Disabled Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:36 pm on 3rd February 2003.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 8:36 pm, 3rd February 2003

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for bringing this debate to the House. I feel slightly humbled by those who have spoken. Their remarks make one consider certain aspects of disability, which, if one comes from outside the issue, one can only start to understand with others' help. Also, I have just become a father and one of the most frightening of the many descriptions that I have heard of the carer's job is of their having to look after an adult in the way that they would have to look after a baby. It is one thing getting grumpy at having to lug a 20-pound child around the house, but an adult or someone who is close to being an adult is a different matter. The problems, the stress and the wear and tear that that could cause are frightening.

The Government's record on helping those with disabilities and children is okay—I give it a pass mark—but they should be doing slightly better. They have increased benefits in certain areas and they have made good progress in certain others. However, there is one huge hole in the middle of their provision—the low take-up of benefits. I have received briefing that suggests that—give or take a few per cent—half of the people who should be claiming DLA are not.

There is little point in the Government allocating resources—I do not know whether they have allocated enough resources for everybody who is entitled to claim, but presumably they would meet the need if it arose—if we do not get people actually to claim the benefits. The overall cost to society of the knock-on effects of keeping people in poverty, such as the breakdown of parents who take on the long-term care of these children, has been pointed out by many who have spoken in this debate already. It could be catastrophic for the Government unless we manage to get benefits through to them. Unless we can find a better way forward, there will be a crunch in the near future. Perhaps I am being alarmist, but if there is not a crunch there will be long-term steady grinding and creaking.

We must do something more. The noble Lord, Lord Chan, pointed out the problems of putting things in the right language for those who are trying to claim. That shows just how difficult the situation is. Those who work in the field of disability always come to one conclusion: that those who are going to be disabled, particularly as children, should choose their parents carefully. If they happen to be the child of an accountant and a lawyer, they will get their benefits and the necessary support in the education system and everywhere else. If, however, their parents happen to have literacy problems or problems with the language of their adopted country, they will not.

The Government have one beacon of hope in this field—the one-stop-shop programme, and the interview arrangement. The pilots of those projects have started, but how far have we got? The arrangements did not deal with the whole panoply of benefits. I have for a long time felt that although we can make the system simpler, it will never be very simple. We must integrate all such benefits. Are the Government considering extending the interview arrangement across the entire range of benefits, and will they consider integration with social services and care assistance? The links between those areas are so obvious that they need no explanation, and such integration must be considered. If that is done, the Government should be able to give a definitive answer about how good their system of benefits is. Until that is done, we do not know how good that system is.

I turn to a question that I have repeatedly asked the Government over a long period. We accept that pensioners across the board receive the winter fuel payment, but why not people with no mobility capability? The fact that they do not is absurd. An extra fuel payment might be in order for half of the children mentioned in the briefings examples that were provided for our debate. Someone who is incontinent will need increased washing facilities. I return to the example of a new baby. One discovers when one has a new child—I am probably the 40 millionth person in the country to discover this—that the washing machine is never off. If the clothes are bigger and washed more frequently, costs will be higher. It is absurd that we do not deal with such problems. The Minister may say that certain other benefits are supposed to cover those costs, but they have never been properly factored in. The case with regard to heating costs is utterly unanswerable.

I could go on for much longer but time is against me. Unless the Government give a firm commitment to ensure that everyone who is entitled to benefits receives them, they are failing not only the people concerned but also themselves and their policymakers.