HC Deb 05 May 2000 vol 349 cc427-41
Mr. Dismore

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 5, leave out "16" and insert "14".

I have a sense of déjà vu in raising this issue. On Second Reading, it was one of the concerns that I flagged up when I said: The Bill provides additional facilities for carers aged 16 and over.—[Official Report, 4 February 2000; Vol. 343, c. 1377.] I wondered then whether we should not consider in Committee—I do not think that it was considered there—whether 16 was the right cut-off point. I thought that there was a case for including even younger carers.

When I researched my Second Reading speech, I was staggered to learn from the national carers strategy, which I shall refer to shortly, that between 20,000 and 50,000 young carers look after parents or elderly relatives and that many of them receive no support from statutory or voluntary services. It was in that context that, after Second Reading, I started to do a bit more digging on the issue, and that led me to table the amendment that would reduce the age to 14.

To get more local background information, I spoke to the young carers project which operates in Barnet and Hendon. It is an interesting project which is jointly financed by the London borough of Barnet, Children in Need and the Millie Apthorp trust. It is based at the friends in need joint project in Barnet. The project told me that, in its view, young carers include anyone from the age of six to the age of 18. Indeed, it has on its books several carers who are aged six and who have to make a contribution at home. It is staggering that children as young as six are getting involved.

The amendment does not suggest that children of six should be able to request the facilities to be provided by the assessments in the Bill, but there is a case for considering an age younger than 16, which is the school-leaving age. I suspect that many of the carers who would be caught by the Bill as it is at present phrased would be over the age of 16. We know, however, from research to which I shall shortly refer, that children sometimes find that their school work is affected. The age of 14, when children start doing GCSE courses, would be an ideal point at which they could become eligible to request additional assistance from the local authority.

Some local authorities are starting to address those needs. I mentioned the young carers project in my borough which is trying to work with the local authority and to build links with GPs and schools to help to identify and support young carers. The biggest problem is identifying carers and getting them to come forward. Nobody really knows how many young carers there are in my area, but the best, conservative estimate that I have been given is that there are 200 or more. They desperately need help, but that help must be specifically targeted at younger carers' needs. By reducing the age in the Bill, and thereby including a younger age group in its provisions, we may be able to address young carers' concerns.

Examples of what the project in my constituency does will inform the argument. It organises time-out meetings at which young carers can meet other children in the same position and age group. The idea is for them to meet and socialise, and not necessarily to discuss their caring responsibilities, although I suspect that they do. The project provides an after-school drop-in service with support, information and advice, which is specifically geared to the needs of young carers. Those services are targeted at that particular age group, which my amendment seeks to address.

The project organises monthly outings, and next Saturday it will take young carers to TGI Friday, the hamburger restaurant. That may not seem a big deal to many people, but it is a big deal for those young carers. If they have a disabled sibling, it can be problematic for the family to go to a restaurant together, and enabling young carers, as a group, to take advantage of that facility is a brilliant idea. Such ideas could well be overlooked if we do not consider the amendment, which would help to identify the particular needs of young carers. The project also runs workshops in schools to try to raise the awareness of children who may not realise that they are carers—they may have drifted into caring. There are also drop-in sessions in schools.

"Caring about Carers", the national strategy document, devotes a chapter to young carers, and I want to highlight one or two of the problems that particularly affect those in the age group that we are discussing. The document says that they may have to care for a parent with a physical illness, disability…or dependency on alcohol or drugs. They may have to look after an elderly grandparent who is frail, or who has a health problem or disability or, as I have just said, a sibling with a health problem or disability.

The strategy particularly highlights the problems facing children in single-parent families in which the parent is in need of support. Those children are particularly likely to spend a large part of their time providing care. Amending the age specified in the Bill to 14 would help those children. Fourteen-year-olds are starting to want to be independent and to develop their own life, but carers, particularly those in single-parent households, find it difficult to do so, not least because of financial constraints on the family. We must enable local authorities to meet the needs of carers aged 14 and over by allowing the carers themselves to ask for assistance. That is what my amendment seeks to achieve, and it would start to address their needs.

We know from the strategy of the problems that carers experience at school, particularly with homework and qualifications. If they can receive assistance outside school, through respite care or a drop-in centre, they may be able to prepare for their GCSEs, free from their caring responsibilities, for two or three hours in the evening. We know also of the problems of isolation from other members of the family.

The strategy identifies the lack of time that young carers have for play, sport or leisure activities. That is exactly the sort of problem that the young carers project in Barnet is trying to address. My amendment would provide great support to those children by enabling them to make their position known to the local authority and have their needs recognised.

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Under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, social services departments can help young carers by considering whether their welfare or development might suffer if support is not provided. The Bill tries to go beyond the existing narrow definition used in providing assistance to carers, and my amendment would strengthen the position of that age group and go beyond the provisions of the Children Act by giving them more rights.

Under the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, young carers can ask for an assessment of their needs, but many are not aware of that. Some local authorities are reluctant to advertise the fact because they are concerned about raising expectations. The Bill is trying to raise expectations and to fulfil them. If we do not recognise that younger carers are reluctant to come forward and ask for their needs to be recognised, we run the risk of creating a loophole in the Bill. Fourteen-year-olds are of an age when they begin to make their views known, and by reducing the age in the Bill to 14 we can empower them to do so.

The amendment will also strengthen the hand of projects such as the one in my constituency when they visit schools to raise young people's awareness. They will be able to tell 14-year-old carers that they have rights and should ask the local authority to assess them and meet their needs, and that the project will assist them in doing so.

There is a strong argument for the amendment, and it applies not only to 14 to 16-year-olds, but to carers in single-parent families, whom I have mentioned, and carers from minority groups. We know of their problems from the national carers strategy. I dealt with that issue on Second Reading so I shall not do so again, but those carers have special needs that need to be identified.

We can use the Bill to help carers aged 14 to 16 by working with local authorities, schools, projects and GPs to try to identify young carers and to provide them with support. With those brief remarks, I hope that I have made a case for reducing the age limit to 14 which will at least be answered by the Bill's promoter. Let us try to empower young people, who are getting older at a younger age, if hon. Members see what I mean. We need to take a little more responsibility for them, particularly at the time in their life when they need additional help with their schooling.

Mr. Forth

I am rather unhappy with the argument for a number of reasons. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) referred in passing to the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, which interestingly says in its definitions that child" means a person under the age of eighteen. I set aside that fact, as well as recent debates in the House and in another place, about ages of consent.

What really bothers me is that the hon. Gentleman apparently not only sanctions but encourages the concept that someone as young as 14 should be given the enormous responsibilities of being a carer in the full sense of the word. That may well happen, and in some circumstances it may well even be unavoidable, but do we want to go so far as sanctioning it by including it in an Act of Parliament?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument that we should give statutory recognition to what is already happening, but I would rather go in the other direction and have a community and governmental responsibility for trying to ensure, as far as possible, that no 14-year-old has the full responsibility of being a carer. Certainly, that should not be sanctioned by law, which would be the effect of the amendment.

I go further: where there are financial implications, as there are in the Bill and in other statute, should we be entrusting taxpayers' money to someone who is 14 years of age? I take a different view of youth from the hon. Gentleman. I believe that one of the big mistakes that we are making is to try to hustle young people into adulthood and responsibility too early. I regret that young people these days seem to have shorter and shorter childhoods and seem to be hustled in every conceivable way into what I would style premature adulthood. The amendment strikes me as yet another step in that direction. That is why I have severe reservations about it.

I am just about content with the fact that the Bill defines the age as 16. It does not make me particularly happy that someone of that tender age should have such responsibilities, but I suppose that, in practice, one has to go along with that as a reality of modern life. However, I would certainly want to resist any effort to reduce the age further. I hope that either the promoter of the Bill or the Minister will be able to reassure me that what they have in mind is that we should try to alleviate any responsibility that may rest with 14-year-olds as much as we possibly can. I grant that, in some circumstances, such responsibility may be unavoidable, but our objective should be to use the panoply of existing legislation and to use the Bill, which I hope will become an Act, to that end.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. There are occasions when circumstances arise that are unavoidable. Should we not offer young people the protection and support that they need when those circumstances do arise?

Mr. Forth

I hope that that would take place in any case. I hope that the existing mechanisms and those that the Bill seeks to add would do that. What I am resisting is that we sanction and write into legislation the fact that we almost expect people as young as 14 to fulfil those responsibilities—we risk formalising that.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying—we must try to ensure that wherever that terrible responsibility is placed on someone of those tender years, they get the fullest possible support and the requirement is placed on them for as short a time as possible. That is a world away from building the matter into legislation and saying, "Well, because we are making the provision, we assume that it will happen." It would not take a lot to persuade me that we should make the relevant age higher than 16, but that is not a debate for today. I am content to stick with the Bill as it stands. For that reason, I oppose the amendment.

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

May I first say that I am grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) proposed his amendment, but I have more in common with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). That alliance seems to be continuing—long may it continue during this day. The amendment would give young carers aged 14 and 15 the right to an assessment under the Bill of their ability to provide and to continue to provide care and the right to receive services either directly or via direct payments on that basis.

We have to consider carefully the position of young carers. Some of them are old enough—it is true—to be able to undertake a reasonable level of caring responsibility and they will do so willingly out of love for their parents. It is entirely proper that that goes on in families in the ways that families think best.

Other young carers are obliged to undertake levels of caring responsibility that actually harm their future prospects as they miss out on opportunities of education, leisure pursuits, time with friends, part-time work and so on. The Bill must send the right message about young carers—they should not undertake levels of caring that are damaging and they should receive the most appropriate levels of support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) intervened, rightly, to ask a particular question. At the moment, young carers receive valuable support from local authorities. They are seen as children in need under the Children Act and services are provided that safeguard and promote their welfare. The amendment would enable 14 and 15-year-olds to opt to be treated in the same way as adults who choose to care and are caring on a regular and substantial basis. They could, for example, if given a right to request an assessment under the Bill, request direct payments instead of receiving services directly from their local council.

In my view, when young people of that age are also carers they already have too many responsibilities. We want to relieve those burdens, not run the risk of adding to them, so I would wish to be assured that councils were delivering adequate support to the service user, so that young persons were not undertaking a substantial and regular load of caring responsibilities. I am sure that the House would agree that we do not want young carers' futures blighted by their caring responsibilities, thus undermining their need to participate fully in education and leisure activities.

I have, as the House will have noted, included young carers aged 16 in the Bill—some people are quite unhappy but are prepared to live with it, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has said—because there are a small number of situations in which a 16 or 17-year-old is choosing to undertake a substantial and regular caring role for a period: for example, if a parent is terminally ill. In those circumstances, it could be more helpful in terms of the young person's personal development for their local council to support them actively if they positively choose to adopt a role that one would otherwise wish to ensure they were not burdened with.

I hope that my hon. Friend, having listened to those arguments, will not press his amendment, because I do not believe that it helps 14 and 15-year-old carers. I hope that, on that basis, he will agree to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Hutton

I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) and those of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is a lawyer; I am a lawyer; there are lots of lawyers in this place, and we all know that when we make legislation, it is, by definition, about where we draw lines. Under the Bill, we are extending choice and flexibility to young carers—for example, through the extension of the direct payment scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde has made a judgment about where that line needs to be drawn. We fix it in the Bill at 16 because we feel that it is the appropriate place to establish that line.

The amendment would raise exactly the sort of scenarios to which both my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst have referred—14-year-olds would receive direct payments. On that ground alone, we need to consider some serious issues of public policy, quite apart from the separate issues that they have referred to in relation to the wider responsibilities of young people and young carers in our society.

By way of information, I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, in case he is concerned about his amendment and its relationship to the Bill, that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde was right to point out the existing protection and support that the Children Act provides to young carers, as they can be considered as children in need. He will be aware, too, that this year, as part of the conditions relating to the use of the carers grant, it will be possible for local councils to support, for example, young carers projects. I am hopeful that local authorities will use their freedom and discretion to do that.

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Additionally, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will be aware that the Government are supporting a range of other programmes to provide better support in meeting the needs of younger people. I draw his attention to the additional resources going to support child and adolescent mental health services. Although some hon. Members may question the relevance of such services to this debate, they are relevant to it, as one aspect of such services may well be to provide the counselling and support that is crucial in enabling young people to continue their caring responsibilities, perhaps to members of their own families.

All hon. Members will be aware from constituency case work and from knowledge of our own families of the stresses and strains that caring responsibilities can create for young people. The right thing to do if we are to ensure that services are available to meet the needs of young people is to ensure that appropriate services are available locally, supported by national health service trusts and local authorities, to provide better support in meeting the counselling and mental health needs of young people, which includes those of young carers.

The Government are taking action across the board to meet some of the concerns to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has rightly drawn attention. The position of young carers is a matter of very serious concern to the Government and, I am sure, to the House. It is tragic to see the life of a young person affected adversely by the assumption of very substantial caring responsibility. No hon. Member wants to see that happen. We are working very hard with local government, the NHS and others to ensure that we develop a more effective range of services to support young people who have those caring responsibilities.

I am sorry, to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and I are not convinced that the right thing to do is to lower the age threshold to 14. For all the reasons given by my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and in the context of the Government's pursuit of our wider objectives, I think it would be wrong to make that change in the legislation.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will feel able to withdraw his amendment, not because we are turning our backs on young carers—we most definitely are not—but in recognition of the fact that, in the context of the Bill, the amendment would be counter-productive.

Mr. Dismore

I think we are all singing from the same hymn sheet, although we are perhaps approaching the issue from different directions. I certainly agree with the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—I certainly would not want my amendment to be seen as sanctioning the practice of young people engaging in such caring activities. I was merely trying to recognise the sad reality that some children are in that position. I agree with all those who spoke in the debate that we have to try to address the issue within the bigger picture. I am also very grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry).

In moving my amendment, I have tried to put on the agenda the issue of young carers. However, I certainly take on board the point about direct payments, which is a valid argument against the amendment—there could be difficulties if people in that age group received potentially substantial sums. My objective was to raise the issue of identifying those young carers and empowering them to ask for assessments of their needs. However, as has been said, perhaps that issue could be better addressed as part of the general legislation to protect children.

In those circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Dismore

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 11, after "assessment", insert "within 42 days".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 4, in page 1, line 14, leave out "may" and insert "shall".

No. 5, in page 1, line 15, leave out— ', so far as it considers it to be material,'. No. 8, in page 1, line 26, leave out "considers appropriate" and insert— 'shall agree with the carer'.

Mr. Dismore

The amendments in this group are relatively straightforward, and I should be able to explain them relatively quickly. The purpose of the amendments is to tighten up clause 1 a little.

Amendment No. 2 provides that, if a local authority conducts an assessment at the request of a carer, it should do so within a fixed time limit, which I have suggested should be 42 days. I should think that six weeks is ample time for an assessment to be made. I am concerned that some, although by no means all, local authorities do not give the priority that they should to carers' issues, and that, without some type of time limit, the performance of an assessment could be delayed and end up on the back burner, so that carers who ask for an assessment could wait weeks or months for an assessment. I am sure that we have all heard of cases in which there have been such delays.

As statutory responsibilities have not been drawn sufficiently tightly, assessments are sometimes delayed. In amendment No. 2, I am simply trying to establish a time limit. Although I am not wedded to a 42-day time limit, I think it is reasonable to expect local authorities to conduct an assessment within six weeks. Nevertheless, I realise that, across the country, the ability of local authorities to perform such assessments will vary. I hope that, if 42 days is not acceptable to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) and the Minister, they will propose an alternative time limit.

Mrs. Spelman

Although we all perfectly understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, there is one small point. He wants to ensure that the assessment occurs within a reasonable time. However, consultations that I have had with local authorities have exposed one problem, which is that the process can be delayed by the lack of medical information. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has taken account of that factor.

Mr. Dismore

The hon. Lady has made an important and interesting point, and perhaps I could have improved the phrasing of my amendment by saying that the time limit would commence after the receipt of medical evidence from a general practitioner, consultant or other medical practitioner. It is a fair point.

Equally, it is important that we should establish a time frame in which the assessments should be performed. Although there may well be practical difficulties such as those she described, I am sure that we could establish a time scale that took account of those difficulties. If 42 days is not a practical time limit, I should be happy to consider alternative suggestions. Nevertheless, it is important to incorporate a time limit in the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are related, and both are also an attempt to tighten up clause 1. Clause 1(2) mentions assessments under the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995. The clause appears to leave it to the local authority to decide whether to take an assessment into account and suggests that it does not much matter either way. That is wrong. If an assessment has been conducted, it should be taken into account.

Amendment No. 4 would delete "may" and insert "shall". I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is not in his place, because when he was a Minister at the Home Office and I was a campaigning solicitor, we spent many happy hours in the law courts arguing about whether "may" meant "shall" and "shall" meant "may". The case ended up in the House of Lords, where I am pleased to say that I won the argument and he lost, at great expense to the then Conservative Government. Whenever I see the word "may" in legislation, I think that "shall" would be clearer.

Amendment No. 5 would delete the superfluous words so far as it considers it to be material because an assessment under the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 must be material to some extent.

Amendment No. 8 is not in my name, but I should like to mention it briefly, because empowering carers is important. This goes back to points that were made on a previous group of amendments about the need for carers to be involved at every stage of the process. We should not simply give local authorities what may amount to dictatorial powers to decree what people will get whether they like it or not. We must ensure that local authorities and carers work together—although I hesitate to go back to arguments about care plans—and try to involve carers more in agreeing a package of care and how assessments should be conducted, rather than simply leaving it to the discretion of the local authority.

Mrs. Heal

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has already touched on some of the points that I wanted to make about my amendment No. 8. With the support and encouragement of the Government, local authorities are reaching out to carers and involving them in more than just consultation, which in many ways they have been involved in for years. Carers have played their part gallantly and, in addition to their caring responsibilities, have given their time, expertise and suggestions to local authorities. They have done that willingly, because they have felt that their contribution was important and valued. They hoped for an improvement in services not just for themselves, but for the person for whom they were caring. The well-being of the cared-for person is always paramount for carers.

Slowly but surely, carers are gaining a voice and saying that they, too, have needs and should be listened to. Consulting and involving people is not sufficient. We have already talked about partnership and empowerment. I endorse those concepts. If they are to be meaningful to the millions of carers in this country, my amendment should be accepted, because only then will they feel valued.

This is not about what carers want. It is about their agreement and involvement. We should make it clear to carers and to the local authority that conducts the assessment that it must be done in an atmosphere that involves the agreement of the person to whom the services will be supplied.

Mr. Paterson

I am worried that the amendment that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) tabled would make the Bill too prescriptive. I understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to include a time limit to ensure that the bureaucratic process does not take too long. However, as I said when we considered a previous group of amendments and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) pointed out, much depends on medical assessments.

Some cases in my constituency involve highly specialised medical assessments by consultants who are often in different parts of the country. Regrettably, those high falutin people take time to make their assessments. Although I sympathise with the desire of the hon. Member for Hendon to set a deadline to ensure that decisions are made, the bureaucratic process should not take over to such an extent that medical information is not available.

I have more sympathy for amendment No. 8, which the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) tabled. Each case is different; that applies not only to each carer but to each person who is cared for. We cannot be prescriptive and issue a diktat from the centre to cover every case. I like the hon. Lady's wording: shall agree with the carer. The carer must be involved because no one is better qualified to analyse matters than those people whose lives are tied down 365 days a year to the details of cases: the family background, the physical circumstances, the medical conditions, the relationships with doctors and other people. Nobody knows that better than the carer.

I like the wording of amendment No. 8, but not that of amendment No. 2, which is too prescriptive and might lead to a lack of essential medical information.

Mr. Burstow

I, too, support amendment No. 8, which the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) tabled. In earlier debates, we considered the need to strike a balance between the carer and the disabled person. We also need to strike a balance between the strong power of the local authority as the assessor of the need and the person whose need it assesses. The amendment provides a useful opportunity to explore that a little further.

The balance is also relevant to the disabled person whose care needs are assessed and for whom a care plan is drawn up. Transparency and clear statements in the care plan are required so that plans can be challenged and the authorities that set them made accountable. A requirement for the process to have the carer's agreement is therefore sensible. However, perhaps the wording of amendment No. 8 will not achieve that, and I look forward to the response of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) and of the Minister. The spirit and intention of the amendment is worthy. Perhaps another form of words could be found to effect the amendment later in the Bill's passage.

Mr. Pendry

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) on the way in which they spoke about the amendments. They are caring amendments and I understand the spirit that lies behind them. I appreciate that my hon. Friends have tabled them because they support the Bill.

Amendment No. 2 would ensure that the benefits of carers assessment are secured as quickly as possible. We all support that. However, hon. Members have constituents who care for people who have refused an assessment. The amendment might not work in their best interests. The amendment would require authorities to be satisfied that a carer cares for a person for whom they provide or arrange the provision of services and to carry out an assessment "within 42 days" of the carer's ability to provide and to continue to provide.

I am sure that most hon. Members would acknowledge the need for local councils to ensure a speedy assessment and provision of services to support the carer. However, I support local discretion to ensure the highest quality outcome through the quality of the evidence on which decisions are made. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon to withdraw the amendment.

On amendments Nos. 4 and 5, clause 1 gives informal carers of 16 and older who provide or intend to provide a substantial amount of care, the right on request to an assessment by the local council of their ability to provide and continue to provide care. Clause 1(2) allows a council to take into account, so far as it considers it to be material, any assessment that may have been made for the carer under the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995.

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Clearly, when the information already held is up to date, it is in the best interests of both carer and council to allow the council discretion to take account of an assessment conducted under the 1995 Act. One reason is that flexibility is likely to speed up the delivery of services to carers; another is that it would be both bureaucratic and costly for councils to be required to undertake unnecessary additional assessments. The amendments would place a duty on councils to take into account the last assessment under section 1(1) of the 1995 Act, even if a carer's circumstances had changed since that assessment. That cannot be in the best interests of either carer or council.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) for tabling an amendment that would ensure that assessments were conducted in a way that encouraged the participation of carers. However, for two reasons, I ask my hon. Friend not to press the amendment to a Division. First, current guidance on good practice in the assessment of service users and carers is already clear: it states that participation in the assessment process is key. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Minister has assured me that the regulations that will be drafted to accompany the Bill will give local authorities a duty to ensure that such issues are discussed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis can rest assured that carers' involvement in their assessment is integral to the fabric of the Bill. Support for people who choose to be carers requires an understanding of how individual carers' roles affect them, and that can be ascertained only through a fully participatory assessment process. I hope that on that basis, too, my hon. Friend will not press her amendment to a Division.

Mr. Hutton

It is clear to all of us—I know my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) agrees—that it is imperative for assessments to be made as quickly as possible. As always, the question is whether we want to create a statutory limit, and my hon. Friend has advanced some powerful arguments as to why that may not be the best option.

By means of several initiatives, we are trying to ensure that local authorities carry out assessments quickly. We have already done two things. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) mentioned the performance assessment framework. As part of our drive to improve the performance of social services departments, we have established key indicators to determine whether authorities are providing services effectively and efficiently. There are 35 indicators, but there will soon be 50.

A number of the indicators relate to how effectively authorities are delivering services to carers. One relates specifically to how quickly carers receive help. The performance assessment framework, and the performance of authorities judged against it, will inform the use of the best-value powers taken by the Government under the Local Government Act 1999. We will not tolerate poor performance; we will not tolerate circumstances in which carers' needs are not assessed quickly and efficiently. If we tolerated those things, we would sanction not just poor practice but ineffective service. There is no doubt that support for carers will be better as a result of consultation and involvement with users, and will be better if it is provided as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde was right to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) to commitments we gave in Committee that we will ensure that guidance and practice notes issued in the context of this legislation will emphasise the importance of good practice, including involving and consulting carers in the assessments. I make that commitment again today, and the guidance will have statutory effect under section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970.

Mrs. Spelman

The Minister is giving an important explanation of how the legislation will work in practice. Is there any system of penalties if, as the Minister suggested, the Government can no longer tolerate the actions of a local authority in relation to the indicators?

Mr. Hutton

Yes, and those new powers are contained in the Local Government Act 1999. If there is a serious and persistent failure on the part of the local authority to deliver effective social services to its local community, the Government have a range of measures that they can use to ensure that performance is corrected. We will not hesitate to use those powers if that is the right thing to do. So a remedy is available, but we wish to promote and encourage good practice by local authorities in several ways. One way is through the development of new local charters in relation to the "Better Care, Higher Standards" programme, now under way, under which local authorities will fix their own local charters in relation to performance in social services and related areas. That, too, will help to ensure that local authority performance is improved. It will be improved primarily because carers will have access, at a local level, to the information contained in the charters and will be aware of what buttons they need to press to ensure that the services are delivered appropriately and promptly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde also referred to amendments Nos. 4 and 5. If we were to incorporate those provisions, we would do a substantial disservice to carers, because the effect of accepting the amendments would be to place a duty on local councillors to take account of the last carers assessment under section 1 of the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, even if the circumstances of the carer and/or the person being cared for had changed since that assessment was carried out. There is no logic in tying the hands of the local authority to an out-of-date assessment. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon would accept that.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, I have come to the conclusion that the amendments should not be accepted. They would not improve the Bill and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will withdraw them.

Mr. Dismore

I have listened closely to the cogent arguments put forward by my hon. Friends the Minister and the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I call Mr. Pendry to move the next amendment.

Mr. Pendry

I thought that the amendment stood in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal).

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The amendment stands in the names of three Members, and as the hon. Gentleman's is the first, and as he is the promoter of the Bill, I did him the courtesy of calling him. However, I now call the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis instead.

Mrs. Heal

I beg to move amendment No. 38, in page 1, line 17, leave out "carer" and insert "individual".

This is a small but practical amendment, and it is close to the hearts of many carers. The amendment has two purposes. First, it would ensure consistency with the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995. Secondly, it would narrow the definition of a carer.

Clause 1(3) is similar to the provision in the 1995 Act in that it ensures that only informal carers will have access to the rights in the Bill. Specifically, the Act states that anyone who undertakes care as part of their employment or as a volunteer cannot access those rights. The current drafting of the Bill differs in one respect from the previous Act in that it uses the word "carer" in the first line of the subsection rather than the term "individual". The first purpose of the amendment, therefore, is to ensure that the Bill is consistent with the carers Act by changing the word "carer" to the word "individual" in line 17.

The amendment's second purpose is to ensure consistency of definition. Using the word "carer" automatically suggests that the two groups not entitled to the provisions under the Bill could be considered to be carers in other circumstances. The two groups are people who are employed as care assistants and those who provide care as volunteers.

This is a relatively minor amendment, but it is very important philosophically. No legislation other than the 1995 Act refers to a "carer". The National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 refers to private carers, and the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986 refers to carers by describing the activities that they perform. The Care Standards Bill, which is concerned with regulating care assistants, does not use the term "carer" to mean people who are employed. Instead, it uses the term "social care worker".

As the rest of the clause mirrors the wording in the 1995 Act where appropriate, it seems that this is a minor drafting oversight. I have no doubt that other hon. Members who are involved with carers in their constituencies are also aware that carers feel very strongly about protecting the definition of a carer. The Carers National Association, which firmly backs the amendment, agrees with my view, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) and I am pleased that we have an assurance from the Minister that he too will support it.

Some people do not like labels, but carers who are happy to be labelled as such become very distressed when other groups of people, such as care assistants and care workers, are labelled as carers. That is not because they do not value the work of those who are paid carers, but because they value what the term carer means to them and their families. It is a recognition of the role that they play and the work that they do, albeit unpaid.

Of course, colloquially, many people continue to refer to care assistants as carers. The amendment will not change that, but it will keep the legal definition as simple and consistent as possible. That would also be desirable as community care law is already so complex. I propose therefore that we consider this simple and practical amendment.

Mr. Pendry

Thank you, Sir Alan, for giving me pole position in relation to the amendment, but as the diligence and persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis persuaded the Minister and me to go along with it, I thought that she should have the opportunity to shine. I am grateful to her for that. The amendment would clarify further the distinction between informal carers, who provide or intend to provide a substantial amount of care on a regular basis, and care workers and volunteers.

It would be wrong for the Bill to use the term "carer" loosely to include care workers and volunteers, although I accept that that is standard parlance. I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to the amendment, so having said those few words, I congratulate my hon. Friend.

12.30 pm
Mr. Hutton

The amendment would safeguard the definition of a carer and make clearer the distinction between an informal carer who cares for a relative or friend, and a paid care worker or volunteer. The amendment would certainly strengthen the definition, and the Government are happy to support it. I urge the House to accept it.

Amendment agreed to.

Mrs. Heal

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 2, line 2, at end add 'and "volunteer" means somebody who may receive out of pocket expenses but not paid remuneration in relation to caring responsibilities.'. My comments on the amendment need only be brief, as it follows from what I said on amendment No. 38. I want the Bill to make it clear that volunteers helping family members with their caring responsibilities could receive help towards any expenses, such as travel expenses, that might be incurred. Such volunteers would not receive paid remuneration under the Bill, but the amendment would ensure that they could receive help with out-of-pocket expenses.

Mr. Pendry

I understand why my hon. Friend has tabled the amendment, but I can reassure her that subsections (3)(a), (3)(b) and (6) of clause 1 mirror parts of the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, which has never caused the confusion that she has envisaged. The adoption of the language of the 1995 Act is a good thing in its own right, but it also ensures the smooth working of the dual regimes in social service provision for which that Act provided. For those reasons, I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw the amendment.

Mrs. Heal

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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