HC Deb 15 April 2002 vol 383 cc357-9
13. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

What his Department is doing to improve work opportunities for carers. [45023]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

Last April, we increased the earnings limit for invalid care allowance so that carers who combine some work with their caring responsibilities can keep more of their earnings. That was the first increase since 1993. The earnings limit for ICA will now be increased regularly in line with changes to the lower earnings limit.

Carers are also benefiting from the introduction of our new Jobcentre Plus service. A personal adviser will help carers making new or repeat claims for benefit to look for employment or training that suits their circumstances, and provide support that is tailored to their needs.

Mr. Kidney

I am grateful for those details. I shall host a conference in Stafford on Friday about care for the elderly. I anticipate that many carers will say that it should be a reasonable aspiration to balance caring responsibilities with work.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments on advisers and for saying that money for caring responsibilities will not be affected by earnings. However, there must be other support systems for those who are cared for, including out-of-school places for disabled children and daycare centres for elderly relatives. I appreciate that that extends beyond the Department for Work and Pensions, but will she bear it in mind that those matters need to be tackled as well as the steps that she has already outlined?

Maria Eagle

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. We want to encourage carers who wish to combine caring with some sort of work, and some 30,000 recipients of ICA already do so. We hope that the arrangements that we are making with Jobcentre Plus will enable carers who wish to do that to receive the appropriate assistance and help.

On my hon. Friend's cross-government point, we must ensure as far as possible that we have joined-up services that mean something to people when they try to take up opportunities. There is no point in training people or assisting them to get to work if they cannot obtain the necessary support from social services to enable them to do that. I remind my hon. Friend that there are allowable expenses in ICA that enable those who wish to care to make alternative arrangements and pay for them without such payment being taken into account when their eligibility for ICA is considered. We do what we can about the benefits system, but my hon. Friend is right that we need to do more.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

Will the Minister look into a loophole that can affect carers who give up work to look after a member of the family who develops an illness or disability? If the disability assessment takes many weeks, carers can find themselves without both the income that they previously enjoyed and a benefit income. Local benefits offices are often not effective in helping those people to bridge the financial gap. Will the Minister consider that and encourage them to take a more enlightened view in such cases?

Maria Eagle

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. Clearly, there are eligibility criteria for ICA, and the person who is cared for must be in receipt of specific benefits to fulfil them. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not suggest that we should take steps that would prevent us from ensuring that those who claim benefit are eligible. We need to protect against fraud and error. We must ensure that those who become entitled to benefits receive them as soon as possible. Our reorganisation of the Benefits Agency into a working age agency and the pension service should enable us to do that.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)

Does my hon. Friend accept that a large number of carers—such as Mrs. Greenwell of Bournmoor in my constituency—are of retirement age? Will she comment on the fact that Mrs. Greenwell and others lose their carers allowance when they reach retirement age? Thousands of people are caring for their loved ones without the additional help that they previously received, at a great saving to the Government.

Maria Eagle

I am aware of the problem that my hon. Friend raises. ICA cannot currently be paid at the same time as another income maintenance benefit. This is known as the overlapping benefit rule, and it has been a central part of the welfare state ever since it was established. I cannot promise to get rid of that rule, but my hon. Friend and his constituent may be interested to learn that a regulatory reform measure is making its stately way through the House that will—subject to the House's approval—extend the possibility of paying ICA to those over 65. This will particularly benefit women who do not have full national insurance contributions, and who do not, therefore, get a full retirement pension. The measure will not, however, abolish the overlapping benefit rule. I cannot give my hon. Friend any comfort on that.