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Mr. Burstow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hutton: I am afraid not, because I have a lot to deal with.

The Bill will go significantly further than the 1995 Act, which was introduced and piloted through the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks). It will give effect to the Government's carers national strategy commitment by enabling local authority social services departments to supply certain services direct to carers following assessment, either because the user has refused help from the local authority, or because it is more appropriate for the service to be provided direct to the carers to support them in their caring role and to maintain their own health and well-being.

In addition to offering greater support to carers, the Bill offers more opportunities for carers and the people they care for--including parent carers of disabled children,

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young carers and disabled children aged 16 and 17--to have flexibility in the timing and choice of the way in which services are delivered to meet their assessed needs.

The carers national strategy is aimed at empowering carers to make more choices for themselves and to have more control over their lives. They want their positive contribution to society to be valued and acknowledged. The Bill achieves that by giving local authorities the power to provide services direct to carers to support them in their caring role and by extending direct payments to carers to meet their own assessed needs.

The Community Care (Direct Payments) Act 1996 came into force on 1 April 1997. The Act gives local authorities the power to offer people cash payments as an alternative to providing social care services, so they may purchase the relevant services themselves. The Act was widely welcomed by disabled people. The extension of direct payments to carers to meet their own assessed needs, and to parent carers, has also been welcomed by carers organisations and voluntary organisations for children.

Direct payments offer more choice and flexibility in the timing of services and the way in which they are delivered, but of course people must use their direct payments to meet their assessed need for social services support.

Some parents will grasp the opportunity of receiving payments instead of services. They may choose to employ a personal assistant for their child instead of receiving a regular series of short-term breaks. Such an assistant could help the disabled youngster to enjoy mainstream leisure facilities or after-school clubs, which would achieve the Government's objective of social inclusion.

Parent carers like to be as independent as possible in making arrangements for the care of their disabled children. The Bill will help them to achieve a far greater level of independence than they have experienced before. However, direct payments for parent carers raise various questions, including promoting the welfare of the disabled child, which need to be carefully considered, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said.

Direct payments will be provided within the framework of part III of the Children Act 1989, which requires that local authorities provide a range of services to promote and safeguard the welfare of children. By amending the Children Act, the Bill will ensure that the legislative framework to promote and safeguard the welfare of children will still apply when parents choose the option of direct payments. Local authorities will have to review direct payments as the needs of children and families change over time, just as they do when families receive services directly from the local authority.

There is also the consideration that children could be put at risk if parents used their direct payment to engage unsuitable people to help them care for their child. That is an issue for both parent carers of disabled children and disabled parents seeking people to support them in their parenting role. The Department of Health will help parents to take the steps necessary to satisfy themselves that a person offering to help with the care of their child is a suitable person. In addition, the Government intend to legislate to ensure that local authorities have the power to undertake criminal record checks on behalf of parents--if the parent wishes it--as soon as possible.

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The extension of direct payments to 16 and 17-year-old disabled children and young people will offer them additional flexibility to meet their own developmental needs. The extension of direct payments to that group of young people follows strong representations to the Government's recent review of direct payments from groups, such as RADAR, that represent disabled young people.

Particular issues also surround the power to make direct payments to 16 and 17-year-old young carers. The Government do not want to burden any children with inappropriate caring responsibilities. Local authorities will offer direct payments to 16 and 17-year-old young carers only after giving full consideration to the interests of the child.

I stress that advocacy and support will be important to young people who are thinking about or receiving direct payments. The concept of independent advocacy is familiar to local authority social services departments. Advocacy and support services relevant to direct payment schemes already exist in the many authorities with good direct payment schemes. These may need to be adapted for young people, but local authorities have experience of the types of services that would be appropriate, and the Government are committed to ensuring that best practice in the use of direct payments is disseminated among all local authorities.

The carers national strategy also identified voucher schemes as a way of giving users and carers more flexibility in the timing and choice of the ways in which additional services were delivered. The Bill will meet the carers national strategy commitment to offer vouchers for short-term breaks. After an assessment of a carer or parent carer results in a decision that the carer needs breaks from caring responsibilities, the cared-for person will be assessed for the type of additional support that he or she needs if the carer is to take a break. Vouchers may be exchanged--at the time of choosing of the carer or cared-for person--for the services the user has been assessed as needing while the carer takes a break.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge asked me about 20 specific questions about the Bill. We shall try to address those issues in Committee. In particular, the hon. Gentleman asked whether the face of the vouchers would show a money value or an assessment of service need. The Bill addresses that point, as he will find if he reads it carefully.

Mr. Hammond: It could be either.

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The Bill says that it could be either. However, he asked whether the value could be expressed as either, and the obvious answer is yes.

In relation to the implementation of the measure, we intend to issue local authorities with appropriate help in the form of guidance as to the use of the new powers.

The issue of charging and resources was raised constantly. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and other hon. Members asked me to comment on the Government's position on charging for non-residential care, including services to carers. It is for each local authority to decide whether to make charges for non-residential services and, if so, how much to charge. The existing legislation requires any such charge

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to be reasonable--that is the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). Our view is that it is reasonable to recover a charge, if that can be done without causing hardship to the service user.

In our White Paper, "Modernising Social Services", we recognised that the scale of variation in discretionary charges is unacceptable. We are considering the recommendations in the royal commission's report, and we shall consider carefully the Audit Commission's review of local authority charging when it is published in April. We shall then consider how the system could be improved in the light of the royal commission's report and that forthcoming study. We hope to announce our conclusions later this year.

We shall of course work with the voluntary sector--including carers' organisations, such as the Carers National Association, to ensure that users of services and carers can be fully involved in that process of consultation. I shall ensure that the views of carers are fully taken into account--as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde asked me to do.

Our aim is to move as far as possible towards greater consistency and fairness in charging. That commitment includes being fair to carers and to other people who receive community care services. However, we need a consistent approach, not one that might treat one group of people who use those services differently from another.

Resources have been referred to repeatedly. I want to correct one misunderstanding. There have been many references to the carers special grant--the £140 million of new resources over the three years of the spending review. The point has been well made by some hon. Members that that is only part of the resources package available to local authorities to support carers and to

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provide respite services. It is on top of the substantial increases in social services spending that are currently under way.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam is always talking about reductions in spending in social services departments. The Government are raising spending on social services by almost £500 million this year. In addition to that general lift in the resources package, there are the specific grants to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston referred to--£750 million of new partnership money and £375 million of children's special grant. Those amounts form part of the wider resource envelope against which we should judge the Government's record on resourcing carers' services.

I do not speak in a partisan sense--this is not the time to do that, although it may be the place--when I point out that the Government are taking a significant step forward in the way in which we are resourcing social services and social care. That is reflected by the £2.8 billion increase in social services over this spending round and by the additional grants that we are making.

The Government value carers and will continue to support them in their caring role. We strongly support the measures in the Bill. The Bill helps carers by empowering them to make more choices for themselves and to have more control over their lives.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde on promoting the Bill. It is an important step forward, both for carers and for people with disabilities. I hope that the House will give it the strongest possible support.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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