Disabled Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:26 pm on 3rd February 2003.

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Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench 8:26 pm, 3rd February 2003

My Lords, in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on initiating this debate, and Barnardo's on its report, I want to underline the crucial importance of housing to the lives of families with disabled children, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe.

I declare an interest as a director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which has produced a series of 11 reports over the past eight years on meeting the housing needs of families that include disabled children. From that body of evidence, I suggest that the housing dimension is a frequently neglected yet critical factor. One of our surveys showed that nine out of 10 families with a disabled child reported at least one problem with their housing. Yet there is usually no agency responsible for mapping those families' housing needs or developing strategies to meet them. As the mother of a severely disabled nine-year-old said, "If you've got your home right, you can cope. Within 24 hours of being in this house, it was like, wow, she was a different child".

The most frequent difficulty is lack of space to play, to take time out, or to use the kitchens and bathrooms. Those problems are a by-product of building much smaller houses in the past 25 years. The good news is that the Government's recent introduction of important changes to building regulations—part M—go a long way towards the standards for "Lifetime Homes" advocated by the Rowntree foundation. It means that all new family homes will now be more accessible, with level entrances, wider front doors, more circulation space and a downstairs loo. However, for the vast majority of families with disabled children, the issues are about extensions and adaptations to existing accommodation.

The disabled facilities grant is available to meet adaptation costs. But the DFG system has been creating some serious problems. We supported a group of parents involved in the campaign, "Homes Fit for Children", which focused specifically on this issue, particularly with regard to its very tough means test. Despite their low incomes, 65 per cent of the families surveyed were not eligible for some or any support from the DFG. Most of the families remain to this day in totally unsatisfactory circumstances because necessary changes to their homes are beyond their means.

There are also undoubtedly too many cases of unwarranted delay in processing grants. Our research shows that 20 per cent of families said that they had waited more than a year to hear the outcome of their DFG application, and half of those had been waiting for more than two years. Often the delays resulted from shortages of occupational therapists to assess the child's needs, as was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. During these extended waiting times, assessments become out of date; disabled people or their carers have accidents—a number of them in our survey ended up in hospital; and unfortunate habits of dependency become established.

In summary, tens of thousands of parents are forced to bring up their disabled children in homes that are totally unsuited to the child's needs. While there is no space in which to play during their most important formative years, disabled children can miss out on the opportunity to develop; the poorer outcomes—not to say the cost to the public purse—will be felt throughout the whole of their remaining lives. Parents are left to cope carrying children—who get heavier as they get older—upstairs, to the toilet, and so on. Hidden away behind closed doors, an enormous amount of frustration, unhappiness and anxiety exists within these homes for the want of a move to better premises or the adaptation of the property.

I welcome the news that the Government are now working on the introduction of a "moving grant" which will help "open up the option". I also welcome the recently announced joint circular from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Health which is aimed at making the system more "joined up" than at present. I cannot commend too highly the refining and accelerating of such measures and others to combat the housing problems which mean that so many families with disabled children are indeed missing out on a decent quality of life.