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Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): I shall speak to my amendments Nos. 22 and 25.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) inspired me to seek to speak on Second Reading, but I was not so fortunate as to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair. I am therefore particularly pleased to be able today to support my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), with whom I have worked on various issues in his promotion of the Carers and Disabled Children Bill.

My two amendments are probing amendments, to flag up the rights of those who take over parental responsibility but are not the child's parents. As we all know, there are occasions when, for whatever reason, a child's parent is no longer that child's guardian.

Clause 6(1) will insert two new sections--17A and 17B--into the Children Act 1989, and it is worth recapping what the new sections will do. According to the Bill's explanatory notes, new section 17A

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New section 17B will

My amendments extend those opportunities to a grandparent, step-parent or foster parent.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde said:

He is absolutely right about the effect of clause 6. My amendments seek merely to extend that freedom to grandparents, step-parents and foster parents.

My hon. Friend went on to say:

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, too. My amendments simply extend the same opportunities available to parents with responsibility for care to grandparents, step-parents and foster parents with responsibility for care.

The Carers National Association has provided a very useful briefing for today's debate. On clause 6, on vouchers for breaks, it states:

In my two amendments, and in other probing amendments, we want to ensure that the freedoms provided in the Bill for parents are extended to grandparents, step-parents and foster parents. My hon. Friend the Minister has made some made positive comments, which show that the Government are already dealing with those concerns.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I commiserate with the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry). It is always sad when one reaches the final stage of the drama to find that one of the main protagonists is indisposed. Nevertheless, we needed to hear the Minister's comments on this important new clause and group of amendments.

New clause 3 is absolutely key, addressing an issue that was raised quickly by all those who spoke on Second Reading. Hon. Members on both sides of the House were concerned about the danger that, quite inadvertently, the legislation as originally drafted would disadvantage parent carers. However, on 8 March, the Minister gave us the assurance that a declaratory amendment would be tabled for today's debate, making explicit parent carers' right to assessment. For that reason, we particularly welcome these corrections. Conservatives are never interested in

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the proliferation of legislation for its own sake, but we can safely say that the new clause will close a loophole and it will be in everybody's interests--the parent carers, the cared-for person and the state--to ensure that that group of carers is not disadvantaged.

I have a couple of slight concerns about the remaining inconsistencies. I am pleased that the new clause puts more pressure on local authorities to carry out assessments by the use of the word "must", but that is an interesting change of style and tone from other aspects of the Bill, where the word "may" is more often used. In Committee, the Minister assured us that "may" means "will", but we have the word "must" here. For the sake of consistency, we should get our definitions right.

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Lady has misquoted me. When I said that "may" could be interpreted as "will" I was talking about the Secretary of State's intention to use his powers to issue regulations or guidance. I did not mean that "may" meant "will" in the context of carrying out an assessment, because that would not be consistent.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank the Minister for that clarification. I shall need to look back at the exact wording of Hansard, but he certainly got my point in Committee. We have all seen examples of the word "may" turning out in practice to be a bit weak. Amendments Nos. 4, 7 and 24, which we shall debate later, would strengthen the Bill by changing "may" to "shall". I am sure that hon Members understand my point about the inconsistencies that can occur with the use of apparently simple little words. However, we welcome that important change.

The amendments cover two different categories, but the point about the need to widen the definition of a parent carer is well taken. I am sure that none of us wishes to see someone who takes on the enormous parental responsibility for a disabled child excluded from the opportunities that should be available to deserving carers. The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) made that point, although I could not resist a slight smile about his new-found enthusiasm for voucher systems. I am sure that there have been long and substantial debates in this place about voucher systems in the past. It is interesting to hear Labour Members being newly positive about their virtues.

Parent carers are a special category, because they most directly bear the responsibility for being on point for a disabled child. Yet as they and the Carers National Association have made plain, they have sometimes found themselves inadvertently disadvantaged under existing legislation--which tends to be child-focused--although they are the last group to complain. There is sound logic in tidying up the issue and ensuring that a deserving group of carers is not inadvertently disadvantaged.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I looked at the new clause with a sense of deja vu, because at one time in my past I spent a lot of time dealing with assessment, albeit in a different context--I refer to the special educational needs code of practice under an altogether different Bill. Underlying the wording of the new clause are some potential difficulties. I have a few questions for the Minister, as the new clause is in his name as well as that of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry). I join other hon. Members in

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expressing my sympathy for the hon. Gentleman, who is the sponsor of the Bill. He has bravely managed to be here today, but on this occasion--although I would normally deprecate the practice--we accept that the Minister may well bear much of the brunt of replying, for reasons that we all understand.

The new clause perhaps inevitably uses terms with a wide range of possible interpretations, such as


This is well-worn territory, but every time we seek to extend the scope of legislation, we inevitably raise questions about whether the inevitable bureaucracy will be able properly to support the aim of that legislation. My first simple question for the Minister is whether he is satisfied that the use of such words is tight enough and whether sufficient guidance is given to ensure that a key phrase such as

will be properly interpreted and put into effect.

That problem is even greater in respect of subsection (1)(b). The phrase

raises various questions about the meaning of the word "ability". I thought that the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, which is referred to in the new clause, might give greater guidance. However, I have to disappoint you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as well as myself and some others, by saying that it does not. It simply uses the same form of words.

We have to ask whether the term "ability to provide" is sufficiently well understood or easily interpreted to eliminate any doubt. Some of the issues are covered by later amendments, so I do not want to dwell on them unduly, but as well as referring literally to the skills necessary, that phrase could also cover areas of character, which might more appropriately be regarded as suitability. I should like guidance from the Minister on whether that is the intention.

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