Disabled Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:42 pm on 3rd February 2003.

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Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative 8:42 pm, 3rd February 2003

My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this important debate and I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on introducing it and on attracting so many speakers. I also congratulate Barnardo's on its informative and detailed report. I know that many people were involved in its formulation and research, such as Contact A Family, and I pay tribute to the efforts of all those involved. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on becoming a father; that is a very important milestone.

The Government made the eradication of child poverty one of their principal long-term goals. In 1999, the Prime Minister pledged to end child poverty within a generation. "Our historic aim", he said,

"will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty".

When Labour took power, more than 4 million UK children lived in officially "poor" households. The Government promised to cut that figure by more than a million in their first term. In the run up to the previous general election, the Chancellor repeatedly said that Labour had rescued 1.2 million children from poverty. However, household income figures published by the Office for National Statistics in April last year undermined the Government's claim. Those figures showed that, at best, half a million children had left poverty, on Labour's preferred definition, meaning that the poverty rate was roughly where it had been in 1994-95.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Best, will be aware of the annual poverty report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Monitoring poverty and social exclusion 2002. That revealed that the number of children lifted out of poverty since 1997 was around half the number claimed by Ministers. Therefore, despite substantial increases in expenditure on benefits, the Government are still a long way from hitting their own poverty targets. That is particularly the case in regard to families with disabled children. As Roger Singleton, the chief executive of Barnardo's, wrote in the foreword to the report:

"there is little evidence from the case studies in this report that current initiatives are improving the lives of disabled children significantly".

Can the Minister say what measures the Government have to address some of the problems highlighted in the Barnardo's report for disabled children and their families? In addition, can she also explain what role the new children's trusts will have in providing support and assistance to disabled children and their families?

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, rightly pointed out that children are living longer thanks to medical advances. They are surviving premature birth in far greater numbers although many of them develop mild and more severe disabilities as they grow. While that is positive from a medical perspective, it is a life sentence for the worn out and emotionally wrecked families of the children. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, pointed out the many struggles that parents of disabled children face in obtaining vitally needed services such as equipment, special food and so on.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, mentioned the cost involved in caring for a child with a disability. The parent caring for a disabled child is less likely to be employed. If a parent works, he or she is likely to receive low pay. Families caring for a disabled child are less likely to own their home and there is a higher incidence of family breakdown. Such families are more likely to suffer from ill health. Statistics show that raising a child costs on average £7,500 in 1997 but raising a disabled child in that year costs £125,000 on average.

As Barnardo's rightly points out,

"Most poor families do not have a disabled child; but . . . many families with a disabled child do live in poverty".

I hope that the Government take heed of the report and will endeavour to address some of the alarming concerns that it has revealed.