When we talk about shaping services, it is critical that we talk to and work with carers because they do not make their own needs a priority. We have to ensure that priority is given nevertheless. Carers and those for whom they care are our greatest resource in understanding the challenges. In passing, I pay tribute to greater Pollok carers centre for its energy and creativity in supporting carers and in driving the policy agenda.

When we discuss issues that relate to carers, it is recognised that carers are diverse. They include young carers, who are often—sadly—in the inappropriate position of caring for adults who have addiction problems and who have different needs from people who have medical conditions. Carers include families who care for disabled children and elderly carers who care for a spouse or partner.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

Does the member agree that the situation is difficult for older carers who are pensioners and who have no recourse to an allowance because of their pension? They might care for adults who are 60 or 65.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Elderly people face a huge challenge in coming to terms with their own age and continuing to care. Enable has highlighted the situation of elderly carers who look after sons and daughters with learning disabilities. Those people have cared for their children from childhood to adulthood. In their old age, they are haunted by the terrible fear of what will happen to their children when they die. I support Enable's call to local authorities to count the number of older carers of people with learning disabilities. How can we properly support those people if we do not know the extent of the problem?

In speaking to carers, I am always aware of their frustration and anger about the fact that although their issues are recognised, progress is slow. The problem is not just all for the Scottish Government. We sought to tackle the situation in government, but a huge amount has still to be done. The test for the current Government is not whether it has solved everything, but whether the action that it is taking will improve or worsen the situation. I fear that the situation will be made worse by single outcome agreements, for example, which do not require an equality impact assessment. The minister could say today that the Government will not accept such agreements unless they have been equality impact assessed. The £34 million to support families of disabled children was reported to have been rolled up in the local government settlement, but such spending has not been monitored or tracked, so we have no evidence.

As the for Scotland's disabled children campaign says, the critical point is that the money is not enough; we must ensure that we invest in improving services and that we transform those services. At the heart of the vision of the aiming high for disabled children programme was the idea that it would be transformational and that work would be undertaken with families to make the change. The liaison group has been given support, but it is disappointing that that is a drop in the ocean in comparison with what £34 million could have done to transform services in conjunction with carers.

I have no doubt that the minister is committed to tackling the issues of carers, but it is essential that that commitment is taken into the centre of the Government and that the Government addresses what is happening locally with funding, how the situation is being tackled and how carers and the cared for will be put at the centre of shaping policy as well as receiving policy.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 2:23 pm, 25th February 2009

On the Liberal Democrats' behalf, I convey our sympathies to David and Samantha Cameron on their recent loss.

I am pleased to lead the debate for the Liberal Democrats, but I am disappointed that the evidence that emerged from the committee's meetings painted such a gloomy picture of how unsuccessfully we have dealt with many of the challenges that carers in Scotland face. I am pleased that, thus far in the debate, we have not followed the usual practice of pointing out the Administration's shortcomings in great detail. The Government is trying to make progress and the previous Administration had relative successes. We often have great party-political sport in such debate but, as far as I can see from the evidence, the truth is that we continue to let down a large percentage of the almost 700,000 carers in Scotland. In the process, we save the public purse a fortune.

Carers and their families will not thank us if—whether in this debate or in others—we engage in a political blame game about who has done the most, the least or the best for them. All the evidence that I heard during the committee's evidence-taking sessions on the issue seemed to indicate that what we have collectively done or are doing is either ineffective or inadequate. Access to support services is patchy, at best; in some instances, it is non-existent. It occurs to me that many people who play what Margaret Mitchell clearly defined as the caring role do not see themselves as carers and do not recognise that what they are engaged in comes under that heading. Part of the information strategy must be to help people to realise that they have taken on the role of carer and have rights as such.

Carers continue to be victims of social isolation, disruption of education, limited access to employment and training opportunities, and debt and benefit traps—the list is almost endless. Their physical and mental health can also suffer. Some of the steps that we have tried to take since the Parliament was created have been positive, but others verge on the farcical. How helpful is it for someone to be told, in one breath, that they are entitled to a needs assessment and, in the next, that there is no money to support that and that they do not have a statutory right to have the needs that have been recognised met? That is what is happening. During the round-table discussions, there was an almost palpable sense of frustration and disappointment about that among carers. If the projections are right, 20 per cent of our population will be carers in the not-too-distant future, and an increasing number of those will be elderly. That is a huge demographic time bomb.

Thanks to their commitment and—dare I say it—love, carers currently save our economy a huge sum of money. Heaven help us and our budgets if they ever take collective action and, as a consequence, down tools. I doubt that the money that we have invested since the creation of the Parliament amounts to 10 per cent of the annual saving that carers provide.

We must make better progress on those issues, and carers must be further up our agenda. We need to deliver, and not just with warm words.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I allowed opening speakers a little flexibility because of the warm and generous messages of condolence that they were conveying. I am afraid that I no longer have any flexibility on time, so I ask members to keep within their four-minute limit.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party 2:27 pm, 25th February 2009

As a member of the Equal Opportunities Committee, I am happy to speak on this issue. This morning I had the pleasure of attending Carers Scotland's annual general meeting. I apologise to Cathy Peattie for the fact that she will have to listen again to pretty much the same speech, but I do not think that the issues that it raises have changed in the past couple of hours.

We all know that carers are the Cinderellas of the benefits system. That is not an irony, because the great majority of carers are women. In our society, the culture is to assume that it is natural for women to look after the family, so people ask why they should expect to be paid for doing so. That is the attitude that men have had down the years and, of course, most politicians are men. Hopefully, things may change.

I find it appalling that in this day and age carers are treated so shabbily that carers allowance is lower than any other benefit. I will concentrate on that issue, as members should be able to agree that bread-and-butter issues concern all of us.

The Westminster Government claims that reform of carers allowance is complicated and that it will get around to the issue in due course. That is fair enough, but due course has lasted a long time—carers are not looking for one review after another. All of us in the chamber, as well as members at Westminster, need to be aware that the issue of carers allowance is again in danger of being kicked into the long grass. The UK Government should implement the long-awaited review of carers benefits now, in recognition of the essential role that carers play in our society.

In a recent motion that I lodged in the Scottish Parliament, I emphasised the inequity of carers allowances compared with other state benefits. I will not go through a huge list, but the state pension is £90.70 a week; incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance is £84.50; statutory sick pay is £75.40; jobseekers allowance is £60.50; and, at the bottom of the heap by a long way, carers allowance is £50.50.

Unpaid carers make a huge contribution to society as a whole, in respect of both wellbeing and public finance. As Mr O'Donnell said, they make a massive contribution to our society by taking on jobs for very little pay because they care; they care about the person whom they are looking after and, in my view, we take a loan of them. In the name of social justice, there should be an urgent and substantial increase in carers allowance to support more fittingly those who unselfishly sacrifice time, energy and often their own health to look after others. As a first step, carers allowance could be brought in line with the state pension, low though it is—I hope that we in this Parliament will put pressure on the people who have the power to do that—and then we should work towards the poverty threshold of £158 a week that was calculated in a Joseph Rowntree report.

Carers should have access to working tax credits under the 16-hour rule, rather than the ludicrous situation in which those who care gain such access only after 30 hours. Carers should be entitled to additional carers allowance on top of retirement pension, which at the moment has an overlap. Changes for carers have made a dent in what is needed, but continued political will is required. There is no room for anyone in any Parliament to rest on their laurels until the national disgrace of carers being treated as second-class citizens has been addressed. To do that, the Parliament must speak on carers' behalf on all issues, whether they are devolved or reserved to Westminster.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour 2:32 pm, 25th February 2009

I, too, speak as a member of the Equal Opportunities Committee. We should recognise this as the first time that we have debated carers from an equal opportunities perspective as well as from the more normal health and social care perspective that we have adopted over the past 10 years.

The act that set up the Northern Ireland Assembly placed on public authorities in Northern Ireland an equal opportunities duty in relation to carers. It is perhaps unfortunate that the Scotland Act 1998 did not do the same for Scotland, but it is not the legal obligation that matters—although such an obligation may be placed on us through a recent European Court of Justice ruling. We must take action because it is the right thing to do and because society depends on carers to such an enormous extent. Margaret Mitchell cited the figure of £7.6 billion saved from public expenditure by their work. We will all want to pay tribute to the work of carers, some of whom are in the public gallery today.

The evidence that we heard in our sessions was important, and I hope that it will feed into the forthcoming revised carer strategy. One of the key messages that we heard—it was disappointing for me to hear it—was that we do not have a partnership with carers, despite the fact that, on paper, the basis for carers policy over the past few years has been to have a partnership with carers. To a great extent, the fundamental cultural change has still to happen: we were told that too often the contribution of carers was assumed rather than negotiated by health and social care professionals.

Another disappointing piece of information was that there was such a low take-up of carer assessments—some members will remember that they were at the heart of the Community Care and Health (Scotland) Act 2002. Furthermore, there is nothing in the guidance that says that, when assessments take place, social workers should take account of carers' employment and education needs. That is required in England, and we should certainly look to ensure that it is required in Scotland—in addition, of course, to addressing the more fundamental point that action has to be taken on those assessments.

A further concern is the variation among local authorities in what they do for carers and the fact that the defined outcomes under the single outcome agreements rarely indicate anything to do with carers. That leads us on to the national minimum standards on short breaks—although such standards could of course apply to other aspects of support for carers.

We welcome the £4 million extra for short breaks that the minister recently announced, but at the committee's hearings witnesses made the more general point that there needs to be far more flexibility in how short breaks are provided. The minister talked about personalisation and taking account of carers' needs. I hope that the new guidance that she issued recently will help to ensure that that becomes a reality.

We were also told that, in the minds of carers, advice and information are second only to short breaks. We welcome what the minister said about money to health boards and work on information and support for carers, and I hope that the Scottish Government will consider the suggestion that there should be a national helpline for carers, which would be similar to the helpline that I think is about to be established in England. Carers themselves made that suggestion.

The key message is that we must address the need for support for carers now. We all know that we are entering a period in which public expenditure will come under more pressure, but it would be madness to cut support for carers. In simple public expenditure terms—as Margaret Mitchell reminded us when she talked about the £7.6 billion that carers save the Scottish economy—the right thing to do is to provide more support to carers.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 2:36 pm, 25th February 2009

I welcome the debate and echo the concerns that members expressed about the amount of work that has to be done. It is all too easy for our words to sound slightly hollow, given the commitment that so many carers give in an entirely selfless and humble manner. As the minister said, their commitment often goes undetected.

The debate has highlighted a considerable number of challenges and sends a strong message to us all. I will concentrate on three areas. First, Carers Scotland has collected worrying evidence that 40 per cent of carers find that their access to services is poor and that the services that are available do not always meet their needs. The situation often means that the carer must make a personal sacrifice: for example, many carers are forced to stop working, to reduce the hours they work or to move to a more junior position. The problem can be more acute in rural areas, where fewer resources are available and the cost of accessing centralised services is often higher. Carers Scotland has raised an important issue.

Secondly, in an age in which we are witnessing a huge increase in the elderly population, it is essential that we consider young carers. None of us knows how many young people are involved in caring for elderly grandparents. They face problems at school because of the time that they have to give up to care for another person—that gives cause for concern about the qualifications that they are undertaking—and there are emotional and social issues. Such problems can lead to truancy, neglect and the development of hostile relationships. The issue is sensitive, and it is extremely important that we take it seriously.

Thirdly, the work of carers in the paid sector could be seriously undermined by members of the European Parliament in certain parties who have voted to abandon Britain's opt-out from the 48-hour working week. If Labour and the Liberals get their way on that, it will be the end of caring arrangements as we know them in the formal sector. We must think carefully about what that would mean for people in the unpaid sector, because there could be serious repercussions for shift workers and continuity of care. That is a very serious message for Scotland and for those MEPs.

I have argued in previous debates that far more must be done to use work that is carried out by voluntary sector organisations. During a debate a couple of weeks ago, I said that the sector is a "gold nugget" as far as provision is concerned. That message also emerged strongly from the committee's consideration. Good projects are happening, but there is not enough such activity. Members have made plain exactly what we must do. Margaret Mitchell talked about the increased media attention that carers have received, particularly as a result of John Suchet's comments about Alzheimer's disease. Carers experience great pain and suffering; they can be left feeling utterly isolated and unsupported as well as emotionally drained.

Carers save the Scottish taxpayer billions of pounds each year, and we are indebted to them for that. It is crucial that we recognise the sacrifices that they make every day to provide a future for the person in their care. I hope that the Government will take away the message that this is a serious debate, which deserved much more than an hour of parliamentary time.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 2:39 pm, 25th February 2009

Young carers face day-to-day challenges and responsibilities that they should not have to. All youngsters should be able to enjoy their childhoods, but sadly, as we know, young carers are being robbed of that right. At Wick high school alone, there are perhaps 70 carers, although they are not aware that they are young carers. That was Hugh O'Donnell's point: they just think that that is how life is.

Young carers need our attention and support because they are society's unsung heroes. They take care of the bulk of household chores, make meals, and care for younger siblings and ailing parents on top of the typical responsibilities of going to school and learning. There are often not enough hours in the day for them and, as we all know, young carers sometimes miss school.

I will give two examples from my constituency. The first is a teenage girl, one of 10 siblings. In the morning, she must help feed her family and help them get ready for school. She is at school all day, comes home and is responsible for most of the household chores. She makes dinner, gets her family washed and ready for bed, and then she gets to start on her homework—she is studying for her prelims.

The second example is a girl in primary school whose single mother is a drug addict. The girl is 10 and she takes care of herself and a younger brother. They get themselves ready for school as best they can and often go to school not properly dressed—missing socks and so on. The school feeds them toast in the morning, which is good because they do not get any breakfast at home, and they get lunch at school, which is a mercy. When the girl comes home from school there is often no electricity and no food, so that 10-year-old youngster has to walk to the shops to buy what food she can. She takes care of her brother at night, and there is no time to do homework. She is often just plain exhausted anyway.

The good news is that there are organisations in my constituency that support such youngsters. Caithness young carers is a new project that operates alongside the Wick family centre. It works closely with Wick high school to identify young carers and reach out to them, and it runs weekly drop-in sessions in which the youngsters can come to the family centre. They can relax there, have some fun and get individual support from staff and—this is important—develop friendships with others in the same situation. The ultimate goal of Caithness young carers is to let those youngsters know that they are not on their own.

In Sutherland, there is an organisation called The Young Karers East Sutherland—TYKES—which members will perhaps remember from a play that it put on in a previous parliamentary session, when we were in our old place. TYKES is an established organisation that started in 1997. Since then, it has helped more than 200 youngsters, and it currently provides support to 64 young carers, most of whom are between the all-too-young ages of seven and 11.

TYKES's goal is to foster a community environment in which it and organisations like it are no longer necessary because the community—that is, us—supports the children. That goal might not be achieved in the near future, which means that such organisations will continue to be truly vital. They provide after-school services, individual support and life-skills training workshops, as well as week-long trips to give the youngsters the breaks that they desperately need. I wish that there were more organisations like TYKES and Caithness young carers, but money is uncertain and remoteness is a huge issue in my constituency. Nevertheless, I praise them to the skies for what they do, and I have no doubt that all my fellow MSPs do the same.

I welcome what the minister said, but I ask the Scottish Government to do two things when it gets time: look closely at the two organisations to which I referred, because there is much to be learned from them; and consider, in the way that the minister indicated, how the Scottish Government can better help those organisations, because funding, advice and a friendly word from Edinburgh can make all the difference to the youngsters in my constituency who are in the situation that I described.

Photo of Christopher Harvie Christopher Harvie Scottish National Party 2:43 pm, 25th February 2009

I congratulate Margaret Mitchell on lodging the motion.

For two or three hours a day, I am a carer to my parents, who have reached their 10th decade. They are a bit wobbly on their feet and need most of their meals cooked for them, but they still enjoy life and do so in their own home. They have mastered the microwave and digital television, although that was a narrow action.

Combining being a carer with work can mean getting up at 5 in the morning and going to bed at 9, if I am lucky. Given problems with false teeth going walkabout, catheters or the elderly's wayward sense of time, an unbroken night can be a luxury. Even on a part-time basis, it is still a stressful life, but statistics tell us that this is the mildest end of the spectrum—it can occupy the carer full time, with little respite or rest. Yet for our friend Bashir Ahmad, who regularly asked after my parents, to look after the old and frail was the fulfilment of the moral life and a source of pride and dignity.

I think of Wordsworth's poem "The Old Cumberland Beggar", in which an old man wanders almost unconscious from house to house in the lake district. By caring for him, the community keeps itself together:

"Where'er the aged Beggar takes his rounds,

The mild necessity of use compels

To acts of love; and habit does the work

Of reason; yet prepares that after-joy

Which reason cherishes. And thus the soul,

By that sweet taste of pleasure unpursued,

Doth find herself insensibly disposed

To virtue and true goodness."

Wordsworth probably got the idea from Burns's notion of the social union or from Adam Smith's idea of the sympathy that must underlie society, which he saw as essential.

The statistics tell us that unpaid catering saves the Scottish economy £7.6 billion a year out of a total annual domestic production of about £150 billion. If we counted its value, it would amount to 5 per cent of our wealth. The state's contribution, as calculated from UK figures, amounts to perhaps less than 2 per cent, which is a tiny proportion. We know all too well what the effects of those responsibilities are on the 660,000 carers in Scotland, and they are not reassuring.

What looms before us not only is challenging but could be desperate. Besides catering for the elderly and the disabled, we have other problems—obesity, diabetes and the damage from alcohol and drug abuse. The total affected is perhaps pushing 400,000, and the statistics show the detrimental health effects that providing care has on the carers themselves, who are often women and may be older folk. I remember Mary, the good soul who cared for my aunt when my aunt was in her late 80s. Mary was endlessly cheerful in juggling her wee jobs: a disabled husband, an unexpected grandchild and cleaning for several households. She was selfless, and she kept going by cheerfulness, strong tea and cigarettes. She was dead at 60.

Among the things that are desperately needed for Scotland's unpaid carers are rights to respite and support to prevent them from debt, from discrimination in the workplace and education, and from ill health incurred while serving their loved ones. We need to call on new resources; that is an important point.

At the Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum last year, I argued for a social or community year as practised in Scandinavia and Germany. If we offered that to young people in the gap period between school and university, their efforts could be reimbursed in the form of educational credit and assistance for students. That would enhance public attention to the issue of unpaid care and ease the burden for carers while giving young people the chance to gain both educational and social experience. When I have mentioned the idea to the kids that one meets during their visits to Holyrood, I have been struck by the welcome that they have given it. The social or community year would not only meet a social need but enhance the self-respect and life chances of a new generation.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We come to closing speeches.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 2:48 pm, 25th February 2009

This debate on such a hugely important subject has barely begun and yet it is drawing to a close. I share Margaret Mitchell's expressed hope that there will be similar debates on the subject; more important, I share Johann Lamont's hope that future debates will be of a much longer duration.

All of us who are present in the chamber must speak to our respective business managers to explain to them that a topic of such importance deserves a much greater time allocation.

Members have mentioned the £7.6 billion that carers contribute to the economy. For me, the most important point is that carers themselves do not care about that figure. They never think about it because of what we all understand is the selfless giving that carers perform without care for the money that they save the economy and, at times, without care for themselves.

All members from across the political spectrum who have contributed to this important but short debate have made clear the vital role that carers play. Just as important is the fact that the evidence that was presented to the committee revealed the stress or strain that carers endure without bringing it to our attention. As a consequence, we as politicians must remember that, among the raft of priorities that we constantly face, those who do not shout do not always receive our attention.

Here is a body of people that does a lot for our society and communities, and they deserve more than we are giving them. Of course, we have tried during the past 10 years since the Parliament was established, but it is clear that we have to do more. My party is clear that many of the measures that are being pursued are going in the right direction, but one thing that is equally clear is the lack of consistency in the delivery of support for carers across Scotland.

I have what I hope is a constructive suggestion to make to the minister. I happen to think that outcome agreements have merits, but we have now moved far beyond the rhetoric of "We have signed an historic agreement". In this case, outcome agreements offer an opportunity to set the standard for the level of care, whether it is for support or, as Bill Kidd eloquently explained, for consistent financial delivery. We are not telling local authorities how to work, but an outcome agreement should seek a standard format.

Photo of Cathy Peattie Cathy Peattie Labour

Does the member agree that organisations such as the Princess Royal Trust for Carers and others have real problems because single outcome agreements do not take their needs on board?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I am making the more general point that there is merit in the principle of an outcome agreement, but it must deliver. I hope that the minister will acknowledge that we must now move to a point where the agreements can be measured and tested so that we can obtain a benefit from them that I hope will address the particular problem that the member has raised.

I make my point to the minister in all sincerity. Issues have been raised this afternoon about access to and the range of services and about the delivery of financial benefits that the Parliament and Government agreed but which are not being delivered uniformly across Scotland. There is a bit of a postcode lottery for support and financial support—that is exactly what the Government does not intend but it is the consequence of a failure to achieve a uniformity of delivery for our carers.

The debate has been helpful if regrettably rather short. It has highlighted huge issues for our society, but there is consensus throughout the chamber that we need to do more. We must ensure that we do not just talk but deliver.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 2:53 pm, 25th February 2009

Like other members, I congratulate the Equal Opportunities Committee on its approach to the issue—it is useful when issues are brought to the chamber fairly quickly to give us the opportunity to debate them. Like others, I would have liked a longer debate, and I am sure that that point will be taken on board.

During the debate, I was struck by the number of times that we heard carers being described as selfless, about the humility that we all show in response to the work that they do, and about the sacrifices that they make when they look after their loved ones. However, in the recent mini round-table meetings that I have had with carers, I was struck by how they talk about fighting, struggling, shouting, battling and having to make a real effort to get their voices heard. The lesson is that, despite the good intentions of the former and current Administrations, there is still a gulf between what we want and what needs to happen and what is actually happening on the ground. Today's debate has to be a lesson for us that it is not enough just to describe the problem and agree that we know what it is; we must also work on solutions. If we have another debate on the issue, I hope that we will focus on the solutions as much as on describing the problems.

I have no doubt about Shona Robison's genuine interest in pursuing the agenda, but we must watch that her genuine interest and commitment is matched by those who have their hands on the purse strings. That is why I was particularly interested in what Johann Lamont, Malcolm Chisholm and Ross Finnie said about the need to ensure that the money that is put in at local government and health board level to support carers and to support a strategy delivers outcomes.

It is right that carers can ask for an assessment but, given that they have no right to any services or help beyond that, it is no wonder that they ask what the point is of an assessment.

I do not want to sound an entirely discordant note on young carers, but the minister talked about conducting a mapping exercise and I worry that in some cases that might be too late. If projects close down while the mapping exercise is carried out, the young carers who use those projects will not benefit from it. I make a plea to the minister to examine what is happening on the ground and to ensure that no young carers project closes while the mapping exercise is under way.

A concern has been raised with me about elderly parents who care for older children or carers who look after other adults and the lack of services that provide local options for those people as they grow older. It is assumed that it is okay for them to sit in the house rather than be out and about taking part in constructive activities. We need to keep an eye on that.

I could have focused on numerous issues, such as respite care and the need for better joining up of health and social work, but in the short time that I have left I will ask several questions, to which I hope that the minister will respond either today or in future. How many carers across Scotland have been assessed as having unmet need? What progress has been made on the moving and handling report? Like other members, I would like to know how many elderly carers might need a different approach. What progress is being made to ensure that aids and adaptations are made available quickly so that the people who need them can live and be cared for or provide care in their own homes? How will the £34 million, which we all agree could transform the lives of many disabled children, be tracked to ensure that that outcome is delivered?

Those are issues that carers have raised with us, and it is our responsibility to heed what they say and, as has been said, to move on from just talking to ensuring that we have a strategy that results in real action.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 2:57 pm, 25th February 2009

We have had an extremely useful, if short, debate. It is clear that all parties endorse the idea that we need to improve support for Scotland's unpaid carers. I acknowledge the comments of Johann Lamont, Ross Finnie and others on the shortness of the debate and undertake to find out how we can create further opportunities for the Parliament to discuss what is an important issue in more detail and at a time that will allow feed-in to the development of the carers strategy and the review of the progress of care 21.

As has been said, Scotland's unpaid carers, of whom there are more than 600,000, represent the largest section of the care workforce. To enable carers to continue in their vital role, it is essential that there is early identification of their caring role and that they have access to the support that they need.

I am aware that there is a great deal of excellent practice around carer support in local authorities, health boards and the voluntary sector—I have witnessed that at first hand. However, as some members have said and as I am aware from speaking to carers, there are areas in which practice is less well developed. More needs to be done to ensure that carers can access the support that they need when they need it.

I will try to respond to the points that have been made during the debate and will write to the members to whom I do not respond. In response to Margaret Mitchell, I should have mentioned in my opening speech that although the census questionnaire for 2011 has not been finalised, a census rehearsal that is planned for the end of March will include a question on unpaid caring. As far as I am aware, that seems to be the case, but I will keep an eye on the situation.

Bill Kidd and Sandra White mentioned the benefits trap. I can inform members that during the development of the UK Government's carer strategy, I wrote to the responsible minister, Ivan Lewis, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Care Services, to highlight areas that would impact on Scottish carers, including issues around income and employment. I drew his attention to the relevant sections of the care 21 report, as Scottish carers were keen for us to do. Many issues of financial support will have to be resolved.

Malcolm Chisholm spoke about employment. I think that there is some debate in England over whether there is a duty around employment there. Whether there is or not, his point was well made and I will be happy, as part of revising the carers strategy, to explore ways of supporting carers so that they can balance employment with their caring responsibilities.

Malcolm Chisholm, Johann Lamont and, I think, Ross Finnie referred to single outcome agreements. I will make two quick points. Single outcome agreements are high-level documents that are not intended to replace all the underlying arrangements for service planning and performance management in local authorities. I have been directly encouraging local partnerships to make the connection between single outcome agreements and national frameworks. One of those frameworks is the community care outcomes framework, which contains a measure on support for carers. I have been encouraging all partners to adopt that particular measure.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

The agreements are high-level strategic documents, but we would nevertheless expect them to identify priorities. How many single outcome agreements mention carers or a carers strategy?

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Many of them refer to the community care outcomes framework, which is an essential part of bringing together all the important community care indicators. Selecting one particular indicator is not the best way to make progress; we should consider all the indicators as a package. That is why the community care outcomes framework brings all the indicators together. That will be important in providing support to carers and service users. The framework was started under the previous Administration, of which Johann Lamont was a member. I hope that she will therefore be able to support it.

Tracking is important. We have a framework in place that will allow COSLA to track the delivery of the 10,000 extra respite weeks. COSLA will report to us annually to inform us of progress across all Scotland's councils. Tracking will help to ensure that those weeks are delivered. Perhaps I have a little more faith in our local authority colleagues than Johann Lamont has. I hope that they share our commitment on carers.

Local authorities' expenditure on support for carers was measured back in 2006-07, at which time more than £100 million was being spent on carers services. I have no reason to believe that the amount has done anything other than increase. Resources are being spent on carers services. However, I accept that more has to be done, which is why the extra £13 million has been invested in health boards and local authorities. We should expect our colleagues in local authorities to want to deliver those services, just as we do. I have faith that the issue is a priority for local authorities.

Cathy Jamieson asked me a number of questions to which it would be difficult to respond in any detail now, but I will write to her. The questions were pertinent and they can be considered as part of the review of progress so far and as part of progress on the national carers strategy.

I hope that my responses have given members a flavour of my views; I will write to members whose points I have not been able to cover.

Photo of Marlyn Glen Marlyn Glen Labour 3:04 pm, 25th February 2009

On behalf of the Equal Opportunities Committee, I thank the members who have participated in today's debate. Some valuable contributions have been made. I also thank all the witnesses who gave their time to share their expertise with the committee, and I thank the minister for her response so far—especially on organising a longer debate on this issue.

The debate has been unusual, in that the Equal Opportunities Committee has not produced a committee report for the Parliament to consider. Instead, we have used the debate as an opportunity to highlight directly to ministers and members some of the key issues that were raised during the two meetings that the committee held on unpaid carers. We appreciate the fact that this approach may not always be appropriate, but given the fact that the Scottish Government is currently updating its policy on unpaid carers, it seemed a sensible way in which to proceed. It is also in keeping with the Scottish Parliament's key principles of power sharing and being accessible, responsive and participative.

The topic is clearly a matter of concern for the people of Scotland, given the recent parliamentary debate on kinship care and various current motions on unpaid carers. The relevant statistics show its importance. As the convener of the Equal Opportunities Committee and others have noted, there are an estimated 660,000 unpaid carers who, it is estimated, save the Scottish economy £7.6 billion a year.

The Equal Opportunities Committee was specifically concerned to know whether carers faced discrimination or barriers and whether specific groups of carers had particular issues. We trust that our focus on those issues has provided the Scottish Government with a useful head start, especially given its stated commitment to the equality impact assessment of its policies.

Although we spoke to a wide range of expert organisations, there were one or two gaps in the evidence that the Scottish Government and COSLA might want to consider. For example, although we had a discussion about the particular issues for minority ethnic carers, one of the relevant organisations was, unfortunately, unable to attend. We know that work is being undertaken in that area, and some members attended an informative meeting of the cross-party group on carers at which the topic was addressed. Similarly, some organisations that represent business interests were unable to attend the committee. Given the impact that caring can have on an individual's ability to join or remain in the labour market, that perspective definitely requires consideration.

Focusing on the world of work, I highlight the recent development in the European Court of Justice that was brought to our attention. The issue has been mentioned by Malcolm Chisholm. In brief, it seems that it will now be unlawful to treat an employee less favourably because of their association with a disabled person. That development may well have major ramifications for the way in which businesses treat employees who care for a disabled person, and it needs to be looked at with great urgency.

The committee was delighted to welcome the Scottish Court Service to give evidence. We had been told that it was an excellent example of an employer with an enlightened attitude to staff with caring responsibilities. We should seek to learn from such examples of good practice as well as being critical of areas in which expectations are not being met.

If the Scottish Government and COSLA are looking even wider for examples of good practice, they will be interested to note the approach to carers that has been adopted in Northern Ireland, which was outlined by Margaret Mitchell. In Northern Ireland, there is an obligation on public bodies to promote equality between people who have dependants and those who do not.

There is no doubt about our appreciation of the role of unpaid carers. They may not always get the recognition that they deserve, but I am sure that all members recognise the rich contribution that unpaid carers make to our society. We trust that the Scottish Government will reflect carefully on the evidence that the committee heard and take the action that is required to ensure that the contribution of unpaid carers is adequately supported.