Speaking up for Carers

Yesterday I took part in a Backbench Business Committee debate in the House of Commons on carers; highlighting the number of unpaid carers in Oldham East and Saddleworth; the effects of Government welfare ‘reforms’ on carers; the health of carers; and the need to better support young carers. 

The debate came after I also raised the issue of carers with the Prime Minister at PMQs last week, asking “This week is carers week. Will the Prime Minister show support for the 7 million unpaid carers across the country and invest £1.2 billion from last year’s NHS under-spend in social care, as we have pledged to do, so averting the Government-made crisis in accident and emergency and social care?”  The Prime Minister refused to pledge to invest the NHS underspend in social care. His  response can be read here

The full text of my speech yesterday is copied below:

“Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on organising this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak after such thoughtful contributions. I want to focus on unpaid carers; I will leave others to talk about the care system as a whole.

“As we have heard, carers play a vital role, not just for their family members and friends but for the country. In the past decade, the number of carers has grown from just under 5 million to nearer 7 million. By 2037, it is estimated that the number will have increased to nearly 9 million. In my constituency, there are 11,076 unpaid carers, nearly a quarter of whom provide care for more than 50 hours a week. As has been said, we know that this is an underestimate of the actual number who provide care. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South talked about the lack of information and advice, which has certainly been identified in my constituency. Age UK in Oldham recently opened an information and advice centre, and I hope that people will avail themselves of that. Like other Members, I, too, have had the plight of carers increasingly brought to my attention in my surgeries. Their situation is a growing problem.

“In today’s terms, the role played by carers saves the economy £119 billion a year. That is more than the total NHS budget and nearly six times the adult social care budget. The country could not survive without the work that carers do, and that is even more so today, with the crisis that social care is facing. We are facing the double whammy of an ageing society—it is great that we are, on the whole, living longer, although austerity is certainly having an impact on life expectancy—and a meltdown in social care in local authorities, with cuts to their budgets having an impact on social care budgets. Unfortunately, carers are picking up the tab. A recent Carers UK survey showed that a third of those caring for more than 35 hours a week have no support at all. Although 3 million carers juggle work with caring responsibilities, one in five has been forced to give up work.

“In addition to the lack of support for caring, carers across the UK are starting to see the impact of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. Changes to financial support with housing and council tax in some areas mean that many families are experiencing reduced financial support from more than one of the changes. The discretionary funding set aside by councils to support people affected by the bedroom tax is enough to help only one in 10 disabled people. Carers who require an additional room because they cannot share with partners who sleep in hospital beds, or parents of disabled children who need the space for care workers to provide overnight care are being seriously let down. More than 5,000 families with care needs are faced with either moving or finding an extra £700 a year.

“The cumulative effects of the economic downturn, a squeeze on wages and the increasing costs of essentials such as food and fuel, along with the cuts in social security support, are making it more difficult for carers to manage. More than four in 10 carers in the Carers UK survey said they had been in debt as a result of caring. This year will see other changes to the benefits system, as the transfer of disability living allowance to the personal independence payment and the universal credit are introduced, which is also of considerable concern to many carers. DLA was the gatekeeper to carer’s allowance. The changes mean that 10,000 fewer carers will not be entitled to carer’s allowance. Many of us have already called on the Government to review these changes and undertake a cumulative impact assessment of the effects of these welfare reforms. For many, they will be the tipping point.

“In addition to that, and as a consequence of debt and a lack of support, there are significant effects on the health of carers. Eight out of 10 carers report that their caring role affects their physical health and nine out of 10 say that their mental health has suffered. This is not only a human tragedy; we are storing up problems for the future by not caring for our carers.

“I know about that from my personal experience of caring for my mum—I have spoken about her before—who died of Alzheimer’s last September. She had Alzheimer’s for 10 years, and for the last three years was unable to communicate or to feed or toilet herself. Although my mum lived in the States, I provided respite care during leave, so I can personally attest to the physical and emotional toll that it had on me. In the last few months of her life she was bedridden. I am little, but I am fairly fit and strong, yet physically trying to lift her to bathe her or change her continence pads was something I found really difficult to manage. The worst thing was the emotional toll, however, as I worried how everyone was coping.

“I want to spend the last few minutes talking about young carers. One of the last research projects I worked on before I was elected to this place concerned the effect on young carers’ health of their caring role. Many people will be surprised to learn that, according to recent census figures, there are more than 178,000 young carers in England and Wales. Those are the official figures, but we know that they are an underestimate. Children as young as five are looking after family members who are physically or mentally ill or disabled, their roles ranging from doing household chores to providing nursing or personal care.

“The effects on those children and young people are immense and lifelong. Because of their caring responsibilities, nearly a quarter of young carers often miss school or have educational difficulties. Young carers are also more likely to grow up in poverty, to be socially excluded, to have low aspirations and achievement and to have relationship issues. Those problems can follow them throughout their lives. There is also evidence of significant effects on their physical and mental health, with anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues being particularly prevalent. It has been shown that, after a year of caring, morbidities fail to return to pre-caring levels.

“Services do not always respect young carers and the role that they play. My research indicated that many young people felt excluded from discussions about their family member’s care, even though they were providing much of it. Some of the responses to questions on whether the young carers should be allowed to see their parents in hospital, for example, were quite heartbreaking. Similarly, many young carers felt that there was a lack of understanding and support from their teachers and schools. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South said about this. We must ensure that schools take seriously their role in supporting young carers.

“Barbara Keeley: I have mentioned the fact that we have a young carers project in Salford that is doing great work. It was interesting, however, that one of the schools involved came back to the project and said, “We have no young carers at all”, when the project knew that it did. The perception among some head teachers is that they do not have any. Is my hon. Friend worried about that as well?

“Debbie Abrahams: I totally agree with my hon. Friend; that is very worrying, and we must try to do better by those young people.

“I am encouraged by what the Minister has said today about the discussions, but I reiterate my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South’s sentiment that warm words are not enough. Will he tell us when we can expect to have the amendments included in the Children and Families Bill? The rights of parent carers of disabled children are also still in limbo, and the Government must bring forward changes to the Bill to ensure that the rights of that group of carers are not left behind. I recognise the Government’s commitment to carers’ rights, but I reiterate my earlier remarks: no matter how much we legislate for assessing carers’ needs, it is meaningless without the means to implement it. Local authority budgets have been pared to the bone, and that is having an impact on social care budgets. How are we going to deliver those assessments? A further £800 million of cuts are planned for this year alone. I would be grateful if the Minister would address that point as well.

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