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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 January 2008

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Children With Disabilities

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

9.30 am

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I am grateful to you, Mr. Cummings, for chairing this important debate and to right hon. and hon. Members who have come to participate in it.

In July 2006, there was an all-party review on the important matter of services for children with disabilities, which I chaired and which reported to the Treasury and the then Department for Education and Skills. We were assisted hugely by the Every Disabled Child Matters consortium, and we took evidence from 308 parents, professionals, disabled people and organisations across the United Kingdom. I thank Members of Parliament, including Ministers, who regarded the matter as serious and made a contribution. My colleagues would expect me to mention the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who has responsibility for disability issues and was proactive throughout our discussions and since, and the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), who was then at the Department for Work and Pensions and attended several of our sessions and showed how interested he was, particularly in what parents and children told us.

During the summer recess of 2006, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble)—I am delighted that she is here this morning, and we all know that she showed wonderful leadership—and I visited families all over the United Kingdom who had children with disabilities. We visited them in our constituencies, and we went to places such as Greater Manchester and London boroughs such as Tower Hamlets.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He says that he had discussions with various groups throughout the UK. Did the Scottish National party play any part whatever in the review? It is rather unfortunate, given that there are a number of disabled people in Scotland, that SNP Members have failed yet again to turn up for such a debate.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. I shall simply say that we tried to approach the matter on a non-party basis, but I do not recall receiving a contribution from the SNP. I am worried about that, particularly in view of the implications for disabled children and their families in Scotland. I shall return to that, but I take on board what my hon. Friend says.

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As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and I visited many families during the summer recess before our report was produced, and I thank her again for everything that she did. I wish to mention the priorities that we addressed and assess progress. We saw some fine examples of good practice, and we witnessed incredible dedication on the part of professional staff, carers, voluntary bodies and, above all, parents, very often lone parents. I shall refer later to such a family in my constituency whom I visited over the weekend.

There was much that we welcomed, and many things that represented best practice, but we saw here in modern Britain a situation that cried out for more resources. Some 55 per cent. of disabled children were living in poverty; 76 per cent. of their parents suffered from stress and depression; and 51 per cent. of families experienced financial problems. No wonder my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families who, along with Lord Adonis, invited us to set up the review, considered it such a unique problem that it should be addressed in its own right, with a specific focus on disabled children and their families. Given that the population of disabled children has grown considerably, with more children being diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders and more having complex health needs—those increases have not been matched by increased funding—the interest of my right hon. Friend and others hardly came as a surprise.

Some things that we heard from parents were deeply moving, and at times trenchant. Frustration and even anger were writ large both in the oral evidence that we heard in the House and in the things we learned when we visited families. The children’s commissioner for England, Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, said that

That comment reflected the nature of the written and oral submissions that we received.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, who is held in the highest and warmest regard in the House for his dedication to, and work on, the subject, on the review. Did he take any evidence on the arbitrary setting of age limits, which prevents people with special educational needs and disabled people from going to social clubs in the evening? In Essex, they are deemed too old at 25, and are denied the right to enjoy social development and friendship. That is an arbitrary and stupid denial of human rights for administrative convenience.

Mr. Clarke: That matter was raised, and rightly so. I hope that our recommendation that families should be involved in decisions that have an impact on them and their children will go a long way towards meeting the hon. Gentleman’s important concern.

In our report, published in October 2006, we made a plea for extra resources, along with accountability and transparency. I shall return in a moment to the priorities that we set out. We welcomed the response to our recommendations from the two Departments that invited us undertake the review. In May 2007, those Departments produced a document entitled, “Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families”, and what it said was positive. We did not get everything
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that we wanted, but importantly, the Government made a commitment to provide an additional £340 million from the comprehensive spending review, which covers three years, specifically for children with disabilities and their families, and for no other purpose.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on raising the subject. On accountability and the need to track additional resources, £34 million has been allocated to Scotland through the comprehensive spending review. Scottish families are anxious that, although the money will be tracked in England and Wales, that may not be the case in Scotland. There is deep worry that the money will be used to fill a black hole created by the Scottish Administration in their attempt to freeze council tax north of the border.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, which I hope to address while remaining within the rules of the House. There is huge concern about the matter, and rightly so, for reasons that I shall give later. The allocation of funding was intended to cover the whole of the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend raises concerns shared by many of our constituents, and I hope to return to the matter in the not-too-distant future.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) has just raised, no one is suggesting that we in Westminster should decide exactly how the £34 million should be spent in Scotland. We want an assurance that it will be allocated to support children with disabilities and their families. We do not want it to disappear into another of the SNP Administration’s pet projects. For all we know, it could be used to defray the costs of chiselling “Scottish Executive” from the front of the Scottish Parliament building, on which hundreds of thousands of pounds were spent, and putting up “Scottish Government” instead. That is not where the money should go. It should help disabled children: that is what is it for, and that is what it should be spent on.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is not only absolutely right, but he reflects the views of our constituents, which is one reason why I hope to return to this important matter.

Disabled children and their families throughout the United Kingdom should have the benefit of the reviews and the recommendations that arose from them. That applies to England, Wales, Northern Ireland and, of course, Scotland, as my hon. Friends have said. I shall examine what seems to have happened. In England, the aforementioned £340 million was supplemented with another £90 million in capital funding for short breaks, which the Department for Children, Schools and Families announced in its children’s plan in December 2007, taking the final total to an impressive £430 million. In view of some of the coverage in Scotland, I emphasise that that funding is not simply a matter for local government, important though that is: the national health service, too, is involved.

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Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on raising this important subject. Does he share my concern that when the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who is First Minister, was specifically asked about it at First Minister’s Question Time in the Scottish Parliament last month, he merely referred to the concordat with Scottish local authorities and

Those 10,000 weeks include every area of social care, such as care for the elderly and disabled adults, as well as children. My right hon. Friend makes an important point, and I take it that he believes that that money can be used by the voluntary sector, as well as by the Government and local authorities.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I want to return to the important issues that she and other hon. Members have raised, but I was aware of what the First Minister said. I would have welcomed the presence of the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) here this morning, but I know that he may have other commitments. What he said, as my hon. Friend reminded us, was reflected in a letter that he wrote to Johann Lamont, MSP:

First, that is only a commitment, and nothing more. We expected more than that, and the report demanded it. Secondly, as my hon. Friend rightly said, many of those 10,000 respite weeks properly apply to adults. Our work and recommendations specifically concerned disabled children and their families, and from what the First Minister said, that need has not been met.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman, who speaks on disability issues with an authority unrivalled in the House, referred to the role of the health service, as well as to local government’s important responsibilities. Will he take it from me that one group of very needy children and young people are those who require alternative or augmented technology to communicate and that a problem that bedevils that sector is the great network or panoply of agencies with which they or their carers must deal? We must crack that problem, so that the bureaucratic table tennis that denies them necessary equipment or delays its arrival is brought to an end.

Mr. Clarke: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) who, as always, speaks with enormous eloquence and personal knowledge of these important issues. It is immensely to his credit that he has made such a contribution in bringing these problems to the fore. I shall go on to cite our recommendations about the structure required to ensure that funding goes where it is intended to go, and I hope that that will meet some of the points that he properly made.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cannock) (Lab): I add my congratulations to those already given to my right hon. Friend on his work for children with disabilities. Has he received, as I have, representations from parents
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of children with disabilities in Scotland who are extremely concerned and feel let down, having had their hopes raised, then apparently dashed? Is he aware that although the Scottish Executive have removed ring-fencing for many issues, they have retained some funds on the basis of bidding for certain priorities? Does he agree that children with disabilities, and care for those children, should certainly be a priority?

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a point that has been made to me and, I am sure, to other Scottish Members of Parliament. Of course there is great anxiety about the matter. People want funding to go where it is intended to go, whatever mechanism is used. I shall return to that, but I assure my hon. Friend that the matter has been raised with me again and again. I can hardly believe that it has not been raised with our colleagues in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I am very much enjoying the debate. I apologise that my intervention is not about the Scottish National party or Scotland.

One of the outcomes of the right hon. Gentleman’s excellent review and our debate last year on my private Member’s Bill about children with disabilities was that the performance of local authorities and primary care trusts throughout England, and probably Scotland and Wales, was patchy in terms of provision. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on that, and has he seen anything in the welcome announcement of extra resources and follow-through that will address the situation? Is he hopeful that it will be addressed by what the Government are now doing?

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has shown a deep and genuine interest in these issues over a long time. I acknowledge his point about the patchy approach, which applies in all sorts of areas, including lack of co-ordination between agencies, particularly in terms of delivery and consultation. That view is shared by those who were on the review.

The hon. Gentleman should not worry about his views on Scotland, because I think that they will be adequately expressed during the debate, but I thank him for his interest.

I return to the analysis that I was trying to make about what has happened in the constituent parts of the United Kingdom since the additional funding was announced. The Department of Health, consistent with our recommendations, has made its contribution, too. Disabled children are the new priority for primary care trusts in the new NHS operating framework and they have new baseline funding to improve services. The Every Disabled Child Matters consortium wants a specific amount identified for each primary care trust to ensure transparency and accountability to local families. I wholeheartedly agree with that point.

In Wales and Northern Ireland, discussions are ongoing, but positive indications have been made, especially with regard to child poverty and early intervention, with an already confirmed extra £1 million for that purpose in Wales. However, to turn to the issue that my hon. Friends have been raising, I regret to say that in Scotland there is huge concern about the destination of the £34 million to which Scotland is entitled under the Barnett formula. All parties acknowledge that the money
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has come to Scotland thanks to the reviews, but now it seems that it might not be spent on the purpose for which it was clearly intended. Its purpose is for disabled children and their families. Families across the UK contributed to our thinking. It would be a tragedy if only the views of the people of Scotland—Scotland alone—were ignored. Those from Scotland who gave evidence to us could feel that their views had been apparently dismissed. Lest it be thought that some of us are being over-parochial, we are simply representing our constituents, who feel passionately, as we all do.

As I always try to be objective in these matters, I turn now to the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls), who, in fairness, was the man largely responsible for everything that took place. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, as he now is, said in the main Chamber on 11 December:

It is for hon. Members to make a judgment about the views of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has done so much in this field. However, I have to say that if representations to me from Scotland show, as I believe they do, the strong views of the Scottish people—particularly those who speak for disabled families and their children—what my right hon. Friend said in the House reflects those strong views.

There are people who argue that ring-fencing is inappropriate—it is important that I come to that issue at this point—and they are entitled to their view. As an ex-president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I know where they are coming from. However, that need not be the issue. In the review that I chaired, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, we offered options in terms of accountability. We said, in an important part of our review:

That is all we ask. In Scotland, as elsewhere, that is what we want. Disabled children and their families deserve no less. Why? We gave the reasons in the priorities that we set, which apparently persuaded the Government.

Ann McKechin: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that any Executive or Government with control of those funds must properly, openly and transparently account for how they have spent them and report to their respective Parliaments—or to the Assembly in Wales—on how the money has been spent, so that the families of disabled children can clearly see where the money has been spent and what the benefit of the expenditure has been?

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