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Point of Order

3.31 pm

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice in your capacity as guardian of the rights and privileges of the House, as I believe that the House may have been misled.

On 12 January, in a point of order from this Dispatch Box, I drew attention to an inconsistency. The answer to a written parliamentary question that I had received on that date stated that UK Sport had not

That was inconsistent with remarks to the contrary in UK Sport's annual report. You replied, Mr. Speaker, that if that answer was incorrect, it should be corrected by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

I wrote to the Secretary of State immediately after your remarks, Mr. Speaker. I have yet to receive an answer. I also issued a freedom of information request for the documents relating to the issue. I received a reply this morning. It denied me access to those documents; however, owing to a mistake by a civil servant, the document that I sought was included in the reply. The summary states—some of it is in bold type—

—that is, the British Olympic Association—

There is clearly a massive inconsistency between that and the Minister's statement that UK Sport had not set an aspirational target for Olympic medals in 2012. You can see why I believe that the House has been misled, Mr. Speaker.

I have now raised the matter twice on points of order, and have received no response from the Department. I have written to the Secretary of State; she has not yet had the courtesy to reply to the letter. What further action can I take?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman will recall that when he raised the matter on a point of order, I said to him "Keep asking questions". He got a reply, even if it was a mistake, and I am sure that now that the House has heard what he said, the Minister will reply. I have no doubt of that.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): It does not happen.

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman says that it does not happen. I cannot instruct Ministers, but the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) should get a reply, and he will get a reply. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is happy with that.

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Disabled Children's Assessment and Services

3.34 pm

Ed Balls (Normanton) (Lab): I beg to move,

In Britain today, there are some 770,000 disabled children—7 per cent. of all the children in our country. Despite medical advances, the prevalence of disability is increasing. Since 1975, there has been a 62 per cent. increase in the number of disabled children. At this point, I want to pay tribute to the many thousands of parents, carers and teachers of children with severe learning disabilities, who work tirelessly day in, day out to give children in their care all the opportunities, love and support that they need and deserve.

One test of a civilised society is how it supports the families in greatest need. We know that disabled children and young people face multiple barriers to achieving their potential, or to sharing similar life chances to everyone else. We know, too, that severe disabilities place great burdens on families and close friends. Surveys show that it costs three times as much to bring up a disabled child, while for many parents the barriers to work are insurmountable. More than half of disabled children in Britain today live in poverty.

Successive Governments have recognised our obligations to these families. The Government's recent report, "Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People", which was masterminded by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), set out the overarching children's policy framework and how it has evolved in recent decades: from the Children Act 1989, to the "Every Child Matters" Green Paper and the subsequent Children Act 2004. That report highlights how the Government are doing more to support disabled children and their families through measures such as extra cash help in the form of the child tax credit, a network of special educational needs co-ordinators, and section 8 of the national service framework for children. But we know that there is still a long way to go.

Last December, I met the parents and teachers of Kingsland school in Stanley, in my constituency, to where younger children with severe and profound learning difficulties come from across the Wakefield district. Kingsland is truly a brilliant school. Highly praised by Government inspectors, it is the first special school in my district to receive the primary basic skills quality mark. As I have seen, the children have a great time every day, especially at lunchtime. But when I talked to a group of parents and teachers, I heard first hand how tough life can be. Head teacher Nitsa Wainwright explained to me how difficult the school finds it to access services such as speech therapy or physiotherapy outside the school term.

Parents' biggest concern is the lack of reliable respite care. They described to me the great stress that both parents and siblings endure, especially during the holidays, when there is no school and such families are
14 Feb 2006 : Column 1285
caring for severely disabled children 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They told me how much they value the chance of an occasional break—to go to the pub or on a trip to meet friends—and they explained how much more difficult life becomes when, as happens too often, their respite care is delayed, curtailed or cancelled because of staff shortages or problems with transport. These parents need more support, and I have been in contact with my local authority and primary care trust to represent their concerns. There is a real will in our district to make things better.

I have also discovered that these families are not alone in their struggle. Contact a Family and Mencap tell me that thousands of parents across the country face similar problems. In Britain today, 3,000 children are on waiting lists for family-based short breaks; three out of 10 children wait more than a year for such a break; and six out of 10 of those in greatest need get no, or very few, breaks. It is no wonder that, according to a Mencap survey, eight out of 10 families with disabled children are at breaking point. Margaret Sparks, a school governor of Kingsland school, told me of her and her husband's huge struggle to get proper respite care for their daughter, Kathryn. As one parent said to me:

My Bill aims to improve the services for families such as the ones whom I met in my constituency. It is supported by Contact a Family, the Council for Disabled Children, Mencap and the Special Educational Consortium, which have been working together for several years to raise awareness of the issues that the Bill addresses. It is also supported by a number of backers and supporters from all parts of the House, many of whom have campaigned for years for a better deal for disabled children and their parents. They include Members such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), who introduced disabled persons legislation in 1986, and who is chairman of the all-party group on learning disability.

I also wish to pay tribute to the late Rachel Squire, the former Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, who was a patron of Contact a Family and a tireless campaigner on behalf of carers and disabled children and adults. She will be sadly missed.

My Bill proposes three important changes that would improve the rights of disabled children and their families. First, it seeks to make clear in law for the first time that local authorities must assess disabled children and provide them with a range of services where those are assessed as necessary. Our research has shown that there is no duty to assess disabled children under the Children Act 1989 equivalent to that in the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990, although that duty has been implied in case law and policy guidance.

The Bill would give disabled children the right to a local authority assessment and to receive services. It would do so by proposing amendments to section 17 of
14 Feb 2006 : Column 1286
the Children Act 1989, and by drawing directly on a previous and pioneering private Member's Bill, which became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. I am sure that the whole House joins me in paying tribute to the work of Alf Morris, now Lord Morris, whose work radically improved the life chances of disabled people in our country.

Secondly, my Bill would give disabled children and their families an explicit right to short breaks and respite care. Under the community care regime, adult social service authorities are obliged to provide disabled adults with short breaks where the authority has assessed that such a need exists. However, no such obligation exists at present under the Children Act 1989. If enacted, the Bill would therefore empower parents in coming forward to ask for assessments and for the services and respite care they badly need.

Thirdly, my Bill would also require NHS bodies to work co-operatively with local authorities to promote the health and welfare of disabled children in England and Wales, and enhance the delivery of services such as speech and language therapy.

I know from my discussions with Ministers that they support the objectives of my Bill. I know that they intend to study its provisions in detail to see how and if it can be taken forward. I know, too, that Ministers are committed to using every lever at their disposal to deliver our manifesto commitment to

I look forward to further discussions and, in the forthcoming spending review, I hope that the Government can bring forward a cross-cutting public service agreement for disabled children, which can match resources with greater co-ordination between local authorities and the NHS to deliver, for families with disabled children, the care and support they badly need.

I hope that we can make progress in giving parents with disabled children enhanced support—building on what has already been done—so that every child in our country has the best start in life. Parents of children at Kingsland School told me that they need more support. I hope that my Bill can make it happen, and I thank the House for giving me the opportunity to present it today.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ed Balls, Liz Blackman, Mr. Tom Clarke, Annette Brooke, Peter Bottomley, Mr. Iain Wright, Mr. Jamie Reed, Mr. Mike Hancock, Mr. Brooks Newmark, Helen Goodman, Tim Loughton and Paul Burstow.

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