Activities outside Parliament

The Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004 - Exploring the Devolution Dimension

15th September 2004

Doing the Right Job; Doing the Job Right Conference. The Fitzwilliam Hotel, Belfast.

Learning from one another

I am delighted to be here in Belfast again. In another life, I had close links with the University of Ulster, as an external examiner and we were also part of a European Erasmus network. We learnt a great deal from one another. And that is why I am here again today, to continue the process of learning.

Democratic Devolution has played a very important part in the genesis of the Carers Equal Opportunities Act and I believe that there is much that can be learnt from studying its progress.

Both the UK Carers Minister, Dr Stephen Ladyman and the Welsh Assembly Government Minister Jane Hutt have described this Act as a Wales and England Act not an England and Wales Act because it is grounded in the Welsh experience and the Devolution experience.

That notion of developing public policy and legislation through democratic devolution, from below, so to speak, is what I want to explore today.

What is even more intriguing is the notion of seeing our devolved world not in any hierarchical or metropolitan or ethnocentric sense but devolved administrations learning from one another as equal partners.

The Devolved Legacy by December 2003

By December 2003 we were already inhabiting a rapidly maturing democratically devolved United Kingdom and I believe that carers were already benefiting from that new world. We had a devolved legacy for carers.

It is widely acknowledged that successful campaigning by Carers Scotland and Carers Northern Ireland led to pioneering new rights for carers. My Bill sought to build on this success for England and Wales and to push forward with other new rights.

The three policy areas of which we were able to build were: -

  • Informing carers of their rights
  • Equal opportunities for carers
  • Carers' contribution to Scottish legislation

In Northern Ireland and Scotland, bodies responsible for carrying out carers' assessments already have a duty to inform carers of their rights to an assessment.

Since 1998 in Northern Ireland, public authorities have had to promote equality and opportunity for a range of sections of society including carers and carers need to be consulted on any new policy (for example access to museums and galleries).

And then the Community Care and Health (Scotland) Act 2002 gave carers improved rights and these were achieved by a systematic and formal involvement of carers and their organisations in the policy and legislative process.

And so when we come to shape my Private Members' Bill we were able to draw on this crucial progress in Northern Ireland and Scotland, including the Scottish Executive's evaluation that their legislation had not resulted in any significant additional costs.

It must be fully acknowledged that the high priority given by the UK Labour Government from 1997 onwards to carers' issues and its involvement of Carers UK in policy formulation has also been crucial too.

The personal involvement of the Prime Minister throughout, from the evolution of the National Carers Strategy through to recent commitments to carers being central to new policies on work-life balance, has also been of great importance.

We have therefore been operating in a generally benign policy environment.

A Wales and England Bill!

And so when I chose to pursue a Carers Private Members Bill on 6th December last year – which happened to be National Carers Rights Day – we were able to refer to excellent legislation, policy and practice already in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

In the early private and public discussions and Parliamentary debates with UK Ministers and Government officials, the Scottish and Northern Ireland advances were crucial to us. I could speak endlessly about the significance of Northern Ireland Equal Opportunities legislation for us, so much so that it informed the title of our Bill.

It so happens that this centred in part on the health equal opportunities of carers. Ultimately that became too problematic but it did inform the culture of equal rights around access to work, access to leisure, access to education and access to training.

Simultaneous with this legacy you gave us was the phenomenon of asymmetrical devolution as it affected Wales. Because the National Assembly for Wales does not have primary legislative powers, Welsh MPs can have a significant impact on English legislation, through England and Wales Bills. The Carers Minister, Dr. Stephen Ladyman was the first to acknowledge this by the way I worked with Welsh carers organisations and the Welsh Assembly Government whose Health Minister Jane Hutt wrote shortly after our Welsh celebration of the Act on 30th July

'This is good news for carers in Wales…This is a 'Wales and England' Bill conceived in Port Talbot with support from the Welsh Assembly Government from the day Hywel rang me to tell me of his plans.….'

She ended revealingly by saying "it will make a difference to carers across our nations."

There is no doubt in my mind that the UK Government needed to be aware form the outset of the strength of support provided by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Building on the experiences across the UK

Whilst this was specifically a Wales and England Bill only, I was very conscious of the need to draw on support and experience across the whole of the United Kingdom.

I of course followed the well-established practice of building cross-party support in choosing my Bill Team which I achieved very early on with official Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru and Ulster Unionist support along with of course labour MPs from all parts of the country.

But I also realised that equally important was to get prominent and expert support from Scotland and Northern Ireland given their progress on carers issues.

I was therefore delighted that Roy Beggs of the Ulster Unionists played a leading role in my Bill team along with Scotland's Tom Clarke, a distinguished former Minister for the Disabled.

Both Roy Beggs and Tom Clarke were able to speak eloquently and with considerable authority on carers' progress in Northern Ireland and Scotland respectively.

I am particularly pleased to be here today to thank Roy Beggs, in his own constituency, for the strong personal support he gave me at all times during the progress of the Bill.

Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004

The three key principles enshrined in the new Act

  • Ensures that work, life-long learning and leisure are considered when a carer is assessed
  • Gives local authorities new powers to enlist the help of housing, health, education and other local authorities in providing support for carers
  • Ensures that carers are informed of their rights

The last principle existed in Scotland and Northern Ireland already but the first two arguably place Wales and England in the vanguard of carers rights.

Moreover, Dr Stephen Ladyman, the UK Carers Minister has confirmed in a letter to me (10th August) the following: -

'To ensure that carers benefit from the proposals the focus must be on outcomes for carers not on the process…'

In the implementation of the Act in Wales, 'Directions' could be introduced, unlike in England where a more permissive local approach is to be developed. Further more in Wales a Carers' Summit is to be held next spring, to engage strongly with carers and their organisations. Welsh Health Minister Jane Hutt has stated

'We will be consulting across Wales about the new Act and how we can implement it effectively across Wales. We will involve the Carers Strategy Review Panel which includes carers…'

The Future

Carers organisations – Carers Northern Ireland, Carers Scotland, Carers Wales and Carers UK, along with carers organisations locally have played a vital civil society partnership role with the Governments throughout the United Kingdom in progressing the cause for carers everywhere.

And as an enthusiastic supporter of the cause of carers and the cause of democratic devolution, I believe we have made good progress in recent years and much more can be achieved, and the sooner the better.

I believe too that this Carers' Act, the first to be truly developed with benefit of existing devolved policies and practices, points the way towards a new era in democratic devolution.

I believe that this lateral, more egalitarian process – and this conference is part of that democratic process – will ultimately lead to more sensitively shaped social policies for all our citizens because those citizens are part of that democratic process.

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