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10.15 am

Mr. Hutton: I thank right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), for the support that they have expressed for the new clause and amendments. Some hon. Members raised specific points, which I shall try to answer.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) were right to say that we are trying to respond to concerns that were legitimately expressed about the original drafting of the Bill. Neither my hon. Friend the

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Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) nor I had any intention of excluding parent carers from the benefits that it provides, because they do a good deal of important work in communities throughout the country. We value and cherish that work and we want to strengthen the support that we give them. We are putting the matter right, and we are putting it beyond any doubt.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made three points. He expressed concern about what he described as loose wording and drafting in the Bill. In fact, some of the wording that he considered suspect mirrors the terms of the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, in whose passage the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), played such an important part. I think that, as a former Minister, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will recognise that there is a case for ensuring that subsequent legislation is consistent with the terms of similar legislation, and that is what we are trying to do.

The right hon. Gentleman was particularly concerned about terms such as "suitability" and "ability". We shall be able to use the powers that we have under the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 to give local authorities guidance about the implementation of the Bill. We have always made clear our intention to use those powers to ensure that authorities implement the Bill in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde--and others would wish. There is no risk that things will go wrong in the way that the right hon. Gentleman identified.

Because of the Bill's history and the fact that it builds on earlier Acts, if there had been any evidence that its language would cause serious difficulty in its practical implementation we would probably have known about it by now. As there is no such evidence, we are fairly confident--as, as I am sure, is my hon. Friend--that the legislation is satisfactory in that respect.

The right hon. Gentleman raised another point, which I know he wants to discuss later, so I shall not spend too much time on it now. He was concerned about the extent to which the new clause would enable local authorities to take resources into account when assessing the needs of parent carers. He has a good memory, as all Labour Members know--particularly on Fridays when we debate private Members' Bills. He may wish to be reminded, however, that when he was a Minister the Government of whom he was a member considered these issues in the context of the guidance and advice that they gave to local authorities. The position is clear: according to existing guidance and practice, it is not acceptable for authorities to take resources into account when assessing a person's needs.

The right hon. Gentleman wants something slightly different--we shall discuss that amendment later--but I think the current position is right. It is not appropriate for resources to be taken into account in the assessment of a person's need for support services. Charging may be an issue--we shall discuss that later as well--but when a person's needs are being assessed that person's means are irrelevant and should not be part of the assessment. That would be putting the cart before the horse. We are clear about this, and so were the right hon. Gentleman's Government, who took the same view.

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I want to deal with amendments Nos. 22 and 25, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas). My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and I have already tabled amendments to make it clear that the term "parent" means all those with parental responsibility for disabled children. If, for example, a disabled child is being brought up by step-parents or grandparents, the Bill allows them to receive direct payments and to take advantage of the new voucher scheme. The problem with the amendments is that they also refer to foster parents.

Foster parents do not usually have parental responsibility for the children for whom they care. Parental responsibility remains with the parent, or may, as the result of a court order, have been granted to the local authority. When foster carers are looking after disabled children, the local authority has a range of responsibilities under the Children Act 1989 to support those placements.

Mr. Forth: I hesitate to ask this question because I have not had much experience in this area. However, it occurs to me that foster parents have been deemed to be suitable and appropriate, and the authorities have had to be satisfied as to their role. That might not always be the case with step-parents or grandparents and, therefore, what the Minister says appears to be back to front. Cannot we have greater reliance on the status of foster parents, rather than step-parents or grandparents?

Mr. Hutton: It does not usually stop the right hon. Gentleman asking questions if he does not know anything about the subject matter. I was talking about a specific concept of parental responsibility. It is not always the case that step-parents or grandparents have parental responsibility for a child with whom they happen to live. Parental responsibility is a legal concept, and we have to be clear about it.

Local authorities could arrange respite care for a disabled child to give the child a special holiday or to give the foster family a break, and regular reviews of all children in foster care provide the opportunity for ensuring that the welfare of the child has been promoted and the placement is receiving proper support. Where grandparents and step-parents do not look after disabled children, or indeed if they do but do not have parental responsibility, it is not for them to ask for direct payments or vouchers--it is for the parents who look after the children or child to do so.

The Bill is aimed at those with parental responsibility and at those in greatest need. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West will agree that we should not extend the provisions of the Bill to other family members, who may have a proper interest in the disabled child but do not have parental responsibility for him or her. I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw his amendments.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot speak again on this matter. His amendments will stand or fall according to the decisions of the House before they come in the sequence.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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New Clause 2

Carers' plan

'.--Every local authority shall prepare a Carers' Plan setting out how it proposes to provide services to carers assessed under section 1.'.--[Mr. Gareth R. Thomas.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 10, in clause 2, page 2, line 3, after "decide", insert--

'in consultation with the carer'.

No. 11, in page 2, line 8, leave out "whether or not" and insert "how".

No. 13, page 2, line 12, leave out--

'in the local authority's view'.

No. 14, page 2, line 16, after 'service', insert 'or other assistance'.

Mr. Thomas: Every local authority is already required by law to publish a community care plan, under the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990. It is supposed to be good practice to include support for carers in that care plan, and local authorities are already under a legal obligation to consult carers on the plan. However, one of the problems with the community care plan documents that are produced by local authorities is that they are large and very general. For many carers, they are inaccessible.

The new clause proposes that every local authority should be under a statutory requirement to prepare a specific carers plan about how it proposes to provide services to carers. There are several clear advantages to that. Carers plans would provide much greater transparency for carers who wish to know more about how local authorities will take forward their new rights under the Bill. They would also allow greater accountability. The majority of local authorities are clear about how policy and practice should be executed in terms of the provision of services for carers, but the experience of the first year of operation of the carers grant demonstrated, according to research by the Carers National Association, that some local authorities do not always follow statutory guidance sufficiently closely.

One in 10 local authorities intended originally to spend less than 25 per cent. of the carers grant on services that provided carers with a break, even when the grant order specified that at least 75 per cent. of the grant moneys had to be spent on carers' breaks. To deal with that problem, this year's grant conditions specify that the local authority has to fill in a pro forma giving its clear intentions for spending the grant, so we are already close to local authorities having to produce a separate carers plan. The Carers National Association believes that the pro forma will help to standardise the information collected on the carers grant and ensure better accountability for carers, who will be able to see whether the new money is being spent on breaks rather than existing services.

A carers plan drawn up in consultation and partnership with carers would offer new weapons to help carers shape the way in which services are delivered to them. It could

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also help to foster better sharing of good practice. For example, carers plans could be linked to the Department of Health's new carers internet site, at, which is a welcome innovation.

All English local authorities were required to produce a carers plan in 1999 on how break services for carers would be developed. Social services inspectorate care regions report that most authorities have engaged well with carers and their representative organisations. I understand that the social services inspectorate care regions will follow up with local authorities how they continue to perform against last year's plans. If local authorities produced carers plans last year, there is no reason why they should not be required by the Bill to account to carers and local residents for how they are providing services to carers every year. There is considerable support for the work that carers do and considerable concern about the support they get. The publication of carers plans by local authorities would help to ensure that carers services receive the proper focus that they require from local authorities.

Last year, the Government announced some £20 million in 1999-2000 for the carers special grant. This year some £50 million will be allocated and, for 2001-02, the figure will be some £70 million pounds. If taxpayers' money is to be allocated for additional carers services, a carers plan would help to ensure that the money was properly accounted for. One of the conditions of the carers special grant was that local authorities reviewed, with other agencies, their provision of services to give carers a break from caring. Local authorities were required, in the first year of the grant, to involve and consult carers and their organisations on the appropriateness of existing provision and the possibility of greater diversity. Local authorities are therefore used to preparing carers plans and consulting with carers. I contend that they should be required to do so every year.

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