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16 Jan 2008 : Column 269WH—continued

10.22 am

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): My special thanks go to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) for securing this important debate. As we heard in his eloquent introduction, he cares passionately about the issue and, from the attendance, we can see that many other colleagues care likewise.

As my right hon. Friend said in his introduction, we were honoured to be invited by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and our noble Friend Lord Adonis to lead what were groundbreaking and unique parliamentary hearings on the concerns of families with children with disability. In so doing, we heard some heart-rending testimony from the families and from professionals who cared for the children. Interestingly, in the body of the report produced after those hearings, there is polling evidence that, unusually, the views of service recipients match those of service deliverers. Both families and social care professionals, and some health professionals, felt that an inadequate service was being delivered.

We knew that something needed to be done. We argued for additional resources but, more importantly in a way, we argued for administrative changes and changes of attitude toward children with disability. Until we change society’s attitudes and those of the professionals who support families, we will not effect change. Simply putting money into the system will not work unless it is backed by changes in procedures and attitudes.

If nothing else, the report provided an evidence base on which the Government could act—I was pleased by their response—but we also put the needs of children with disability on centre stage in Parliament. The charities that supported the hearings came together to set up the consortium whose Every Disabled Child Matters campaign is going out into the country. No Member of Parliament is unaware of that, and local authorities and health authorities know about it—everybody in the country knows of the campaign. We put the issue on the top of the agenda.

We raised many hopes and expectations, so it was rewarding to get the cheque at the end of the day, by which I mean that the Government allocated money to short breaks. One of the key matters identified in our report was that having some respite was the difference
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between families who coped and those who collapsed. In giving £340 million to short breaks, the Government recognised that they are a key and essential part of the needs of families with disabilities.

I wish to talk about some of the key issues on which we need to see progress that the report identified, but I first wish to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). He made some serious and important remarks, and I share many of his views, especially on the pilot. We need assurance that the Government learn from the pilots that they set up, and that they ensure their sustainability. Our inquiry identified good practice in the early support pilots, especially on the development of a key worker system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and the hon. Gentleman are concerned about early intervention, but, actually, improvements on that took place through the early support programme. Under the programme, local government works with health services in a much more co-ordinated manner, so that when a child with complex needs is born, there is early intervention and a key worker to support the family. A wide variety of professionals may still be involved, but instead of the parents having to cope with those different professionals, they can ring up just one person, who then sorts out and advises the professionals before the key meetings that the families must attend to determine their child’s future.

We recommended that lessons needed to be learned from the early support pilots and the development of key workers. In fact, we wanted key workers to be part of the system throughout a child’s life, rather than only in those early years. That is not to say that every family needs a key worker—clearly, they do not. Some children do not need a key worker, but those with complex, multiple needs may need one. We need to ensure that advice is available. If I can make one plea to the Minister this morning, it is that we ensure that the changes that the Government are introducing are properly embedded in the system and that the availability of financial resources and the administrative changes are sustainable.

Many such changes are taking place, especially in local government, and they offer huge opportunities. The development of children’s trusts and the coming together of local authority children’s departments with health professionals and other statutory and voluntary agencies—multi-disciplinary working—offers the way forward for providing a much simpler system for parents to work their way through. We need to ensure that that happens.

I gave my apologies this morning to the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member, but I want briefly to refer to the Committee’s work. We have undertaken an inquiry into child poverty and social mobility. We have not yet produced a report, but we heard a huge amount of evidence about the poverty suffered by families that have children with disability.

I know that it is not part of the Minister’s remit, but I hope that when our report is published he will consider it, working with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to see what can be done to support those families, especially the changes proposed to the Government’s welfare to work programme that will require lone parents to move from income support to jobseeker’s allowance when their children reach the age
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of 10, and then at seven. For many families who have disabled children, that is not practical, because child care and other support is not available.

I know that the Department for Children, Schools and Families, under the excellent Childcare Act 2006, is developing and enhancing child care provision. The legislation contains a specific reference to children with disability. However, the Government have a lot of balls up in the air. I want to ensure that they are all caught in the right sequence. It is a juggling act. The Minister must ensure that, as changes are made in one area, they do not have an adverse impact on other areas and that all the improvements come into place at the same time to ensure that families, especially families with children with disability, can benefit from them.

I conclude with a positive statement. I had intended to talk a little more about the Select Committee report and other outstanding issues, but I want to emphasise the fact that our responsibility is to ensure one thing. Although families with children with disability can suffer problems, and we can help them overcome those problems, we should remember that a child with disability can also bring great joy to the family. When I visit special schools—I usually visit mainstream schools—I have huge fun with the children, because they are often the ones to ask the most difficult questions. I was intrigued by a report recently published by the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign. Parents were asked what they wanted, and parents obviously wanted more support. Disabled children were then asked what they wanted—more fun things to do was the answer. They are children. They may have a disability, but we must not forget that they are children. Let us make sure that they have more fun things to do, so that they can enjoy their childhood, as should all children. I hope that the Minister will consider what we have said about the needs of the parents and the families, but it is the needs of the child that should come first. They want to be children, and to be treated as children.

10.33 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I am delighted to be able to sum up on behalf of the Liberal Democrats; I have just been appointed the party’s disability spokesman, and this is my first debate in post.

I thank the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) for triggering the debate and for his well-thought-out introduction. I also thank the hon. Members for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) for their excellent contributions.

I have had many discussions over the years with the right hon. Gentleman about international development issues, and I suspect that we might have a few more in the years to come about disability issues. We know that both subjects affect the lives of the most vulnerable children, in this country and elsewhere in the world. After many years on my party’s international development team, I have witnessed at first hand children suffering from the most horrendous disabilities—some man-made, others easily avoided. Before I consider the issue closer to home, I would like to say a few words about the wider problem.


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We must not forget the millions of children who will never have access to the services that we aspire to in this country. I think of those young children whom I met in Sierra Leone with the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), children whose limbs had been macheted off deliberately to disable them and to burden their families. I think also of others who have lost their sight because of river blindness, despite the fact that the annual cost of protecting one person against that disease is only 12p.

Although we are discussing services for children with disabilities in this country, we must continue to press for improvements for those living in the developing world, who can only dream of the level of service that we have here at present—children whose lives are already difficult enough. However, there is much to be done, and many issues need to be addressed here at home.

This should not be a party political issue, as the welfare and provision of services for children with disabilities is something that no party would not wish to improve. I look forward to working with the Minister, and with the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, in a constructive way. Indeed, it was at Capability Scotland in my constituency that the leader of the Conservative party launched a major statement on his party’s commitment to the issue late in 2006. I have seen at first hand the excellent work done by that organisation—for the avoidance of doubt, I mean Capability Scotland—as it works with children and parents to bring out the potential of those children receiving its support.

Much good work is being done by many excellent organisations throughout the country. However, when the services for disabled children and their families are described as a national scandal, as they were by the Children’s Commissioner for England, something is clearly wrong, and no stone should be left unturned in the search for ways to improve those services. I will not repeat the concerns raised on five or six occasions about the situation in Scotland; I simply ask the Minister and his colleague to make representations to the Secretary of State for Scotland to stress the point to the First Minister at the earliest possible opportunity. It is a serious concern north of the border.

The scale of the problem is huge, and the numbers of children requiring support services is growing. In the United Kingdom, there are more than half a million disabled children under the age of 16; 98 per cent. of disabled children live at home and are supported by their families; and 55 per cent. of disabled children grow up in, or at the margins of, poverty. Disabled children are 13 times more likely to be excluded from school. More recently, we have become much more aware of those who are bullied at school, and the support they need to cope—and to stop it happening in the first place.

Working with a disabled child can not only be exhausting: it can also be the most rewarding experience imaginable. I pay tribute to the many often unsung heroes in that field—the parents and the workers who make the difference. Often, they provide the most basic service, but it can transform a life, providing the love and care that develops the dignity that should be experienced by us all, and not only by the able-bodied.


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The support offered should say that we are all equal, even if moving towards that will be a real struggle for many. Sometimes that struggle will be physical, at others emotional, and it can also be a financial struggle. The facts are stark. The income of families with disabled children is 23 per cent. below the UK average, yet it costs up to three times as much to raise a disabled child as it does to raise a child without disabilities. Families with disabled children spend approximately 10 times as much on loan repayments a week compared with the UK average. Caring for a disabled child can cause many other problems; stress, depression and lack of sleep are commonly experienced by parents and carers.

Accessing the support available from Departments—the benefits, the local authority services and negotiating the maze of paperwork and bureaucracy involved—is hard enough for most people, but for those with a disabled child the problems multiply. Half of the appeals against disability living allowance awards are upheld, which shows how many mistakes are made. That is why some time ago I produced a special needs pack for those of my constituents who are parents of children with disabilities. It was intended to make it as simple as possible to access everything to which they were entitled to in my constituency.

I therefore urge the Minister and the Minister with responsibility for disabled people to develop such a pack, making it available to all mothers who have the experience of giving birth to a disabled child. From day one, they should have the support to which they are entitled, rather than finding out, sometimes years after the child is born, that they have been unaware of help that could have changed their lives.

For disabled children to have a future, many will require work when they become adults. It is therefore a real concern that although many disabled adults are ready, able and willing to work, half of them are not in employment. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government will do to work with groups, organisations, business and the community to ensure that disabled children have a future to look forward to—one in which many of them can play a full part and which includes having access to a reasonable income that they have earned.

In a Mencap survey, eight out of 10 families with severely disabled children described themselves as being at breaking point. Improving the situation for parents with disabled children must therefore be a priority, so I was delighted when the children’s plan, which was mentioned earlier, was published. Crucially, it was published alongside a commitment to make an extra £90 million available to help local authorities provide accessible short breaks. Like other hon. Members, I was encouraged by the Prime Minister’s words about carers early last week, and I would appreciate any indication from the Minister as to the likely impact on those caring for children with disabilities.

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families described the aiming high commitments as a down payment on change. Today’s debate has highlighted some of the changes that I and others would like to see, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we can work together to deliver them.
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10.41 am

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), although it is hardly necessary to do so, because his reputation on this issue goes before him. I congratulate him not only on securing the debate, but on all the work that he and the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) have done, which he and other hon. Members mentioned.

This has been a good debate, and we have had some interesting and well-informed contributions, although hon. Members may be forgiven for thinking that they had stumbled into a debate not only about services for children with disabilities, but about services for children with disabilities in Scotland and the responsibilities of the Scottish Administration under the leadership of the Scottish National party and its First Minister, the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who is turning out to be a bit of a stinker on disability issues, allegedly.

Notwithstanding that, there have been some interesting contributions from south of the border. There is a panoply of talent, not least among my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who speaks on disability issues for the Conservative party. I was glad that he mentioned the way in which his local council is working with parents to devise a service that they want and need, rather that one that it is convenient for the council to provide. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who has just left the Chamber, has a long-standing interest in this issue, and I am glad that he was here for most of the debate. We look forward to the responses to the review that he is undertaking. The work of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) on this issue is also well known, and he made a good point about the patchy provision—the postcode lottery—that often characterises services for children with disabilities. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood made an important point about juggling balls—whatever those balls might be. She mentioned the short breaks scheme, which is very important, and we welcome the resources that the Government have provided for it. As she said, it can make the difference between families with disabled children coping or collapsing, and the scheme’s sustainability is crucial, as my hon. Friends, too, noted. As I said, we have had some excellent contributions.

This is an important subject. There are 777,000 disabled children in this country, which is about 7 per cent. of the child population. Thanks to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and other hon. Members, the issue has moved up the political agenda. I certainly applaud and endorse the sentiment and commitment that the Government have shown in providing extra resources and in responding to the review led by the right hon. Gentleman with the measures in “Aiming high”. It behoves us to applaud families and carers of children with disabilities for their enormous dedication and the enormous amount of work that they do. Without them, the job of the state would be enormously greater and more expensive for us all.


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In the few minutes that I have, I want to touch on a number of issues, including the important issue of respite care. The Council for Disabled Children has noted that the cost of providing 100,000 children with respite care is equivalent to the cost of providing residential care for 1,000 children. Only one in 13 families of disabled children benefit from any kind of support service. It is a false economy not to provide families with preventive support services that could make the difference between coping and collapsing, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood said.

We should make the job of families easier, not put obstacles in their way, but the benefits system remains too complicated for people with disabled children. The Child Poverty Action Group has made several recommendations, and noted that the lack of information about the disability living allowance

It adds that we need a

It says that the benefit system must be improved and that the administration must be simplified. Finally, it says that there must be more information and that we must use national and local statistics. We know the exact extent of the problem, and Conservative Members want a single assessment process, so that we can improve access to the wide variety of benefits and social, health, education and respite services that are available.

Several hon. Members mentioned the link between disability and poverty, and I do not intend to repeat the figures. However, an enormous number of families live in unbearable poverty because they have to care for family members. Half of those families have no savings. Families of children with disabilities suffer major discrimination in the education system, too, and children with disabilities are more than twice as likely as able-bodied children to have no qualifications. They are at least twice as likely to be bullied in school and eight times as likely to be excluded. As for the benefits system, 85 per cent. of parents of disabled children want to work full-time or part-time, but despite those aspirations, only 16 per cent. of mothers of disabled children are in work, compared with more than 60 per cent. of all mothers.

Notwithstanding the Childcare Act 2006—I served on the Committee that considered that measure—provisions and care for disabled children still do not go far enough. The Act did not do enough to improve the quality and appropriateness of the services available to families with disabled children, so more needs to be done on that. The problem is the patchiness or the postcode lottery mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon.


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