They call it conference season as though it’s something that everybody experiences like other seasons but it’s more like a conference cocoon. Politicians, party members, journalists and lobbyists all hemmed into the one ‘secure zone’ around a conference centre as the people of Liverpool, Manchester and then Birmingham carried on their daily lives around us.
I left the Conservative conference and read that it was “dominated” by the child benefit announcement. Try telling that to the people attending vigorous debates on health and the NHS; or those on climate change, or international aid, or transport, or foreign trade. There are literally hundreds of debates at each party conference with virtually every issue being covered.
Party conferences are a bubble that you come out of to find an outside world that has a very different conception of “what is happening” inside. Additionally, the people in the ‘inside’ are different; they are the extreme. Party members, single issue campaigners, journalists, and full time politicians are all at the ‘extreme’ in terms of how much politics takes over their life. And then we put them all in the place!!!
They attend breakfast meetings together, a debate at lunchtime, a roundtable discussion in the afternoon, a reception with speeches in the evening and then drink together in the same bar talking about politics. It strikes me that this might be what it is like for MPs most of the time – politics taking over their whole life.
It is a surreal existence and one that I don’t think is very healthy. I instinctively needed an escape so found myself seeing some Biennial art installations/exhibits in Liverpool; visiting the Lowry and Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, and visiting a remembrance shrine in Birmingham and meeting a mate for a pint in his local. Even at the conferences I found myself going to debates on international aid and environmentalism.
Was I wrong to do this? Should I have spent every minute pressing the case of carers, which is my responsibility and duty? Some will say yes, which I understand. But, I think the variety of experience is enriching and has value in itself.
If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t know that ensuring transparency of how national funds are spent locally increased the amount of aid spent for what it was intended from 20% to 84% in Uganda (rings bells regarding Carers’ Strategy monies). Or that domestic fuel bills could rise significantly over the decade because it costs twice as much to build a coal power station that captures emissions to one that doesn’t and we will only build these the ‘clean’ ones in future (will the winter fuel payment become ever more necessary?). Or that my mate is working on developing a drug which increases the ability of Parkinson’s to control their movements and general motor functions.
We lose something by ignoring all that is around us, and whilst I am very fortunate to experience what is around me, I am not sure MPs are.
The next few blogs will tell you a bit more of what actually happened rather than my musings on the lives of MPs.
I’m not saying that when ER finished it left a hole in my life, but it did leave a gap in my self-imposed quota of only watching one TV series at a time (Channel 4 News does not count). But with perfect timing, BBC started showing the The Wire – a US drama focusing on the Baltimore police and drugs industry. A theme of the third series that finished last night was the terrible costs to communities and society at large caused by drugs. What goes without focus is the cost to the families of drug users. Indeed, you would think that drug users didn’t have any families – not just cases of immaculate conceptions but babies created out of thin air.
Carers in general are often under-recognised but none are more so than carers of people abusing drugs who are often unable to access the same rights and support that other carers can (see my earlier blog on the Equalities Bill). Yet there are nearly 200,000 carers of people abusing substances. It would be folly to remain ignorant of what these carers sacrifice. Thankfully, the UK Drugs Policy Commission is aiming to shed light on these sacrifices and have commissioned research which estimates the total costs that families bear when caring for a drug user – giving up work, higher living costs, having possessions stolen. The Princess Royal Trust for Carers is involved in advising this research and I’ve seen the final figures but have to remain tightlipped until they are published.
The research has brought home to me that is not an ethereal society that bears the brunt of drug use but rather mums, dads, brothers, sisters and even sons and daughters. They are often the forgotten victims amidst this conflict between drugs and society and as a result receive little support when I would bet that research would show that family support has a big influence on drug users going through ‘cold turkey’ successfully. I seem to remember that is was exactly this family support that saved Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting.
When problems appear so big and systemic as the drugs one can, we often forget that solutions can actually be found at the individual or family level. People can beat the system; support families to help drug users and you may find that more people can get out of ‘The Game’.
I’ve been told that the best blogs are ‘fey’ which I responded to with a blank look. I believe it means whimsical. Anyway, I fear that this entry will not be fey but rather legalistic as this week has seen me looking at the finer details of the Equality Bill.
The Bill includes a set of ‘protected characteristics’ on whose basis people should not be discriminated against in terms of employment and provision of goods/services. The protected characteristics are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. Carers UK have been arguing for ‘caring’ to be such a characteristic, but unfortunately with no luck so far.
However, carers will be afforded protection through their “association to disability” and also to somebody who is elderly. For the purposes of the Equality Bill:
A person has a disability if:
(a) they have a physical or mental impairment, and
(b) the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
This means people who care for somebody who is elderly, physically disabled, has learning disabilities or mental ill health will be protected. However, carers of people who abuse non-prescribed substances will not be protected as such people will not be considered disabled.
In previous community care legislation, people addicted to drugs or alcohol could be considered to be disabled thus affording their carers certain rights. However, the Equality Bill is going to be based on the Disability Discrimination Act definition of disability and there are 180,000 carers of people abusing substances. Some of these substance abusers may also have mental or physical disabilities which would allow them to be defined as disabled though.
But let’s try to finish on a bright note, and it’s actually the Government that provides it in the Equality Bill. Solicitor General, Vera Baird MP, announced that although the Bill generally only applies to those aged 18+, a special clause announced by the Government this week will enable young carers to be given the same protection through association to disability as adult carers.
This Bill won’t change every carer’s life, but it will make a real difference to the lives of many. The very idea of the Bill and the example of the special clause inserted, unprompted, does show that the Government can be genuine in its attempts to help. Neither the Bill nor the Government are perfect, but I guess none of us are.