Thank you, Sir Gary. It is a pleasure to speak in this Chamber on every occasion, as it has been to hear the wonderful contributions made so far by right hon. and hon. Members. I congratulate Sir Vince Cable on obtaining the debate and giving us the chance to participate.
I am taking part because I take an interest in school budgets and in children. Having been consistently cut, school budgets are unable to deliver in the way they have previously. Classroom assistants are losing hours, and the wait to get a statement for a child is getting longer. Instead of treating the meeting of special needs as an obligation, we should look at it as an opportunity to give such children the best possible education to enable them to overcome difficulties and meet their potential. If that is not something that requires additional ring-fenced funding, I do not what does. I look to the Minister to see what she can do about releasing that funding.
There are 49,000 babies, children and young people with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions in the UK, and the number is rising. Most of those children have complex health needs. They need constant care and support 24 hours a day. Most will also have a special educational need and/or a disability. The success of the system depends on whether there is equitable and sustainable funding for children’s education, health and social care provision. With great respect, that does not seem to be the case.
In the short time I have available, I want to mention a briefing from Together for Short Lives, which says that respite breaks are a part of the system that is not working. Seriously ill children and their families rely particularly on frequent short breaks for respite, which is provided by skilled people, who can meet the children’s often complex health needs. It may be for only a few hours, but it can be overnight or for a few days at a time. It is important because the 24/7 pressure on parents of having a child with a life-limiting condition is immense. Social care is vital to help them relieve the stress, catch up on sleep, spend time as a family and do the things that other families do. Frequent short breaks for respite for seriously ill children combine health and social care. They help to maintain children’s and families’ physical and mental health. Respite care is immensely important. The short breaks provided by children’s hospices can help to reduce stress and mitigate the risk of parental relationships breaking down.
There are some incredible statistics from research involving 17 children’s hospices in England and Scotland: 64% of divorced or separated parents cited having a child with complex needs as a reason for the breakdown of their relationship. Furthermore, 75% had had no access to short breaks, and 74% rated short breaks as having a direct, positive effect. Short breaks are necessary to help families regain some balance in their lives. Couples whose relationships were identified in the research as “non-distressed” were found to have received 43% more hours of short breaks on average from a children’s hospice than those who were in distressed relationships. Quite simply, respite care makes a difference. The facts are clear. If we deal with children’s needs in this way, there will be a lifelong benefit not simply to the child but to the entire family.
Just as they did for adult social care, will the Government review how social care for disabled children in England is funded? Will they address the £434 million shortfall in funding for social care services for disabled children that has been identified by the Disabled Children’s Partnership, by setting up an early intervention and family resilience fund? Intervention at that stage will provide benefits at later stages, and if we invest now to improve the quality of life of those who are most vulnerable and struggling the most, it will be worth every penny.