HC Deb 18 March 1998 vol 308 cc1305-7 4.25 pm
Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for assessments of health and social needs of disabled persons to include assessments of the needs for short-term breaks for the disabled persons and any carer. Every right hon. and hon. Member will have in their constituency a silent army of dedicated, selfless carers. They care for people with a wide variety of needs: people with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, mental health problems, chronic sickness and degenerative conditions. Carers can be of any age, and from all walks of life. One in seven of the adult population are estimated to be carers, the great majority of whom are women. Any of us could become a carer at any time.

That army of carers has increased in recent years, with the shift from institutional to community care, with the increase in the number of elderly people, and as a result of medical advances to sustain the lives of many people who would formerly not have survived. Those are the triumphs of our welfare state, but they have led to a disproportionate reliance on informal care, and care by women.

In recent years, our statutory agencies have put increasing responsibility on informal carers as a result of community care legislation. The National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 gave local authorities a duty to undertake individual care assessments. The need for respite care, or short-term breaks, has increasingly been recognised as a major unmet need, but it is not specified in community care assessments. The Bill's aim is to give people with disabilities and carers the right to be assessed for respite care and to have that care provided, if they are so assessed.

It is important to establish appropriate respite care—to involve carers in decisions about their need for respite care. The Bill therefore extends the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks).

That Act gave statutory recognition for the first time to the role of carers and their right to have their needs assessed, but it gave no right to the provision of services. That is why Lord Rix, chairman of Mencap, introduced a private Member's Bill similar to this Bill in the House of Lords in 1996. I am privileged to have been asked by Mencap to reintroduce that Bill into the House, and I thank it for the help that it has given me in promoting the Bill.

According to Mencap, 100,000 people with severe learning difficulties and their carers are not receiving much-needed respite care. Only 32 per cent. knew about respite care. Almost one in five carers who applied for respite care were refused it by a local authority or health authority.

In recent weeks, I have met groups of carers in my constituency. Those I have met have stressed the value they place on respite care for the person for whom they are caring. Respite care offers an opportunity to meet new people, for personal development, to be more independent, and to enjoy a new environment. In effect, short-term breaks for people with disabilities have the same attractions as they have for all of us.

Carers I have met say that they need short-term breaks too, to allow them to lead more ordinary lives, to recharge their batteries by going away for a couple of weeks, a few days or even a few hours—to spend time with their partners, their families and friends, to spend more time with their other children, to catch up with the housework, to go shopping, or simply to catch up on their sleep.

However, Mencap's research showed that four out of 10 carers had not been out for an evening in the past six months, and one in five not for the past five years. One mother wrote to me: I am very grateful for the 3 hours per week respite that we have through our Mencap Family Carer, but I am conscious of how fortunate we are compared to most others. A short-term break may be covered in the carer's own home by a sitting service; it can be inexpensive, a small investment, but its value can be immense.

Respite care can be cost-effective, as has been shown by research carried out at the university of Brighton, where I worked before entering the House. The needs of carers were studied, and it was found that supporting carers can maintain their health, thus reducing the cost of hospitalisation and breakdowns among carers.

Respite care enables carers to return to work, which reduces the cost of benefits and increases tax and national insurance revenues. If carers could not or would not care, the responsibility would fall on the state. Official carers would be paid and receive time off and annual leave, whereas informal carers get next to nothing.

There are many forms of short-term break—holiday breaks, emergency breaks, family-based care and sitting services. In many areas, there are good examples of respite care provided through local authority social services and voluntary organisations. The all-Wales mental handicap strategy was a progressive strategy that established good collaboration between voluntary and statutory agencies. It was a progressive programme, with ring-fenced resources, but it lacked the statutory framework of rights that carers, and the people for whom they care, need.

However, respite care is scarce in many areas. Too much depends on where the carer happens to live. The aim of the Bill is to make respite care universally available, to raise standards nationally and to enshrine a right to a specific form of care, thereby imposing a duty on local authorities.

I am grateful for the support that many organisations have given me for the measure—organisations such as Mencap, the Carers National Association, Sense, the National Aids Trust, Age Concern, the British Medical Association and many other voluntary organisations. I am grateful, too, to the hon. Members on both sides of the House who have signed early-day motion 1090. However, it is the carers, more than others, that the House should thank—and society should thank them, too.

The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1972 was piloted through the House by Alf Morris, who then represented Manchester, Wythenshawe. That Act was rightly seen as a charter for the disabled. Arguably, it was the most significant piece of legislation on disability in the post-war period, and it was passed by a Labour Government and implemented by a Conservative Government. The present Government have established a royal commission on long-term care, and we intend to make specific representations to it about the need for respite care.

My Bill will reinforce the work that the Government are doing to enhance the rights of people with disabilities. We need to establish a charter for carers, and the Bill will establish the right of carers to respite care and short-term breaks. It has cross-party support, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Huw Edwards, Ms Chris McCafferty, Mr. David Amess, Mrs. Betty Williams, Mr. Roy Beggs, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Desmond Swayne, Mr. Paul Keetch, Mr. Malcolm Wicks, Mr. Steve McCabe, Mr. Anthony Wright and Laura Moffatt.