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House of Lords

Tuesday, 27th October 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

Thomas Frederick, Lord Bishop of Southwark--Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of Chichester and the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Care of the Mentally Handicapped

2.40 p.m.

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied with the quality of care in the community for people with learning difficulties or mental handicaps.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, a recent inspection by the Department of Health's Social Services Inspectorate found that services for people with learning disabilities are more responsive to individuals' needs and wishes than they have ever been. Many people with learning disabilities now enjoy a good quality of life in the community, where previously their only choice would have been care in the old long-stay hospitals. The quality of services does, however, vary both within and between areas and we have initiated a programme of work to ensure that the local statutory authorities continue to improve the services they provide for people with learning disabilities.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply, which contains some good news. Is the Minister aware of recent research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which shows that the majority of mentally handicapped people or those with learning disabilities still live with their families and an increasing number are surviving to old age and therefore are being cared for by elderly relatives whom they may well survive? Does the noble Baroness accept that many of these elderly relatives find it hard to provide that care, often do not receive the support that they need from social services, and are also deeply worried about what will happen when the relatives for whom they are caring survive them? What can the Minister say to these people who have spent their lives looking after dependent mentally handicapped relatives, both to reassure them about the care that is needed now to look after them and what will happen to those relatives who survive them?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am aware of the research to which the noble Baroness refers and also the immense contribution that is made by many carers who look after those who are mentally handicapped or

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who have learning disabilities at home. She rightly pinpoints the issue of older parents in particular, and their concerns. Since family carers play a crucial role in the lives of people with learning disabilities it is important that authorities plan ahead so that older carers can be given the assurance they need that their children will be cared for when they can no longer look after them and that crisis admissions to residential care, which can be so distressing, are avoided. As to general support for carers, last June the Government announced a wide review of measures to help carers. The National Strategy for Carers will bring together a range of initiatives designed to address carers' concerns and give them support. A study is currently being undertaken to establish how the problems that carers face can be tackled by new government initiatives and policies. The strategy will be ready for consultation early next year.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, is the Minister aware that some local authorities still seem unaware that provisions of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act apply as much to people who are mentally ill or handicapped as they do to the physically disabled? Is this a timely moment for a further circular about their statutory responsibilities?

Moreover, does my noble friend agree that one effective way of reducing the pressure on hospital beds is to increase the availability of adequate local services for chronically sick and disabled people generally?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, my noble friend's longstanding commitment and contribution to the cause of the disabled is well known. He rightly points out the need for and advantages of sensitive and locally based services.

As regards provision for those with learning disabilities and the possibility of new guidance, we are currently funding an independent evaluation into the costs and outcomes of various forms of residential provision for people with learning disabilities. When we see the results of that, it will tell us whether we need to issue further guidance.

Lord Rix: My Lords, does the Minister agree that flexible short-term breaks and appropriate housing are essential elements in the long-term care of people with learning disabilities and their elderly carers? Can my noble friend inquire what has happened to the Disabled Persons and Carers (Short-Term Breaks) Bill which I introduced through your Lordships' House in 1996? It received all-party support, and since that time has lain alone and palely loitering in another place.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I can think of other candidates for that description, but perhaps I should not go down that road.

The issues raised in the noble Lord's Private Member's Bill are important. They are important contributors to the ability of relatives caring for people with learning disabilities to continue in that role.

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Looking at support for carers will perhaps be a most useful element to address in the strategy. I am certain it is one of the issues that will feature in the report.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, on a related point, is the Minister aware of the problems and uncertainties that currently surround the commissioning of mental health services? I refer in particular to the provisions and responsibilities between commissioning by NHS regions, local authority social services and primary care groups. Will the noble Baroness's department issue clear guidance on the division of responsibilities in that area?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the guidance issued on national priorities was clearly focused on the responsibilities of both the health service and social services to work together, and to find mechanisms for working together whether through joint commissioning or pooled budgets, in order to provide the necessary cohesive services.

On the commissioning of mental health services, the mental health national service framework which is currently being drawn up will provide a template against which services can be commissioned and provided. It will be essential that health authorities, trusts and PCGs work together to manage that commissioning process.

With the introduction and establishment of primary care groups we have a unique opportunity for the key partners--they include social services and other branches of local authority services--to test new approaches to joint commissioning and more integrated provision.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, given the Government's official recognition that there is already a shortage of some 25,000 residential places for people with a mental handicap, is the Minister aware that the Government's excellent policy of encouraging a genuine range of provision is often thwarted at local level? In those circumstances, can the Government do anything directly to encourage new village communities for people with a mental handicap? They are in great demand and are cost-effective and care-effective.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Lord points out the need for an increasing number of residential places. An additional 11 per cent. was provided between 1994-95 and 1996-97, but we need still more. He rightly says that the Government's policy is that a range of options should be available. We have recently written to all health and local authorities reminding them that they should continue to offer that range of residential provision and respect the rights of individuals to make informed choices, including placements in village communities, wherever the preferred choice is likely best to meet their needs within acceptable costs.

Noble Lords: Next Question!

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, as we have reached nine minutes I am afraid that we must move on.

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Agriculture: Discussions with NFU

2.50 p.m.

Lord Monro of Langholm asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What discussions they have had with the National Farmers Union about the present plight of agriculture.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, we hold regular meetings with the National Farmers Union. The Minister and I last met NFU representatives on 8th October when a wide range of issues was discussed as a follow-up to the list put forward by the NFU rally at the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool.

Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, is the Minister aware that throughout the countryside in the United Kingdom generally, but particularly in livestock areas, the rural economy is in crisis? Is he also aware that incomes have plummeted and that all the good work done by previous governments to enhance the countryside, the environment, wildlife and rural employment is gravely at risk? Does he appreciate that we cannot wait for the reform of the CAP? What action are the Government proposing to take in the next few weeks to stave off disaster?

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