HC Deb 14 May 2004 vol 421 cc572-87

Bill reported, with amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

9.44 am
Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I have a great many people to thank for their involvement in the journey of this Bill. I also wish to place on public record the huge interest that it has generated from all quarters: employers, such as British Gas, BT and Listawood; lifelong learning and educational establishments, such as the adult learners' body—the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education—the Open University, the Guidance Council and the National Extension college; equality bodies, such as the Disability Rights Commission in Wales and the Equal Opportunities Commission; hundreds of carers' organisations; union bodies, such as the TUC and the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation; the Local Government Association and the Welsh Local Government Association; and, of course, carers themselves. I want to pay tribute to all those groups, and will do so, but I am also keen for the debate to progress swiftly. I shall try to keep my comments to a minimum, but wish to single out some individuals and organisations for extra thanks.

We would not have got this far had my parliamentary colleagues from all parties not supported the Bill through its Second Reading, in Committee and, of course, today. I single out those in the official Opposition—the hon. Members for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and for Banbury (Tony Baldry)—and also the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) and for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) for their warm support and, above all, their insight into the needs of carers.

I have received a number of very positive comments about their contributions and the contributions of all political parties to the debate. All their comments have been noted by organisations and individuals outside the House. Support has also come from the other place, where Lord Ashley, Baroness Pitkeathley and Lord Rix have all offered invaluable advice and experience.

To say that the passage of the Bill has been of great interest to local carers' organisations would be an understatement. To date, I have received a stunning number of very warm and enthusiastic messages of support from local and national organisations, more than 300 of which have indicated their support. They represent tens of thousands of employees and more than 200,000 carers throughout England and Wales. I have been truly amazed by the real excitement generated by the Bill; it seems to have brought new ideas and partnerships bubbling to the surface.

I pay a special tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), for his involvement. The fact that we have been able to amend the Bill to suit our shared goals for carers and to forge forward with it can be attributed to his knowledge and understanding of carers' issues, and I am sure that carers throughout England and Wales will acknowledge that.

The Government's support has been very welcome. Jane Hutt, the Minister for Health and Social Services in the Welsh Assembly, has been extremely supportive, virtually since day one, and I thank her for that, too. It would also be remiss of me not to mention the excellent work that officials have put into the Bill to make it work, both in Whitehall and Cardiff bay.

Above all, I thank the carers and carers' organisations in my constituency. They have provided the best insight of all—personal experience of caring—to help me on my journey with the Bill. I should also mention the help and advice that I have received from my local authority, Neath Port Talbot county borough council, and the Neath Port Talbot local health board. I could not complete this roll call of thanks without mentioning the constant support of Carers Wales and Carers UK, which have provided invaluable advice, professionalism and encouragement throughout the Bill's journey.

As we discussed previously, the Bill is remarkable in that it draws on the best policy from Scotland and Northern Ireland—the duty to inform carers of their rights—which we now hope to introduce for carers in England and Wales. The Scottish Executive, too, were able to share with us their valuable experience of similar legislation, welcomed by carers in Scotland, and to confirm that it had not increased costs.

The Association of Directors of Social Services has been supportive from very early on, and has stated on many occasions that it sees the Bill as a positive step forward. It has acknowledged that many of the Bill's provisions are already carried out by good authorities with good business and moral sense in many parts of the country.

We all know that it does not make economic sense not to support carers, when they save the state a staggering £57 billion a year. Many have had to give up work, when they might have been able to remain in employment with a little more information, foresight and creativity on the part of support services. The Bill will help with that by placing a duty on local authorities to consider work, education and leisure in the assessment, and to tell carers about their rights. There could be considerable savings for the Exchequer through the reduction of benefit costs, an increase in tax and national insurance receipts and improvements in the health and well-being of all carers.

The Bill's provisions are relatively modest. They will improve information for carers about their rights and will enhance the choices open to them through work, education and leisure. For individuals, the personal impact of the Bill could be huge. It aims to change the culture to acknowledge that carers have a right to information so that they can make choices about their lives, and a right to "have a life", as one carer put it, beyond their caring responsibilities.

The Bill will not mean that carers will no longer care. All the research points towards the fact that carers wish to care and to continue to care, and all the carers to whom I have spoken have agreed with that. The Bill is about encouraging more creative support and finding solutions for carers and will give local authorities the power to draw in the help of housing, education, health and other local bodies in the pursuit of those laudable goals.

The Bill is a sensible step forward in building a better future in England and Wales. Most of us will experience a period of caring at some point in our lives. With the demographic changes that we can expect during the coming decades, it makes sense to have this kind of legislative basis on which we can build support for the future.

The Bill's journey started many years ago, when Mair and I had a young son called Sam with Down's syndrome, who died seven years ago this month. He had an important impact on our lives then and, with this Bill, he continues to do so. I hope that Sam's Bill will be a legacy to many families in the future.

I want to end today with the words of a carer from my constituency, Lynn Coleman. When we started on this journey at the Bill's parliamentary launch, she said: Carers and their families are not making great demands. They just want an ordinary life outside of their caring role, something which is often taken for granted by many people. The people we care for, be they children, very young or older adults, they are special to us, but we still want the opportunity to have a life besides caring. With more information, appropriate specific childcare facilities, opportunities to work, lifelong learning and leisure", carers' lives could be dramatically improved. This fulfilment would then mean that a carer can return to their caring role refreshed and ready to continue. I look forward to the day when we can say that we have achieved that for carers.

I commend the Bill to the House. I hope that it passes quickly to the other place and is subsequently put on the statute book as swiftly as possible.

9.54 am
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con)

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), and I want to begin by again expressing the support for the Bill that the official Opposition offered on Second Reading, during the money resolution debate and in Committee. We congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the and we acknowledge his great interest in and personal expertise on the needs of carers. We congratulate his Bill team, and I make a special point of mentioning one member of that team, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who, unfortunately, cannot be present today.

We pay tribute to the work done by Carers UK, whose expertise has informed the Bill, and by carers' organisations everywhere. I pay particular tribute, as I did on Second Reading, to the work done in my constituency by the South Bucks Carers Association, which does so much to help local carers. As I have made clear, the official Opposition support the Bill, and I have been travelling with the hon. Member for Aberavon on the journey that he has just described.

If hon. Members present examine the Bill that we considered on Second Reading on 6 February, which they no doubt have with them today, and compare it with the Bill that we are considering today, which they no doubt also have with them, they will see that there have been wide—ranging changes. During the Committee stage, the Minister, as he hinted on Second Reading he would do, persuaded the Committee to demolish many of the foundations of the original Bill.

Clause 3 of the original Bill, "Duty to Inform", has been replaced by clause 1 of the Bill before us today, "Duty to Inform Carers of The Right to Assessment", and is, in my view, the new foundation stone of the Bill. Clause 1 of the original Bill, "Equal Opportunities for Carers", has been replaced by clause 2 of the new Bill, the perhaps less ambitiously titled "Assessment of Carers". Clause 4 of the original Bill, on co-operation between authorities, has been replaced by clause 3 of the Bill before us, also entitled "Co-operation between Authorities". Clause 2 of the original Bill, "Planning for Provision of Information for Carers" has not been replaced. Its main intention was to place a duty on local authorities, in co-operation with national health service bodies, to ensure that in the community strategies that they prepared under section 4 of the Local Government Act 2000, specific provision was made for informing relevant carers of the services that the local authority provided that were likely to promote carers' health and well-being.

All that represents major demolition and reconstruction work on the Bill by the Minister. The House might be tempted to believe that that work was unnecessary, but the Minister made it clear in Committee that he believed that it was necessary because it was important for the Bill to be consistent with, and to relate to, previous legislation that especially affects carers, such as the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 and the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000. It is certainly the case that, as a result of that work and those changes, the Bill before us today places less stress on equal opportunities for carers than the Bill that we had before us on Second Reading. None the less, we believe that the Minister has honoured the pledge that he made on Second Reading to improve the Bill with a view to ensuring that it is placed on the statute book. The help that he has given to the Bill should, as the hon. Member for Aberavon said, be recognised by the House.

The Bill's main merit is the duty that it will place on local authorities to inform carers their right to an assessment. That will surely be of real benefit to carers. The main theme that emerged on Second Reading, as hon. Members who were present then will remember, was the complex and diverse needs of carers. Indeed, as many hon. Members said on that occasion, many carers do not recognise themselves as carers, or do not want to be referred to or labelled as carers. They do not see themselves as fulfilling a social function, but as caring for people whom they love, or to whom they have a commitment.

The total number of carers is rising. At one end of the life cycle, lifespans are increasing, and as people live longer, they are increasingly prone to disability. Most of us, if we live long enough, will probably acquire a disability sooner or later. At the other end of the life cycle, more children with disabilities are surviving for longer. Families, for a complex series of reasons, are smaller and more fragile than they once were. It is no wonder, then, that according to Carers UK, 7 million people in the UK look after someone who is frail, sick or has a disability. That is roughly 10 per cent. of the population. More than 300,000 people become carers every year, and three out of five people will become carers during their lifetime.

All this throws an immense burden on carers, the larger number of whom are women—and older women at that. They might give up working in the labour market because they feel that they have no choice but to do so, and later they might lack the skills or the confidence to re-enter it either when they want to or when they feel that they have no choice but to do so. If they do work in the labour market, they might feel that their employer does not understand their needs. They might feel bewildered about where to go for advice and help when a child with a disability is born or when a loved one becomes ill and frail. They might also feel bewildered about how to deal with interlocking and multi-faceted problems, such as the special needs that their children have in schools, and hospital discharges, and everyday problems with transport, which can be particularly onerous. They might feel, in particular, that they need respite help, because even the most dedicated carer, faced with the prospect of caring full-time for another person, is bound to feel in need of a break from time to time. That point has often been made to me by carers in my constituency.

It is no wonder that, according to the report "Missed Opportunities", published by Carers UK, 55 per cent. of carers reported significant health problems, and 43 per cent. reported that they had sought medical treatment for depression, stress or anxiety since becoming a carer. Above all, carers may well not know of their rights under the law. According to "Missed Opportunities", only 32 per cent. of carers have been assessed by social services. Of those, 57 per cent. did not receive any extra support, and nearly 50 per cent. of carers had not been informed that they had the right to an assessment. The main virtue of the Bill is that it will place a duty on local authorities to inform carers of their right to an assessment. It will also ensure, rather more sensitively than measures that are currently in place, that the wishes and needs of carers are carefully considered.

I want to end with a tribute to the hon. Member for Aberavon. I have enjoyed what I think has been a co-operative relationship with him during the progress of the Bill. He has steered it deftly towards the statute book, and I hope that he is about to join a small and select group of Members of this House. It is a group of which I am not a member, and of which very few of those present today are members. It is, of course, the group of those who will be able to leave the House—in whatever circumstances they may do so—having introduced a piece of legislation as a private Member that ends up on the statute book. That is, in principle, no mean achievement, and it is one to which I believe most Members of this House aspire.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)


Mr. Goodman

I did say "most Members".

I hope that it is not premature to congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon on joining that small and select group and on ensuring that Sam's Bill will indeed become Sam's Act.

10.3 am

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab)

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and to hear that the official Opposition have given their support to the Bill. We are grateful to them, to the Liberal Democrats and the Ulster Unionists, and to all those who have supported it. It has been a privilege for me to be a member of the Standing Committee and to assist my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) in a small way. I have said to representatives of Carers UK that, if ever I came top of the ballot for private Members' Bills, I would have gone and had a cup of tea with them to see what kind of Bill we might be able to introduce. I once introduced a ten-minute Bill. It is very difficult to convince our constituents that ten-minute Bills are not really Bills and that they often do not last more than 10 minutes. However, that Bill was on giving carers the right to respite care, and it was, fortunately, incorporated into the Carers and Disabled Children Bill, which was introduced by the former Member, Tom Pendry.

A gentleman came to my constituency surgery last Friday to ask me a question about the implications for him and his mother, should she need to go into full-time care. His name is Mr. Malcolm Jones, and he is from Croesyceiliog. He has cared for his mother for 20 years, and she is now over 100. He had previously been self-employed, but he told me that he had recently been employed again. The Bill will not directly affect him, but it will affect people in similar circumstances in the future, in that it will give them more flexibility to return to the labour market, or to remain in it, while they carry out their caring responsibilities. I am sure that we were all very grateful for the Prime Minister's recent announcement about helping carers in employment.

Mr. Malcolm Jones was not aware of this Bill, but I was able to assure him that I would mention him today. I am not too sure that he belongs to a carers' organisation, or that he sees himself in the defined role of a carer. He is simply fulfilling a duty to look after his mother, which he has fulfilled for 20 years. She is still well, but might need to go into full-time care in the future. The Bill is aimed at people such as Mr. Jones, who often do not see themselves as having a defined role as a carer.

The carers in my constituency are probably the most sceptical people I have ever come across. They never quite believe that politicians will deliver improved services for people such as them. I find, however, that that scepticism is now diminishing. As a result of the national carers strategy, the legislation that we introduced a few years ago, and now this Bill, there is a wider recognition that Parliament is passing legislation in the interests of carers. There are 9,000 carers in my constituency, and I understand that several hundred assessments have taken place under the current legislation.

The Bill will help to inform those carers of their right to be assessed, and it will assist them in the roles that they perform outside their direct caring responsibilities. I urge my hon. Friends to ensure that we get as much publicity as possible for the Bill. This has been a great small achievement in the legislative process, and it has been a privilege for me to be associated with it.

10.7 am

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

It is a pleasure to be associated with the Bill and I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) on his initiative in introducing it. It has the support of all my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party.

It is only right and proper that carers have access to information to help inform their life choices. The Bill will bring to England and Wales some of the rights that carers in Northern Ireland have already achieved through the Carers and Direct Payments Act (Northern Ireland) 2002 and through section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. One of the most important effects of that legislation is that public bodies have had to talk to carers and to educate themselves about the needs of carers. The level of awareness and sensitivity about carers' issues has therefore increased across a whole range of public bodies, and helped to remove barriers to carers' participation.

Public authorities, when developing policies, must promote equality of opportunity for persons with dependants. At the moment, there are still many carers who cannot access vital information on benefits, services and other opportunities because of the isolation that can come with the caring role. Research consistently shows that information is the No. 1 need for carers. Too many carers still struggle for years before they find out that there are organisations out there that could help them to cope. Too many pensioner full-time carers on low incomes are having to pay from their pension savings for respite care for a spouse or other family dependant in order to restore their own strength to enable them to continue to care. We must never underestimate the need for carers to have and maintain their own health, emotional well-being and independence.

Health, social services and other public authorities have a responsibility to reach out to all the hidden carers in their area. It is unreasonable to ask carers to book two weeks' respite care a year ahead—as a pensioner in Northern Ireland told me recently she had been asked to do—to facilitate the allocation of limited public funding. That funding must be increased to match the needs in this aspect of care in the community. Carers have an equal right to full opportunities in education, training, employment and leisure. Carers of working age who stop caring are potential employees who can participate in lifelong learning and will gain new skills that will maintain the economic viability of our work force. The sacrifice of carers must be recognised and they deserve every support to rebuild their careers after caring.

The last word from me goes to Emma McDowell, a carer from Belfast who wrote to Carers Northern Ireland in support of the Bill. She said: 'Care in the community' would be impossible without their commitment to the care in the family first and foremost. But carers also need a life beyond their immediate caring responsibilities—their mental and physical wellbeing, their educational opportunities, their rights to full information MUST remain high on the agenda for local authorities to consider. When enacted, the Bill will help to improve life for both carers and the cared for and I fully support it.

10.11 am
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), who I am sure will not mind if, today, I recall the excellent work of his hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) over a long period—a contribution that is much appreciated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) was of considerable as assistance to me this morning, because he reminded me of a very grave omission on my part. When I was fortunate enough to be called on Second Reading, I failed to refer to Tom Pendry. I should like to put that straight today, partly by explaining that, in common with others, I have always associated Lord Pendry with his marvellous contribution to tourism. I had momentarily forgotten that he had other strings to his bow. We are building on his Act and I am happy to acknowledge that.

Today belongs to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis). His choice of Bill was excellent and he has steered it through its various stages with considerable skill, perspicacity and, above all, commitment. It says a great deal for him that he has done so with the absolute support of all parties on both sides of the House.

This is an extremely meaningful Bill and I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon mentioned the Scottish Executive in his speech. Although the Bill will not apply to Scotland, there is considerable interest in its contents and there is considerable compatibility in what we seek to achieve. We can also learn from each other I do not wish to be offensive to any hon. Member, but have no shame this morning—as a member of the United Kingdom Parliament—in voting at an early hour on this issue and in exercising my duties to comment and, if necessary, to vote on UK issues. If it means that carers in England and Wales find that we are acknowledging, as the Bill does, the difficulties and needs that they experience day after day, every elected Member of this House has the responsibility to play his or her part in that, and I am glad to be playing mine.

The main aspect of the Bill is to bestow a duty to inform carers of their rights. Only this week, my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibilities for disability, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), honoured a commitment that she gave a couple of weeks ago during an Adjournment debase that I initiated on laryngectomy to come up to my constituency and meet the Lanarkshire Laryngectomy Association. She did that yesterday. I welcome that visit and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will agree that among the very important points that were made were points that were relevant to this Bill and to carers.

The fact is that many people will find themselves—sadly, as a result of road accidents, strokes or other things that cannot be predicted—becoming carers in their households. It is absolutely right that we as a Parliament should acknowledge our responsibility to them. I am delighted to be here this morning in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon.

Before I conclude—I am anxious to do so—I want to congratulate the Government. They deserve to be told that they have an extremely good record on disability awareness. That is not simply their important decision to introduce the Disability Rights Commission, a decision that in earlier days was resisted strongly. They ought to be congratulated also on the work they have done since then, including supporting extremely important Bills such as this one. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon would not thank me for being controversial, but it was not all that long ago that, on Friday morning after Friday morning, similar Bills were talked out, one after the other, before this Government came to office.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his contribution and welcome the disability awareness on the part of the Government and, in particular, the role of carers as the Government see it. We have achieved a great deal; the Bill helps considerably and we have much more to do.

I conclude by returning to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon. I did not volunteer for it but I think that I am a member of the club to which the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) referred; I was fortunate enough, with enormous support, to get an Act through in 1986. In congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, I give him a piece of cautionary advice, if I might be so brash. In due course, if Her Majesty gives the Bill the Royal Assent, the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Bill will be for ever known as the Hywel Francis Bill—something we all welcome. He should be proud of what he has achieved. From then, he will go on to do what I am still doing: to campaign for the full implementation of every part of the Bill. In that spirit, I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend.

10.17 am
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD)

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke). I commend and appreciate the work that he has done for and on behalf of disabled people, carers and others over a long period. We should reflect on what the right hon. Gentleman said about his experience of Fridays in this House in previous years, and how Bills designed to advance the rights of disabled people did not make their way on to the statute book. I have a particular interest in that as an issue, both because of my involvement with my local authority in campaigning for disabled people and because the Member who served before me was a key Member in ensuring that such Bills did not make it to the statute book.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), as others have done, on choosing the Bill. When a private Member's Bill comes sufficiently high in the ballot there is a real possibility of it becoming law, so to choose to take this measure through the House was very important. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman also on his navigation of the Bill through its various stages and the discussions that have taken place between him, officials and the Minister, whom I also thank. Those deliberations led to the Bill that has emerged from Committee, which we are considering today.

I am responding as the Front-Bench Liberal Democrat spokesman, but I also have the pleasure of being one of the Bill's sponsors. As mentioned on Second Reading and elsewhere, we want the Bill to become an Act and we want the Act to be implemented in practice on the ground. It is important that the spirit and purpose of the legislation be made real on the ground. The key point is to ensure that people are aware of their right to have an assessment as a carer and, as a consequence of that assessment, to have the opportunity of access to services that will help them fulfil their full potential—not just as carers, but as individuals, citizens of our country who are able to enjoy leisure, participate in work and many other things besides.

During the Bill's passage, we have looked back to the legislation on which it is building. There was the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 and the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000. I want to repeat what I said in Committee and ask the Minister to consider it in the future. There must be a point during the passage of a whole series of private Members' Bills that make their way successfully on to the statute book where the Government look at the different pieces of legislation and ask whether there are gaps and whether there is a need to consolidate and codify—in this case, legislation for carers. The Government have taken the opportunity to do so, at least in part, through their amendments to the Bill, but I believe that there is a need for a wider review in the not too distant future.

In debating the initial clause 1, the Minister effectively argued in favour of the need for such an examination. His argument was that private Members' Bills could not bear the weight of enabling us to put on the statute book a full right to equal opportunity. Consequently, that provision was taken out of the Bill, and I understand that it will now be dealt with through directions and guidance at a later stage. It is a pity that the provision could not be built into the Bill. Given that the Government said that a private Member's Bill was not the right vehicle, I hope that we will at some point see more comprehensive carers' legislation that will make the worthy goal a reality.

The Bill is important. It is important for people to exercise their rights as carers and their rights to information. As we have already heard, last year's Carers UK report, "Missed Opportunities" pointed out that half of carers had not been told of their right to an assessment. The Bill must put that right. It must ensure that people are aware of their right to an assessment and have the opportunity to have it. Placing a duty on local authorities, as the Bill will, is such an important step forward.

Carers are the backbone of this country's care system. Without them, the NHS and our social services departments would not be able to cope. We have heard the figures already today, but the 2001 census estimated that there were about 5.9 million carers in this country. The Institute of Actuaries estimated, as the hon. Member for Aberavon said, that carers save our taxpayers £57 billion a year. I was most struck, in examining the figures again, by the work of the Office for National Statistics, which found that many carers do more than 50 hours a week of care and that those carers are twice as likely to become permanently sick and disabled and twice as likely to describe themselves as in poor health.

The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) spoke about the life cycle of carers from young to old. There are 9,000 children in this country between the age of five and 15 who provide more than 50 hours of care a week. There are 382,000 carers over the age of 65, of whom 44,000 are over 85. The Bill speaks to those people and to their health and well-being. I hope that it will make a difference for them. That is why clause 3 and the proposed directions to primary care trusts are a useful addition. They provide an opportunity for PCTs to reflect on and change the way in which they plan, commission and deliver services, and to keep carers at the heart of their thinking

I was struck by the fact that because this is a private Member's Bill, it is always believed to be important to concentrate the work within one Department. The difficulty of negotiating across Departments perhaps prevents the Bill from encompassing more. We have not, for example, been able to deal with some of the issues for which the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has responsibility, which I regret. Nevertheless, the Bill will make a profound difference to the lives of carers. As the Bill becomes an Act and begins to be implemented, we might see the work of the health care commission and the social care commission including a specific examination of how the lot of carers is being improved.

On Second Reading, several hon. Members referred to overlapping benefit rules, which stop carers in receipt of state pensions receiving carers allowance. Since that debate, I have received many letters from elderly carers who felt insulted by that rule. It is rather like the hospital downrating rules. The Government—to be perfectly honest, not only the present Government—argued that people cannot have two benefits that are intended for the same purpose—in this case, to improve a person's income. The Government say that that is how it has always been done, but I feel that such arguments are among the weakest over deployed against change. The Government have changed policy on hospital downrating, and benefits are not cut when someone is in hospital. Surely it is time for a similar review of the rules that prevent someone over 65 and in receipt of a basic pension from receiving carers allowance. It should be paid to such people.

As a constituency Member, I am fortunate to have a carers' centre and an active carers' forum in my constituency. They keep me on my toes and keep me informed. I had the opportunity over the last seven years of shadowing carers in my constituency during carers week. That provides a flavour, but unless one has been a carer it is impossible to fully understand what it means.

There are 16,000 carers in my constituency and the borough of Sutton, only 3,000 of whom are identified at the moment. We have a lot more to do if we are to reach out, find and serve the needs of carers. The Bill is another milestone in a long journey, which is all about ensuring that carers are not just treated as carers, but have the fullest opportunities to lead full and rewarding lives.

10.27 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr. Stephen Ladyman)

Over the past seven years, the Government have committed themselves to supporting carers—not just those who undertake the role full time, but those who, as well as caring, wish to work or engage in the activities that other people enjoy. I am delighted to have the opportunity today to add my support—and that of the Government—to the Bill. In introducing it, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) has reinforced the importance of recognising caring and has done carers everywhere a great service. His guidance of the Bill through its various stages has been exemplary: he and his constituents can be proud of what he has done in bringing it before the House.

I also want to acknowledge the contribution of others. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) has been unflagging in his support for the principles of the Bill. In his contribution, he said that I had been able to persuade the Committee to make the necessary amendments. He knows that with private Members' Bills it is not possible for a Minister—even one with my great powers of persuasion—to persuade a Committee to change unless he is pushing at an open door. The hon. Gentleman and other members of the Committee were very much open to the suggestions that I put to them. Their contributions and their willingness to work with the Government helped to produce the amendments that have made the Bill acceptable to the Government.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) offered similar support from the Liberal Democrats, and I am grateful for his suggestions.

I am also grateful for the support of the Ulster Unionists, and the words of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs). I am grateful for the work of the whole Committee, and the approach that it took. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) was unflagging in his support, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) has been tireless in his work for carers. I was grateful to him for mentioning Lord Pendry or Stalybridge—Tom Pendry—as we are building on Tom's foundations. I thank Tom for all the work he did for carers when he was in this House. I have to be grateful to him, because he has invited me to his birthday party, which I am very much looking forward to.

Carers UK and other carers' organisations should be congratulated on their work and the support that they have given to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, as well as their support for carers generally and their approach to working with the Government. Those who lobby for carers will criticise when necessary, but always constructively. They are always willing to work with us to find the best and most practical way forward.

There is a group of people that nobody has mentioned so far, but which has been essential to getting the Bill to this stage: the officials at the Department of Health. When my hon. Friend first presented the Bill and it was brought to me in my office, they explained it to me and, following our discussions, asked whether I wanted the Bill. I said yes, and since that moment they have worked tirelessly to ensure that the Bill was properly researched, the law was properly investigated and the amendments be crafted appropriately.

Mr. Edwards

I wonder whether, if a Member of Parliament or an official asked him, my hon. Friend would support a Bill called the Young Carers (Services and Recognition) Bill?

Dr. Ladyman

There are elements of this Bill that impact on young carers, I am glad to say, and were anyone to suggest such a Bill, I am sure, although I cannot give a commitment today, that the Government would welcome it and be co-operative, if at all possible. If my hon. Friend one day gets the opportunity to enter the select club referred to by the hon. Member for Wycombe, perhaps that is the Bill that will emerge. I hope that I will still be a Minister then, and in a position to help.

The Government recognise that caring can affect both the health and the financial status of carers and their families. Access to employment opportunities helps maintain both financial security and self-confidence. Training and education enable people to return to work when they want to, or to work flexibly, according to their needs. Access to leisure opportunities gives carers time to themselves, to recharge their batteries. They are as entitled to such benefits as anyone else. Put simply, they have earned them.

We appreciate, however, that though much has been achieved through legislation and our policy initiatives to date, there is more to be done. With that in mind, we worked closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon to ensure that his Bill is one that we can unequivocally support, not only on the merits of its intentions but as a viable piece of legislation that will make a difference to the lives of the 5.9 million carers in this country.

The House will recall that I was explicit in my concerns on Second Reading about the Bill as then drafted: principally, that it did not fulfil the fundamental requirements of any new legislation, in that it did not fit in the framework of the modernisation of public services; did not complement existing laws in its substance and approach; and was unlikely to deliver real and concrete changes for carers without placing disproportionate burdens on local councils.

My hon. Friend and I agreed to work together to fix those defects, and following consideration in Committee, and with the help of all parties, I am happy to say that the Bill has been amended to remove the aspects that caused the Government concern. The original Bill had wide-ranging scope, and although the goal of changing local authorities' attitudes to carers is compelling, it should be done only through clear legislation that is feasible to implement, and that is what the Bill now offers.

Furthermore, the original Bill would have meant that through community strategies central Government would have been dictating the form and content of local plans. We have ensured instead with the amended Bill that we continue to uphold the concept that local autonomy and decision making are key in enabling public services to respond to individual needs.

Much more importantly, however, I am pleased to say that the Bill was significantly amended in Committee to ensure that it provides real changes for carers. While fulfilling the majority of my hon. Friend's intentions, it now delivers in a manner that makes clear to councils what they are required to do and is not subject to misinterpretation.

Clause 1 now introduces new provisions to the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 and the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000 requiring councils to inform carers that they may be entitled to an assessment. This will ensure that carers are getting information about their rights in a more consistent way and at an appropriate time. We know that assessments are the gateway for carers to access support and services. Despite the abundance of guidance and best practice information, some carers remain unaware of their rights. It seems appropriate, therefore, that this Bill should ensure that the minority who do not routinely inform carers of their rights will now have to follow the practice of the majority who do.

Clause 2 creates a specific duty, making it clear that when carrying out assessments under the existing legislation, councils must consider the wishes of a carer to work or undertake education, training or leisure activity. It will ensure that the assessment is undertaken in a manner that understands and explores the possibility that carers should be able to participate in life beyond their caring duties and think beyond what they need to continue to care.

The Bill amends existing legislation to ensure that no authority should have difficulty in understanding what it is they are to do. This should mean that carers' lives outside caring are properly taken into account by councils. We believe that this will encourage councils to consider and support carers in accessing opportunities to engage in work, education, training and leisure alongside those who are not carers.

Clause 3 makes provision for consideration of carers in the planning process as well as providing a specific duty to consider assistance in relation to individual carers. It will promote joint working by requiring bodies, including councils and the NHS, to give due consideration to requests for help from a local authority in relation to planning and the provision of services that might assist individual carers to care and to continue to care. This means that at a strategic level social services will have a lever to influence the priorities of their partners in health and the other council departments.

We have added an additional duty in respect of co-operation. The Government feel that it is important for councils to be able to engage not only at a planning level with their partners in health and social care but also at an individual level. This is not designed to place onerous burdens on other parts of local government or on health bodies, but it gives social services an opportunity to put their case, usually a strong one, about the benefits offered in individual circumstances—something that the House will recognise is not always easy.

With respect to clause 3, serious consideration was given to the suggestion made in Committee by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning)—sadly, she is not here today—that the National Probation Service and the police should be added to the list of authorities. I have carefully consulted my colleagues in the Home Office. Both probation and police services already work closely and co-operatively with local authorities and others in a range of local statutory and non-statutory forums, where the focus is on issues of public protection or prevention of harm to the public.

While both services are happy to continue to co-operate where it would add value, we do not believe that there is a clearly identifiable role for them to play in relation to the specific duties set out in the Bill. These duties instead focus on the main authorities that can be expected to be more closely involved in services for carers. In these circumstances, we see no merit in the addition of the police service or National Probation Service to the list of approved authorities.

There is one other issue that I must bring to the attention of the House, relating to the draft directions that I provided for members of the Committee. The intention was to establish a planning mechanism at primary care trust level to ensure that local bodies recognise that they have a role in supporting carers and delivering information to them. I announced in Committee my intention that the directions should go out to public consultation as soon as possible. However, since then, discussions with the NHS have shown that the directions do not provide the key to the change in practice that we seek I now believe that they were flawed and would not have served the intended purpose, and I apologise to the House for having inadvertently misled Members. Evidence shows that a different approach is needed to pull carers up the agenda. The focus must be on the outcome, not the process. We can better deliver on the promise to ensure that PCTs will have to consult and take into account the health needs of carers through developmental support rather than through directing them through secondary legislation. I assure the House that although we will not proceed with the directions we will pursue alternatives, and I will keep my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon and the House fully informed.

Mr. Burstow

Does the Minister agree that it might therefore be sensible to find an opportunity for the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection, for example, to do some work in that area to make sure that best practice is clearly identified to assist with that developmental work?

Dr. Ladyman

The hon. Gentleman is quite right; we have to pursue a range of options to find the best way to make the Bill work. I was struck by what he said earlier about the need to take a holistic view of all the legislation put in place for carers. The carers grant has been identified for this and next year, so I think that we are reaching the point at which we need to look at a range of options on how we move the carers agenda forward. I certainly take on board his suggestion about the commission.

I can confirm that the Government are content with the Bill, which now achieves the broad objectives envisaged by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon. It ensures that carer are made aware of their right to an assessment of their needs. It enshrines in legislation the need to consider, when undertaking an assessment, the wider opportunities available for carers, and it provides councils with the necessary levers to get their partners in local government and the national health service around the table to develop more coherent carers support services.

What that means in reality is that the Bill offers real and tangible benefits for carers, and I am delighted to confirm that it is in a form that the Government can wholeheartedly support as it continues its journey through Parliament. I hope that the House will give the Bill—Sam's Bill, after my hon. Friend's late son—its Third Reading, and that the other place will ensure that it becomes Sam's Act.

10.42 am
Dr. Francis

With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly to the debate.

This has been a most productive and constructive morning. I am grateful to all who have spoken and all who are here to support the Bill. As we have heard, we are building on strong foundations, and I acknowledge the important work undertaken by Lord Ashley of Stoke and Lord Pendry of Stalybridge, and by my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke).

My late father was fond of saying, "y cam cyntaf yw'r cam pwysicaf"—the first step is the most important step. As we have heard, the Bill is not the first step for carers, but it is still an important new step. I am pleased that so many of us have taken that step together for the benefit of so many carers in England and Wales.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third tune, and passed.