House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2003 - 04
Publications on the internet
Standing Committee Debates
Carers (Equal Opportunities) Bill

Carers (Equal Opportunities) Bill

Standing Committee C

Wednesday 10 March 2004

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Carers (Equal Opportunities) Bill

2.30 pm

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that copies of the money resolution in connection with the Bill are available in the Room.

Clause 1

Equal opportunities for carers

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Assessment of carers—

    '(1) In section 1 of the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 (c.12) (assessment of ability of carers to provide care), after subsection (2B) (inserted by section (Duty to inform carers of right to assessment)) there is inserted—

    ''(2C) An assessment under subsection (1) or (2) above must include consideration of whether the carer—

    (a) works or wishes to work,

    (b) is undertaking, or wishes to undertake, education, training or any leisure activity.''

    (2) In section 1 of the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000 (c.16) (right of carer to assessment), after subsection (3) there is inserted—

    ''(3A) An assessment under subsection (1) must include consideration of whether the carer—

    (a) works or wishes to work,

    (b) is undertaking, or wishes to undertake, education, training or any leisure activity.''

    (3) In section 6 of that Act (assessment of person with parental responsibility caring for disabled child), after subsection (2) there is inserted—

    ''(2A) An assessment under subsection (1) must include consideration of whether the person with parental responsibility for the child—

    (a) works or wishes to work,

    (b) is undertaking, or wishes to undertake, education, training or any leisure activity.'' '.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I begin by warmly welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. I hope that under your guidance we will have a constructive and productive afternoon. Although I trust that there will be an opportunity later to thank everyone who has helped the Bill to progress this far, I would like at the outset to thank Carers UK and Carers Wales for the excellent professional support that they have provided. In every respect, this is truly an England and Wales Bill. The Minister was generous in his remarks on Second Reading and at the public launch of the Bill, which was attended by English and Welsh Ministers, and at every stage we have had enthusiastic support and co-operation from the Welsh Assembly Government and their officials. It has been a truly equal partnership.

Before I go into the detail of clause 1, I should say that this has been an all-party measure, as was demonstrated on Second Reading when all hon. Members who contributed spoke in favour. During

Column Number: 4

that debate, my hon. Friend the Minister demonstrated his knowledge and understanding of issues that are close to carers' hearts. He spoke positively about the intentions of the Bill and about certain clauses, such as clause 3, which covers the duty to inform carers. I hope that after this Committee stage the Government will feel able to support the Bill fully.

It is not my intention to rehearse the arguments in favour of the Bill; that was comprehensively done by all those who spoke on Second Reading. However, I want to reflect briefly on the reasons for our being here today, the intentions behind the Bill, and the principles that underpin our discussions. The Bill has been a journey for me and for carers throughout England and Wales who anxiously await the progress of our deliberations. The experience of my wife, Mair, and I in caring for our son, Sam, has helped to inform us on this journey, which has been travelled by millions of other carers, some of whom are in the Room today, and will be travelled by millions of carers after us. They do not have, as we fortunately do, the opportunity to make legislation that will change their lives. It is our task to seize that opportunity.

We shall debate several key issues for carers. Certain principles and intentions underpin the whole of the Bill, but in particular clause 1. They are the health and well-being of carers; ensuring that carers have equal opportunities to work and access to leisure, training and learning opportunities; ensuring that carers have information about their rights; and achieving co-operation between authorities for the greater good of carers. I stress that we are borrowing from the best and want the rest to rise to the standard of the best. Clause 1 defines the purpose of the Bill. It aims to provide opportunities for carers equal to those available to non-carers, recognising that carers should have a life beyond their caring responsibilities. Two bodies that recently wrote to me—the Equal Opportunities Commission and TOPSS, the training organisation for the personal social services—have a very good understanding not only of the principles of the Bill, but of the practical issues that we are trying to address.

Clause 1 derives very much from the new era of democratic devolution in the United Kingdom and specifically from Northern Ireland's equal opportunities legislation, Scottish legislation and the Government of Wales Act 1998, which is underpinned explicitly by the ethos of equal opportunities. Also from my country come specific strategies for social inclusion and social justice, which are driven forward by the new Minister for Social Justice and Regeneration. We are now creating a dynamic policy environment that is conducive to recognising the rights of carers. The recently published Welsh Assembly Government strategic document entitled ''Wales: A Better Country'' speaks of

    ''our guiding vision of a fairer, more prosperous, healthier and better educated country rooted in our commitment to social justice and to putting health and wealth creation that is sustainable at the heart of policy-making''.

That underpins our approach in Wales and England under the Bill.

Column Number: 5

Clause 1 is designed to place in law the principle of equality of opportunity for carers in relation to work, education and learning within local authority social services departments. It aims to embed those principles in policies, procedures, commissioning of services and so on. We are trying to break down institutional barriers that prevent carers from accessing their rightful opportunities. A similar duty exists for carers under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and it is from that legislation that we have borrowed. The draft Disability Discrimination Bill will introduce a similar welcome measure for disabled people. I hope that that legislation will be brought forward soon.

One of my aims in clause 1 was to ensure that assessment procedures for carers regularly examined work, training, lifelong learning and leisure issues. I also wanted to ensure that the same opportunities were extended to parents of disabled children like Mair and myself. The new clause does precisely that in a more direct way, and I warmly welcome it. We must not underestimate the importance of work, lifelong learning and leisure for carers, many of whom may face a lifetime of caring. When I think about the application of new clause 2, I see that prejudice against carers working could become a thing of the past. In future, we might not receive letters from constituents saying that they were told to give up work to care for their relative, and that opportunities for them were never even discussed. If we achieve that through the Bill, it will be real progress for carers and for society at large. It will be something that we can celebrate.

The Minister spoke on Second Reading about the Government's problems with clause 1 and its interpretation. In considering whether we should vote against clause stand part, can he reassure me that the principle of equality of opportunity will be incorporated in guidance? Guidance would surely give him an opportunity to incorporate the principles to which we aspire in ensuring that services, policies and procedures are responsive to carers, so that they no longer put up barriers to education and training, but support carers in having a wider life.

In thinking about new clause 2 as a replacement for clause 1, we must draw attention to the fact that it will place on local authorities the same duties in respect of work, lifelong learning and leisure in relation to children as it will in relation to adults—or at least that is what it appears to do. My Bill currently applies only to people aged 16 and over. I understand that the Children's Society, Disabled Parents Network and Carers UK would welcome the opportunity to discuss with the Department for Education and Skills whether that is an appropriate way of dealing with young carers. I, too, am keen to ensure that the right organisations are consulted. Representatives of my local authority, Neath Port Talbot county borough council, were enthusiastic about the idea in my discussions with them, but they wanted to think more about it. They especially wanted to consider the guidance further. Organisations such as the Association of Directors of Social Services, which has so far supported my Bill, also need an opportunity to evaluate such a significant change to the legislation.

Column Number: 6

However, that matter should not hold up the Bill's progress, and I am very keen to see the new clause incorporated into the Bill. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. I beg your indulgence, as this is the first time that I have had the honour of presenting the Government's position all on my own in a Committee such as this one. I know that you will be kind to me and guide me past my errors if I make a complete mess of it.

I, too, thank hon. Members for the spirit of co-operation on the Bill shown so far across the House, for our constructive debates on Second Reading and on the money resolution, and for the positive way in which all Members with an interest in this matter have been prepared to engage with each other and to share ideas. I especially thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), whose Bill this is, for the way in which he has been prepared to work closely with me and my officials in devising amendments that will address the Government's concerns about the Bill in its current form. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that I hope very much that at the end of our proceedings Sam's Bill will be well on its way to becoming Sam's Act and I will be in a position to say that the Government are ready to support it. That said, I should point out why the Committee would be unwise to leave in parts of clause 1, and why I believe that new clause 2 addresses some of those concerns and would therefore be better than clause 1.

I agree with my hon. Friend about what the Bill is designed to achieve. I also agree that it is important to promote equal opportunities for carers: we want them to have as wide a range of opportunities to work, to take up education, and to engage in leisure activities as people who do not have caring roles have. However, there is a slight problem in that ''equal opportunities'' as a legal term is usually backed by a considerable volume of legislation in those parts of the law where equal opportunities are usually discussed, and such precise definitions do not exist for carers.

The Government's key concern about clause 1 is that it would lead to too great a range of possible interpretations of what we expect local authorities to do. What they were expected to do would not be clear to them, and there would be a danger of some local authorities under-interpreting and others over-interpreting their responsibilities. The thinking behind new clause 2 is that the Government believe that we need a much tighter clause that specifically indicates to local councils what they are expected to do, and that narrows the areas in which they will be expected to ensure that carers had the new opportunities.


House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 10 March 2004