Session 2010-11
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General Committee Debates
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Breaks for Carers of Disabled Children Regulations 2010

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Philip Davies 

Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab) 

Cunningham, Mr Jim (Coventry South) (Lab) 

Duddridge, James (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)  

Field, Mr Mark (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con) 

Fullbrook, Lorraine (South Ribble) (Con) 

Garnier, Mark (Wyre Forest) (Con) 

Goggins, Paul (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab) 

Grant, Mrs Helen (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con) 

Hames, Duncan (Chippenham) (LD) 

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab) 

Hollingbery, George (Meon Valley) (Con) 

Jones, Graham (Hyndburn) (Lab) 

Maynard, Paul (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con) 

Mearns, Ian (Gateshead) (Lab) 

Reevell, Simon (Dewsbury) (Con) 

Teather, Sarah (Minister of State, Department for Education)  

Turner, Karl (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab) 

Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP) 

Rhiannon Hollis, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):

Fovargue, Yvonne (Makerfield) (Lab) 

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First Delegated Legislation Committee 

Wednesday 19 January 2011  

[Philip Davies in the Chair] 

Draft Breaks for Carers of Disabled Children Regulations 2010

2.30 pm 

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather):  I beg to move, 

That the Committee has considered the draft Breaks for Carers of Disabled Children Regulations 2010. 

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies. The instrument will help to implement the new “short breaks duty” created by the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 by providing local authorities with more detail of how that duty must be performed. In particular, the regulations set out clearly the range of short breaks services that must be offered by each local authority, and what local authorities must have specific regard to when making such provision. They will also require local authorities to make information about short breaks service provision available to parents and other carers with parental responsibility for a disabled child. It is a vitally important step along the road towards better supporting families and carers of disabled children. 

I am sure that hon. Members throughout the House will want to say sincere thanks to all those who have campaigned for better services for disabled children over the years. For many families, a short break from caring for a child would be the one thing that makes it possible to cope. It provides the opportunity to do some basic things that many of us here take for granted, such as just taking a long bath, going to the gym, meeting friends, doing some washing, shopping or spending time with our other child, who may not be disabled. 

The breaks do not, of course, only provide parents themselves with the chance to have time to do something else. They also provide a fantastic opportunity for disabled children to spend time with a different adult or with children of their own age. A short break can help a disabled child feel more independent, perhaps to leave the house and try a new experience or environment or to learn something new. That is why we have made it clear in the regulations that short breaks should not be offered only to parents as an emergency intervention when things have got really bad or out of hand, but as a way of providing support more generally as part of a package of things that make it easier to live something near to an ordinary life. 

However, what has become increasingly clear throughout the years is that short breaks only really benefit families if they genuinely provide respite. It is no good, for example, offering a child an hour at a specialist group each week if that means a three-hour round trip to get the child there in the first place, and the parent has to sit in the chair during the break because it is too far to drive back home. It is no good if the only break offered

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is during the week if the parent is actually fine during the week, but struggles to cope during the school holidays. That is why it is so important that the regulations are clear that a range of breaks must be on offer at different venues and different times of day, week and year. I hope hon. Members agree that the service would be meaningless without the flexibility for breaks to be matched to particular families’ needs. 

I am delighted that in most areas, parents are having a say about the kind of breaks that really make a difference to them and, crucially, to their children, with the result that we have seen the introduction of all sorts of new breaks. In fact, as some hon. Members will know, Together for Disabled Children, which supports the delivery of short breaks in local areas, reports that there is a link between value for money in short breaks services and good engagement by parents in the design of the service. That makes sense, particularly if parents are telling the local authority that they prefer their children to have access to a weekly trip at the weekend, rather than their spending an expensive weekend at a residential centre. In that way, the local authority can change the pattern of provision and save money—money that can then be spent providing a greater number of families with access to a short break. 

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con):  Will the Minister clarify the financial situation as it affects local authorities? All of us support the idea that she has forcefully put forth—that it is a good idea to have such breaks in place—but clearly it puts a prescriptive obligation on local authorities. Will she explain what the regime has been in the past and say whether we will be ring-fencing funding in the future? 

Sarah Teather:  We will be providing £800 million throughout the holiday spending review period, including £198 million next year. That is a significant increase on the money that has been made available this year. We have chosen not to ring-fence the budget, because we are trying to move away from ring-fencing all budgets in the way that we work with local authorities. I hope that authorities will use that flexibility to design better breaks for the children and families they serve. For example, in the youth service, something may be available that is very targeted and for which a disabled child and their family may not ordinarily be eligible, but it may be particularly suitable for them. Providing more flexibility in the budgets would allow for that. 

We have also said that we want local authorities to provide information about services that are available to parents, which picks up on my point about it making much more sense to have services that are designed around parents, and we want local authorities to consult parents about such services. The short breaks services statement will mean that many more parents can see what is on offer, and they can challenge their local authority where they do not think the offer is good enough. We need to stop thinking of parents only as service users and see them as partners. 

The Government are also clear that in providing a short breaks services statement, local authorities will need to make some sort of assessment of local needs and of what parents want. We know that the opportunities and offers will be different in different areas, and we want local authorities to continue reflecting that in what they offer disabled children and their parents. 

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Short breaks play an important role in supporting families of disabled children, but we need to do much more to improve the support we give to disabled children, children with special educational needs, and their families. That is why I announced my intention to publish a Green Paper relatively shortly, on special educational needs and disability. A number of independent reviews, and the responses to our Green Paper call for views, tell us consistently that the special educational needs system is far too complex; that support should be provided earlier; that parents should be able to get better information about available choices and be better involved in the decisions about their child and the support they get; that education, health and social care services need to be better joined up to focus on the needs of children; that staff in schools need better training and development in recognising special educational needs; and that planning for transition to adulthood needs to start early. Many who responded to our call for views were parents. What struck me about a number of responses was the feeling that they had to battle every step of the way to have their child’s needs recognised and then met. 

As well as changing the system for parents, Members will be aware, as I indicated in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, that in December I made £800 million available to local authorities across the spending review period for the provision of short breaks. That funding reflects how important I think short breaks and services for disabled children are, and it was warmly welcomed by the sector. 

I hope that hon. Members have been persuaded of the importance of ensuring that local authorities continue to maintain and improve short breaks services, and that parents should be able to access something that is genuinely helpful. I hope hon. Members will support the regulations. 

2.38 pm 

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab):  It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Davies. It is also the first time I have spoken for the Opposition in a Statutory Instrument Committee, and I am glad that my first such outing involves helping the Minister guide through regulations that are before Parliament as part of the implementation of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008. My party has a lot to be proud of in the area of recognising the contribution and needs of carers. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) reminded me only the other night, it was his private Member’s Bill in 1995 that set us along this road. The Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 was, as I understand it, the first piece of legislation which legally recognised the role of unpaid family carers. It was that foundation on which, over the years, we built up the support mechanisms we are discussing today. 

The previous Government identified that the No. 1 priority for the families of disabled children regarding the services they wanted from their local authorities was the provision of breaks from their caring responsibilities. For many, caring for a disabled child means being ready to respond to the needs of that child 24 hours a day. While their love for that child means that they are completely happy to do that, they recognise that a break from that responsibility, even if it is only for a few hours, is of the utmost importance in helping them to cope. 

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The regulations should be the final stage in ensuring that good quality services exist in all local authorities, and that parents and carers know of their entitlement to those services. Carers and families derive numerous benefits from the breaks: they may use them simply to rest and recharge their batteries; to focus attention on their other children, as the Minister said, or their partners; or to tidy their homes or do other routine tasks that they may be unable to do otherwise, but which others take for granted. However the breaks are used, they vastly improve the quality of life of the carers and so boost the quality of the care they give to their disabled children and their other children. Obviously, they also give a great deal of pleasure to the children and young people themselves. They get to take part in some highly enjoyable activities both in and outside the home, which helps to build social and other skills where possible, but mainly they are allowed to have some time without their parents or carers. It gives them something that other children and young people have and take for granted. 

Carers and young people will welcome the regulations, as do Opposition Members, and provided they are followed swiftly by comprehensive guidance from Whitehall, local authorities will welcome them, too. For the most part, the political and official leaders of the councils responsible for delivering the breaks want to provide the very best service they can afford. 

It is important at this stage to commend the Minister and her colleagues on committing increased funding to pay for these short breaks—she mentioned £800 million. It is a crying shame that that seems to be at the expense of the child trust fund, but I am quickly coming to realise that we need to thank the Secretary of State for small mercies. You never know: if we exercise enough positive reinforcement for the few good things that come out of his Department, he might decide to do more of them. 

How do the funds sit within the early intervention grant? It was cut by more than £300 million this year and will be cut by another £270 million in the year starting in April. How does the Minister intend to ensure that all the designated money—the £800 million—she spoke of for short breaks is spent on them, given that there is no ring fence on the early intervention grant or on the grants within this grant? 

I will be keeping a keen eye out for the publication of the guidelines to local authorities, which will hopefully be published in a timely manner. The regulations come into force in just over two months, so time is of the essence. What does the Minister expect the time frame for that to be? If the guidelines are not already in an advanced stage of preparation, I would encourage the Minister to ensure that they are as comprehensive and unambiguous as possible. 

I know the Minister is fond of localism as a concept, but I hope she will agree that in this case and for this cause—ensuring disabled children and their carers get the support they need—there is a genuine case for central Government providing local authorities with as much guidance as possible on what that support should entail and making it clear that they expect that guidance to be followed. Although I would stop short of saying that we need a uniform service across local authorities—there should be scope for local authorities to devise their own services—I do not want the postcode lottery system we see with other services for children, including

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those with disabilities, across the country. Therefore, it might be an idea for the Department to ask local authorities to submit their draft short breaks service statements to a designated official for any comments or amendments, or even give the official a pro forma statement to amend as they see fit. This is not to hector or nanny local authorities—before I get accused of that, I am sure they are more than capable of putting together an adequate document—rather, this is about ensuring that the statements cover all the necessary points, and are as accessible as possible and legally sound. Would the Minister consider that idea? 

Finally, on the guidelines to local authorities, what will be in them concerning the publication of service statements? Obviously, the statements should be accessible, in the sense that carers and families can read and understand them, but it is also important that they be actively made aware of them. I would like to see statements—if not statements, then pamphlets or fact sheets—given directly to carers and parents who qualify for the services therein. That could be done very simply through post or e-mail, or by workers who have direct and preferably regular contact with the children and carers involved. The latter approach would be the ideal one, and if that is recommended in the guidelines, I hope there will also be guidance on ensuring that workers who are in regular contact with carers and disabled young people will be fully trained in advising those carers of the options available to them, so that they can guide them and help them decide on the most appropriate package of services. 

I am pleased to offer the Opposition’s support for the regulations, and I commend the Government on their obvious enthusiasm for driving forward the work done under the previous Labour Government to improve the lives of disabled young people and those who devote their lives to looking after them. I do not seek to qualify that support at all, but the key factor in implementing the proposals will be the guidance that is sent out to local authorities. For the benefit of all disabled children and their carers, I hope the Minister and her officials will ensure that that guidance is as good as it can possibly be. 

2.46 pm 

Sarah Teather:  I want to begin by thanking the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West for her positive comments. She said—slightly tongue in cheek—that she is grateful for small mercies from my Department, and I would be grateful for the small mercies of compliments from her side as well. 

The hon. Lady began by acknowledging the work of those in this House and outside it who have campaigned to make this measure a reality, and she absolutely right that there is a long history of Members on both sides of the House being active on the issue. The proposals build on the work the Labour Government did when they were in power. Parents and many people from the voluntary sector have campaigned over a long period to make this happen, and I thank them for their work and for keeping up the pressure. 

The hon. Lady focused her questions on guidance. She was not sure that she agreed with localism, and she did not want anything to be too uniform, but her

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comments were somewhat contradictory. We absolutely agree that the guidance is extremely important. We have decided not to issue statutory guidance because we want such guidance to focus on best practice and be easily updatable, so that if new examples of good practice arise, we can update it rapidly. I do not want it to be so prescriptive that local authorities cannot innovate on the ground. That is important because areas are not uniform—Sunderland is a very different place from Brent. The needs of people in the hon. Lady’s constituency are different from those of my own constituents. Local authorities need to be free to use examples of best practice and to adopt them accordingly, depending on the families they have. We are of course asking them to consult parents, and that, rather than a document issued from Whitehall, should shape the work they do on the ground. She also asked about the timing of the guidance. It will appear very soon—it will follow the regulations within a matter of weeks—and we are working in partnership with local authorities to develop it. 

The hon. Lady mentioned submitting the service statement for checking, which is an example of the philosophical differences between us. I do not want local authorities to feel that they have to send everything they are doing on the ground back to us for checking—that is not an appropriate relationship for us to have with them. If they are failing in their duties, that is a different situation, but we have to begin from a position of trusting them to get on with the process of consulting families and developing their own service statement. Of course, because it is local and reflects what is happening on the ground and what parents have said, it is difficult for us to question that service statement, which will depend on what parents say in the local consultation. We are, however, working with local authorities on a draft short breaks service statement for guidance, so that they at least understand the kind of things they ought to be putting in. 

Mrs Hodgson:  The Minister is answering a lot of my questions, but I think this issue reflects the contradictory element that she highlighted. There needs to be a fine balance between giving direction to local authorities, and being able to hear about their best practice to ensure they are delivering what the Government actually want them to deliver. How are the Government going to hear about best practice if there is no way for local authorities to feed back? 

Sarah Teather:  As I said, we are consulting local authorities at the moment to develop that guidance, so it will definitely be bottom-up, and we are working with voluntary sector organisations that have worked on the programme for ensuring that we have good short breaks now. An enormous amount of good practice is already happening. The regulations, in a sense, are there to cement some of that good practice and to encourage local authorities to go further and share what is happening on the ground. I do not want to suggest that such good practice is not already happening. 

The hon. Lady said that she thought the early intervention grant had been cut. That cannot be true because the early intervention grant is a new grant. [ Interruption. ] It is deliberately designed so that local authorities can think differently about the services they fund, now that the ring fences have been removed.

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I gave an example to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster a few minutes ago—that a local authority might decide to amalgamate something from the youth service with work it is doing with families of disabled children. There are many other examples around Sure Start, for example, where we hope for innovative thinking about different silos within local authorities and how those services can be joined together. That is the whole point of the grant. It cannot be a cut because it is a new grant—it did not exist until April. 

Mrs Hodgson:  Perhaps I should share with the Minister a technical note I received on the early intervention grant for 2011 and 2012-13, which shows what the grant contains. Even with my maths O-level grade B, I can add up that there is a cut: during 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13, £1.4 billion will be cut in cash terms compared with the initial 2010-11 allocation. Yes, it is a new grant, but anybody with a calculator can add up the sum of its parts, and there is indeed a cut. 

Sarah Teather:  The point is, of course, that the grant is intended to be more than the sum of its parts. We are asking local authorities to think innovatively about the different services that they provide, and by removing

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ring fences and restrictions we can encourage them to do so. If we provide lots of different small pots of money it will inevitably be more expensive, because local authorities will not be able to join things up. They will not be able to do things in a new way or respond to their local need. The hon. Lady may be able to add up everything that previously existed, but whether she can do so with or without a calculator is not really the point. The point is that we intend local authorities to think about this in a different way. 

I will move on because I can feel that hon. Members basically support this measure, and I suspect they want to return to the Chamber to listen to the education debate. We believe that the regulations will be welcomed by parents, by those in the charity sector who have done so much work to bring to our attention the issues faced by families with disabled children, and by those in local authorities who have worked tirelessly to provide good services. The regulations tie local authorities into offering comprehensive short breaks services well into the future. I commend them to the House and request that they be approved. 

Question put and agreed to.  

2.54 pm 

Committee rose.