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Mrs. McGuire: I think that that is why some of the issues are difficult to discuss in a forum such as this. Children or young people may want to express their ambitions in a way that conflicts with their parents’ understandable worries about whether they are capable of living independently. I know of many parents who are deeply concerned when a learning-disabled child says, “I want to move into a flat of my own.” Mum and
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Dad may not think that that is achievable, but if the right support systems are there it can be done in a way that will not cause the young person any difficulties.

When I was having meetings on the United Nations convention on the rights of disabled people, I was impressed by two young people aged 18 and 19 who told me of their deep concern about the fact that for many years other people had spoken for them. They wanted to speak for themselves, and they had a powerful message to convey. They were fed up with doctors, nurses and parents speaking for them; like all teenagers, they did not want their parents to speak for them. There are complex issues, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out.

Angela Browning: There tends to be a gap between children’s and adults’ services. Does the Minister agree that one way of making the transition successful is to provide multidisciplinary teams, and to ensure that the transition is seamless? All too often, once the statutory responsibilities end when a young person is 16 or 18 there is a long wait before anything else happens, and that causes a great deal of distress.

Mrs. McGuire: I greatly respect the hon. Lady’s knowledge and expertise. She has drawn attention to an important issue, which was mentioned in the strategy unit report. A cliff edge is reached when young people reach 16, 17 or 18, and they may be covered neither by children’s services nor by adults’ services.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con) rose—

Mrs. McGuire: Others may wish to speak, but I will take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention because—well, I will take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

Andrew Rosindell: I thank the Minister. Does she agree that an holistic approach is needed to give more opportunities to young people with disabilities, including learning disabilities, and also to ensure their safety? There is a learning skills centre for disabled young people in Western road in my constituency, but because of bureaucracy on the part of the council and Transport for London, the centre is not being allowed a pedestrian crossing to make those young people’s lives more safe and secure. Will the Minister think about how the Government can encourage local authorities to ensure the safety, as well as the opportunities, of young people with learning disabilities and disabled young people?

Mrs. McGuire: I fear that the hon. Gentleman has fallen into the trap of assuming that making it safe for young people with learning disabilities to go to and from a place of training or employment automatically means a structural change such as the introduction of a pedestrian crossing. As those who work with young people with learning disabilities will know, a range of life skills can be developed in the circumstances that he has described. Of course, I do not know whether a pedestrian crossing is needed in his constituency; if that is the case, no doubt he will let us know.

The Government have a manifesto commitment to

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and are engaged in a positive programme of work to improve the life chances of disabled children. The key objectives are to improve support for families with disabled children in line with the national service framework, to ensure that disabled children benefit from the development and expansion of early years services, to promote equality of opportunity through the Disability Discrimination Act 2005—which means improved access to schools, early years services and educational opportunities—and to deliver fit-for-purpose services that improve outcomes for disabled children. The aim is to move away from the idea that the provider always knows best what an individual disabled person or child would want.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) spoke of disabled teenagers reaching the point at which they wish to move into adulthood, and to have some of the opportunities that their non-disabled friends, colleagues and family have. We have to recognise that disabled children and young disabled people have aspirations and ambitions, too. For too long, we almost wrote off their right to have those ambitions and aspirations. It is not the aspirations that are wrong; it is the barriers to meeting those aspirations.

Sometimes, the reasons behind the barriers are not straightforward. They may be to do with a young person's health or impairment, but—this relates to something that the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said—the attitudes of society play an important part. That is something on which we can all agree, and I know that that it was highlighted in the parliamentary report.

As I said earlier, there is no doubt that we structure our services and the provision for disabled adults in a way that often meets the priorities of the providers, but I want to pick up on one or two other points made by the hon. Member for South-West Surrey. I was seriously disappointed by his comments on the Office for Disability Issues and by the fact that he suggested, or appeared to suggest in his press release, that there was a lack of ministerial commitment. In fact when he puts together all the parliamentary answers, including the one from me—I chair that meeting—he will find that there is serious ministerial commitment to that cross-ministerial group, with the caveat that occasionally, when a Minister cannot attend, that Minister sends a senior representative from his or her Department, so we are fully committed to disability issues through the ODI.

Mr. Hunt: Can the Minister explain why the response to the parliamentary question that I put to the Department for Education and Skills, sent to the Under-Secretary of State, Lord Adonis, said:

Mrs. McGuire: I have not seen the hon. Gentleman's initial parliamentary question, but I say to him and to Conservative Members that Lord Adonis has attended meetings of the cross-ministerial— [Interruption.] He has. As I say, I have not seen the original question that the hon. Gentleman sent. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), says from a sedentary position that
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it certainly was a real person, looking like Lord Adonis, who attended those meetings. I think that that is an issue that would be better resolved in another place. I want to give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we are taking this very seriously. Ministers are taking it seriously.

I will now look at some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made about benefits. We recognise that sometimes benefits and the procedure for benefits can be a barrier. That is why we are constantly investigating ways to improve our benefit delivery. We are working with the Child Poverty Action Group, Contact a Family, family and carers groups, and the Disability Rights Commission to examine how we can make the operational changes that will make the reaction to applications for disability living allowance for children more responsive. We are working with various other stakeholder groups on that issue.

I also want to say to the hon. Gentleman that we have made significant changes in the amount of benefit that is paid to children. I do not want to scratch over old sores, but in 1997 children under the age of five could not apply for the mobility component of the disability living allowance. That was a rule made by his Government. We changed that, and now children can apply from the age of three. This is not old hat, and it is part of the reason why sometimes there is an element of shallowness in the way in which some hon. Members—excluding the hon. Member for South-West Surrey—come to the issue. In fact entitlement now to disability living allowance can start at the age of two years and nine months. The disability child premium has doubled since 1997, and the carers premium has also doubled.

Mr. Hunt: Will the Minister clear up one puzzle? At the back of the application form for carers allowance, it says that one of the achievements is that in 2005-06 claims were settled in an average of 13.1 days, but the 2006-07 target for the average clearance time is 15 days, so the Government have set themselves a longer time to clear benefits in 2006-07. Why will that help to improve the service that the Government provide?

Mrs. McGuire: I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman why. I did have the option of reducing that target below 13 days, but I wanted to emphasise not how quickly we could get those benefits out of the door but the quality of the decision, and it was more important to emphasise the quality. I could have set an additional target, but if we were turning benefits around in 13.5 days I wanted to ensure that within those 13.5 days, we got a quality decision that stopped some of the appeals that he usually complains about.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. McGuire: I give way to the hon. Lady—I mean to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Brown: I forgive the Minister for whatever she said there—I do not think it was derogatory. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that the needs, wishes and desires of disabled people are complex. The hon. Member for South-West Surrey
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(Mr. Hunt), who speaks on behalf of the Conservatives, has talked about the amount of paperwork that needs to be filled in. I noted the article in The Times yesterday and I have also looked at the Conservative website. There appears to be a move towards reducing the number of benefits, but I am deeply anxious. I do not know whether the Minister shares my concern. Does she not believe that rolling up all the benefits available to disabled people would create a more rigid system that would not be able to meet the diverse needs of disabled people?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because I think it is appropriate to bring that idea into the discussion at this point. I appreciate that superficially it sounds great to try to move towards a single unified benefit, but I want to give a word of warning to the hon. Member for South-West Surrey. The benefits for disabled people serve different purposes at different times. There would be a grave danger if we started to look at a single roll-up benefit, because we would be putting rigidity into the system. At the moment, we have a system with the disability living allowance that tries to be as flexible as possible to meet the needs of the individual. That is why there are different benefit strands and different questions. There is a grave danger that a rigid system would financially penalise some of the most vulnerable disabled people, rather than helping them.

Mr. Hunt: I wonder whether the Minister could tell me how it helps the flexibility of the system if three quarters of the questions that have to be answered by parents of disabled children are asked at least twice.

Mrs. McGuire: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that lead-in to my next point. He and I and our Department are on the same wavelength on that. I noticed on the Conservative party’s disability website that he was going to mention this tonight. Obviously he will have noted that the Secretary of State said earlier last week that

which reflects what the hon. Gentleman was saying—and that

Again, I think that the hon. Gentleman and I are on the same wavelength.

I then looked at the BBC News website and saw the headline “Tories attack data-sharing plans”. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who I understand is the spokesperson on constitutional affairs for the Conservative party, has severely criticised the very idea the need for which the hon. Member for South-West Surrey is highlighting tonight—that we must get ourselves to a situation where people do not have to keep giving the same core information to different Government agencies.

So the hon. Gentleman might wish to speak— [Interruption.] No, the hon. Gentleman often talked about multiple questions being asked. As he has grave concerns in that regard, which we recognise, he needs to
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look at whether— [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) is still talking about the single benefit. [Interruption.] Well, we were trying to start with the Department for Work and Pensions. Only last week, my Secretary of State highlighted the fact that we want to consider whether we can increase data sharing, and the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on Constitutional Affairs said, “No way, Jose”—that is what the press release says. As the hon. Member for South-West Surrey has genuine concerns about multiple questions, he clearly needs to have a few words with his colleagues.

Finally, I want to deal with some of the issues highlighted in the hon. Gentleman’s comments on child poverty. He is right to highlight the fact that families with a disabled child, or a disabled carer or parent, are more at risk of poverty. The key factor in that is worklessness, as was discussed extensively in the Welfare Reform Bill Committee. That is why we have placed great emphasis on supporting into work disabled adults, many of whom are parents or carers. I have also referred to some of the success stories about lifting children—700,000 of them—out of relative poverty in the six years to 2004-05.

Angela Watkinson: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. McGuire: I do not wish to be discourteous to the hon. Lady, but in fairness to other Members I should try to draw my remarks to a close.

The review by the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills—with support from other Departments, including mine—found that many programmes and initiatives are making a real difference, and that there is widespread good practice in delivery for disabled children and young people. However, as I said at the beginning of my speech, we recognise that that good practice is not yet consistent across the country. There are also a number of areas where more work needs to be done: ensuring that information on benefits gets to parents and carers at the right time—a point that was made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett)—improving knowledge and understanding of disabled young people, and disabled people generally, in the work force; developing a coherent and clearer understanding of the disabled children population; and further integration and co-operation between services. I hope that, through the Office for Disability Issues, we engage in joint working across government.

Let me say something in a spirit of solidarity with the hon. Member for South-West Surrey: we all want the best for our children and for the next generation of young people in our country. This Government have committed unremittingly to giving disabled children and young people the right start, the right opportunities and the right support, to ensure that they have a bright future. Every child matters, and every disabled child matters—and although we might have differences on the approach to be taken, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on his party’s motion and decides that some of the comments are rather harsh in the light of our record. I ask the House to support the amendment.

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8.23 pm

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I welcome the opportunity to debate the important issues that are under discussion. Disability is a big issue for all Members and our constituents. As we have heard, many issues affect the life chances of disabled children, and they cut across the work of a number of Departments, which is why joined-up government, to which the Minister referred at the end of her speech, is so important, even though it might not always be as successfully delivered as we would hope.

Having served on the Welfare Reform Bill Committee with the Minister and the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), I had expected there to be a continuation of the positive tone that there was in Committee. I am a bit disappointed that that spirit has not been as much in evidence.

A couple of issues are key in respect of the motion, and they need to be debated: first, poverty and particularly access to employment for parents of disabled children and the operation of the benefit system; and, secondly, the quality of services provided to disabled children.

Reference has been made to the parliamentary hearings of last year that were chaired by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), and at which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) was very involved; I pay tribute to her longstanding work on the issues under discussion. At those hearings, children with disabilities and their families spoke directly about their concerns. A number of points that arose in those hearings have been put on the record, and I want to add a couple more.

One recommendation was that disabled children and their families should have an opportunity to shape the way their services are planned, commissioned and delivered. It is important to understand that the issues we are discussing affect the whole family—not only the disabled child, but also the parents and siblings of that disabled child. It is also important to recognise that improving the life chances of disabled children has a significant impact on their life chances as adults as well, in terms of educational achievement then leading to employment and higher education, and so forth. These issues are not only to do with children; they are also to do with the entire life of a disabled person.

It is worth returning to some of the key facts behind the debate. It started with a dispute about numbers in relation to the motion. However, regardless of what the exact figures are, a huge number of people across the United Kingdom are affected. In the UK, 7 per cent. of children and young people have a disability or limiting long-term condition—a total of 770,000. Of those children, 98 per cent. live at home with a parent or other family member. According to the figures that I have seen, each day in Britain 75 children are born with, or are diagnosed as having, a disability.

John Barrett: Would it not be a great help for parents of new-born children diagnosed with a disability if information were given to them very early on in a straightforward and simple manner? That would give them access at an early date to the benefits that they are entitled to.

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