Gwenda Thomas: carers’ champion for Wales

Gwenda Thomas (pictured right) talks to Natalie Valios about her role as the Welsh assembly’s carers’ champion and deputy minister for social services

How did you become carers’ champion at the Welsh assembly?

I’ve always been interested in politics. I was the first female chair of the social services committee at West Glamorgan Council and Neath Port Talbot Council.

I had a lot to do with carers in these roles. Having cared for my mother for nine years until she died aged 86 in 1999, I was able to share my experiences with them. While I was looking after my mother, I became very aware of what it means to be a carer. My mother became dependent as she became older, but she still had her mental faculties. I very much wanted to care for her and I think that that’s the case for most carers.

I was chair of West Glam Campaign for a Welsh assembly and later successfully stood for the Neath constituency for Labour as an assembly candidate. I became deputy minister with responsibility for social services in May this year and this seems to go hand-in-hand with being the carers’ champion.

Your predecessor John Griffiths (now deputy minister for skills) was the first carers’ champion for Wales. What did he achieve in his time in office?

John did a lot of work on the Welsh carers strategy action plan, which was published in March.

How are you taking on the work of your predecessor?

This year I have been continuing to implement that action plan. Looking ahead, there are two major pieces of work planned for 2008: reviewing the action plan in light of the UK-wide review of the 1999 national carers strategy, which we also want to feed in to and bringing in legislation on carers’ rights. The latter will have respite care as a top priority.

What do you hope the UK-wide review will achieve?

The new strategy must continue to reflect carers’ own priorities. There has been an improvement in this respect since 1999, but the most important issue here is that carers’ own voices are heard.

The carer’s allowance is just £48 a week. What needs to be done?

This is a question about dignity and how people’s lives are affected when they become carers – many give up full-time work and there is often a gap between the allowance and what they were earning before.

It’s time to look at the financial implications of caring as well as the social and health implications. The UK strategy review will look at income and benefits issues, and that is to be welcomed.

Does having a carers’ champion mean that Welsh carers receive a better deal than their UK counterparts?

I do think having a carers’ champion has helped to focus minds.

Local health boards in Wales have a carers’ member, for example, and local authorities have nominated carers’ champions. They are all in close contact with me.

The main benefits are being able to share information and raise carers’ awareness of what is available to them. Sometimes when I meet people I realise that many don’t consider themselves to be carers and, if they do they don’t know where to turn for information and support. Raising awareness is a very important role for carers’ champions, both nationally in the assembly and at a local level.

Carers UK wants to see a carers’ champion in Westminster. What benefits would this bring?

The same benefits that it has brought to Wales: namely a clear focus on responsibilities and representation for carers.

Having a carers’ champion means there is an identifiable person with whom carers and voluntary organisations can have a strong link. I find that people are becoming aware that there is a champion, and voluntary bodies are contacting me and making their views known. That can only be good.

Tomorrow (7 December) is Carers’ Rights Day. What would you like to see come out of it?

Tomorrow is a chance to raise awareness and move forward in identifying carers who aren’t yet aware that they are carers – and this includes young carers.

It’s important that carers are aware of their entitlement to a needs assessment. I’m not happy that this always happens.

What does the future hold?

The Welsh assembly hopes to appoint a commissioner for older people by the end of the year. This is a first in the UK, and possibly the world.

We will also be appointing a new children’s commissioner, following the death last January of the first children’s commissioner, Peter Clarke. Both will have a role to play with regard to carers.

My role as carers’ champion means that I will work very hard with the new older people’s commissioner in particular to ensure that carers get the respect and recognition that they deserve.

Contact the author
Natalie Valios

This article appeared in the 6 December issue under the headline “It’s in the blood”

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