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Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley): I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point about phrases such as "a substantial amount" and their interpretation not just by us, but by carers. Does he agree that the answers for our constituents and for carers might be found in the regulations referred to in clause 10 rather than in the Bill, which does not go into such details of interpretation?

Mr. Forth: I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman says. This is familiar territory to all of us. How far is it reasonable, proper or even profitable to expect such detail in a Bill and how far should we look to regulations? I am looking for reassurances that the Minister is satisfied that we have sufficient guidance in the Bill to enable us to be confident that the regulations that will flow from it will provide answers. That is all that we can reasonably expect at this stage.

My final point is about finance. The Minister will delighted to know that I have a copy of the Children Act 1989 with me; I am sure that he, too, has a copy.

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Clause 17 of that Act explicitly refers to finance. We shall have an interesting debate later on amendments, one of which I tabled, to try to elucidate matters. However, in the context of new clause 3, I simply inquire whether "ability" encompasses financial capability. Skills, character and finance are potential aspects of "ability". That raises important questions, which may affect the regulations that would underpin new clause 3. They are vital to a full understanding by carers, authorities and all those who will be involved in interpreting the Bill. Clarification and interpretation are therefore necessary.

10 am

I tabled an amendment, which was not selected, to try to clarify the new clause's provisions on appeals. In the special educational needs code, we were careful to make proper provision for appeals in cases when a bureaucracy makes an assessment. That has become increasingly commonplace. Some would argue that it was self-evident that erecting a second bureaucracy to second-guess a first was counter-productive and costly. However, nowadays, we rightly want to pay more attention to the rights of individuals, who are often vulnerable against a bureaucracy. In cases of doubt, we should tip the balance in favour of individuals.

If the House accepts that, we should be able properly to identify a mechanism whereby someone who has undergone an assessment process such as that which the clause outlines, and is dissatisfied with the result, can appeal. Such dissatisfaction often occurred in the educational context because local authorities and their officers were worried about the financial aspects of an assessment process. With more than half an eye to that, local authority officers may take a narrower and more rigorous view of the responsibilities than the sponsors of the Bill or the Minister intended. Against that background, an appeals mechanism becomes even more important.

Is the Minister satisfied that there is sufficient opportunity for individuals to appeal or to come back to the local authority after the assessment process?

Mr. Bennett: I understand the arguments for an appeals procedure, but the assessment process takes time and can be bureaucratic. In pressing for an appeals process, the right hon. Gentleman is in danger of supporting further bureaucracy. Would it not be better to use the local government ombudsman, and the power of local councillors or Members of Parliament to make a fuss?

Mr. Forth: Those are possibilities. The ombudsman is a splendid institution, but we are all aware of the shortcomings of the ombudsman process. I narrowly interpret the role of Members of Parliament vis-a-vis such processes, although I have a much greater regard for the role of councillors. However, that role is not necessarily adequate to solve the problem; it was not when we considered the educational context. We set up a tribunal process, which has proved its worth. Will the Minister be able to satisfy those who are likely to undergo the assessment process that, if something goes wrong and they feel that they have not had a fair deal, proper recourse is available? I put that in simple terms so that I do not overcomplicate matters. Given that my amendment was not selected, I cannot pursue the subject of tribunals at greater length. However, an important question needs to be tackled.

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Our discussion today is valuable because it enables us properly to explore the sort of questions that I raised and, as far as we can, to resolve doubts. After all, that is why we are here. The Minister has an opportunity to explain his views; that will provide guidance about what may happen subsequently at a later stage in the Bill's progress or in preparing regulations.

I hope that the Minister will be able to provide full and proper replies and set my mind at rest that the areas of unhappiness that I identified will be properly resolved.

Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis): I welcome new clause 3 and support the proposal to include step-parents, grandparents and foster parents in the provision. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the anxieties that I and others expressed on Second Reading and in Committee about the fact that parents were not specifically mentioned in the Bill. The omission was not deliberate, but the new clause gives us an opportunity to rectify a clear oversight.

It has already been said that the Children Act 1989 and the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 provide for services for disabled children. It is right that the needs of disabled children are met specifically by a children's service. In many cases, that service is more than adequate for their needs. However, parents and their needs are increasingly overlooked--we know that through information we have received from the Carers National Association and Contact a Family. Both organisations expressed anxiety about those who undertake considerable responsibilities for their children over a long period. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be the parents of healthy children realise that while responsibilities do not disappear completely as they grow older, they decrease. That is rarely the case for parents of children with disabilities.

Contact a Family has stressed the importance of the fact that many disabled children have complex needs, many have more than one disability and many have severe behavioural problems. Let us stop for a moment and consider what that might mean for the parents, not occasionally, but every day of those children's lives. To highlight that, I shall refer to two examples, one of which concerns a young child. We readily think of young children as being in need of parental care, but we should remember that parents of disabled children, even when the children become adults with disabilities, continue to have responsibilities.

I take the examples from research by Saul Becker and Richard Silburn that was published in June last year. The first example is of the Shah family:

No matter what services are provided for that little girl, although they will obviously help her parents to care for her, they will not necessarily meet her parents' needs. On Second Reading we asked for parents' needs to be assessed, and that is now happening. The Government have listened to their Back Benchers and to organisations working on behalf of carers--all carers, but parent carers in particular.

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I shall now refer to someone much older than that little girl: a man of 44.

I think it right and just for us to consider carefully the needs of parents who undertake such responsibilities over what is often a very long period.

The new clause allows parent carers to receive the same rights to assessment and services as all other carers. That sense of equality and social justice must run through legislation of this kind. I welcome the change, and the new clause. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) that we should consider the position of step-parents and grandparents. In many instances circumstances change and it is left to people other than the natural parents to care for children.

This is an excellent move by the Government and I welcome the changes.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I shall be brief, but I want to pick up a point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). We discussed the issues of tribunals and appeals in Committee, partly as a result of an amendment tabled by Opposition Front Benchers. The assessment process leads to a care plan, and we ascertained from the Minister that there would be a separate care plan for the carer. That important distinction also arose from the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995.

Because assessment is a never-ending process--because a cared-for person's needs change, and because a carer's needs may well change, possibly as a consequence of the needs of the cared-for person but also owing to his or her own circumstances--I am not convinced that a tribunal mechanism similar to the one applying to statements about special educational needs is applicable. What is essential is clear documentation: clear statements that can be used to contest the local authority's determination of what it proposes to offer through the care plan. There must be clear procedures for local authorities to operate so that carers can challenge statements in the care plan.

I welcome both the new clause and the amendments, which go a long way towards meeting the concerns raised on Second Reading and in Committee--especially the declaratory amendment which clarifies further the issue of whether parents with caring responsibilities for disabled children is covered.

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