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Respite Care (Children)

4.40 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury): I beg to move,

This Bill would substitute the word "may" with "must" in subsections (3) and (6) of clause 17 of the Children Act 1989, part III. The change would make it mandatory for local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their areas who are in need, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families, and to facilitate the provision of these services by voluntary organisations to ensure that children with severe disabilities receive the same levels of respite care from local authorities as other vulnerable members of the community.

If hon. Members were asked whether their local authority was suffering a social services crisis, at least eight out of 10 should answer yes. Eight out of ten is not some random statistic: it is the number of local authorities where, as is the case with Oxfordshire county council, the demand for social services is clearly outstripping resources.

That shortfall of funding is no more evident than with respite care services for children with severe disabilities. Currently, the responsibility for local authorities to provide such discretionary services is a matter of "may" rather than "must". Thus, in the pecking order, those discretionary services come after statutory provision. Where money is tight, they simply fall off the edge.

I am sure that local authorities would welcome a Bill ensuring that the provision of respite care for children was a statutory responsibility that should be properly funded by the Government. In Oxfordshire, the number of respite care centres is likely to be reduced this year from five to three. Parents have managed to save Sycamore house in my constituency, but Chilterns house in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), a sponsor of the Bill, has been lost.

The Bill would simply amend subsections (3) and (6) of section 17 of part III of the Children's Act 1989 by changing the word "may" in both subsections to "must". Of course, that would mean much more than simply a change of words for parents whose children have complex needs. It would help transform their lives by making the respite care arrangements for their children more secure and stable.

Stability is paramount. Initially, Oxfordshire county council thought that it would have to abandon children's respite care provision altogether. After a lot of heartache and lobbying, it has managed to put together a compromise scheme with the local health authority.

The law at present states:

The House will note that the word "may" is used, not "must". I am not sure that every social services provider has such vocal and committed parent groups as Oxfordshire's Friends of Oxfordshire Respite Centres,

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known as FORCE, nor such a pragmatic county council. The Bill would ensure that all local authorities would have an obligation, not the discretion, to provide the stability of respite care centres that children with severe disabilities, and their parents, need.

Barnardos, which has helped fund respite care in Oxfordshire, has indicated that it will consider its financial contribution to the partnership in Oxfordshire further. It may at some stage be able to revise and enhance its contribution to the partnership, but that will depend on achieving the partnership that I have described. The proposed partnership to save the respite care centres can happen only if Oxfordshire county council has the funds in the future. Barnardos needs financial stability, which should come from the county council's own financial stability, to stabilise respite care provision for parents whose children have learning difficulties.

All too often, voluntary or charitable organisations commit money only to see the statutory foundation funding from social services withdrawn. The stability on which parents depend is dependent on the stability of social services spending and the money received from central Government for social services.

A letter that I recently received from a parent whose child benefits from Sycamore house said:

The provision of such critical services depends on proper central Government funding, which offers stability for local authority social services budgets. Of course, county councils can raise council tax to cover shortfalls, as Oxfordshire did. It involved a hike this year of £86 on a band D council tax bill, and still left a proposal to close these homes.

The reason why Oxfordshire's social services have deteriorated to their current extent is that Oxfordshire receives considerably less funding than other neighbouring counties and unitary authorities. Nearby Milton Keynes, for example, gets nearly a fifth more investment than Oxfordshire from central Government. Hampshire and Hertfordshire, moreover, get twice the budget specific to respite care centres than Oxfordshire. Yet clearly the cost of living, the cost of staff and the cost of care are the same in all three areas. I am at a loss to understand why the Government believe that Oxfordshire should have the lowest allocation of funds under the grant system when its cost of living is among the highest in the country.

I am concerned that although several Departments recognise the problem, apparently the Department of Health does not. I and other Oxfordshire Members tabled an early-day motion on the issue before the last standard spending assessment round was allocated last year but, unfortunately, our warnings clearly fell on deaf ears.

If Oxfordshire's social services have to survive with less funding than they need until 2004, more vital services will almost certainly be withdrawn, so imagine my concern last week when the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister announced a review of local authority funding. The review will, we are promised, want new formulae that are fairer, simpler, more intelligible and more stable.

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It sounds good, but then we get to the detail. Buried away in the Government's document is a sentence that rather alarmingly admits:

Then there is the caveat that such rough justice

I have done some back-of-an-envelope calculations of what fairer and simpler funding will mean for Oxfordshire in the light of my Bill's proposals. Rough justice is an underestimate if ever there were one. Of the four basic options for an alternative to the present SSA advanced by the Government, the worst for Oxfordshire could leave a £43 million hole in the county council's budget. That is equivalent to 10 per cent. of the county council's resources. It would add a further £192 to council tax—a 25 per cent. increase—which is simply not sustainable.

Education would be the biggest loser for Oxfordshire. Education is an important part of the county council's plans for Oxfordshire's respite care centres with after school, play and leisure clubs for children with complex needs. How could those services continue under the Government's funding options?

Ministers have said that Oxfordshire local education authority has a good record on finding places in schools for children with severe disabilities. How will that be maintained? Although I might have more chance of developing post-Einsteinian unified theory than fully understanding the Government's proposal for local authority finance, my figures are supported by the Local Government Association.

No one should doubt the need for respite care centres. I, along with Oxfordshire parliamentary colleagues sponsoring the Bill, have spent a lot of time listening to parents with disabled children in need of respite care in the county. I close my comments by reading a letter, not from a councillor or a parent, but the 12-year-old sister of a child receiving respite care. She says:

Further slashing of central Government funding for counties such as Oxfordshire will mean further cuts in social services, including respite care. Children with

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severe disabilities deserve protection; they deserve opportunities for respite care. This should be a "must" obligation for local authorities and the Government should ensure the funds for respite care services. That is what the Bill intends to achieve.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Tony Baldry, Mr. David Cameron, Dr. Evan Harris, Mr. Robert Jackson, and Mr. Boris Johnson.

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