My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to focus on the needs of families with disabled children—always a vital interest of mine. Although many of them do not think of themselves as carers, but simply as a mum, a dad or a grandparent, they are carers, with all the responsibility that that carries.
For families of disabled children, finances are always a problem. There have been significant improvements in benefits in relation to disabled children in recent years. One example is the recent extension of the invalid care allowance to the over-65s, which will help many grandparents of disabled children who play such a vital part in their care.
But, still, half of all households with disabled children lack some of life's basic necessities because they cannot afford them. A rise in the rate of disability living allowance would help some of those families out of poverty. But it is important, as my noble friend reminded us, to encourage families to claim the allowance. Studies consistently show that those most in need—lone parents and minority ethnic parents, for example—frequently fail to claim.
I should like briefly to draw your Lordships' attention to three other financial issues. The provisions within the council tax which allow parents of children over 18 to claim a discount but which prevent parents of younger children being allowed to claim should be reviewed.
A lack of assistance from the Social Fund is frequently a cause of problems for parents of disabled children, causing them to turn in ever-increasing numbers to charitable bodies to get help with basic essentials.
A cost which is often overlooked is that of visiting children who are in-patients in hospital. On 25th March last year I brought this matter to the attention of the House and was told that the situation was under consideration. Yet families still say that nothing has changed. As one mother said,
"My son spent many months in and out of hospital for various operations. With two other children to care for I had to take time off work and we were practically penniless. Assistance with travel costs to visit him in the hospital would have taken some of the pressure off . . . My son is now due another operation and you can imagine the financial and emotional stress. I never want to open the kitchen cupboard doors again and be faced with emptiness".
I hope that the Minister can give us some hope in that regard.
Many aspects of family life which other parents take for granted are not possible for those with a disabled child. I was interested to hear my noble friend refer to leisure activities. Contact a Family—the leading organisation for parent carers—produced a survey last summer of families' experiences of leisure provision entitled Everybody Here?. The survey, of over 1,000 parents, found that 46 per cent said that their budget limited outings and 80 per cent said that their disabled children could not join clubs. One mother told researchers:
"I want to weep when I look at all the lists of riding/swimming/drama clubs open to other children, all of which he would enjoy".
Giving disabled children equal access to leisure is of vital importance. That is why I am delighted that discussion about funding children's play from the national lottery is now under way. I declare an interest as chair of the New Opportunities Fund, the largest of the lottery distributors. If that happens, we must ensure that the needs of disabled children are an essential component.
As regards practical support, direct payments will in the future provide many more parents with the ability to control the services that they receive for their children. Local authorities need to promote direct payments and support parents in their new responsibilities so that they can gain the confidence to use them effectively.
The Government are to be congratulated on ensuring that the needs of disabled children and their families will be at the heart of the national service framework for children. The expert working group on disabled children, chaired by Francine Bates, the chief executive of Contact a Family, gives us the opportunity to make a real difference to health and social care for the 350,000 or so disabled children in England.
The Government need to make a commitment to providing the funding to enable health and social services to raise their standards to ensure that children's services can indeed improve. They also need to ensure that the emerging findings from the children's NSF are published before March so that local plans for health and social care services over the next three years can give proper regard to the needs of disabled children. Can the Minister say when the document will be available?
The national service framework for children gives us a very real opportunity to change children's lives, and inevitably the lives of their parents, for the better. But it must be accompanied by putting priorities right and providing the funding necessary to do the job if disabled children are to move as far up the social policy agenda as we are committed to seeing happen.