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House of Lords

Tuesday, 10th January 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.

Deaf-Blind Children: Needs

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the number of units catering for deaf-blind children, and whether they intend to increase that number.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, there are approximately 20 units. Decisions about whether to increase this number rest with local providers in response to local needs and resources.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, in spite of that Answer, is there not substantial evidence to show that more units of various kinds are needed? Equally important is the fact that the spread of the units varies a great deal throughout the country. Some areas are well-provided for; others have no provision. In the circumstances, is there not the strongest case for the Government to extend the three-year government grant which is to finish in April this year? As the needs of deaf-blind children are unique, what are the Government doing about increasing training facilities for the teachers of such children?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the noble Lord is right in saying that the needs of these children are unique. That is why over three years the Government have set aside ring-fenced funding from central government of £3.9 million as part of the GEST programme in order to meet those needs. It is for local authorities to decide where the units should be sited. They have been encouraged to form consortia. The number of children who need the facility is small and, therefore, it is important that local authorities group together to provide it. The grant was given for two years. That period was extended to three years. The idea of the grant was to meet the start-up costs and to help local authorities to establish the units. They are now established and it is appropriate that local authorities should take on their revenue running costs.

Lord Ennals: My Lords, I appreciate the Answer the Minister gave to my noble friend. I understand that SENSE is about to undertake a new survey of the needs of deaf-blind children. Is the department involved in that survey or are there ways in which it can be of assistance to SENSE?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we recognise and appreciate the organisation, which is one of the leading voluntary organisations in the field. It is most

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businesslike and works well and closely with the department. We wish to support it in any way we can and we believe that the survey will be useful.

Lady Kinloss: My Lords, is the Minister aware that SENSE celebrates its 40th anniversary this year? Does she agree that the extension of GEST has increased awareness among LEAs of the educational needs of children with dual sensory impairment and learning difficulties?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the noble Lady is right. The organisation has the respect not only of the Government but of the nation as a whole. As a result of its good work, it received this year a grant of £110,000. We support the organisation not only in accolades but financially.

Lord Renton: My Lords, how many such children are there in the United Kingdom? Is the number increasing or decreasing?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we do not know the exact number. The degree of disability varies. Some of the children are partially sighted and others are mildly deaf. Today I refer to those who are severely handicapped and deaf-blind, as I believe does the Question. We do not know the exact number of such children. It is interesting to note that in the past the disability was caused by rubella. Its incidence has decreased enormously but, sadly, today these sensory deficiencies are more often the result of premature births.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I understand that the sad problem extends across the responsibilities of both the Department of Health and the Department for Education. If the Minister is saying that the GEST funds will definitely be withdrawn in the spring will it be possible for those departments to co-operate in order to ensure that the unique services, as described by my noble friend, are provided in a way that does not rest simply on the extended funds of local authorities?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we see this as the responsibility of local authorities. Under the Education Act that recently passed through your Lordships' House, they have a statutory responsibility to provide for pupils with special educational needs. The needs of such pupils clearly fall within the remit of education. The units have been set up and it is now up to local authorities to face their responsibilities.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, will the noble Baroness say how the system of reporting congenital abnormalities works? It seems very strange that she does not know how many of those children are suffering from dual handicaps.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, when a baby is born there is a system which provides that any physical disabilities from which that baby suffers must be notified to the local health authority through the director of public health. However, it is very difficult to identify

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deaf-blind babies at birth, especially the deafness. Therefore, that is what SENSE is trying to do in terms of its survey.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, to what extent has it been established, if at all, that the condition is occasioned by vaccine damage?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I do not have the figures but I believe it to be very rare indeed. We hoped that the numbers of children so affected would reduce as the incidence of rubella decreased, but, as I said, that has not been the case. The primary cause now is premature birth. Very small babies which are born prematurely may have those disabilities.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I found her Answer very disappointing indeed? I should have thought that the least the Government could do would be to extend the grant. The Minister said, as most Ministers from that Bench have said, that it is a matter for the local authorities. Perhaps she will say where the local authorities will find the money in view of the fact that the grants to them have been restricted. A Department of Education survey in 1986 said that there were 600 deaf-blind children. If the Department of Education could do it then, why cannot the Department for Education do it now and obtain some facts about the situation?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, it depends entirely on the degree of disability about which the noble Lord is talking. There are categories of disability. Because of his unease, I shall write to the noble Lord about the matter. The GEST funding was for two years and it has been extended for a third year. Local authorities know that. They know also that as a group these children have benefited more from central government funding than any other group. It would be unfair to other groups if that funding were to continue and local authorities did not face up to their responsibilities.

Quarantine Protection

2.45 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are considering replacing the quarantine requirement for cats and dogs entering the United Kingdom from other European Union states with a system of vaccination and unambiguous identification.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe): My Lords, the Government share the concern of the Agriculture Select Committee in another place. They would never support a change which would increase the likelihood of rabies entering the United Kingdom. The question of whether any other arrangements can offer the same protection as quarantine or better is essentially

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technical which the Government will need to consider carefully. The onus is on those recommending change to demonstrate that it offers at least as good a protection as quarantine, which has served us well.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that, with tried and tested alternatives, we should not keep pets locked up for six months in cold, damp and noisy cells? Is he aware of the changes in Sweden and Norway where, for the first seven months after their introduction, vaccination and identification rather than quarantine have been an outstanding success?

Earl Howe: My Lords, as I have already said, quarantine has stood this country in good stead for a great many years. We should have to think extremely carefully before changing that system. It is fair to say that it is too early to make a full assessment of the new systems operating in Norway and Sweden, bearing in mind that the changes were implemented only in June 1994 and the incubation period for rabies is itself six months. Indeed, one must remember that the changes which have been made are based on a system of border controls which are illegal under single market rules.

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