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I have spoken to parents and staff in Blackpool, and I have also visited a children’s home on Hornby road, where a new respite service will be provided. I have been able to reassure people that what happened there highlighted the anxiety of parents. When people get care in one particular way, they do not always trust the
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local authority to provide it in another way. I have to congratulate Blackpool council on the way in which it is dealing with that problem by helping parents and reassuring them. Another thing that I found when I visited Hornby road was not only how committed the staff are, but the way in which they tailor respite care to the needs of a particular child. Each room is altered for any new child who comes in. A young man was coming in who had autistic spectrum disorder and he had great difficulty in listening to verbal instructions, so the staff put up printed notices in readiness for his arrival. They altered one room by putting in toys that a particular child wanted. It is exactly that sort of attention to detail that is so important.

I could list some of the other good things that my local authority does—no doubt it would want me to—but I shall skip over them because even though it tells me that no families are waiting for care, there are families who would like more care. A wide range of services are offered in Blackpool, but staff tell me that they have problems in dealing with many of the children I mentioned earlier—those with behavioural problems, disabilities and Asperger’s—because they do not fall within the remit of the children with disabilities team. Other organisations have raised that issue with me, and it was also raised in the No. 10 strategy unit report. That report detailed the fact that eligibility criteria can exclude disabled children with significant needs. The report noted that eligibility criteria can exclude disabled children with significant needs. It gives an example of a local authority’s eligibility criteria:

In other words, some of the children who need the care most are excluded because of definitions. Children with mental health problems are also excluded.

The strategy unit report continues:

That leads us back neatly to the crux of the debate about the Bill.

Mr. Dhanda: My hon. Friend makes a relevant point about locally set eligibility criteria and our concerns about the Bill, although we welcome its principles. If we enforce a local duty, locally set eligibility criteria could be jeopardised further. My hon. Friend has already outlined her concern that the threshold should be shifted up rather than down.

Mrs. Humble: My hon. Friend is right to point out the tension between the Government setting standards and local authorities’ implementation of them to meet the assessed needs in their area. The Government have set many fine policies. For example, standard 8 of the national service framework for children for England provides that local authorities and primary care trusts should ensure:

However, that does not happen everywhere. If we allow local authorities full scope to develop services for their areas, children’s needs will not be met in some areas. If the Government do not want to place a duty on local authorities—I understand my hon. Friend the Minister’s reservations about that—they must examine other ways of achieving the outcome that we all want.

Measures can be put in place to ensure the implementation of what the Government set out in the national service framework. In the “Every Child Matters” programme, the Government state that they are committed to increasing funding for short-term breaks through the carer’s grant. This week, an announcement was made of additional money for emergency respite care. However, we must recognise that we have a responsibility to ensure that, in allowing local government choices—I was a local councillor for 12 years and therefore understand the importance of local decision making—we do not allow the number of children who are currently let down by the system to continue to be let down.

Mr. Flello: Does my hon. Friend agree that the families who are in the most need are often the least able to lobby, cajole and persuade to get the services?

Mrs. Humble: My hon. Friend is right. How many times have we said that those who shout loudest get the service? However, families should not have to shout. They should not have to march with banners to demand services. The services should be provided and they should be co-ordinated from the beginning. When a child is identified as having a disability, there should be full co-ordination between health and social care, and key worker provision to lead the family through the morass of services that may or may not be available and offer them advice. It should not be the ones who shout the loudest but those in greatest need who get the services. Those who are assessed as having a need should have the services.

The hon. Member for South-West Devon mentioned the legal status of children who use the short-break provision. Given the time, I simply emphasise his point rather than go into detail. However, the Government need to examine the legal status of looked-after children who are placed for a short break of 24 hours, because local authorities act in different ways. They get conflicting advice from inspectors, many of whom are equally unclear about the status of overnight short breaks. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will examine the confusion that appears to exist in the current regulations and sort it out so that families and service providers know exactly what they should be doing.

I want to emphasise that the consequences of failure to provide sufficient short-term breaks are too serious for us to allow the position to continue. One parent told the parliamentary hearings:

The Minister and the Government face challenges. I hope that my hon. Friend will rise to them. The debate
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will continue. I am pleased that the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills review acknowledges the importance of improving services for children with disabilities, including short breaks.

The challenge to the Government is not only financial. Yes, we need the money through the comprehensive spending review to build capacity in the system, but if the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave £150 million tomorrow, he would not help the families because we need a planned process of building capacity. That includes recruiting trained staff and carers, developing Family Links, residential respite care and the range of the services that families need. I therefore look to my hon. Friend the Minister to consider, as part of his work, how best that can be done.

Mr. Andrew Smith: Should not the Government do more to identify, celebrate and spread best practice to widen the diversity of provision that my hon. Friend rightly stresses? Let me commend one example from my constituency, where we are fortunate to have students from Oxford Brookes university and Oxford university, who work through the Kids Enjoy Exercise Now—KEEN—network, which is established in some parts of the United Kingdom and the United States. It provides games and enjoyment on a Saturday afternoon for teenagers. The age difference between those who help provide the activity and those who enjoy it is not so great. It gives parents a break and does not cost much. If students in some places can do it, could not we ensure such provision everywhere?

Mrs. Humble: I agree with my right hon. Friend. I gave some examples of good practice from Blackpool. One is similar to the one that he cited. My local authority runs a summer play scheme that has children with disabilities engaging in all sorts of activities, some sporting and strenuous and others less so, including origami. There is good practice, which needs to be spread. However, in some areas, the facilities do not exist and there are no people who can deliver the sort of practice that my right hon. Friend identified.

Mark Williams: There are particular problems in rural areas. The hon. Lady mentioned the need to increase capacity, but simple issues such as finding a care worker with an NVQ in health and social care—NVQ H—in a scattered rural area such as my constituency to provide such services is especially difficult, even for the voluntary sector. However, as the hon. Lady said, the important message is about increasing capacity wherever one lives.

Mrs. Humble: That is an important point, and I agree absolutely. Of course it is easier to improve capacity in an urban area, where there is access to more people, buildings and organisations that can become involved. It is much more difficult to do that in rural areas, but it is not impossible. I am sure that the Minister will work out a way of doing that. He will look at ensuring that wherever a child lives, the child and its family should have access to a range of good-quality short breaks, and that the people who
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provide them should be trained and properly equipped to provide for the health and social care needs of the children.

We need to ensure that the resources are made available. The forthcoming comprehensive spending review is the lifeline that families are clinging to. The Government must not let them down.

11.11 am

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). She made an excellent contribution not only today but in last month’s debate on improving the life chances of disabled children.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) on bringing his private Member’s Bill before the House. He has been an MP for 14 years, but I do not believe that he has had a private Member’s Bill before. During those 14 years, however, he has developed a high reputation for campaigning for the needs of the socially disadvantaged, whether for better treatment for drug addicts in his constituency or for the needs of poorer people in the developing world, during his time as shadow Secretary of State for International Development or now, as chairman of the Conservative party’s human rights commission. It is characteristic of him that he should use his precious private Member’s Bill slot to campaign for another extremely disadvantaged group—disabled children and their families. I commend him for doing that.

I also commend the efforts of the Every Disabled Child Matters consortium, led most ably by Steve Broach, and its constituent organisations, Contact a Family, Mencap, the Council for Disabled Children, and the Special Educational Consortium. I have been shadow Minister for disabled people for just over a year. It seems to me that the problems and challenges that disabled children and their families face are one of the most pressing issues, if not the most pressing, among the range of issues in the entire disability agenda. The efforts of the Every Disabled Child Matters consortium have moved the issue right up the political agenda, and it is to be congratulated on doing that.

I think my hon. Friend understands that, as the official Opposition, we are not able to support the Bill, not because we disagree with his powerful and eloquent arguments, nor because we think that what he said was not valid. We intend to be a responsible Government—indeed, the kind of responsible Government who deal with precisely the issues that he outlined, if they have not been dealt with by the time we get to power. If we want to be a responsible Government, we have to be a responsible Opposition. We have no idea what the fiscal or financial environment will be after the next general election, which could be as many as three years away.

I reassure my hon. Friend, however, that the issues he raised would have the highest priority under a future Conservative Government. That commitment comes right from the top. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has spoken on many occasions of the need to improve respite provision. The Conservative party’s statement of values, “Built to Last”, which was mailed to all Conservative party members last autumn,
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and voted on and accepted with an overwhelming majority, stated that one of the key priorities of a Conservative Government would be clearer rights to respite care, so the commitment runs right through our party.

Why do we give such a high priority to the issue? One reason is to do with simple demographics. The number of disabled children is increasing at a significant rate. In 1975, there were 476,000 disabled children, but the figure has now risen to closer to 772,000. According to Mencap, the number of disabled children has doubled, increasing from 25,000 in 1988 to 49,000 now. Some people say that the figure is nearer to 75,000. Nearly 100 severely disabled children are born every week and there are probably 400,000 families in the United Kingdom bringing up a disabled child.

One of the most striking things about meeting families with disabled children is the tremendous bond between parent and child. I remember meeting a mother of a four-year-old boy with severe cerebral palsy. He could not walk, talk or eat unassisted, and often he could not sleep; but what he could do was communicate with his mother through his eyes. That was an incredible thing to see. Those parents want to focus all their energy and attention on the child, but the system makes them focus it all on the disability. That is why it is so important that we have this debate.

There has been a lot of discussion in the media this week about the role of families, prompted by the tragic murder of Billy Cox. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has led the national debate, by saying that if we are to deal with the root causes of the problems we must look at family breakdown. Disabled children, too, suffer from family breakdown. The Mencap report to which my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon alluded stated that eight out of 10 families with disabled children say that they are at breaking point because of a lack of access to short break provision, while 76 per cent. say that the pressures and stress of bringing up a disabled child are bringing them close to the point of family breakdown. Indeed, 9 per cent. of such families say that their situation has directly led to separation. The result is an army of lone parents battling against the odds to bring up a disabled child. How ironic it is that the very moment at which families most need the support of two loving parents is the precise moment at which they are most likely to break up.

John Mann: This is perhaps an appropriate time to ask the hon. Gentleman precisely how much additional money he anticipates committing to the issue, because being in government is about making such priorities. In the context of the youth social services budgets that are about to made throughout the country, will he commend those local authorities that increase their social services budgets for such provision in the next few weeks?

Mr. Hunt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He will have heard earlier that the estimated costs of the measures in the Bill are thought to be between £150 million and £200 million. However, as I was about to indicate, there is a much wider issue about the type of support that we give to families with disabled children. I urge him to address his comments
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to those on his own Front Bench, who are in a position to decide whether they want to make that investment. We are in opposition, and, as I have said, as a responsible Opposition we are not going to make financial commitments when we do not know what the fiscal environment might be if we took office.

John Mann: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I hear his answer, or non-answer, to one half of my question. On the second half, social services budgets are being set—for example, by Nottinghamshire county council—in the next few weeks. Should such councils increase their budgets to allow better provision for my constituents who have disabled children? When they set their budgets next month, should they spend more money?

Mr. Hunt: I hope that all social services departments make adequate provision for disabled children, but the financial environment that those departments live in is largely affected by national Government decisions and the funding settlement that they receive from the Government. It is not simply in the gift of local social services departments to increase spending to the levels that they want if the funding settlement from national Government has not been generous, as I know from my own county council, Surrey, which I think receives the second least-generous financial settlement in the country. It is therefore finding it difficult to offer the support that it would like to.

Returning to the argument that I was making, family breakdown leads to social breakdown for many sections of society and the same is true for disabled children. One example of that is the school exclusion statistics, which the Minister, who is from the Department for Education and Skills, will know well. A disabled child is 13 times more likely to be excluded than a non-disabled child, and 64 per cent. of exclusions are of children with special educational needs. Disability is a challenge not just for disabled people, but for us all.

Mr. Swayne: Has my hon. Friend shared my experience of surgeries and been faced with a family who are at breaking point—at the end of their tether—because of the hoops that they have been made to jump through simply to obtain a statement of special educational need? I have had that experience with well-educated families who have been in tears at my surgery because of such a situation. I just wonder how on earth those who are less articulate and less well educated manage to cope.

Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important and powerful point. I have two constituents whom I met in the last six months and who said that they have had to spend more than £10,000 on legal fees to get the education package that they require. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney set up a special educational needs commission under Sir Robert Balchin to consider whether the statementing process can be improved so that it is easier to deal with not just for articulate parents, but for parents who do not have the same advantages, so that they too can benefit from the right education package.

Mr. Dhanda rose—

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