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Duty Of Health Authority To Notify Parents Etc

Volume 10: debated on Thursday 22 October 1981

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Lords amendment: No. 6, in page 8, line 23, at end insert—

"(2) If, in a case falling within subsection (1) above the authority are of the opinion that a particular voluntary organisation is likely to be able to give the parent advice or assistance in connection with any special educational needs that the child may have, they shall inform the parent accordingly."

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment is a product of discussion in the House. I note that the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) is watching me with hawkish eyes. Time and again he raised the question of introducing, wherever possible, other authorities to help. The amendment fulfils promises made in the House to the effect that health authorities should be required to put parents of handicapped children in touch with voluntary organisations. Much discussion took place on that subject.

I shall remind the House of the origins of clause 10. It has now been strengthened. It was introduced on Report following an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Eccles and by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam). It was an improvement which was supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House and one to which 1he Government were pleased to give their support.

The clause places upon health authorities a duty to notify parents of children under the age of five if they suspect that a child has special educational needs. I share the keen interest of the hon. Member for Eccles. I repeat he promise that I made earlier, that we will ensure that post-legislative guidance makes it clear that this duty applies from the earliest possible age. This is a matter that he hon. Member raised earlier.

Since the Bill left this Chamber, the Government have added a further provision to clause 10 to take account of he view pressed on the Government in both Houses, that parents of handicapped children frequently benefit from help and support from voluntary organisations.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) is absent this afternoon. He was eager to see this added to the Bill and he tabled amendments in Committee and on Report with that goal. The amendment that we are now considering does not contain the element of prescription which was originally pressed on the Government. Health authorities will be faced with a variety of circumstances which relate to both child and parents. This is an incredibly difficult and sensitive area and health authorities must be allowed a degree of flexibility in how they discharge their duties if the provision is to have the desired effect. A uniform bureaucratic approach enshrined in the legislation would not be wholly helpful in this case. However, we readily acknowledge that voluntary organisations have a valuable role to play and we hope that the House will agree that the amendment lays the foundation for increased co-operation and support from voluntary organisations. I know that they welcome this challenge.

The Bill has been strengthened. I know that some people would like to see it strengthened further, but it is surprising just how far we have gone, particularly since provisions now apply from birth, not from the age of two or five.

I agree with the amendment, although I have certain reservations. Reference has been made to the three "e"s. It is rather interesting that clause 10 was introduced on Report by myself, the hon. Member for Eccles, and the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam and that an amendment similar to amendment No. 6 was moved by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud). I am sorry that the hon. Member for Isle of Ely is not here to respond.

The Minister has gone a long way towards meeting my requirements, and I should like to give him a clue word—neonate. In clause 10, legalistic people have used the jargon
"under the age of five years"
I believe that the authorities will read this and say that it means "under the age of five". We are referring to the neonate and sensory imperfections of speech, hearing, sight and possibly of muscular weakness to which attention must be given early so there will not be double handicap. The Minister has an opportunity to go down in history. I know his Department and civil servants want to help him. When it comes to drafting statutory instruments, guidelines or whatever a Department does in connection with area health authorities or local authorities, it must be clearly understood that we are talking about the point of birth and handicap and instant aid at that time.

I turn briefly to another theme. I am parliamentary adviser to the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association. I am an ex-Service man. I believe that if an ex-Service man loses a limb medical attention and nursing are important. However, after a traumatic experience it is also important for somebody with experience to give help. advice and comfort and to offer aid for rehabilitation.

The hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) had that in mind when he attempted to amend the Bill. I should have preferred the amendment moved in another place by Baroness D'Arcy de Knayth to be carried, but it was not. I should like a duty to be placed on the Minister to ensure that parents in distress receive advice from those best able to give it—the voluntary associations. May I have a firm assurance?

5.15 pm

Nothing delights me more than to give a firm assurance to the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter Jones). I see no reason why I cannot give a firm assurance I give a firm assurance.

Question put and agreed to.