Disabled Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:47 pm on 3rd February 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:47 pm, 3rd February 2003

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen for giving us the opportunity to explore an issue that is dear to the hearts of so many noble Lords. I also thank Barnardo's for a report that is so much in its historic tradition of champion of poor children and of children who are disadvantaged in many different ways. The Government will read the report very closely. We are grateful that we are recognised in the report as a good government for children and a government who have achieved much in raising living standards for families in poverty and coping with disability. Those two matters are closely linked.

When I read the report I was aware, as has been stated, of the incredibly heavy burden that is borne by individual families and of the grace with which they bear that burden of care. I pay tribute to that. I was delighted that everyone had three extra minutes in which to speak as I would have been worried if the excellent challenges to the Government had been sacrificed due to time constraints. I shall take a little longer to reply. I shall not be able to answer all the detailed questions that have been raised, but I shall have pleasure in writing to noble Lords, and in circulating correspondence, if I cannot address all the matters.

I would like to show the extent to which the Government are giving priority to disabled children. I hope to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, that they are at the heart of policies for ending poverty, but also at the heart of children's policies and health policies as well.

Tackling child poverty as a whole is extremely complex: it is multi-dimensional. It is about extra investment in healthcare and education as much as in raising benefit. It is about improvements in the system which enable young people to transfer into adulthood as much as it is about securing early intervention.

I am extremely pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, focused on health and social services because they are so crucial. We have the greatest pleasure as a government in seeing this debate as very much part of the continuing dialogue between us about the rights and needs of disabled children. We warmly welcome the opportunity for further debate and discussion suggested by the noble Baroness. As part of that discussion, we hope to involve the voluntary sector as we always try to do. They are extremely important partners in everything we do in informing ourselves of the needs of the community.

The areas of concern that have been mentioned include raising national standards of care and provision for families and promoting better co-ordination on the ground. Many examples have been given of how assessment is slow and co-ordination is not happening, and of the need to make greater progress. Another concern is amplifying the voice of disabled children and their families in that process. The first two aspects complement each other because we know that one of the great failures in the delivery of services to disabled children and their families has been the fragmentation of services, the lack of co-ordination and sometimes competition between services.

What we heard about the Climbie report in this House brought home to us exactly what is meant by the failure to join services together. It is not a point for debate: we all know that we need a more integrated system, not least for the very severely disabled children about whom the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, spoke.

We aim to raise the standard of children's services not by setting new national targets, as the Barnardo's report suggests, although we understand that, but through a framework of new national standards which will require joint working across the NHS, the social services and education. We do not believe that simply setting targets will automatically achieve better outcomes, but that is what we want.

We want services that overcome variations in local delivery. We want services which are sensitive to the individual needs of families and children and which allow for a local say. That is why we are devolving power in the NHS down to the primary care trusts and other front line services. That is why we have vested so much work, effort and hope in the new National Service Framework for Children. There is a specific element in that dealing with disabled children.

Next month we shall be publishing the emerging findings and there will be information about disabled children. We shall also be producing something about acute services for children at the same time.

The noble Lord, Lord Chan, was concerned about the needs of ethnic minority children. He was a most eloquent champion of those needs. The NSF pays particular attention to the needs of such children. To take up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, an external working group is considering the needs of severely disabled children as well. We hope very much that within this broad framework there will be detailed sensitivity to children's specific needs and the recommendations based on them.

I do not expect that the delayed discharge Bill will distract from the priority we give to children. I hope that I can give that assurance. Through the NSF we are looking for a coherent and integrated approach to services for disabled children, which will progress them from the earliest intervention when they are identified by the specialist as having extra needs, right through to social services to support them, then through to their education and beyond.

It is a major step forward in meeting the problems identified by the Barnardo's report and by noble Lords. It goes along with a range of other initiatives which are already in place. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, referred to the Quality Protects project. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, spoke about the need for more fun, more clubs and more play.

Quality Protects aims to transform children's services. We have earmarked £60 million for disabled children. We have also earmarked the importance of short breaks and respite care. The information coming back to us through the Management Action Plans suggests that Quality Protects is delivering more of these essential services.

Noble Lords who know me will expect me to say how pleased I would be to see more play clubs and activities for children. It is true: they are vital. Too often disabled children are neglected and left out, which is why I am delighted to hear the news about the New Opportunities Fund. I hope that we will hear even more.

Local authorities are also drawing on different partnerships including Sure Start, the Children's Fund and Connexions. Each has given disabled children priority. They are coming together, and I hope, with Quality Protects, to identify more children. These are new, developing programmes .We hope that the extended Sure Start, for example, will make a difference.

We have increased resources. We have planned historic increases in personal and social services from April this year. In addition, there will be £106 million for children next year; a 23 per cent increase. I want to emphasise that co-operation between health and social services is not an optional extra. The Health Act 1999 introduced a duty of partnership. It removed financial and legal barriers. Using pooled budgets, we are beginning to see local authorities working together more effectively.

My noble friend Lady Massey referred to the new Early Support Pilot Programmes. They will test some of the ways in which we can put principles into action to improve services for the very young disabled. It is too early to draw conclusions, but they will be closely monitored, not least in the way in which they aim to provide access to information for families.

Several noble Lords referred to the new specialist children's trusts. That may have been what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, meant when he referred to "one-stop shops". They are coming together with all relevant services to plan, commission, finance and, where it makes sense, deliver children's services.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, also raised that point. We will explore a range of models in different parts of the country during a pilot scheme later this year. The range of services may include services for children with disabilities and special needs. I will pass on to the Minister the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, about the need for such provision. The Green Paper on children at risk will identify radical options to improve services and will look hard at how to improve the multi-agency approach.

An argument has been put forward about the need to improve information in general. We are doing our best to listen to families and what they say they need. In the national service framework we have been referring to external working groups. We are delighted that the group focusing on disabled children is led by Francine Bates, the chief executive of the charity Contact a Family. Through her we are listening to the voices of families and children.

The diversity of those voices and needs argues against a national information campaign. But we see the need to be proactive in making the system as transparent and helpful as possible. We are providing Contact a Family with £0.5 million per year for three years to run the national information centre, which will help.

We are doing something about the problem alluded to with disability living allowance. There are 400,000 claimants. We are conscious that we need to do more to make DLA more accessible, as the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said. We are trialling new disability allowance forms with the help of disabled community representatives. We are investing in new technology, which we believe will help to make systems more accessible. But it is not only national government, local government also has a responsibility. We welcome local government's first stage effort to raise local awareness of tax and benefit systems and entitlements for families with children.

We are delighted that the disabled people's representatives are helping with our programme to modernise services. Their voice is extremely important.

My noble friend Lady Massey raised the issue of the welfare food scheme. We are still in the process of assessing responses to the scheme. It will be recast as Healthy Start. The noble Baroness will understand that until we have assessed all responses, including that of the Disability Alliance, for which we are grateful, we cannot make decisions on detail.

My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley asked about hospital transport. The Social Exclusion Unit is reviewing the linkage between social exclusion and transport and is considering the issue of those visiting hospital as well as those attending. The unit will report in the spring. We hope that we shall have some positive news for her on that matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Rix, asked about Valuing People. I can tell him that the target of 6,000 additional severely disabled children receiving co-ordinated care packages was met. I hope that he will take some pleasure in that.

I shall not have time to address the important issues of housing in any detail, but I take seriously the points made about the delays and means testing. The department will listen to what noble Lords have said on that issue.

We could have a longer debate on the question of financial support and raising incomes for disabled people within the context of poverty. We have looked into the question of minimum income standards. There is no simple answer to the question of which level of income is adequate for all family types. Research throws up different responses depending on what one is looking for. But the Measuring Child Poverty consultation has generated a positive debate. Again, Barnardo's has helped. We shall be publishing preliminary conclusions during the spring. But there is no doubt that the extra costs of disabled children are well documented. The washing machine is on six times a day, food has to be blended and everyone has to help bear the physical and emotional costs of caring for the child within the family. It is clear that poverty makes coping extremely difficult.

That is why in April 2001 we increased the disabled child premium in income related benefits by £7.40 per week. Now 85,000 children get a benefit that is worth more than £35 per week. So we are spending £200 million in 2002-03 on benefits for severely disabled children. If noble Lords wish, I shall write to them and set out the range of benefits which we believe makes a difference to these children and their families.

The new child tax credit, by bringing together all the benefits for children, will make it easier and simpler for working and non-working families to access benefits.

Finally, noble Lords have raised the issue of work and childcare. We recognise the difficulty that parents with disabled children have in accessing formal childcare because often they cannot get out of the house. From April this year the new working family's tax credits will enable such parents to receive help with childcare in their own homes if they are using an approved home child carer. We very much hope that that will make a difference.

I am very conscious that I have run out of time. Along with other noble Lords, I hope that this debate will give the families who are the subject of the report some hope not only from the fact that we have had in this House an extremely well-informed and passionate debate on the predicament of disabled families and their children, but that they will take courage from the fact that we see them very much at the heart of what we are doing in terms of our social policies for children. We hope that we shall have their support to continue doing that.