I will try to get through my 10-minute speech as rapidly as I can, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I chair a group of unpaid carers, and have been doing so for the past 18 months. They are all Labour party supporters. It is a Labour carers group because we seek to influence our own party’s policy. It is not set up on a sectarian basis; it is just that that is the motivation for our coming together. I wish to report back on some of the issues that have been raised in our discussions, and they reflect much of what has been said already.
One key issue is ensuring that carers are properly recognised. Recognition should then lead to the assessments. The reports that we get are that it is almost impossible in some areas to secure an assessment. We have to be honest in this debate. I am not trying to be party political here, but this is, I am afraid, about the cutbacks in local government. Councils are not capable of undertaking the assessments themselves, because of the loss of staff over recent years. Unfortunately, lack of assessments means lack of access to services themselves. That lack of a passporting mechanism is causing incredible suffering.
Another issue is that, even where there are assessments, there is a real concern about the lack of fully trained staff in the range of specialisms to deal effectively with the people involved. What that means is that the assessments are sometimes crude—this is not a criticism of the staff—and do not reflect the reality of what is needed. Again, this comes back to the resourcing of both the local councils and the NHS.
The other issue is exactly as reflected in the debate so far, which is that unpaid carers are often living in absolute poverty. Many of them have given up their own careers to care. They do so willingly, because they want to care for their loved ones, but at the moment many of them cannot survive on the benefits that they are receiving. We are grateful for the meetings that we have had with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall). The request of many in the group is clear: they want a real living wage to reflect the care that they provide. In the short-term, a measure that could be introduced fairly rapidly is at least for the carer’s allowance to reflect other caring allowances, such as maternity leave. Benefits in the past have been linked to earnings, but, because of the break with earnings, some benefit levels have been undermined over the past 20 to 30 years. If this carer’s allowance had kept pace with earnings, it would be double what it is at the moment, which would be somewhere near to the levels of maternity leave payments.
The other issue that has come up in our discussions is the plight of external carers. There is almost a sympathy for them—or an empathy with them—from the unpaid carers. As has been said, carers who go into homes are underpaid, not recognised and often disrespected. We must acknowledge that care has largely been privatised, which means that many of the workers are on very insecure contracts. The result of what I can only regard as exploitation is that they cannot provide the care that is needed in many instances, or that they struggle to do so.
I will not dwell too much on the issue of respite, which has been covered. None the less, the lack of access to, and the withdrawal of, respite in many areas because of cutbacks is causing real concern. The Government could focus on that as a priority in the development of their initial strategy.
Another concern, which is heartrending to hear about, is from those carers who are elderly or getting on. They are worried about the succession planning of care for the children or the people whom they care for when they are no longer around.
…People worry about what happens when they are no longer here, or are not capable of caring. Having some form of succession plan in place is critical.
Briefly, there is a demand from the group that I work with—I think this is felt across the political spectrum—for an independent living and national social care service. The argument is that this should be based on the NHS principles: free at the point of need and paid for directly through taxation. The proposals that I have heard so far, including those from the Fabian Society which were published today, are somewhat limited and do not live up to the challenge that we face. They are somewhat anaemic.
We must be honest with everybody about the scale of the costs involved and how that can be funded. I am happy to run through a whole range of taxation measures, but I shall just put on the table equalising capital gains tax with income tax, which, the TUC estimates, would provide £17 billion. That would cover the cost of introducing social care and independent living services. That requires political will and political courage, so there is the potential to go forward and form a cross-party alliance to secure a future for social care and support for unpaid carers.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on securing this debate. After the session yesterday where we met the different caring organisations, I would say that, if anyone wants any motivation, all they have to do is sit down with a few of those carers to realise how urgent and how desperate the situation is at the moment—and what willingness there is across this House to secure quite radical transformative change on the issue.