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Over the last two weeks our news channels have been awash with stories about unemployment and the seemingly endless rise in people finding themselves jobless, in an ever more miserable economy.  I would hazard a guess and say that for the vast majority of the 2.49 million who are recorded as being out of work, they would jump at the chance of doing a worthwhile job.

So, I don’t think I was alone in being more than a little shocked when the media reported that our Deputy Prime Minister had an apparent episode of amnesia over his duties to the country, whilst our PM was in Egypt.    Forgetting your lunch box is one thing, but forgetting that you’ve been put in charge of the country whilst the boss is away is quite another.  So, it was against this background that I mulled over my success or otherwise in the field of employing Personal Assistants.

Anyone who has read my book, or knows a little about me, will know that I employ two Personal Assistants to help me live the full and independent life that I am privileged to enjoy.  In fact, anyone who has the slightest impairment will rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on other people to help do things that are sometimes difficult to manage on your own.

Coming to the conclusion that you need help to live independently is a strange crossroads to navigate.  On the one hand you have a desire for complete independence, but on the other, there is a recognition that a little bit of help can go a long way to making life easier.

I came to that crossroads about 23 years ago, just before I got married, and on the whole reckon I have just about managed to get it right since then. 

When I first started to engage help there was no such thing as Direct Payments, Person Centred Care Plans or user led Independent Living Schemes.  You just had to be content with a home help “carer” who came in and helped you as best they could – Ever mindful that time was pushing and they had another 10 “clients” (as we were called in those days) to get out of bed, do lunch and try and make life as comfortable as possible for the recipients of the service. 

I did manage to get Cardiff City Council Social Services, to agree to me having some control over my care package however.  Thus, the “Helper for Rosie” scheme was set up.  For the first time (in Cardiff anyway) a disabled person (me) sat in on the interviews of the “Helper for Rosie” applicants, and held the final vote in who those ‘lucky’ people were, to become my helpers!

Generally though, this was not the case for the majority of disabled people.  With the introduction of Direct Payments however, all that changed.  This was an opportunity for me to engage Personal Assistants who could help me when I needed help, and not when the timetable allowed.

Becoming an employer is a daunting prospect.  The plethora of forms and procedures that had to be learnt and complied with was phenomenal.  The recruitment process was not for the faint-hearted and   establishing a system of time-keeping was essential.

I was fortunate to have help and support from a number of avenues.  Not least was the Cardiff and Vale Coalition of Disabled People who, through their direct payment advisers, were always on hand with friendly advice, to make the whole thing seem far less arduous.  Also, having been involved in recruiting staff for most of his professional life, Steve had a wealth of knowledge on what to look out for … excellent tea making skills, good telephone manner, and of course to be discreet. 

Now, at first sight, this seems a good basis from which to start.  However, when Steve once employed a receptionist who had a slight hearing impairment – long before the days of disability discrimination legislation, and despite arranging for the amplification on the office telephone system to be increased – he still got messages left on his desk reading “Please could you telephone Mr. Higgins an alien from Porthcawl.” I began to wonder whether his judgement and advice on employing staff could safely be relied upon. 

It would be amiss of me not to explain that Mr. Higgins was not an “alien” at all … but rather a Lion (as in a member of Porthcawl Lions Club) and a good friend.  In fairness to the employee in question, and with a bit of lateral thinking and a large amount of imagination you can see how the mistake was made.  However, I should add, that the young lady to whom I refer did decide a future as a receptionist was not quite for her – I gather she was last seen on the set of the latest Alien movie –“PAUL”.

Back to me – I remember my first month as a PA employer very well.  It was August 1997 and is marked in my memory by the fact that on the very first Sunday I had a weekend PA to help me; it was the day that Diana Princess of Wales died.  Not a great deal was done that day, other than my getting up, and we spent most of the time looking in disbelief at the scenes unfolding on the Television.

After that, I quickly learned that the TV should never be left on when you have a PA working with you. 

I have employed a variety of people over the last 23 years.  Old and young, gay and straight, tall and thin.  Each PA has brought their own unique qualities to the job – some better than others. 

In the preceding 23 years my Psychology degree has come in very handy.  If you took the mailbag of Bel Mooney, Claire Rayner, Victoria Ironside and Marge Proops, to name but a few – you get my drift.  I’ve listened to, and helped sort (I think) a variety of problems. 

If the walls of my bathroom could talk, what a tale they would tell … drink, teenage pregnancies, serious and life threatening illness, failing marriages and family rifts – I’ve heard them all.  I’ve even been able to tell Steve a few things about Coronation Street weeks before the events have unfolded.  Who needs TV Listings Magazines, when you have PA’s who seem to devour the gossip in TV Magazines like the world will end tomorrow!

In general, my PA’s (past and present) have been loyal, caring and have become, in an odd way, an extended member of the family.  But, there are times when I get very frustrated – especially when I think I am being taken advantage of.  One of my biggest bugbears is when my staff sometimes forget the importance of why they are there to help, and decide to take a ‘sickie’ day off for something as simple as a cough or cold.  As far as I’m concerned, no-one ever died of a cold, and a runny nose is not an excuse for failing to turn up for work.  On occasions like that, I have to remind them that one much respected former PA, chose to continue to work during a gruelling course of chemotherapy, and even in the depths of such serious illness, never forgot that the help she gave to me enabled me to lead a fulfilling and independent life.

The job of a PA is an important one, and I always try to emphasis the uniqueness and value of the work they do.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  When it doesn’t, and if all else fails I fall back on the contract of employment that is the benchmark under which my staff work for me.  For example, I have a number of ‘golden rules’ which I expect my PA’s to adhere to.  These are built into the job description and contract of employment.  They are as follows:-

  • Must be Reliable, Trustworthy & Honest – The P.A. is providing me with the support I need to be independent. I need someone I can rely on to turn up and do the job when needed
  • Must be Punctual
  • Have good Communication Skills
  • Must be Discreet & Sensitive
  • Must have a Flexible approach to hours worked and times needed
  • Be able to accept Responsibility but ask if instructions are not clear
  • Be Clean and have no Unhygienic habits
  • Respect my family and our home
  • Must have a ‘good sense of humour’

Whilst I am friendly with my PA’s, ultimately I am their employer, and the employer/employee lines of demarcation have to be observed.  That way, we all know where we are.

When I reflect on being a PA employer, there are a couple of things I think I have learned.  Firstly, you have to have the patience of a saint.  Secondly, don’t put too many “nice” biscuits in the biscuit tin (!!), and thirdly, the shelf life of a good PA is about four years.  After that, interest starts to wane and there is much truth in the saying “Familiarity breeds contempt”.

If I take that last principle, then I think in the not too distant future, I may be looking to a recruit some new PA’s.  When that happens, I shall start to trawl through the CV’s that come with the letters of application.  I’m not averse to considering applications from all gender and religious orientations.  After all I, above all people, who make my living from promoting equality issues, am happy to be an equal opportunities employer … Heaven knows I’ve had enough experience!

There may even be a CV from one Nick Clegg … Previous experience: Deputy Prime Minister … Attributes: Articulate; Personable and with good administrative skills; Reliable and punctual. (I’ll have to footnote this in the reference request to his former employer).

It might be worth calling this candidate for an interview, but then, if he gets through the first hurdle, I just wonder how he will persuade me of his reliability.  After all, if he thinks I’m going to sit in the bathroom waiting for him to hop on a plane back from Klosters, because he’s forgotten it’s a work day, then he has another think coming!

Perhaps after all, I’m better off sticking with idle chit-chat about soaps and family dramas, rather than fiscal policies and the balance of payments. 

I might even be persuaded to open the “fancy” biscuits for the next successful candidate, when I look them straight in the eye over the dining room table and wildly flap one of my four fingers vaguely in their direction, and announce with aplomb that “You’re Hired – Welcome to the mad-house … I’ll see you in the bathroom at 8am sharp.”

Then I’ll just hope, that unlike our Deputy Prime Minister, they don’t forget to turn up for work, and leave me knitting buttons!