Previous Section Index Home Page

12 Dec 2006 : Column 226WH—continued

As a parent, I shall concentrate on children with learning disabilities, as that is where my husband and I have the greatest experience, although we also have experience with physical disability. I should like to share with Members what it was like for us as a young couple in 1973, when things were not as good as they are today. For example, we took our son to an orthopaedic consultant at the local hospital. He looked at our son, who was lying on the examination couch—we had gone to him because of our son’s physical handicap—and he asked me, a young mother, how my son was getting on. I said, “We think that he is improving.” He looked at our son without examining or even touching him and said, “With a case like this, I would not be too optimistic.” That is how some consultants treat children with disability. He had no
12 Dec 2006 : Column 227WH
interest in a child who had learning disabilities as well as a physical disability. We must put that right.

The report deals with the need for more funding, but money is not always the issue. In some cases, we need to change people’s attitudes. My husband and I thought that the consultant knew what he was doing when we went to see him, but we got back to our general practitioner and said, “Never send us to that person again.” We were directed to another consultant and never looked back. If I had listened to the first one, I would have thought that my son would never walk, but with our hard work and with the help of other consultants and a wheelchair, he is able to walk. That is why I say that disabilities mean different things to different people, and we need to change people’s attitudes.

Another issue that has been mentioned by colleagues is the disability living allowance, which used to be called the attendance allowance. I have a sorry story to tell about that as well. My husband and I applied for the attendance allowance reluctantly. Families and parents of children with disabilities are reluctant to apply for any help, whether financial or otherwise. We must address that point and make it easier for them to ask for help when they desperately need it.

Mrs. Humble: Sadly, in order not to invest in services, service providers—whether in health or social care, or whatever—all too often rely on the fact that parents will carry the burden. Surely, parents increasingly should stand up and demand services, so that those who should provide them do so.

Mrs. Williams: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and totally agree with her.

When the doctor came to our house, we had the impression that he was just ticking boxes on a form. My son had just had an operation and had plaster casts up to his knees on both legs. The doctor asked, “Does he wander away from home, Mrs. Williams?” I am not a violent person, but at that moment I could have slapped that doctor’s face. That would have been a gross insult to any parent, and it is why I honestly believe that we must change attitudes. For him, it was a question of ticking a box: the question was on the form, so he thought, “I need to ask the parents,” and he did so without even looking at the child to find out what he was able to do. That is another aspect.

On education, I must be careful. As hon. Members know, I represent a Welsh constituency. Education, health and other services are devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, but we must ensure that a disabled child in Wales does not receive better or worse services than a disabled child in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland. We need to have a healthy debate among our colleagues to ensure that disabled children receive the services that they need wherever they live and whichever Administration look after their interests.

We remember the Warnock report, which came out in the early 1980s. It put great emphasis on children with learning disabilities being able to receive their education through mainstream schools, and an attempt was made in the following decade to run down some of the special schools. As a parent, I was privileged to
12 Dec 2006 : Column 228WH
have been a governor of an excellent special school, Ysgol Pendalar in Caernarfon, before our son was born, so I had an idea what sort of education my child would have once he was old enough to attend school. The majority of parents in this country are not privileged with background knowledge, as I was.

I am conscious as well that some local education authorities are guilty—they probably have been for a long time—of not statementing a child because it saves the school money. That is cruel and callous, and it should not happen. We must put a stop to such attitudes. LEAs jolly well know that if a statement is placed on the child, the parents can make demands on them.

I could go on and on because I feel strongly about the matter. I wanted to share with colleagues what my husband and I had to go through in the 1970s, but the greatest worry that parents face when they are told that they have a profoundly handicapped child in the household is what will happen to the child when one or both of them die. We want to be sure, and to be happy and content in our own mind, that our son or daughter will receive adequate service when we die. That is why I repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood said.

We deliberated for hours, and we now have the report. I am confident that the Government will ensure that it is read properly—the intentions are good—and that we in Parliament will not rest until we are sure in our own mind that families with disabled children are properly looked after as we go into the next decade.

11.48 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): It is with total sincerity that I say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Members for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). Members spoke eloquently, passionately and often movingly, and made their arguments very well indeed.

I congratulate everyone who was involved in the production of the report. It is a valuable contribution, but it is not an end in itself. It is more a new start for policy makers and the Government in moving forward in an important area. “Every Disabled Child Matters”—that is a wonderful and compelling campaign. We have 770,000 disabled children in the UK and each deserves to be able to live just an ordinary life, as the report explains. That would be wonderful, would it not? As far as possible, it is our duty as parliamentarians to try to achieve that. They need the right support at the right time in their lives.

When one considers life chances and what is important in the development of a child into an adult and in how people can live their adult lives with dignity, it is apparent that speech is very important. Someone can get by if they cannot read, write or add up, but not if they cannot speak. People look the other way, and quality of life is low. The provision of speech and language therapy is central to the dignity and quality of life of many people with disabilities, particularly those with complex disabilities.

12 Dec 2006 : Column 229WH

I hope that the Minister will look positively to find ways to close the gap in the provision of professional speech therapists. We need a few thousand more and we need them in the next year or two. The Government are planning to close the gap over the next five years, but frankly that is not good enough. It is betraying the children and young adults who need those therapists now. I know that the Minister is a good and caring man and that he will be listening carefully.

My next point was raised more eloquently than I am able to do by the hon. Member for Conwy, and it concerns the special place of special schools in our society. Like the hon. Lady, I was involved in special schools, both as a parent of a special child and as a governor of special schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke)—in fact, I was chairman of the governors at a special school in her constituency. I learned to value, cherish and love the staff, the governors and the parents who made the schools so special. The best atmospheres and the best schools that we have in this country are the special schools.

I know that the Government are supporting extremely well the SLD schools, for those with serious learning difficulties—sorry, for those with severe learning difficulties. I had trouble with my own speech when I was a child, which is why I still have trouble when I am trying to make speeches in the Chamber, as hon. Members all know. However, my problem is with the schools for those with moderate learning difficulties. In some counties they are being left to wither on the vine. There was a policy of closing them down and moving everyone into mainstream education. We all know that mainstream education is very good for some children; it suits them and is right for them. However, for other children mainstream education is not good, and they require a special school for those with moderate learning difficulties.

Some education authorities and counties are trying to allow those MLD schools to wither on the vine and go away. They are not referring parents to the schools early enough. They are not enabling parents by giving them the right advice and information. The professionals seem to think that they know better than the parents; they do not. The parents usually know best what is right for their children, especially their special children. I make a plea for the MLD schools.

I want to refer to statementing, which the hon. Member for Conwy mentioned. It needs to be quicker, cheaper and easier for parents and counties, social services and local education authorities to get children statemented. We need the statementing process to be reviewed and to be made easier.

One final plea is for a return to a form of sheltered employment for disabled people—those with learning difficulties, complex difficulties and physical difficulties. We have seen difficulties with Remploy, which I hope can be addressed, but I want to see sheltered employment schemes in the private sector as they were in the 1980s. I had a sheltered employment scheme in my business that employed 10 people, and they added an enormous amount to my company. They gave more to my company than I ever gave to them by giving them employment. They brought us together as a community and added great value in many ways. I want us to review what we can do to ensure that people
12 Dec 2006 : Column 230WH
have opportunities throughout their lives, and are not merely cut off at 18, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North said.

I praise the carers of special and disabled children. There is the voluntary sector, with people such as Eddie Stacey, who runs the Phoenix club. I went to its Christmas dinner last Thursday at the Paddocks in Canvey Island, and there were 100 people there. It was a wonderful, joyous occasion. On the one hand, we have the voluntary sector, and on the other we have the professionals. They are caring people, who are not valued enough and not paid enough, and there are not enough of them. We must address that. However, mostly we have the parents and the families who do so much to care for and love their special children. As the hon. Member for Norwich, North said, the measure of a benevolent and caring society is how it treats vulnerable people. There are few groups in society that are more vulnerable than disabled children, God bless them.

11.56 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I, too, start by congratulating the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on securing the debate and I broaden my congratulations to include the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). I congratulate them on their chairmanship, vice-chairmanship and strong leadership of the commission and review, on which I was honoured to be asked to serve. I want to thank Contact a Family, the Council for Disabled Children, Mencap, the Special Educational Consortium and Children Now. Their support was felt strongly throughout our hearings. I want, too, to congratulate the organisations on their production and launch of the “Every Disabled Child Matters” manifesto. It is telling that it was seen to be necessary to produce a separate manifesto, and it is obvious that there are many areas where the needs of disabled children are not yet sufficiently well covered by the “Every Child Matters” agenda.

As we have heard, the population of disabled children sadly continues to rise. We are talking about 770,000 children—7 per cent. of all children. It is important to appreciate the individuality of every child, and the range of needs is enormous. They are varied, some are more complex than others and almost day by day we are learning more about certain conditions and how we can offer help and support. Like other MPs, I have had many cases brought to my attention in my constituency. What concerns me most is to hear over and over, “It is a constant battle.” Why does it have to be a battleground for families who are already facing so many problems?

It was an interesting experience to listen to the evidence throughout the hearings, but for me the saddest part was that there were no surprises in what we heard. It is time to give more attention to the many problems that face families with disabled children. As we know, many of the possible solutions can involve a great deal of expenditure. I said in another debate in this Chamber that in some ways I feel we need a national debate to establish the proportion of resources that we as a society are prepared to devote to addressing the many and varied needs of those
12 Dec 2006 : Column 231WH
children. Indeed, there are issues about their quality of life, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).

Given the shortage of time, I will focus on a few matters, and I make no apology for starting with respite, which has been mentioned by every speaker this morning. If it is not at the top of my list, it is at least very near to it. People who come to our surgeries often say, “If only we had a break, it would make life so much easier to cope with.” The pressure on family relationships—between siblings and couples—is enormous.

I recently visited a respite centre in York called The Glen. I found during that wonderful visit not only that respite can be of enormous benefit to the families but that it can provide quality care for the children. It is a win-win situation, with children getting a change of scene and mixing with other children—and, in the case I have just cited, receiving high-quality care with superb resources.

I note that York city council ran an invest-to-save policy. By making more respite care available, it is possible to keep the child within the family rather than having to use residential care. That is so important. As we know, the availability of respite care is a post code lottery. People moving into my constituency who have received respite care in other areas are shattered because they get only a tiny proportion of it in my area. That makes it even harder to downgrade.

I deal now with the key worker and early support scheme. I too was very taken by the evidence of Sharon Kelly, who told us that she was dealing with 21 agencies, not to mention a baby with severe needs. It brought home to us how important the key worker is. I congratulate the Government on moving forward with that scheme, and I hope that we will be told when the key worker and the early support scheme will be available throughout the country.

Early intervention is all-important, as is a multi-agency approach. Again, we are moving in the right direction, but we are not yet there. I often cite a recent example from my constituency of a very disabled child forced to go to a nursery school on one side of the county, but the school was in a different primary care trust area from where they lived and it was a battle to get the necessary therapeutic services. Much work is needed to change our culture and attitudes, as the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) so eloquently explained.

I shall touch on the Child Care Act 2006. I served on the Committee that considered that legislation. I know that the Minister was not involved, but we were concerned about the implementation of the excellent provisions on child care for disabled children whose parents were working. We were concerned that local authorities would not have sufficient funding, because it is expensive to provide and tailor child care for children with disabilities. I wonder whether there has been time to monitor local authorities to find out whether they have enough money—whether they are supplying what the 2006 Act says they should.

I was equally interested in the final recommendation that there should be more resources for the training of
12 Dec 2006 : Column 232WH
staff on information services. That was another principle of the 2006 Act, and another factor that the Committee raised. It is important that information is available to help the parents of disabled children and to alert them to their eligibility for various benefits and to support them in applying for the disability living allowance. I wonder whether the Minister and the Government have reviewed the provision of such services following the 2006 Act. It is a scandal that, even today, families are totally unaware that they are eligible for the disability living allowance. It is often MPs who tell their constituents about it, but that cannot be right. There has to be a better supply of information.

I had the pleasure of speaking during the debate on the Select Committee report on special educational needs. It is important that the Government should reconsider their response to the Committee’s recommendations. The Government did not go far enough. It was excellent that they should have focused on the fact that teachers need better training and that we need more specialist special educational needs co-ordinators. Much progress has been made, but I agree with other hon. Members about the variability of statementing across the country. It is not yet right, and certain aspects of special educational needs need to be reviewed, but sadly the Government did not accept that. We do not need a moratorium, but we clearly need a review.

I, too, have always been concerned about the transition stage, and it was good that the review was able to consider a number of aspects. I have always been concerned about the limited educational choice offered to parents of children aged 16 and above. In my area, they usually go to the local college, but parents feel frustrated that they are not offered a choice and that they have to do much research themselves.

I deal now with communication, which has many aspects. First, the voices of children and parents, which we picked up on in our review, must influence the way services are designed and delivered. We are moving in that direction, but it is not universal for children’s views to be sought. Some children with complex needs should have an independent advocate. I agree with the Children’s Society that, as a minimum, every disabled child or young person placed away from home should have a statutory right to independent advocacy. That is so important for all children who are not able to speak up for themselves or who need support to do so.

There also needs to be someone to listen. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children points out that three to four times as many disabled children are likely to have been abused as is the case among the general population. It is therefore important to provide helplines for those who suffer abuse.

I refer briefly to the charity I CAN. I am pleased that the Department for Education and Skills has agreed that the charity’s early talk programme will be rolled out as a pilot in more than 200 children's centres and a number of primary schools in England. The number of children with communication difficulties is staggering. Perhaps one in 10 has a physical difficulty, but we are creating disability by not talking at home as much as we used to, so as many as 50 per cent. of five-year-olds arrive at school without the speech and language skills
12 Dec 2006 : Column 233WH
needed to participate fully. It is important to note that such needs are growing all the time. I echo the point about speech and language therapists. I believe that some are unemployed, as are some physiotherapists. I hope that they will soon be employed.

The Scope campaign “Speak for yourself” aims to help those who need technology to support their communications. I understand that the DFES has funded a communicating aids project that has provided equipment to more than 4,000 children. However, the funding came to an end in March this year, and the scheme has not yet been rolled out universally. The Minister may wish to reply in writing, but I wonder why no formal public evaluation of that excellent project was undertaken. The general point is that successful projects need sustained funding.

I shall make that my last point, having seen the time. Much innovative work is going on, but we need to ensure that there is a minimum universal offer and that projects do not come to a shattering end simply because one pot of money has been closed and nothing has been put place to fill the gap.

Next Section Index Home Page