Activities outside Parliament

Who Cares for the Carers?

November 2006

The Story of Community MP Hywel Francis' Carers Equal Opportunities Act

December 8th will be National Carers' Rights Day and many carers groups will be participating in campaigns throughout the country to highlight the needs of carers.

Unions like Community have long campaigned for people with disabilities and their carers. Community has of course its National League for the Blind and Disabled and has supported the campaign for flexible working for carers. The Warwick Agreement between the Labour Party and the Unions has made major commitments in support of carers and the Labour Government both before and after the last General Election has delivered for carers.

The National advocacy body for carers, Carers UK, defines carers in this way:

'Carers look after family, partners or friends in need of help because they are ill, frail or have a disability. The care they provide is unpaid. Almost all of us have been ill or will be a carer during our lifetime.'

As carers for over sixteen years of our son Sam, My wife Mair and I were only too aware of the anxieties and isolation of being carers. It was inevitable that my Maiden Speech in Parliament in 2001 was on the theme of the rights of people with disabilities and their carers. Considerable progress had been made for carers by two earlier Private Members' Bills and the Labour Government's launch of its National Strategy for Carers in 1999. These legislative and policy developments were achieved because of the growing awareness of how many carers existed in our communities following the 2001 Census which asked the question for the first time, 'Are you a Carer?' and because of lobbying by local and national carers organisations.

There are over 6 million carers in the UK and 350,000 in Wales. Over a lifetime seven out of ten women will be carers. In my county borough of Neath Port Talbot we have over 20,000 carers, the highest proportion in the UK, largely a legacy of our heavy industrial past.

In December 2003 I came second in the Private Members' Bill ballot. I decided to pursue legislation which would recognise the needs of carers beyond their caring responsibilities, to ensure that they had equal rights with other members of society. The result was the Carers Equal Opportunities Act which received Royal Assent in July 2004.

The principle aims of the Act are to:

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

The Bill succeeded in becoming law because of the cross-party and Labour Government support both in Westminster and the Welsh Assembly. What was also critically important was broad public support from carers' organisations, trade unions (notably ISTC), many employers and educational bodies.

What is crucially important now is that we are breathing life into the new Act. The Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government have published their guidance on how the Act is to be implemented at local level. A new handbook by Luke Clements entitled Carers and their Rights: the Law Relating to Carers has also been published.

All Party Groups have been established in Parliament and in the Welsh Assembly to ensure that the legislation is fully implemented and I chair the Parliamentary Group. In Westminster we have already had seminars on educational opportunities, pensions rights and Europe.

Three major developments have been achieved since the implementation of the Act. Firstly, the Welsh Assembly Government has announced the appointment of a Community member and Labour AM for Newport East, John Griffiths, as the first Carers' Champion for Wales – a development unique in Europe if not the world!

Secondly, the Labour Government's Work and Families Act has given the right to employees who are carers to request flexible working.

Thirdly, Labour Schools' Minister Jim Knight has held discussions with the Parliamentary Carers' Group to improve support for young carers at school.

At a local level, advances are being made everywhere. At Port Talbot in my Constituency, Community and Corus have held productive discussions on support for carers as part of the 'journey' strategy. This is happening alongside the appointment of Councillor Paul Thomas as Neath Port Talbot's Carers' Champion, one of the first local authority champions in Wales. Councillor Thomas is working with the local Carers Action Movement to establish an independent carers' centre locally where carers can obtain help and advice on benefits, education, training, leisure and work.

Much has been achieved but we have still a long way to go before carers have what one carer has called 'the right to an ordinary life'. I am grateful to Community and its members for playing their full part locally and nationally in making this happen.

Dr Hywel Francis has been the Labour MP for Aberavon since 2001. In recognition of his work for carers, he was made Vice President of Carers UK in 2004. He delivered the Bevan Foundation Annual Lecture in 2005 entitled The Right to an Ordinary Life: Carers and Equal Opportunities, copies of which can be obtained through the Foundation (01495 725214 or email [email protected]).

Further information about carers can be obtained from Carers UK (email [email protected] or or CarersLine 0808 808 777).

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