Disabled Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:20 pm on 3rd February 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 8:20 pm, 3rd February 2003

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for raising the Barnardo's report, Still Missing Out?, for discussion this evening.

The Government's aim is to see all children lifted out of poverty. It is a brave aim and they are to be applauded. But it is not an issue capable of a "quick fix". The long-term effects of poverty and deprivation on children's prospects in adulthood have been well known, but inadequately acted upon, for decades. If that is the possible effect on all children brought up in deprived circumstances, there are those within that overall group who are even more clearly destined to fail unless given maximum financial, as well as social and educational, support.

It is clear that disabled children living with families are one such category. More than 50 per cent of them are estimated to be living in poverty. Those children also fall within other government priority targets for action. For example, they are more in need of, and yet find it less easy to obtain, childcare or day-care places. Only one in 20 of those schemes accept disabled children.

When I think back to Lady Allen of Hurtwood and her dedicated work in the 1960s to set up adventure playgrounds, including adventure playgrounds for handicapped children, it seems sad, to put it mildly, that we have not progressed much further in that respect.

Another government priority which I applaud is to encourage a return to paid employment. But that is considerably less easy for parents of a disabled child or children, and of course doubly so for single parents. Not only are childcare costs higher, the likelihood of hospital visits and so forth make it even less possible for that to be a viable option.

Yet, while recognising those extra burdens, in reply to a PQ from me on 29th January, the Minister confirmed that it was still very much a priority for all parents and parents of disabled children. In response to a Written Question from me on 21st November last, she said that in the 10 local authorities supporting the highest number of families with disabled children, the number ranged between 325 and 460. In the 10 local authorities supporting the fewest, the family numbers ranged between five disabled children and 30. Even making allowances for differences in numbers of disabled children living in different parts of the country, that really would appear to illustrate a considerable disparity in the scale of provision by local authorities. Once again, it would appear that post code determines the level of assistance.

A further problem is the limited take-up of benefits. I shall not refer to that because others have. But a more vigorous campaign to get the message across is surely needed in that regard, plus further simplification of the language used in the leaflets and an assurance they will be printed in the required number of ethnic languages.

I want to refer to one last point in relation to suitable accommodation. Barnardo's points to the considerable difficulties and the cost of obtaining the basic housing or housing improvements necessary to bring up a disabled child. Not only is the financial, means-tested help often inadequate, but the considerable delays that occur must cause families who qualify even further strain and distress. Is this an area in which the Minister can offer some prospect of improved service in the future?

I remind your Lordships of two crucial facts. Despite the problems and considerable strains on family life—as mentioned by other noble Lords—which caring for disabled children entails, some 90 per cent live with their families at an estimated cost to the community of £130. I stress that it is only £130. That figure compares with the residential care costs for a disabled child disclosed in a reply to my PQ of £1,400—more than 10 times as much.

It clearly makes straightforward, economic sense, quite apart from the obvious humanitarian aspects, to do everything that we can to support those families in the invaluable role that they play. The alternative, which has been mentioned by many noble Lords, is to see many families driven to the point of giving up in despair. Anyone who watched the Sunday "Panorama" programme two weeks ago would sadly have received an all-too-clear picture of the strains that such families endure day in, day out.