Disabled Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:31 pm on 3rd February 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Wilkins Baroness Wilkins Labour 8:31 pm, 3rd February 2003

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, for highlighting the needs of families with disabled children. The debate is particularly timely as there is much concern that disabled children are not being placed at the heart of the current government initiatives concerning children and that, as a result, their particular needs are being ignored. I very much welcome the noble Baroness's proposal to ensure the inclusion of disabled children in the forthcoming Green Paper Children at Risk.

Disabled children make up about one quarter of all "looked after" children and at least 13 per cent of all children identified as "in need". They therefore make up an important group of children for whom social services departments should be providing support. For example, we know that increasing numbers of disabled babies with high levels of needs are surviving into childhood and adolescence. Their parents often struggle to provide the 24-hour care that these children need, which sometimes involves nursing care. As we saw in last week's "Panorama" programme, which has already been mentioned, parents make enormous efforts to look after their children at home, but they need a break from caring at regular intervals and also help in emergencies.

The most popular services with parents are the family-based short-break services where properly trained and paid foster careers provide high-quality care, enabling children to stay for short periods of time to give their parents respite. However, far too often these services are not available, either because local authorities do not pay enough or do not provide adequate training or support for foster carers. Parents are left desperately unsupported and the children may well end up in some form of institutional care. I should therefore like to ask the Minister what plans the Government have, as part of their Choice Protects initiative, to ensure that this issue of fostering is properly addressed.

Much research concerning disabled children and their families highlights the need for health, education and social services to work together. The Government's plans for children's trusts will therefore be crucial in improving service delivery for disabled children, and it is vital that they are placed at the very heart of this initiative. I therefore ask the Minister whether any of the pilot areas for children's trusts will be focusing specifically on services for disabled children and their families.

Most importantly it is the issue of housing which gets left out of this equation and which needs urgent attention. I endorse the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Best. A significant number of disabled children live in housing which severely restricts their social development, their education and their life chances. Their parents suffer permanent back injuries, acute stress and unemployment, yet the disabled facilities grant—the DFG—the mandatory adaptations grant, which is supposed to meet this housing need, is excessively protracted, bureaucratic and largely ineffective. Typically, it takes at least 18 months before agreement is reached that a grant will be allowed.

The means test for the DFG is based only on income. It fails to take any account of real housing costs or the extra costs of bringing up a disabled child. This leads to shameful situations such as that of a family in South Wales whose child is tetraplegic with 100 per cent care needs. At the initial assessment it was calculated that the family would need to contribute £3,000 towards the adaptation costs out of the husband's £17,500 salary. However, during the 18 months while the DFG was being processed, the mother went back to work for just six hours a week in a local disabled children's centre. As a result, the family's final contribution went up to £9,000, making it impossible for them to go ahead.

As the recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown, a third of the families who applied for DFG had been assessed as needing to make a financial contribution and a third of those families had not had the adaptations carried out because they could not afford the contribution. Only a minority of families had received help from statutory agencies in addressing their housing needs. Will the Minister say what plans there are to review the disabled facilities grant system so that it can properly meet the needs of disabled children and their families?