Malcolm highlights the danger of cutting support for carers in the current economic climate
Carers and Equal Opportunities Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab): I, too, speak as a member of the Equal Opportunities Committee. We should recognise this as the first time that we have debated carers from an equal opportunities perspective as well as from the more normal health and social care perspective that we have adopted over the past 10 years.

The act that set up the Northern Ireland Assembly placed on public authorities in Northern Ireland an equal opportunities duty in relation to carers. It is perhaps unfortunate that the Scotland Act 1998 did not do the same for Scotland, but it is not the legal obligation that matters—although such an obligation may be placed on us through a recent European Court of Justice ruling. We must take action because it is the right thing to do and because society depends on carers to such an enormous extent. Margaret Mitchell cited the figure of £7.6 billion saved from public expenditure by their work. We will all want to pay tribute to the work of carers, some of whom are in the public gallery today.

The evidence that we heard in our sessions was important, and I hope that it will feed into the forthcoming revised carer strategy. One of the key messages that we heard - it was disappointing for me to hear it - was that we do not have a partnership with carers, despite the fact that, on paper, the basis for carers policy over the past few years has been to have a partnership with carers. To a great extent, the fundamental cultural change has still to happen: we were told that too often the contribution of carers was assumed rather than negotiated by health and social care professionals.

Another disappointing piece of information was that there was such a low take-up of carer assessments - some members will remember that they were at the heart of the Community Care and Health (Scotland) Act 2002. Furthermore, there is nothing in the guidance that says that, when assessments take place, social workers should take account of carers' employment and education needs. That is required in England, and we should certainly look to ensure that it is required in Scotland - in addition, of course, to addressing the more fundamental point that action has to be taken on those assessments.

A further concern is the variation among local authorities in what they do for carers and the fact that the defined outcomes under the single outcome agreements rarely indicate anything to do with carers. That leads us on to the national minimum standards on short breaks - although such standards could of course apply to other aspects of support for carers.

We welcome the £4 million extra for short breaks that the minister recently announced, but at the committee's hearings witnesses made the more general point that there needs to be far more flexibility in how short breaks are provided. The minister talked about personalisation and taking account of carers' needs. I hope that the new guidance that she issued recently will help to ensure that that becomes a reality.

We were also told that, in the minds of carers, advice and information are second only to short breaks. We welcome what the minister said about money to health boards and work on information and support for carers, and I hope that the Scottish Government will consider the suggestion that there should be a national helpline for carers, which would be similar to the helpline that I think is about to be established in England. Carers themselves made that suggestion.

The key message is that we must address the need for support for carers now. We all know that we are entering a period in which public expenditure will come under more pressure, but it would be madness to cut support for carers. In simple public expenditure terms—as Margaret Mitchell reminded us when she talked about the £7.6 billion that carers save the Scottish economy—the right thing to do is to provide more support to carers.
February 25th 2009, (Column 15130-2)