Business of the House: Carers

Mike Wood: The hon. Gentleman is speaking movingly about the challenges that dementia sufferers and their carers face. This week the Carers Trust raised with me concerns about patchy levels of support in dementia care around the country. Does he agree that local authorities need to go out and learn from best practice around the country, such as the church groups in his constituency and the successful dementia gateways in Dudley, to make sure that more carers and more dementia sufferers can receive the support they so desperately need?

 

Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I wholeheartedly agree; I think we all do. Those of us who are aware of this issue will understand the importance of all these groups. The issue that he touches on was frequently mentioned in the debate in Westminster Hall. Some 38 Members were involved in that debate, and it got a massive response. I thank him for his very important words.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh referred to young carers, as have other hon. Members. Crossroads Young Carers in Newtownards has been around for many years. We have a massive number of young carers in my constituency alone. I was rather shocked to find that they were so numerically strong. That illustrated to me the importance of the role of these schoolchildren, sometimes even primary schoolchildren, who almost become old before their time in looking after parents and family. The Carers Trust says that 80% of young carers miss out childhood experiences. They grow up before their time. They miss out on the leisure, the fun and the nights out with friends because they are looking after their mum, dad, brother, sister, or whoever it may be. They are almost hidden carers in the job that they do. I recognise the good work that Crossroads Young Carers does in my constituency.

We need an awareness campaign about carers so that they are no longer the unsung heroes but become the recognised heroes that they should be, not just in this House but in all our constituencies across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Too often, carers are left to suffer in silence. The services on offer are not publicised enough and, sadly, too often are not up to standard either. When we read the background material that explains some of the everyday events that carers have to deal with, we get a feeling for and an idea of what they endure each day. I am not sure whether this has been mentioned yet, but if not, it needs to be put on the record: many carers suffer from bad health themselves as a result of looking after others. In an intense situation, looking after someone 24/7, they need some time to switch off—their brain and their body have to get a bit of rest. It is very important every now and again to get a weekend, or even an hour or two, away from it all.

The main social security benefit available to carers is carer’s allowance. This is for someone who provides more than 35 hours of care a week, and it entitles them to only £62.10. Furthermore, carers may incur sanctions on how much they can earn on top of the allowance. Dementia carers save the NHS more than £11 billion per year, to put a financial cost on it, yet they get only £62.10 per week for giving up their lives for someone less fortunate. I know that the Minister’s Department is not responsible for that, but, with respect, it is not a good reflection on Government, given the hours that carers spend on caring. I recognise that times are tough financially. You cannot produce a high-quality suit if you have low-quality cloth, and the same thing applies to finances. We therefore have to be realistic about what we can do, but it must be highly insulting to carers to see some of the things happening in the news when they are getting only £62.10 per week. Although the Minister is not responsible for benefits, could he give some pointer for carers with regard to benefits advice? I give them benefits advice when they come to my office. To be fair, the benefits system is very responsive. We just have to point people in the right direction and show them the right opportunity. Perhaps there is a role for Government in that. I understand that our colleagues in Scotland have considered upping the carer’s allowance. That was discussed in our debate on dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Carers UK calculates that the value of unpaid care is some £132 billion each year—the equivalent of NHS spending. Although it is hard to calculate how much of this relates to people who care for someone who has a terminal illness, research has found that carers who look after someone with one of the four most prevalent cancers—lung, breast, colorectal or prostate—provide care worth £219 million per year: a third of the total of end-of-life care costs. Providing end-of-life care—that difficult time for people emotionally and physically—saves the NHS a massive amount of money as well. Other people have referred to personal things in families. My mother looked after my dad before he passed away, and that was not always easy. My mum is a fresh 85-year-old, or she will be on 14 July. If it were not for the closeness and the commitment of family, we would face a lot of other serious issues.

According to research by Carers UK’s Northern Ireland subsidiary, Carers NI, 16% of carers cannot afford to pay their utility bills, while nearly 40% cannot afford their bills without struggling financially. I can vouch for that in my constituency, given the numbers of people who come to me who are finding it very difficult to make ends meet financially. Danny Kinahan raised the question of heating or eating during the cold spell. That is a reality today as well, perhaps even more so than in the past. A third of carers are using savings to pay everyday living costs, and a third have used up any savings they had and now have nothing to fall back on. Thirty-two per cent. of carers have ended up in debt as a result of caring, and over four in 10 carers—almost half—are cutting back on food or heating. Furthermore, carers experience higher levels of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK. We have the highest levels of fuel poverty in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Information given to us by the Library indicates that 51% of carers

“have let a health problem go untreated…Half of carers (50%) have seen their mental health get worse…Two thirds of carers (66%) have given up work or reduced their hours to care…Almost half of carers (47%) have struggled financially…Almost one third of carers (31%) only get help when it is an emergency.”

That is the reality for carers. Full-time carers are twice as likely as non-carers to be in bad health. Eighty per cent. of carers say that caring has had a negative impact on their health, and half of carers state that they experienced depression after taking on a caring role. Sixty-three per cent. of carers say that they are at breaking point, and one in six carers receives no practical support at all. Despite an ongoing rise in the number of carers in the UK and sharp rises in the number of people caring full time, the number of people who receive carers’ assessments and carers’ services is falling. When we hear all those stats, we need to remember that there are people behind them who have to deal with reality.

It is often said, and we need to say it again, that food banks have been extremely helpful. That is the case in my constituency and, I am sure, in others. Food banks operate out of compassion and heart. They bring together Government bodies, churches and individuals who want to do their bit for the community. The food bank in my area, run by the Trussell Trust, has done exceptional work with carers, those who are under financial pressure and those who are experiencing delays in benefit or not getting all the benefits that they should be getting. The food bank is very much a part of life in my constituency. By the way, I think it is good to have food banks in our constituencies. They bring a lot of good things to my area. I do not see them as a negative; I see them as a positive, because people reach out and want to help each other. That is good, because if we help each other, we do what we are supposed to be doing in this world, which is to make lives better as best we can.

Carers UK estimates that the number of carers will grow to 9 million by 2037. Will any of us in this Chamber be here in 2037? I am not sure. I probably will not be—if I am, I will be the oldest man in the world, but that is by the way. We have to look at the stats, because they take us to where we will be in a few years’ time. I hope that the Government take cognisance of the stats, because it is important to form a strategy.

It is clear already that the support provided to carers does not suffice. Independent analysis demonstrates that the gap in funding for social care is expected to reach between £2.8 billion and £3.5 billion by the end of this Parliament, and that does not even begin to cover what will happen if the Government do not take into account the fact that the number of carers is growing. This should serve as a wake-up call to everyone—the Government, the regional Assemblies in the devolved Administrations and all stakeholders—about the reality ahead. There will be significantly more carers than there are already, and appropriate planning is needed to ensure that support is there.

I conclude with these comments. I welcome the fact that the Government are developing a new carers’ strategy, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on that. It is important that we, as elected representatives, put forward this debate in a positive fashion to get a strategy and responses to our questions, which we can feed back to our constituents. On the issues that I and others have raised, I impress on the policy makers the need to remember that there are real people behind all the statistics. It is people such as carers whom we are elected to serve. I can only hope that the debate will raise awareness of the need for urgent and large-scale reform of the way in which the Government treat carers.

A number of carer support groups come together in the churches and the community centres of Strangford. They are wonderful people who do great work, and they deserve to be supported and helped by us, as MPs through our Government and through the regional Assemblies, in whatever way we can. Those groups bring together all the people of the Ards and North Down Council area who want to participate. They give carers much needed opportunities for rest and socialisation. The opportunity to socialise and interact with others, or to get a moment or two to themselves, can make a world of difference to carers.