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23 Jan 2007 : Column 1349

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): As the hon. Gentleman refers to the report and the parliamentary hearings, will he acknowledge that the report identifies some examples of good practice, such as the early support programme, and that part of our report advised the Government that they should extend the elements of good practice, so the picture is not totally bleak?

Mr. Hunt: I agree that there were some positive aspects—not everything is negative—but the overwhelming majority of parents with disabled children express extreme frustration. The hon. Lady’s report was extremely valuable because it highlighted the progress that still has to be made.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hunt: I am delighted to give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who co-chaired the inquiry.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful. As the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to refer to me, and as I am asked to support the motion that he and his colleagues put before the House, may I ask what is the source of the figure in the first line of the motion, which refers to

Mr. Hunt: The source of that figure, I am happy to tell the right hon. Gentleman, is the interim findings of the Treasury’s policy review on children and young people, which quotes that as the number of children who qualify under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, but the life chances report refers to 272,000 disabled children, so there is obviously some doubt as to the precise number. On average, it is clear that one in 20 children has a significant disability.

Mr. Clarke: So that we are in a position to discuss the facts as the evening goes on, may I gently put it to the hon. Gentleman that the motion has got it wrong? The figure accepted by the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills is, for the United Kingdom, 770,000. Does he not realise that the figure that he has given is for England alone?

Mr. Hunt: The right hon. Gentleman may be correct. That might explain the discrepancy between the two figures, but whether it is 570,000 or 772,000 is not the substantive point behind the motion.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, who co-chaired the report, spoke about the progress made in the early support programmes introduced by the Government. The assessment by the university of Central Lancashire examined those programmes and concluded that one of the key issues of concern to parents participating in the programmes was the transparency of the decision-making process. I hope to return to that later in the debate.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the areas in which the Government are failing our children is in the provision of speech therapy? Does he also agree that we need clarity on the importance of the provision of speech therapy, on the shortages that exist, and on when the Government intend to remove those shortages?

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Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I know that he has spoken on the matter in the House on many occasions. I commend the work of many of the campaigning organisations, such as I CAN, which have done a great deal of work on speech and language therapy. Of particular concern is the finding that 50 per cent. of five-year-olds are at risk of falling behind and possibly moving into social exclusion if the challenges that communication presents for them are not addressed immediately. That figure rises to 80 per cent. of children in socially deprived areas.

In the debate, I shall examine not only the problems faced by parents and carers of disabled children, but why, unless we tackle the link between disability and poverty, the Government will fail to make progress towards their child poverty targets. Let us start, though, by looking at the challenges faced by a parent who has a disabled child. I was talking to some mothers of disabled children in Essex and in London last week. They spoke about the mind-boggling complexity of the benefits system, which requires them to fill out eight different forms—for the carer’s allowance, the carer’s premium in income support, child tax credits, child benefit, the community care grant from the social fund, disability living allowance, disabled facilities grant and housing benefit.

I have all the forms. I know that this is a subject in which you take a great interest, Madam Deputy Speaker, and on which you might have wanted to contribute had you not been Deputy Speaker. Can you guess how many questions we ask a parent in that situation to answer? The answer is 1,118 questions spread over 273 pages. Let us be clear—those parents are probably in the most vulnerable situation in their lives, which could lead to the break-up of their marriages, if they are married. They almost certainly see a significant drop in their disposable income. What do we do? We make them take an exam.

One cannot accuse the people who write the forms of not having a sense of humour. Part 22 of the disability living allowance form for adults, in the section headed “Communicating with other people”, asks:

The form continues:

Many of the questions on the forms are not designed for simple yes or no answers—they require a paragraph of prose describing one’s situation. That is much more difficult for socially disadvantaged parents than for articulate, middle-class parents who are capable of fighting for their rights.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. He is speaking about questions. Is he aware that there is a very important question—one single question—that a group of parents from Ravensbourne school in my constituency, who have children on the autistic spectrum, regularly put to me? They say, “Please, please, may we have some respite care?” For those children, respite care must be specific to their needs. The daily lives of those families are extremely difficult and, they say, if only they could look forward, perhaps once or twice a year, to just two days when the child was in respite care, it would make all the difference, but it is not available.

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Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that she knows a great deal about the matter. I shall deal with the lack of respite care later in my remarks.

With reference to the forms, it is worth pointing out the number of complaints made by parents of autistic children about the inadequacy of the DLA, and in particular its inadequacy in identifying non-visible disabilities. There is no question on the DLA form that asks, for example, how many times the child ran away last month, but that is the kind of challenge with which parents of autistic children have to deal. It is clear, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting it, that we need much greater awareness of conditions such as autism in the working of the benefits system.

It might be suggested that the reason why we ask parents 1,118 questions is that disabilities are complicated and we need to understand the facts, but 23 questions are repeated on every form, three quarters of the questions on the forms are repeated at least twice, a third of the questions are repeated at least three times, and a quarter—that is 274 questions—are repeated at least four times. Perhaps that is because they apply to different Government Departments. Let us quietly forget the Prime Minister’s comments to the civil service conference in 1998 about

However, six of the eight forms are from the same Department—the Department for Work and Pensions.

The result of the complexity is very low take-up of benefits. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that about half of parents of disabled children claim DLA. The survey by the Child Poverty Action Group and Contact a Family showed that a third of parents are put off claiming DLA by the complexity of the form.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): One of the difficulties with benefits such as DLA, which does not consider diagnosis but examines the way in which the disability affects the child, is that if one goes to appeal, the people who sit on tribunals do not have the specialist knowledge to translate the questions to ascertain how the child’s life is affected. It is important to take into account not only the diagnosis or the disability, but the effect on the child’s life when ascertaining whether the child qualifies for DLA. It is time we had more specialists on tribunals and appeals panels so that a fair hearing can be given.

Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend has campaigned a great deal in the House on autism. She makes an important point. Her point about appeals amply demonstrates the lack of confidence that the parents of autistic children have in the benefits system. That is also shown by the fact that 13 per cent. of parents take five or more years to apply for DLA.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Would it not make sense for all the information to be made available at an early stage to parents who have disabled children? One reason for the points that the hon. Gentleman makes is that many parents are unaware of the benefits to which they or their children may be entitled. By missing out on an early claim, they may not only lose
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substantial sums of money, but may find that the assessment is made on a different basis, and thus lose out on a significant sum for many years after that assessment.

Mr. Hunt: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Almost a third of parents in the Child Poverty Action Group survey said that they did not know where to go for independent benefits advice.

Not only the benefits system but the social care system causes problems. Mencap describes a system whereby more than a third of parents have to juggle eight or more different professionals for social care packages. One parent who spoke to the parliamentary inquiry said that she had to deal with 21 different professionals, and that the co-ordination so exhausted her and her family that she came close to family breakdown as well as being unable to consider work.

There are different systems. In Austria, there are single, multi-disciplinary assessment teams, which consist of a child doctor, a paediatric nurse, a physiotherapist and an information officer, who come together as soon as a disabled child is born. That team is at parents’ disposal, not only for the initial assessment but afterwards, when they need support. During my first Question Time as a Front Bencher, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), whether she would consider an Austrian-style system in this country. She replied:

We cannot import another country’s system lock, stock and barrel, but could we not at least learn from the way in which other countries do things? If we are not even prepared to learn, there is a danger that some people will interpret well-intentioned failure to make progress as woeful complacency.

When we talk to constituents, groups that campaign for parents with disabled children and carers who look after disabled children, they mention the education system time and again. Last week, I spoke to a lady who told me that it took 11 steps for her to get the right education package for her child, who is four years old and has severe cerebral palsy. The local education authority assigned her a school that she did not like. She contacted the LEA and was told that a child psychologist would have to assess the child at nursery and in the home. She was given 10 days to find alternative schools but she was not given a list of accessible schools. She was then offered a choice of two schools, neither of which was on her preferred list. One was a drive of an hour and 10 minutes, which would mean a round trip of two hours and twenty minutes.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): My hon. Friend made an impressive speech at the all-party group on disability last week. He talks about a system that at least bamboozles and at worst intimidates many concerned parents of vulnerable youngsters. The real cost is that those youngsters’ needs are not identified early enough. That is critical for conditions such as autism and many others. We are not giving those children what they need at the stage that they need it.

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Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend, who plays an active role in co-chairing the all-party group, makes an important point. A single, multi-disciplinary assessment team would be one way of ensuring effective early intervention.

Let me revert to the example of the 11 steps—I shall not go through them all. In the end, the parent was able to get her child into the local infants school where she wanted him to go all along. However, she was told that he could go only part-time because it would take six months to install disabled toilets. Six months have passed and she has been told that it will take another two years. The child has to go to the toilet in the stationery cupboard. The mother is articulate and knows how to fight for her rights. One of the educational professionals who spoke to the parliamentary inquiry pointed out that the system is

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): My hon. Friend is not only making an excellent speech, but has done a fantastic job in highlighting disability issues over many months. He mentioned accessible toilets for people with disabilities. Let me highlight the Changing Places campaign, which has been organised by Mencap, among others. Does he agree that one of the main problems that the parents of disabled children face is taking the children to the toilet at school or outside school, for example, in supermarkets? Will he join me in encouraging as many organisations as possible to provide the sort of facilities that the Changing Places campaign mentions, so that they are fit for purpose?

Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in disability issues, which dates from the time he worked at ASDA. He makes an important point. The problem especially affects disabled children who are not toilet trained, are aged 10 or 12 and still need to use nappies. If they cannot access the proper sort of toilets, they have to lie on the floor of a public toilet so that their mother can change the nappy. One way of tackling that is providing properly accessible toilets and the other is to make trainer nappies, which allow nappies to be changed while a child is standing up, more widely available.

The perceived independence of the assessment system in education is critical. Many parents feel that a system whereby the assessing authority is also the funding authority will not make a fair assessment. That is why Sir Robert Balchin’s special educational needs commission, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) set up when he was shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, recommended breaking the link between assessment and funding.

The Government have not shown much willingness to grasp the nettle. The Select Committee on Education and Skills reported

The Government’s response to the report was that

According to parliamentary answers that I received, no Minister from the Department for Education and Skills has attended the Office for Disability Issues meetings.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): That is not true.

Mr. Hunt: I am happy to give way to the Minister, but I have a copy of the answer to the parliamentary question.

Mrs. McGuire: I intended to deal with the matter in my speech, but I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the parliamentary question and identifies the Minister about whom he posed the question. He asked for the attendance of a Minister who is not a member of the cross-ministerial group.

Mr. Hunt: I am interested to hear that response from the Minister. Perhaps she would like to know why I asked that particular Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education and Skills how many times he had attended meetings of the Office for Disability Issues. It was because of a response that the Minister herself had given me in answer to a parliamentary question about which Ministers were members of the ministerial oversight group.

Mrs. McGuire: As the hon. Gentleman supports a bicameral system in Parliament, he may be aware that there is more than one Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Education and Skills; the other one is a Member of the other place.

Mr. Hunt: We asked the Under-Secretary of State in this place, and we got a reply from the Under-Secretary of State in the other place. So we have been in touch with both of them, and there does seem to be some confusion over the issue.

A further group of people who are severely short-changed by the way in which we look after families with disabled children are the taxpayers. As taxpayers, we want to help families in that incredibly vulnerable situation, yet we see that of the £5.4 billion that is spent supporting such families through the social care budget, £1.1 billion— 26 per cent.—is used up by the assessment and commissioning process. That money does not go towards providing the services that the families need. We have also discovered that, according to parliamentary answers on the administration of the disability living allowance, £630 million was lost through official error. About £360 million was lost through official error relating to housing benefit, £110 million through official error relating to income support, and £10 million through official error relating to the carer’s allowance.

One third of the families who have access to short breaks say that their access has been cut over the past year, and eight out of 10 families say that they are at breaking point due to the lack of access to short breaks.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hunt: I will be happy to give way to my hon. Friend. I want warmly to commend him for his private Member’s Bill and to bring it to the attention of the House.

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