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22 July 2008 : Column 207WH—continued

It is also important that there is co-ordination on how such information is shared. It does not necessarily need to be shared by saying, for example, “Jane Smith has been born; she has this and that disability and you will need to do X to support her and her family.” Information can be shared numerically. We can look at groups of children and plan services for them. Parents think that we already do that, but it is not happening, and we need to look at ways of doing it to make their lives much easier. We can then have the sort of housing strategy that we are talking about. Similarly, housing must be included in the core offer that will be available
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to families through the Aiming High for Disabled Children programme. As local authorities liaise with families in such circumstances, they should consider housing.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North said in her excellent speech, we must consider the space that many such families need, and the disabled child’s need for a bedroom and toilet facilities. The need for toilet facilities causes more problems than anything else as children grow older, because if there is no downstairs toilet or bathroom, families cannot lift them up and down stairs. In many houses, through-floor lifts are impractical, and stair lifts, if families can get them, are not always suitable for disabled children. We must ensure that housing authorities, developers and providers understand what we mean by providing appropriate space and adaptations in homes.

I visited a home in my constituency that had been specially built for a family with three sons who all had muscular dystrophy. The house looked wonderfully spacious and had a huge kitchen and living room. When it was built, it served the children’s needs, but when I met those boys they were young men in their early 20s. The house that had been perfectly adequate for them when they were younger was no longer adequate for them, and I liaised with the family about alternatives such as providing independent accommodation for those young men. Even when a problem seems to have been solved, that might no longer be the case as children grow older and the space that has been made available is no longer enough.

My hon. Friend talked about the importance of housing as a risk factor. It is not only a risk factor in the sense that there is risk to the child of having an accident at home; there is also risk to the family of breakdown and abuse. If a family suffers much anxiety and stress because of the housing in which they live, it may, sadly, result in physical violence among family members, including the disabled child. A family’s housing situation can also put pressure on the services that are available to them. If their circumstances are so inadequate that they cannot cope with the pressures as a family, they will make more demands on everybody else, such as demands for short breaks or demands on the health service. If the home situation is sorted, the family might not need as many services. They will need some, and those services need to be available, but some of the pressure on services that provide short breaks, for example, comes about because families cannot cope in their current circumstances.

I hope that the Minister will be proactive in this matter, and that he will look to the responsibilities of local government. I hope that he will take into account the modern building techniques that housing developers can use, which have been implemented in certain areas. New properties can be constructed in such a way that adaptations can easily be made, such as moving light switches up and down. One of my brothers is an architect and he tells me about all the new things that are available. We should be using them. We should no longer be building little boxes that cannot be adapted—something that undermines the things we are talking about. We need properties that can be adapted easily to the family’s needs, whatever they are—whether the family have a disabled child or, later, an elderly relative living in the home, who could equally benefit from adaptations to it.

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Let us remember that in this debate we are talking about children. They may be disabled children, but they are children first. They should have opportunities to play and to have private time to themselves. When they become teenagers, what teenager wants their mother or father to carry them to the toilet and supervise them in there, and carry them back out? Let us remember that they are children and we should give them the sort of life chances that any child should have. Their housing needs are part of that.

3.11 pm

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing it in the last gasp of the parliamentary term before we rise for the recess. I congratulate, too, the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on pulling together information in a pretty neglected area. The report makes it explicit that it is difficult to drill down to the numbers of affected individuals. At one end of the spectrum the figure appears to be enormous. According to the Government’s own estimates, 770,000 children in the UK have a disability, based on the definitions in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which cover a wide range of disabilities from severe physical impairment to behavioural difficulties. The hon. Lady elucidated the wide range of demands that that might place on housing needs, which can create difficulties in responding. There may be some common factors relating to space, but the differing needs of children in different areas, with different disabilities, make co-ordination quite complicated, and that needs much better understanding at local level.

We can talk in very broad terms about the number of young people with a disability, but the report made it clear that much of the more detailed work that it has been possible to carry out has focused on children with severe disabilities. We need to know an awful lot more about the whole spectrum of disabilities. We need much more information so that we can be better placed to understand the problem as well as to find solutions.

The report was also excellent at raising the wide range of challenges posed when families live with and care for a disabled child. The issue is not simply access. That is an easy assumption that is made all too often. There may be a need for appropriate family space or sleeping accommodation, or the issues may be wider housing conditions, safety or overcrowding. It is disturbing that families with a disabled child are 50 per cent. more likely than other families to be overcrowded. That is quite a startling statistic. One of the other factors that can be thrown into the mix, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) has mentioned, is the fact that people’s needs and requirements are likely to change over time. That means that flexibility is needed in assessment, so that there is not just one point at which a young person is assessed, when their need base is established for the future. What is needed is an almost continual review process, so that as the family and young person change, their needs are met.

It is disturbing that housing is not the priority when many issues relating to meeting disabled young people’s needs are discussed in local and central Government.
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We see from the report that all too often disabled facilities grants become the gateway for a wide assessment of the appropriateness of housing. People who do not fall into the relevant category or make the application seem to fall through the net altogether. At central Government level, the work that has been undertaken has not focused on housing. Aiming High for Disabled Children was largely focused on health and social care for young people. The focus in the Department for Children, Schools and Families has, again, been on special needs education provision, rather than on considering the impact that housing could have. It is difficult to see how we can ensure that it fits into the equation. The Minister is a housing Minister, so it will be good to hear how his Department plans to co-ordinate with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the Department of Health, to ensure that all the issues properly join up.

Exactly the same challenges face central and local government. The hon. Lady spoke about the additional challenges posed by two-tier authorities in trying to marry up all the issues. What is happening in the context that we are considering is probably an example of a wider problem: the silo approach to delivering services at local or national Government level, or both. I can think of examples involving families with disabled children when it has been incredibly frustrating to try to join up all the different Departments, and the support that the family were trying to get. Probably most of my surgeries include a handful of people who come with a problem that has been caused by difficulty in joining different Departments together. The concern, where disabled children are concerned, is the extra vulnerability in the mix, which means that it should be even more of a priority to resolve the issues.

The report is explicit in its recommendations to central and local government about getting recognition in local and regional planning of the needs of disabled children, such as space requirements and the need for living and communal space. It also flags up the lack of any requirement to ensure that a disabled child has their own bedroom. Not being able to provide that will, in many cases, have a massive impact on the whole family’s quality of life and ability to cope. The report is also explicit about the need to get central and local government to join up, and makes helpful suggestions about identifying a senior officer to be responsible for co-ordination, and getting housing on to the list of factors that need to be considered when assessments are made. Those are practical things that could be done fairly easily, by local authorities pushing best practice and through clear guidance and expectation from central Government. I look forward to the Minister’s response to those specific proposals, which would make the process much easier.

Three other issues need to be considered more widely, however. I have already touched on the first one, which is about not just catering for disabled children’s housing needs, but the management of their transition into adulthood. Some of the young people whom this debate is about will be severely disabled, and reliant on carers—usually their families—to look after them for the rest of their lives; but some will expect to live independently at some point. There are questions to be addressed about ensuring that their needs are met not just when they are children, but when they are adults. A figure that struck me in the evidence submitted by the Joseph Rowntree
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Foundation in support of the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign document showed the availability of specially adapted accommodation.

The most telling statistic is that less than half of disabled children who require specially adapted homes live in suitable accommodation. That contrasts with the 80 per cent. of people aged 65 or over living in accommodation that is specifically adapted to their needs. Clearly, there is much better performance in respect of the older age range, where there is a wider expectation that access and other issues will be addressed. The second most shocking statistic is that only 60 per cent. of people aged 16 to 44 live in accommodation that is adapted to their needs, so although it is worst for young people, it is pretty bad for young adults, too. The transition must be managed, and I wonder whether it might be more difficult now that child services and adult services have been separated. I can think of examples in my constituency whereby families have had real difficulties getting their child’s needs met during the transition. They are suddenly treated as a different person in respect of the requirements that must be met once they hit 18 years old. There are equivalent challenges in meeting their housing needs, and the issue needs to be addressed.

The provision of housing for disabled adults also needs to be addressed. We know that disabled children are more likely to live in poverty, but children are also more likely to live in poverty if their parents are disabled. It is important that we address the needs—particularly the housing needs—of any family facing a disability, whether a child’s or an adult’s, because it will impact on their quality of life, on their space requirements and on many other considerations.

More widely, how much do local authorities actually know about the scale of the problem and the level of need in their area? We know, broadly, the numbers of children living with a disability and the qualitative information about young people with specific, severe disabilities, but we have no sense of what is going on across the piece. There is a wide variety of need in different areas, so what will the Minister do to help local authorities undertake a basic fact-finding exercise to ensure that the proposals are based on assessed needs rather than on central estimates?

The debate about the prioritisation of families with disabled children and their lack of access to housing is almost academic unless the fundamental issue about the lack of social housing is addressed. Some 1.6 million people are on social housing lists, and the Local Government Association predicts that the number will reach 2 million by 2010. That is important for families with disabled children, because they are more likely to be tenants than homeowners. From talking to housing officers in my constituency, I know that the biggest shortage is in decent-sized family accommodation. A few months back, I asked them about the property turnover that they expected, because the biggest reason why people turn up at my constituency surgery is housing and an inability to find appropriate housing. Those people are often families, and while it is easy to say that a disabled child should automatically have their own room, if only a handful of family-sized houses changes hands over one year, only those with the most acute needs will have their requirements met. That may mean
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that not all the needs of families with disabled children in the area will be met, so unless something is done to address the wider problems, families with disabled children will still be in a difficult situation.

Ms Keeble: Given that the hon. Lady’s party is committed to tax cuts and to cutting public spending, how would she increase spending to meet people’s profound need for social housing, let alone for disabled housing?

Julia Goldsworthy: We have not committed to tax cuts; we have said that the burden of taxation falls unfairly on those on the lowest incomes. Our priority should be that problem’s resolution, and I hope that the hon. Lady agrees.

A constituent of mine has a disabled son and lives in terrible circumstances, but the local authority uses the existing rules on needs assessment, and the disability is exacerbating matters. My constituent lives in the same property as her abusive ex-partner, she has a child on the at-risk register and she cannot leave because she has been told that she will lose her tenancy and be judged intentionally homeless. It has caused many problems, but the fact that she has a son with learning disabilities should not be the reason why the situation is unacceptable; wider issues need to be resolved. There needs to be a fundamental consideration of how to meet the challenges of social housing.

The Housing Corporation will not meet its target for building social housing this year. The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood discussed requirements, including ensuring that new homes are adaptable and accessible, but the discussion is academic unless we build new social homes. The building of social housing is no longer cyclical to the housing market; it is in sync with the cycle. Now that there are wider difficulties in the house building market, my concern is that the availability of social housing will dry up even more.

Mrs. Humble: The hon. Lady is quite right to say that we need to build houses in a different way and ensure that they are adaptable to a variety of different needs. However, does she agree that there are families living in homes that need not major but fairly minor adaptations, but that, often, the families are unaware of them? Toilets, for example once more, can be adapted so that children and adults with a disability can use them. People need to have information and resources to access the easy adaptations to their premises.

Julia Goldsworthy: The hon. Lady is right that in tackling the issue, there is a series of needs: the wider supply of social housing, awareness, joining up the delivery of local services, and Departments ensuring that the issue is on the agenda. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton, North on ensuring that it is on Parliament’s agenda, but I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister what he and his Department can do to draw the important strands together, so that that most vulnerable group of people receives the support that it needs and deserves.

3.29 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bayley, and it has been a pleasure for all of us to hear what has been a very constructive debate on our last sitting day before
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the recess. I join all other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing the debate and on her speech. Both her speech and that of the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) were cogently argued and raised some very important points. I also want to join all Members who have spoken in welcoming the work of the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign and the underlying research documentation that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced.

One of the themes of today’s debate is the recognition that, in dealing with these issues, not only is there a need for a cross-departmental approach at local level and a cross-agency approach, but there is clearly a need for a cross-departmental approach at Government level as well. I am sure that the Minister will be able to assist us on those matters when he replies to the debate.

The Every Disabled Child Matters document makes some cogent and important points and we need to look at finding practical ways to take forward some of the ideas that have been raised in this debate. The hon. Member for Northampton, North referred to the issues of supply and space. Those are important considerations, as hon. Members who have read the document will know. There is an issue about the supply of accessible homes and that relates to accessible homes in all sectors in the housing market. John Grooms, the specialist housing charity, estimates that there will be a shortfall of about 300,000 homes that are needed.

I agree with all the hon. Members who have spoken, in that I imagine that every Member of this House has some experience from their own constituency casework of people who are under pressure because of the lack of appropriate accommodation. I agree that it is particularly difficult for those with children, especially managing the transition from childhood to adulthood and then on to independent living.

I have been helped in my understanding of those issues by the work of an organisation in my constituency called Bromley Sparks, which acts as an advocacy group for young people with a range of disabilities who are exactly at that stage of life when they are seeking to move into independent living, sometimes, of course, because their own parents are no longer in a position to assist them. The work of Bromley Sparks in our local area is very valuable and it is an example of how the voluntary sector can work constructively with local authorities and housing associations to tackle the issue of independent living.

The point about bedroom sizes and general space within the home is a valid one and one that we need to look at in considering how we take things forward. The Government have an aspiration for all homes to meet lifetime home standards. As the Minister will know, my hon. Friends and I have welcomed that aspiration. At the moment, the plan for all homes to meet those standards is being rolled out to the public sector first. The Minister will also know that my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who speaks on disability matters for the Oppostion, has raised with him how we ensure, at the appropriate point, that there is a level playing field in relation to all housing supply.

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