John McDonnell MP
The reason I am participating in the debate is that I brought together an unpaid carers group that has been meeting over the past few months to talk about the current situation. The fact is, it is heart-rending to talk about the struggle that most of them are having. The pressure they are under is immense, and the pressure that they have been under as a result of covid has exacerbated the way in which their lives have been transformed by the altruistic act of caring for someone else.
The carers in the group are, basically, families looking after a child with a disability or a special need, or families looking after an elderly relative. What is also remarkable is the number of the children who look after others in their families. What came across in the group is that that act of caring has implications for the whole family: individuals have given up their careers to undertake caring, and siblings who have given up the opportunity of going to university to help the family out with care overall.
It is interesting that none of them asks for anything in return. They do not even ask for thanks. They just want to get by. They just want to be able to survive. To be frank, from the discussions I have been having with them, I do not think that some will survive this coming period. We call it the cost of living crisis glibly, but it is a crisis for this particular group of people in our society in a way that it is possibly not for others.
To run through some things that they would emphasise—points others have made—for example, the issue of higher energy costs is not just about heating; it is the energy that is needed to maintain basic equipment to enable the person people are caring for to survive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) said. Apart from the health-support devices and the special equipment, other issues raised were the transport costs to get to appointments—again, that can become very costly—and nutritional costs, in particular as inflation hits hard a number of nutritional inputs required for the person they are caring for.
It then comes down to what those carers receive. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) raised the issue of the contradiction between the earnings allowance and carer’s allowance. It is ludicrous—we all know that it is ludicrous—and it just needs resolving quickly. I do not understand what logic there is for arguing for anything other than reform on that issue. It comes down to the basic level of carer’s allowance, as far as I am concerned. We are inflicting a level of poverty on these people, who do so much work to assist our society overall.
There is a sense of urgency about this issue now, because what came out of the discussions that I have had with the carers group that I brought together is the stress that carers are under, and the mental health implications not only for themselves as individuals but for their whole family. We know that there are examples in the past of how such stress has caused a mental health problem that has led to suicide.
There is a need for urgent action now. We have gone beyond intellectual debates about this issue; we just need some action rapidly, given the fact that carers face these massive increases in prices, particularly around energy. And then effectively they face a cut—a 3.1% increase, as against inflation now, which ranges between 7% and 10%. That level of inflation comes in like a whirlwind for these particular families and we need urgent action now. Perhaps that action has not been considered effectively in the past, but it certainly needs to be considered now.
most of the people who I have talked to are at a tipping point, where they and their whole family can no longer survive on the level of income they have, given the pressure they are under.
What comes across time and again is that carers have to struggle: first of all for recognition; then for assessment of the person they are caring for; then for support services; and then for just a respite every now and again. For some of them, that struggle is becoming insurmountable. Then what happens? The person they are caring for is taken into care and the costs escalate beyond anything that we have seen so far. So there is a desperate need to resolve this matter.
I will just throw in one other point as well. The benefit that carers get is not an access benefit to other benefits. With regard to energy costs in particular, a small step would be access to winter fuel allowance and—to be frank—a doubling of that winter fuel allowance.