Disabled Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:07 pm on 3rd February 2003.

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Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench 8:07 pm, 3rd February 2003

My Lords, we need from time to time the opportunity to peep into the lives of families with disabled children, and I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, has provided such an opportunity. As president of Mencap, I am particularly grateful.

We are looking at ordinary families trying to enable children with exceptional needs to live, as far as possible, an ordinary life. They are not in general the sort of family that hits the headlines in the tabloid press, or makes for popular television documentaries. Instead of sex, violence and infidelity, there are six loads of washing a day, sleepless nights and sheer dogged devotion day in and day out for years on end. I think of the mother who said she had had quite a good night—no screaming from 1.30 a.m. to 4.30 a.m.

The Barnardo's Still Missing Out? report shows that such families are still missing out—on benefits, on services, on support which would make life a little more normal. In some ways it is worse still, because some families who have had minimal support are now losing it. You may recall that the Unjust Steward in the biblical parable was commended on cutting in half the bills of his master's customers. Sadly, in these days—if last week's "Panorama" programme is to be believed—it is the sad lot of some care managers to be required by their masters to cut in half not the bills but the services of customers. Today Oxfordshire; tomorrow—who knows where? But Oxfordshire is not unique in having to produce £9 million in savings rather than the more pleasant task of how to spend additional resources.

In the shadow of the "Panorama" programme, but unrelated to it, the Learning Disability Helpline recently—a week last Monday, I think it was—took a call from the parent of a severely disabled child who was at her wits' end because she was being told in effect that once she broke down someone would do something, but since she was only at the first stage of breaking down, it was too early to give her priority. Happily, a Mencap officer was able to infuse a sense of urgency to a level at which things were done and solutions found. But we all know that solutions arrived at in a matter of hours can be less satisfactory than solutions carefully thought through over several weeks. On such snap decisions may turn the future cohesion of the family and the future welfare of the child.

Of course, as we have just heard, the Government have done quite a lot for severely disabled children, as no doubt the Minister will, quite properly, remind us. More good things, including benefits changes, are in the pipeline. I know, because Ministers and officials have been very helpful in involving the voluntary sector in their planning. But I would like to build on this with some questions, to which answers in due course would be much appreciated.

Would the Minister agree that any child with profound intellectual disability and additional physical and sensory disabilities should be in the priority category for support, whatever the nature of the local eligibility criteria? Would the Minister confirm that the Valuing People White Paper target of 6,000 additional health and social care support packages for severely disabled children was met by the end of last year? Finally, as touched on by other speakers, will the Minister encourage her DWP colleagues to take the opportunity of the review of DLA and other benefit procedures to ensure that parents are prompted to make appropriate claims for benefits at such key stages as age 3, 5, 8, 11, 14 and 16, when support arrangements are also reviewed?

There is no reason why children should miss out, when Parliament and government have gone to some trouble to extend the help available to them. It is not beyond the realm of possibility, in an electronic age that gives me instant access to 24-hour world news, to turn that familiar lament, "If only I had known", into a celebratory, "Thank goodness someone told me".