We now come to the second Opposition debate on the life chances of disabled children. [Interruption.] Members not wishing to participate should leave the Chamber as quickly and quietly as possible. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the plight of the UK’s 570,000 disabled children and the 55 per cent. of their families who are living in, or on the margins of, poverty; further notes with concern the Children’s Commissioner for England’s view that services for disabled children are a ‘national scandal’; acknowledges the link between disability and child poverty; believes that the Government’s target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020 will not be achieved without a strategy that seeks to improve the life chances of disabled children; welcomes the interest in short breaks for families with disabled children shown by the hon. Members for Normanton and Devon South West in their previous and proposed private members’ bills and looks forward to the Government’s response; believes that the current system of assessment and support provided for families with disabled children is complicated, bureaucratic, costly and stressful for both disabled children and their parents; further believes that the complexity of the benefit system acts as a barrier to employment for parents of disabled children in a way that prevents social mobility and entrenches poverty; and therefore calls on the Government to build on legislative progress on disability issues made under this and previous governments by simplifying the assessment processes and reducing the complexity of the benefit system for families with disabled children in order to prevent disabled children and their families being trapped in poverty.
It has been said that
“services for disabled children and their families are a national scandal”.
Those are not my words, but the words of the Children’s Commissioner for England. That is shocking, as there has not been a lack of good intentions on the Government’s part, or a lack of legislation, or a lack of willingness to invest in services, as evidenced by the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, the 2003 Green Paper entitled, “Every Child Matters”, the Children Act 2004, the life chances report of 2005, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and, last year, the Treasury policy review of children and young people, which reported its interim findings this month. I could go on, and it is hard to disagree with anything that the Government say in those reports. However, there has been a failure to deliver meaningful change to the lives of hundreds of thousands of families with disabled children.
A recent parliamentary inquiry chaired by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) found that 81 per cent. of parents with disabled children rate social service delivery as poor, and that 52 per cent. rate the delivery of educational services as poor. When it comes to disabled children, it is clear that not every child matters.
As the hon. Gentleman refers to the report and the parliamentary hearings, will he acknowledge that the report identifies some examples of good practice, such as the early support programme, and that part of our report advised the Government that they should extend the elements of good practice, so the picture is not totally bleak?
I agree that there were some positive aspects—not everything is negative—but the overwhelming majority of parents with disabled children express extreme frustration. The hon. Lady’s report was extremely valuable because it highlighted the progress that still has to be made.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am grateful. As the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to refer to me, and as I am asked to support the motion that he and his colleagues put before the House, may I ask what is the source of the figure in the first line of the motion, which refers to
“the UK’s 570,000 disabled children”?
The source of that figure, I am happy to tell the right hon. Gentleman, is the interim findings of the Treasury’s policy review on children and young people, which quotes that as the number of children who qualify under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, but the life chances report refers to 272,000 disabled children, so there is obviously some doubt as to the precise number. On average, it is clear that one in 20 children has a significant disability.
So that we are in a position to discuss the facts as the evening goes on, may I gently put it to the hon. Gentleman that the motion has got it wrong? The figure accepted by the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills is, for the United Kingdom, 770,000. Does he not realise that the figure that he has given is for England alone?
The right hon. Gentleman may be correct. That might explain the discrepancy between the two figures, but whether it is 570,000 or 772,000 is not the substantive point behind the motion.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, who co-chaired the report, spoke about the progress made in the early support programmes introduced by the Government. The assessment by the university of Central Lancashire examined those programmes and concluded that one of the key issues of concern to parents participating in the programmes was the transparency of the decision-making process. I hope to return to that later in the debate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the areas in which the Government are failing our children is in the provision of speech therapy? Does he also agree that we need clarity on the importance of the provision of speech therapy, on the shortages that exist, and on when the Government intend to remove those shortages?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I know that he has spoken on the matter in the House on many occasions. I commend the work of many of the campaigning organisations, such as I CAN, which have done a great deal of work on speech and language therapy. Of particular concern is the finding that 50 per cent. of five-year-olds are at risk of falling behind and possibly moving into social exclusion if the challenges that communication presents for them are not addressed immediately. That figure rises to 80 per cent. of children in socially deprived areas.
In the debate, I shall examine not only the problems faced by parents and carers of disabled children, but why, unless we tackle the link between disability and poverty, the Government will fail to make progress towards their child poverty targets. Let us start, though, by looking at the challenges faced by a parent who has a disabled child. I was talking to some mothers of disabled children in Essex and in London last week. They spoke about the mind-boggling complexity of the benefits system, which requires them to fill out eight different forms—for the carer’s allowance, the carer’s premium in income support, child tax credits, child benefit, the community care grant from the social fund, disability living allowance, disabled facilities grant and housing benefit.
I have all the forms. I know that this is a subject in which you take a great interest, Madam Deputy Speaker, and on which you might have wanted to contribute had you not been Deputy Speaker. Can you guess how many questions we ask a parent in that situation to answer? The answer is 1,118 questions spread over 273 pages. Let us be clear—those parents are probably in the most vulnerable situation in their lives, which could lead to the break-up of their marriages, if they are married. They almost certainly see a significant drop in their disposable income. What do we do? We make them take an exam.
One cannot accuse the people who write the forms of not having a sense of humour. Part 22 of the disability living allowance form for adults, in the section headed “Communicating with other people”, asks:
“Do you have problems … filling out forms?”
The form continues:
“Describe in your own words the problems you have and the help you need”.
Many of the questions on the forms are not designed for simple yes or no answers—they require a paragraph of prose describing one’s situation. That is much more difficult for socially disadvantaged parents than for articulate, middle-class parents who are capable of fighting for their rights.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. He is speaking about questions. Is he aware that there is a very important question—one single question—that a group of parents from Ravensbourne school in my constituency, who have children on the autistic spectrum, regularly put to me? They say, “Please, please, may we have some respite care?” For those children, respite care must be specific to their needs. The daily lives of those families are extremely difficult and, they say, if only they could look forward, perhaps once or twice a year, to just two days when the child was in respite care, it would make all the difference, but it is not available.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that she knows a great deal about the matter. I shall deal with the lack of respite care later in my remarks.
With reference to the forms, it is worth pointing out the number of complaints made by parents of autistic children about the inadequacy of the DLA, and in particular its inadequacy in identifying non-visible disabilities. There is no question on the DLA form that asks, for example, how many times the child ran away last month, but that is the kind of challenge with which parents of autistic children have to deal. It is clear, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting it, that we need much greater awareness of conditions such as autism in the working of the benefits system.
It might be suggested that the reason why we ask parents 1,118 questions is that disabilities are complicated and we need to understand the facts, but 23 questions are repeated on every form, three quarters of the questions on the forms are repeated at least twice, a third of the questions are repeated at least three times, and a quarter—that is 274 questions—are repeated at least four times. Perhaps that is because they apply to different Government Departments. Let us quietly forget the Prime Minister’s comments to the civil service conference in 1998 about
“joined up policy making for joined up services”.
However, six of the eight forms are from the same Department—the Department for Work and Pensions.
The result of the complexity is very low take-up of benefits. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that about half of parents of disabled children claim DLA. The survey by the Child Poverty Action Group and Contact a Family showed that a third of parents are put off claiming DLA by the complexity of the form.
One of the difficulties with benefits such as DLA, which does not consider diagnosis but examines the way in which the disability affects the child, is that if one goes to appeal, the people who sit on tribunals do not have the specialist knowledge to translate the questions to ascertain how the child’s life is affected. It is important to take into account not only the diagnosis or the disability, but the effect on the child’s life when ascertaining whether the child qualifies for DLA. It is time we had more specialists on tribunals and appeals panels so that a fair hearing can be given.
My hon. Friend has campaigned a great deal in the House on autism. She makes an important point. Her point about appeals amply demonstrates the lack of confidence that the parents of autistic children have in the benefits system. That is also shown by the fact that 13 per cent. of parents take five or more years to apply for DLA.
Would it not make sense for all the information to be made available at an early stage to parents who have disabled children? One reason for the points that the hon. Gentleman makes is that many parents are unaware of the benefits to which they or their children may be entitled. By missing out on an early claim, they may not only lose substantial sums of money, but may find that the assessment is made on a different basis, and thus lose out on a significant sum for many years after that assessment.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Almost a third of parents in the Child Poverty Action Group survey said that they did not know where to go for independent benefits advice.
Not only the benefits system but the social care system causes problems. Mencap describes a system whereby more than a third of parents have to juggle eight or more different professionals for social care packages. One parent who spoke to the parliamentary inquiry said that she had to deal with 21 different professionals, and that the co-ordination so exhausted her and her family that she came close to family breakdown as well as being unable to consider work.
There are different systems. In Austria, there are single, multi-disciplinary assessment teams, which consist of a child doctor, a paediatric nurse, a physiotherapist and an information officer, who come together as soon as a disabled child is born. That team is at parents’ disposal, not only for the initial assessment but afterwards, when they need support. During my first Question Time as a Front Bencher, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), whether she would consider an Austrian-style system in this country. She replied:
“The Austrian experience is particular to the Austrian environment, and I am always reluctant to assume that one can necessarily import a system from another country”.—[Official Report, 13 March 2006; Vol.443, c. 1144.]
We cannot import another country’s system lock, stock and barrel, but could we not at least learn from the way in which other countries do things? If we are not even prepared to learn, there is a danger that some people will interpret well-intentioned failure to make progress as woeful complacency.
When we talk to constituents, groups that campaign for parents with disabled children and carers who look after disabled children, they mention the education system time and again. Last week, I spoke to a lady who told me that it took 11 steps for her to get the right education package for her child, who is four years old and has severe cerebral palsy. The local education authority assigned her a school that she did not like. She contacted the LEA and was told that a child psychologist would have to assess the child at nursery and in the home. She was given 10 days to find alternative schools but she was not given a list of accessible schools. She was then offered a choice of two schools, neither of which was on her preferred list. One was a drive of an hour and 10 minutes, which would mean a round trip of two hours and twenty minutes.
My hon. Friend made an impressive speech at the all-party group on disability last week. He talks about a system that at least bamboozles and at worst intimidates many concerned parents of vulnerable youngsters. The real cost is that those youngsters’ needs are not identified early enough. That is critical for conditions such as autism and many others. We are not giving those children what they need at the stage that they need it.
My hon. Friend, who plays an active role in co-chairing the all-party group, makes an important point. A single, multi-disciplinary assessment team would be one way of ensuring effective early intervention.
Let me revert to the example of the 11 steps—I shall not go through them all. In the end, the parent was able to get her child into the local infants school where she wanted him to go all along. However, she was told that he could go only part-time because it would take six months to install disabled toilets. Six months have passed and she has been told that it will take another two years. The child has to go to the toilet in the stationery cupboard. The mother is articulate and knows how to fight for her rights. One of the educational professionals who spoke to the parliamentary inquiry pointed out that the system is
“inherently discriminatory against the most socially disadvantaged”.
My hon. Friend is not only making an excellent speech, but has done a fantastic job in highlighting disability issues over many months. He mentioned accessible toilets for people with disabilities. Let me highlight the Changing Places campaign, which has been organised by Mencap, among others. Does he agree that one of the main problems that the parents of disabled children face is taking the children to the toilet at school or outside school, for example, in supermarkets? Will he join me in encouraging as many organisations as possible to provide the sort of facilities that the Changing Places campaign mentions, so that they are fit for purpose?
My hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in disability issues, which dates from the time he worked at ASDA. He makes an important point. The problem especially affects disabled children who are not toilet trained, are aged 10 or 12 and still need to use nappies. If they cannot access the proper sort of toilets, they have to lie on the floor of a public toilet so that their mother can change the nappy. One way of tackling that is providing properly accessible toilets and the other is to make trainer nappies, which allow nappies to be changed while a child is standing up, more widely available.
The perceived independence of the assessment system in education is critical. Many parents feel that a system whereby the assessing authority is also the funding authority will not make a fair assessment. That is why Sir Robert Balchin’s special educational needs commission, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) set up when he was shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, recommended breaking the link between assessment and funding.
The Government have not shown much willingness to grasp the nettle. The Select Committee on Education and Skills reported
“significant failings in the system that need to be dealt with urgently.”
The Government’s response to the report was that
“the evidence does not, in the Government’s view, suggest a system in need of fundamental review”.
According to parliamentary answers that I received, no Minister from the Department for Education and Skills has attended the Office for Disability Issues meetings.
I intended to deal with the matter in my speech, but I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the parliamentary question and identifies the Minister about whom he posed the question. He asked for the attendance of a Minister who is not a member of the cross-ministerial group.
I am interested to hear that response from the Minister. Perhaps she would like to know why I asked that particular Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education and Skills how many times he had attended meetings of the Office for Disability Issues. It was because of a response that the Minister herself had given me in answer to a parliamentary question about which Ministers were members of the ministerial oversight group.
We asked the Under-Secretary of State in this place, and we got a reply from the Under-Secretary of State in the other place. So we have been in touch with both of them, and there does seem to be some confusion over the issue.
A further group of people who are severely short-changed by the way in which we look after families with disabled children are the taxpayers. As taxpayers, we want to help families in that incredibly vulnerable situation, yet we see that of the £5.4 billion that is spent supporting such families through the social care budget, £1.1 billion— 26 per cent.—is used up by the assessment and commissioning process. That money does not go towards providing the services that the families need. We have also discovered that, according to parliamentary answers on the administration of the disability living allowance, £630 million was lost through official error. About £360 million was lost through official error relating to housing benefit, £110 million through official error relating to income support, and £10 million through official error relating to the carer’s allowance.
One third of the families who have access to short breaks say that their access has been cut over the past year, and eight out of 10 families say that they are at breaking point due to the lack of access to short breaks.
Before my hon. Friend warmly commends me, may I ask him whether he agrees that one of the most poignant moments for all of us in our surgeries is when parents of severely disabled children explain their story to us? They always look exhausted, and they hate to complain, but the one thing that they always ask for is access to respite care or to a short break. Is it not worrying that, for a variety of reasons that we all understand—pressure of budgets and so on—respite care is being cut back in many parts of the country? In addition to warmly commending me, will my hon. Friend encourage the whole House to be here on 23 February to support the Disabled Children (Family Support) Bill? That Bill will place a duty on local authorities and health authorities to make adequate short break provision available. Is not that the right way forward?
I warmly commend my hon. Friend for bringing that issue to the attention of the House. Why cannot the Government look into the possibility of reforming and streamlining the assessment and commissioning process, so that funds could be found to finance the important respite care that my hon. Friend has described?
I mentioned earlier that a major consequence of our failure properly to support families with disabled children is a lack of progress on the child poverty targets. We know that more than half the families with disabled children live either below the poverty line or on the margins of poverty. We also know that disabled children are twice as likely as other children to be receiving free school meals. The Government’s strategy on child poverty has essentially been based on income transfer and on ensuring that vulnerable families have enough money in their pockets to buy what they need to live on. I want to adapt a well-worn phrase to suggest to the Government that, as well as being tough on poverty, we need to be tough on the causes of poverty. That means looking not only at income transfer, but at removing the barriers to social mobility. The complexity and bureaucracy of the system prevent social mobility at the moment.
I spoke to the mother of a disabled child recently, and she told me that she earned £2 a week more than she was allowed to on the carer’s allowance—the limit is £84 a week—and that she was now being asked to repay £1,600, which of course she does not have. I remember the parent who spoke to the parliamentary inquiry and described how having to juggle 21 professionals made it impossible for her to think about work. I put it to the House that the role of social mobility in combating poverty is one of the main areas of difference between ourselves and the Government. We all support the aspirations of the child poverty targets, and I urge the Government to look at the role of social mobility as they review their child poverty strategy.
The policies that we adopt on families with disabled children must be central to social policy because it is about the family. A healthy society has healthy families—social breakdown occurs when we have family breakdown. There is much that is wrong with our support for families with disabled children, but perhaps the thing that is most wrong is the poverty of ambition in regard to what can be achieved. Some people say that there are no heroes any more, but every hon. Member knows that the true heroes and heroines of our time are the parents and carers of disabled children. They want nothing more than to focus all their energy, attention and efforts on bringing up their much-loved children. Instead, we make them battle against the system. Let us scale up our ambition and give them a system worthy of their great efforts.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“welcomes the fact that this Government acknowledged the challenges faced by disabled children and their families by publishing a report in 2005, Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People; welcomes the establishment of an Office for Disability Issues to improve coordination of disability policy across Whitehall and provide a forum for the voice of disabled people; recognises that the Government committed itself to improve outcomes for all children and young people through its change programme—Every Child Matters—which is driving change in local areas through the establishment of Children’s Trusts; commends the Government in its specific focus on disabled children in the disabled children’s standard of the Children’s National Service Framework and the Special Educational Needs strategy, Removing Barriers to Achievement; acknowledges the Government’s close working with stakeholders from the disabled children sector in developing its work programme; notes the Government’s investment in support services for families with disabled children through its funding of the Family Fund and the Contact a Family national help line; commends the success of the Government’s Early Support Programme for young disabled children; further commends the introduction of direct payments for families with disabled children and disabled young people, which increase choice and control and empowers those families; and congratulates the Government’s commitment to further improving services for disabled children through the disability strand of the Children and Young People Policy Review.”.
I thank the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) for his opening comments. We have had an opportunity to get to know each other over the past year or so, especially during the progress of the Welfare Reform Bill, and I certainly do not doubt his integrity or his commitment to the cause that he espouses. Having said that, I want to say that, contrary to the words in the Opposition’s motion, the Government do have a record to be proud of in extending the rights and opportunities of disabled people and in supporting disabled children.
Having paid the hon. Gentleman a compliment, I must observe that there are other members of the Opposition who have come very late to the disability debate. However, I very much welcome their interest and their contribution to the debate, both on the specific agendas around disabled children and on the wider issues.
Not at the moment. I have not yet said very much for the hon. Gentleman to comment on, so I hope that he can hold it for a second. I hope that it will give him some comfort if I say that there have always been hon. Members on the other side who have championed disability rights, and I shall go on to talk about some of the difficult times had by the Conservatives in trying to champion those issues.
This debate is timely because of the emerging findings of the children and young people review carried out by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills, which was published on 9 January. As the hon. Member for South-West Surrey said, the review considers specifically what action needs to be taken to improve outcomes and equality of opportunity for disabled children and their families, and it will feed directly into this year’s comprehensive spending review.
I would like briefly to remind the House of the commitments made in the Prime Minister’s strategy unit report, “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People”, which the hon. Member for South-West Surrey mentioned. I shall also talk about some of the progress being made in respect of disabled children. Finally, I shall reflect on some of the challenges ahead.
Before I begin, however, I must take the Opposition to task for their attempt to airbrush out of history some of the actions and—dare I say it?—inaction that characterised their approach when they were in government and in a position to do something about some of the issues that have been highlighted today. At best they did not improve the lives of disabled children, and at worst they exacerbated some of the problems—[Interruption.] The issues raised here this evening did not miraculously appear on the scene in 1997.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), who will hope to catch your eye later in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, will remind the House of some of the difficulties in trying to take on the disability agenda.
When the Opposition were in power they had a golden opportunity, over 18 years, to make a real difference to the lives of disabled children. They did not take it.
I know that it is one of the coldest days of the year but I was not expecting such a frosty account from the Minister. In the interests of a balanced picture, will she congratulate the Conservative Government on the introduction of the disability living allowance in 1992, the introduction of the first Disability Discrimination Act, in 1995, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), which was described by the Equal Opportunities Review as the most significant piece of discrimination legislation in a generation, the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, and the introduction of direct payments in 1996?
I will refer to some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman highlights. He did not mention that a Conservative Government introduced the Education Act 1981, which defined special educational needs and set out the process for identification and multidisciplinary assessments, including statements. They forgot, however, to make that right enforceable: there were no time limits for assessments or statements, and no clarity about the role of local authorities. It took 13 long years to get those rights established for the very parents about whom he talks, albeit under a Conservative Government, in 1993. When his party was in a position to make a difference to the lives of disabled people in this country, it either acted reluctantly or not at all.
Credit ought to be given to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the previous Prime Minister, the former Member for Huntingdon, for the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, because they had to force that Act through in the teeth of opposition from many Conservative Back Benchers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, who was in the vanguard of some of those campaigns, will remember that.
I must disappoint my hon. Friend: I had not planned to speak. However, may I lend some support to her advice to the Opposition? If they really want to change policies and make progress, which may be the case, they would be extremely wise not to refer too often to their record in government, not least because, even in the Disability Discrimination Act, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) steadfastly resisted the introduction of the Disability Rights Commission. I remembered that when I saw in the new year’s honours list that its chair, Sir Bert Massey, had received a well-deserved knighthood—although I am not sure that that would have been widely shared.
My right hon. Friend has highlighted the very point that I was going to make: the Disability Rights Commission was established by this Government to give teeth to the DDA, because the previous Conservative Government forgot to think about how that Act would be enforced. The previous Conservative Government could have made a significant difference. However, the child poverty statistics show that they oversaw the greatest ever increase in child poverty in this country, when one in five families had no one in work, and one in every three families were living in poverty. That is a terrible legacy, which the Government are committed to overturning, and I welcome the support of the hon. Member for South-West Surrey for that.
In welcoming the conversion of Conservative Members to the cause—with the honourable exception of those Conservative Members who were always part of the campaign, to whom I give credit—may I confess to the House that I have sometimes taken a rather jaundiced view of their contribution to the debate in past years?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, that issue causes grave concern across the country. It is also an issue for local authorities. Conservative local authorities are making some of the difficult decisions about special needs education. If I have time, I shall refer to special needs education in a few moments.
The Government have made real progress in putting the life chances of disabled people, and especially of disabled children, at the heart of our policy: extending educational opportunities; improving the benefit system and raising levels of benefit; opening up opportunities for disabled people to move into work; transforming the civil rights of disabled people; ensuring that public authorities put equality for disabled people at the core of their activities; and tackling poverty.
Last week, the BBC alerted my constituents to the fact that more than 100 young people with profound learning disabilities have been kept in Muckamore Abbey hospital, and have not been able to get out into the community, because there is no care in the community available or place for them to go. It also found that 20 young people are in locked-up wards in that hospital, when there should not be locked-up accommodation at all. Surely something ought to be done about that.
I do not have any difficulty in agreeing with the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
I shall shortly refer in turn to the issues that I have identified. Let me also state, so that there can be no doubt, that we are not at all complacent about what must be done, and nor are we afraid to listen to the concerns of disabled people. That is why the Prime Minister’s strategy unit conducted the first comprehensive study of the life chances of disabled people, leading to the first ever cohesive cross-government strategy to deliver equality for disabled people. That is also why the Government asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill to establish the recent Parliamentary Hearings on Services for Disabled Children, which were cross-party, open and transparent—and, yes, critical—so that Parliament could hear at first hand about the pressures and difficulties that parents, carers and children face on a daily basis. I think that my right hon. Friend will agree that that is probably the first time that a Government have specifically charged a group of parliamentarians to undertake such an exercise. The report of the evidence gained was delivered officially to the Government by him and his committee, and it will inform the discussions that are currently taking place as part of the comprehensive spending review.
Yes, there were some tough messages in the report, and we will not run away from them. But there were also some positive comments. The early support system was highlighted as having produced a dramatic change in the lives of families with disabled children. According to the report, evidence given at the parliamentary hearings made it clear that the early support programme is one of the Government’s great success stories in relation to disabled children. It was not all gloom and doom.
Let me turn briefly to how the strategy has been undertaken and what progress we have made. The life chances report marked a real step change in the way that Government think about the impact of their policies and services on the lives of disabled people. Why is that? Because for the first time ever, a Government took as their starting point the belief that people are disabled not by their impairments but by the way in which society responds to them—or, in many cases, fails to respond to their needs and aspirations. The report set a clear and ambitious vision for Government: that by 2025 disabled people should have the same opportunities and choices as everyone else, should be respected as equal members of society, and should be able to participate as equals in every aspect of family and community life.
We can bandy various figures, but according to the life chances analysis, 700,000 disabled children and young people in Britain face a number of specific barriers, some of which have been identified this evening, which make it more difficult for them to achieve their full potential. Their families often experience high levels of stress, they are more likely to live in poverty, and they are more likely to face an increased risk of social exclusion. Their future life chances are critically affected by the support and services that they receive. This was a Government report, this was a Government strategy unit, and this was a Government who were prepared to face up to difficult issues.
May I commend to the Minister the ROSE—real opportunities for supported employment— project at Havering college of further and higher education, which helps students with learning difficulties into work? It is highly successful, and an example of good practice that could be copied throughout the country. The main difficulty is not finding employers who are sympathetic and willing to take on such students, nor is it persuading the students to take on jobs, because they are keen to do so. The main difficulty is that parents are worried about losing benefits if their children work for more than 16 hours a week. That is a problem that we could easily overcome.
As I am sure the hon. Lady will appreciate, there is always a balance to be struck. Deciding where the dividing line should be for the disregard of income for people on benefits is always tricky. Interestingly, more often than not people come to me with the opposite problem: rather than wanting to work for more than 16 hours, they want to work for less than 16 hours. I believe that the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) raised that point during the Committee stage of the Welfare Reform Bill. In any event, it is a delicate balance: too much and we call the benefits system into question, too little and it may act as a disincentive for young people to try work. We are constantly trying to find ways of finessing the system.
Part of the question asked by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) concerned a difference of opinion between parent and child. Such disputes do occur. Does the Minister agree that we need good-quality advocacy services so that the voice of the child can be heard? Sometimes young people want something other than what their parents want, which is often because parents are, understandably, being over-protective.
I think that that is why some of the issues are difficult to discuss in a forum such as this. Children or young people may want to express their ambitions in a way that conflicts with their parents’ understandable worries about whether they are capable of living independently. I know of many parents who are deeply concerned when a learning-disabled child says, “I want to move into a flat of my own.” Mum and Dad may not think that that is achievable, but if the right support systems are there it can be done in a way that will not cause the young person any difficulties.
When I was having meetings on the United Nations convention on the rights of disabled people, I was impressed by two young people aged 18 and 19 who told me of their deep concern about the fact that for many years other people had spoken for them. They wanted to speak for themselves, and they had a powerful message to convey. They were fed up with doctors, nurses and parents speaking for them; like all teenagers, they did not want their parents to speak for them. There are complex issues, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out.
There tends to be a gap between children’s and adults’ services. Does the Minister agree that one way of making the transition successful is to provide multidisciplinary teams, and to ensure that the transition is seamless? All too often, once the statutory responsibilities end when a young person is 16 or 18 there is a long wait before anything else happens, and that causes a great deal of distress.
I greatly respect the hon. Lady’s knowledge and expertise. She has drawn attention to an important issue, which was mentioned in the strategy unit report. A cliff edge is reached when young people reach 16, 17 or 18, and they may be covered neither by children’s services nor by adults’ services.
I thank the Minister. Does she agree that an holistic approach is needed to give more opportunities to young people with disabilities, including learning disabilities, and also to ensure their safety? There is a learning skills centre for disabled young people in Western road in my constituency, but because of bureaucracy on the part of the council and Transport for London, the centre is not being allowed a pedestrian crossing to make those young people’s lives more safe and secure. Will the Minister think about how the Government can encourage local authorities to ensure the safety, as well as the opportunities, of young people with learning disabilities and disabled young people?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman has fallen into the trap of assuming that making it safe for young people with learning disabilities to go to and from a place of training or employment automatically means a structural change such as the introduction of a pedestrian crossing. As those who work with young people with learning disabilities will know, a range of life skills can be developed in the circumstances that he has described. Of course, I do not know whether a pedestrian crossing is needed in his constituency; if that is the case, no doubt he will let us know.
The Government have a manifesto commitment to
“ensure that services are designed to meet the additional needs of disabled children and their families”,
and are engaged in a positive programme of work to improve the life chances of disabled children. The key objectives are to improve support for families with disabled children in line with the national service framework, to ensure that disabled children benefit from the development and expansion of early years services, to promote equality of opportunity through the Disability Discrimination Act 2005—which means improved access to schools, early years services and educational opportunities—and to deliver fit-for-purpose services that improve outcomes for disabled children. The aim is to move away from the idea that the provider always knows best what an individual disabled person or child would want.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) spoke of disabled teenagers reaching the point at which they wish to move into adulthood, and to have some of the opportunities that their non-disabled friends, colleagues and family have. We have to recognise that disabled children and young disabled people have aspirations and ambitions, too. For too long, we almost wrote off their right to have those ambitions and aspirations. It is not the aspirations that are wrong; it is the barriers to meeting those aspirations.
Sometimes, the reasons behind the barriers are not straightforward. They may be to do with a young person's health or impairment, but—this relates to something that the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said—the attitudes of society play an important part. That is something on which we can all agree, and I know that that it was highlighted in the parliamentary report.
As I said earlier, there is no doubt that we structure our services and the provision for disabled adults in a way that often meets the priorities of the providers, but I want to pick up on one or two other points made by the hon. Member for South-West Surrey. I was seriously disappointed by his comments on the Office for Disability Issues and by the fact that he suggested, or appeared to suggest in his press release, that there was a lack of ministerial commitment. In fact when he puts together all the parliamentary answers, including the one from me—I chair that meeting—he will find that there is serious ministerial commitment to that cross-ministerial group, with the caveat that occasionally, when a Minister cannot attend, that Minister sends a senior representative from his or her Department, so we are fully committed to disability issues through the ODI.
Can the Minister explain why the response to the parliamentary question that I put to the Department for Education and Skills, sent to the Under-Secretary of State, Lord Adonis, said:
“I am responding on behalf of Lord Adonis, who leads on this area. There have been no meetings at ministerial level”—[Official Report, 9 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 563W.]
I have not seen the hon. Gentleman's initial parliamentary question, but I say to him and to Conservative Members that Lord Adonis has attended meetings of the cross-ministerial—[Interruption.] He has. As I say, I have not seen the original question that the hon. Gentleman sent. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), says from a sedentary position that it certainly was a real person, looking like Lord Adonis, who attended those meetings. I think that that is an issue that would be better resolved in another place. I want to give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we are taking this very seriously. Ministers are taking it seriously.
I will now look at some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made about benefits. We recognise that sometimes benefits and the procedure for benefits can be a barrier. That is why we are constantly investigating ways to improve our benefit delivery. We are working with the Child Poverty Action Group, Contact a Family, family and carers groups, and the Disability Rights Commission to examine how we can make the operational changes that will make the reaction to applications for disability living allowance for children more responsive. We are working with various other stakeholder groups on that issue.
I also want to say to the hon. Gentleman that we have made significant changes in the amount of benefit that is paid to children. I do not want to scratch over old sores, but in 1997 children under the age of five could not apply for the mobility component of the disability living allowance. That was a rule made by his Government. We changed that, and now children can apply from the age of three. This is not old hat, and it is part of the reason why sometimes there is an element of shallowness in the way in which some hon. Members—excluding the hon. Member for South-West Surrey—come to the issue. In fact entitlement now to disability living allowance can start at the age of two years and nine months. The disability child premium has doubled since 1997, and the carers premium has also doubled.
Will the Minister clear up one puzzle? At the back of the application form for carers allowance, it says that one of the achievements is that in 2005-06 claims were settled in an average of 13.1 days, but the 2006-07 target for the average clearance time is 15 days, so the Government have set themselves a longer time to clear benefits in 2006-07. Why will that help to improve the service that the Government provide?
I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman why. I did have the option of reducing that target below 13 days, but I wanted to emphasise not how quickly we could get those benefits out of the door but the quality of the decision, and it was more important to emphasise the quality. I could have set an additional target, but if we were turning benefits around in 13.5 days I wanted to ensure that within those 13.5 days, we got a quality decision that stopped some of the appeals that he usually complains about.
I forgive the Minister for whatever she said there—I do not think it was derogatory. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that the needs, wishes and desires of disabled people are complex. The hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), who speaks on behalf of the Conservatives, has talked about the amount of paperwork that needs to be filled in. I noted the article in The Times yesterday and I have also looked at the Conservative website. There appears to be a move towards reducing the number of benefits, but I am deeply anxious. I do not know whether the Minister shares my concern. Does she not believe that rolling up all the benefits available to disabled people would create a more rigid system that would not be able to meet the diverse needs of disabled people?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because I think it is appropriate to bring that idea into the discussion at this point. I appreciate that superficially it sounds great to try to move towards a single unified benefit, but I want to give a word of warning to the hon. Member for South-West Surrey. The benefits for disabled people serve different purposes at different times. There would be a grave danger if we started to look at a single roll-up benefit, because we would be putting rigidity into the system. At the moment, we have a system with the disability living allowance that tries to be as flexible as possible to meet the needs of the individual. That is why there are different benefit strands and different questions. There is a grave danger that a rigid system would financially penalise some of the most vulnerable disabled people, rather than helping them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that lead-in to my next point. He and I and our Department are on the same wavelength on that. I noticed on the Conservative party’s disability website that he was going to mention this tonight. Obviously he will have noted that the Secretary of State said earlier last week that
“Public services must increasingly be based around the need of customers”—
which reflects what the hon. Gentleman was saying—and that
“A lot of progress has been made to tailor our services accordingly but current privacy procedures and working practices can sometimes still force people to have to convey the same information multiple times to different agencies.”
Again, I think that the hon. Gentleman and I are on the same wavelength.
I then looked at the BBC News website and saw the headline “Tories attack data-sharing plans”. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who I understand is the spokesperson on constitutional affairs for the Conservative party, has severely criticised the very idea the need for which the hon. Member for South-West Surrey is highlighting tonight—that we must get ourselves to a situation where people do not have to keep giving the same core information to different Government agencies.
So the hon. Gentleman might wish to speak—[Interruption.] No, the hon. Gentleman often talked about multiple questions being asked. As he has grave concerns in that regard, which we recognise, he needs to look at whether—[Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) is still talking about the single benefit. [Interruption.] Well, we were trying to start with the Department for Work and Pensions. Only last week, my Secretary of State highlighted the fact that we want to consider whether we can increase data sharing, and the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on Constitutional Affairs said, “No way, Jose”—that is what the press release says. As the hon. Member for South-West Surrey has genuine concerns about multiple questions, he clearly needs to have a few words with his colleagues.
Finally, I want to deal with some of the issues highlighted in the hon. Gentleman’s comments on child poverty. He is right to highlight the fact that families with a disabled child, or a disabled carer or parent, are more at risk of poverty. The key factor in that is worklessness, as was discussed extensively in the Welfare Reform Bill Committee. That is why we have placed great emphasis on supporting into work disabled adults, many of whom are parents or carers. I have also referred to some of the success stories about lifting children—700,000 of them—out of relative poverty in the six years to 2004-05.
I do not wish to be discourteous to the hon. Lady, but in fairness to other Members I should try to draw my remarks to a close.
The review by the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills—with support from other Departments, including mine—found that many programmes and initiatives are making a real difference, and that there is widespread good practice in delivery for disabled children and young people. However, as I said at the beginning of my speech, we recognise that that good practice is not yet consistent across the country. There are also a number of areas where more work needs to be done: ensuring that information on benefits gets to parents and carers at the right time—a point that was made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett)—improving knowledge and understanding of disabled young people, and disabled people generally, in the work force; developing a coherent and clearer understanding of the disabled children population; and further integration and co-operation between services. I hope that, through the Office for Disability Issues, we engage in joint working across government.
Let me say something in a spirit of solidarity with the hon. Member for South-West Surrey: we all want the best for our children and for the next generation of young people in our country. This Government have committed unremittingly to giving disabled children and young people the right start, the right opportunities and the right support, to ensure that they have a bright future. Every child matters, and every disabled child matters—and although we might have differences on the approach to be taken, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on his party’s motion and decides that some of the comments are rather harsh in the light of our record. I ask the House to support the amendment.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the important issues that are under discussion. Disability is a big issue for all Members and our constituents. As we have heard, many issues affect the life chances of disabled children, and they cut across the work of a number of Departments, which is why joined-up government, to which the Minister referred at the end of her speech, is so important, even though it might not always be as successfully delivered as we would hope.
Having served on the Welfare Reform Bill Committee with the Minister and the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), I had expected there to be a continuation of the positive tone that there was in Committee. I am a bit disappointed that that spirit has not been as much in evidence.
A couple of issues are key in respect of the motion, and they need to be debated: first, poverty and particularly access to employment for parents of disabled children and the operation of the benefit system; and, secondly, the quality of services provided to disabled children.
Reference has been made to the parliamentary hearings of last year that were chaired by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), and at which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) was very involved; I pay tribute to her longstanding work on the issues under discussion. At those hearings, children with disabilities and their families spoke directly about their concerns. A number of points that arose in those hearings have been put on the record, and I want to add a couple more.
One recommendation was that disabled children and their families should have an opportunity to shape the way their services are planned, commissioned and delivered. It is important to understand that the issues we are discussing affect the whole family—not only the disabled child, but also the parents and siblings of that disabled child. It is also important to recognise that improving the life chances of disabled children has a significant impact on their life chances as adults as well, in terms of educational achievement then leading to employment and higher education, and so forth. These issues are not only to do with children; they are also to do with the entire life of a disabled person.
It is worth returning to some of the key facts behind the debate. It started with a dispute about numbers in relation to the motion. However, regardless of what the exact figures are, a huge number of people across the United Kingdom are affected. In the UK, 7 per cent. of children and young people have a disability or limiting long-term condition—a total of 770,000. Of those children, 98 per cent. live at home with a parent or other family member. According to the figures that I have seen, each day in Britain 75 children are born with, or are diagnosed as having, a disability.
Would it not be a great help for parents of new-born children diagnosed with a disability if information were given to them very early on in a straightforward and simple manner? That would give them access at an early date to the benefits that they are entitled to.
That is right—and to me, as someone who will, God willing, in due course be welcoming an additional member to my own family, it is also particularly important.
Charities estimate that it costs three times more to bring up a disabled child than it does to bring up a non-disabled child. In the UK, 3.6 million children are living in poverty—that is, 28 per cent. of such children—compared with 55 per cent. of disabled children who are living in, or on the margins of, poverty. It is important to recognise that poverty is not only likely to result from disability, but that it also might cause it. For example, children born into low-income families are more likely to have low birth-weights, which can lead to future health problems. The interrelationship between childhood disability and poverty is clear, and so are the consequences of that for the services that people consume.
Of families with a disabled child, one in 13 receives support from social services departments. Disabled children are 13 times more likely to be excluded from school than non-disabled children, and eight out of 10 families with disabled children say that they are “at breaking point”.
So the clearest indication that disabled children do not have the same life chances as non-disabled people is the extent of poverty faced. Only some 6 per cent. of families with disabled children reported that they were “comfortably off”. By way of contrast, 92.8 per cent. reported experiencing some kind of financial difficulty. It is important to talk a bit about the causes of such poverty. I shall come back to the extra cost of services, but there is also the question of the extra cost of living. Let us consider fuel poverty. Disabled children might have particular needs in terms of keeping the house warm, so turning down the heating, which many people are encouraged to do, is not an option. That expense simply has to be met, leading to greater fuel costs for the families of disabled children than those experienced by the general population. The proposal to extend the winter fuel payment to severely disabled people would therefore have some impact in this regard.
There are a number of inadequacies in the benefits system, to which I shall return, but in addition to that issue and the cost of services, the other big barriers for families with disabled children are the barriers to work. This issue is not adequately addressed in the Welfare Reform Bill, and we perhaps need to return to it. For example, social care services, to which the hon. Member for South-West Surrey referred, often assume that parents can pick up any additional hours that such services cannot provide. That obviously impinges on parents’ ability to work, especially full time, because there might be an unexpected requirement to provide care for their child when the system lets them down, thereby removing them from the workplace. That is reflected in the fact that only 16 per cent. of mothers with disabled children are in work, only 3 per cent. of whom are in full-time employment. By way of comparison, 61 per cent. of mothers of non-disabled children are in work. That is a huge disparity.
Let me give a quotation from the “Every Disabled Child Matters” campaign. One mother of a disabled child said that
“simply getting out of the house can be difficult. I spend all my time organising his different appointments. I used to work as a radiographer in the local hospital. I really enjoyed my job but I can’t imagine I’ll ever be able to go back, I’d never find the right childcare.”
The hon. Gentleman rightly refers to the difficulties that many parents with disabled children experience in getting out of the house. Does he share my concern that such parents are not eligible to apply for blue badges for their children if they are aged under two?
I certainly do share that concern. I had not intended to highlight it, but I am grateful that the hon. Lady has.
The poverty and worklessness figures are even more worrying in cases where there is a disabled adult in the house, as well as a disabled child. According to the Department for Work and Pensions,
“a household with a disabled child and a disabled adult is nearly twice as likely to have a low income”
as a household with no disabled family members. That throws into stark relief the poverty-related problems that disability can often cause. According to the charity Working Families, 70 per cent. of parents with disabled children find it difficult to obtain appropriate child care. By definition, therefore, only 30 per cent. can find appropriate child care, which affects their ability to work as well as, importantly, the well-being of the child.
The Liberal Democrat approach to these issues was set out very clearly by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) in his major speech on poverty in December. Like the Minister and the hon. Member for South-West Surrey, we have committed ourselves to supporting the target to eliminate child poverty by 2020. There has been a welcome reduction in child poverty under this Government but it has yet to go far enough, which, of course, is why the interim targets have been missed. For the reasons that I described earlier, tackling poverty among disabled children is now critical if the 2020 target is to be reached. We need a different approach. We need to move away from the mass-means-tested, complex and bureaucratic dependency system that we are increasingly seeing under this Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Given the article in Monday’s edition of The Times, I, like the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown)—he is no longer in his place—had hoped that we might hear a little more from the hon. Member for South-West Surrey about the Conservatives’ plans for reform. He was long on criticism, some of it legitimate, but there were zero policies for dealing with the reasons behind such criticism. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman is hiding his light under a bushel. If the article in The Times is to be believed, he and the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) have submitted a lengthy policy proposal to a particular working group. I am surprised that the hon. Member for South-West Surrey did not take the opportunity to extol the virtues of that proposal. Perhaps the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who will wind up for the Conservatives, will do so. It is important in these debates not just to highlight problems, but to describe solutions if one can.
In the absence of such efforts, one has to go back to the speech of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). He looked at poverty issues more generally, and described an approach based on
“rolling back the frontiers of society”.
That is not so much a big idea for the future as a small idea from the past—an approach that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife referred to as one of “compassionate inactivity”. In the absence of hearing more from the hon. Member for South-West Surrey, we have to assume that that is what he has in mind.
There are some big issues to do with how the benefits system affects disabled people. I shall highlight one or two examples of the real experiences that disabled children and their parents have of the benefits system. According to the Child Poverty Action Group’s “Out of Reach” report, some 46 per cent. of parents of disabled children
“believe that they have missed out on benefits and tax credits because they have not been told they could apply”.
That is nearly half. Some 43 per cent. of parents of disabled children had not claimed disability living allowance or it had taken more than two years to find out that their child could be entitled to it. Those issues relate to both the adequacy and the complexity of the benefits system.
On the issue of adequacy, the Minister made some fair points about the rising levels of benefit in recent years, but it is also true to say that the levels of most benefits have been progressively eroded in recent years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) mentioned earlier the Rose project in Havering, which is run out of Havering college and allows disabled young people with moderate or severe learning disabilities to access work. One of the disincentives, also mentioned earlier, is that they can sacrifice benefits. The Minister dealt with that point, but a second disincentive is that once they come off benefits it is very hard to go back on. They sometimes will not seize opportunities put before them for that very reason.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The linking rules for certain benefits have been improved in recent years, which means that people can spend a longer period in work before going back on benefits. For incapacity benefit, for example, the period is now two years. However, whatever the rules are, they are often not explained properly to the people in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. In the absence of proper information and understanding, the fear of losing benefits is a powerful demotivating factor for people who otherwise wish to get back into work. When one talks to disability groups, the enormous desire of disabled people to get back into work is evident, but they are frustrated by the lack of support available and the disincentives in the benefit system. Those disincentives also include the marginal deduction rates, which can lead to some people on low incomes facing effective income tax rates of 70, 80 or even 90 per cent. when they go off benefit and into work.
Instead of allowing benefits to wither away in relation to earnings, we need at least once in every Parliament to hold a review of benefit levels against objectives for poverty reduction, although of course—I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) is in her place—that must be in the context of public spending discipline and the overriding need to help people back into work.
The hon. Member for South-West Surrey rightly highlighted the issue of complexity. The forms are clearly a nightmare and provision of information about benefit entitlement is massively inadequate. It was disappointing that the Government refused to accept an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill that would have made it explicit that information about all benefits to which someone might be entitled should be made available to them at the time of their first claim. That would be a big step in administrative terms towards solving some of the problems.
It is also true to say, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out in The Times, that the system is too complex : there are 51 benefits, with 250 different rates. Conceptually, benefits have two roles—first, to meet extra costs, for example in relation to the extra costs of having a disability; and secondly, to replace lost income when someone is out of work, for whatever reason. On the latter role, the case for a single working age benefit—a single benefit level to replace the lost income of someone out of work for whatever reason—is quite powerful. The New Zealand Government are pursuing that approach at the moment and I hope to be able to say more about it in the next few months. Such a single rate would release additional funds to be added to the extra costs elements, such as the disability living allowance, so as to beef them up.
One of the limitations of DLA is the restrictive number of components in terms of care and mobility. A communication element could bring the DLA into the 21st century. However, I am not convinced that a single disability benefit alongside a single working age benefit would be as attractive, but I look forward to hearing more of the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Disability is a very wide spectrum indeed. The word “disability” covers a huge range of different conditions and impairments. Although we must get rid of the complexity when it comes to filling in forms that causes so many problems for so many people, we must also ensure that that does not create a less variegated system.
I certainly do share that very important concern. It may be that Ministers struggle to read through the forms and guidance as much as anyone else does, and that that is impairing their ability to reform them. The Minister said that the matter was being considered with some urgency.
That is probably good news, and I welcome the Minister’s immediate response to the pressure that I applied to her. It would be useful if she could deposit copies of the new form in the Library of the House, so that hon. Members can judge its length and degree of complexity, but it is good to hear that, after nine years, the Government are taking the matter seriously.
I want to touch on some of the issues to do with services for disabled children that the hon. Member for South-West Surrey mentioned in his opening remarks. It is important to make it clear at the outset that we are not dealing with a homogenous group, as every disabled child needs his or her own package of services. Therefore, support services such as respite care or therapy should not be regarded as luxuries for disabled children and their families. For many children with specific needs, such services are necessities.
The Minister referred in her remarks to the social model of disability. In that context, we should take “services” to mean anything that helps children to live independent and normal lives and ensures that they do not miss out on any experience enjoyed by children who are not disabled. Parents of disabled children often say, “Our children have the right to have fun, like any other child.” That is as important in this debate as any of the service provision that has been mentioned so far.
I have listened with interest to the constituency cases that have been described. It is true that the system sometimes discriminates against families who are unwilling or unable to fight or shout loudly, or to pay independently for services, assessments and legal support. For example, information about services is less likely to reach families from ethnic minority communities.
I am conscious of the time, so I shall end my remarks by saying that although all hon. Members are very aware of the needs of disabled children, we must do more than introduce policies in the piecemeal fashion of the past few years. Instead, we must look across the system to determine how we can introduce more thoroughgoing reforms, so that the interests of disabled children are placed at the top of our agenda.
Last May we debated, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, the No. 10 strategy unit report about the life chances of people with disabilities. My hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) were to be found in their respective places, the report was excellent and well informed, and our debate was 99 per cent. good natured.
I am a little saddened, therefore, that we are debating the subject on an Opposition day, because it has led to some adversarial comments and criticisms of political parties on both sides of the Chamber. This debate is too important for us to be point scoring. We should all be working together in the best interests of children with disabilities and their families, for the reasons that many contributors have already given—there are real concerns.
As we have already had some arguments about figures, I am reluctant to cite numbers, but I will anyway. Since 1975, children aged 0 to 16 have formed the fastest growing group of disabled people. In 1975, there were 476,000 such children; now there are 772,000, which represents an increase of 62 per cent. Those demographic changes are one of the reasons why there are so many pressures on services for children and their families. There has been an increase not only in the number of children with disability but also in the nature and profundity of disabilities. Young people born with severely handicapping conditions now survive childhood and into adulthood, and good luck to them. I am pleased that medical advances enable them to do so, but there are huge pressures on the families and life style of those children.
There is much data about that group, which highlights the pressures on families. Last year, the John Grooms inquiry into the needs of young disabled people produced the report “Young, disabled and forgotten”. Less than two weeks ago, we received the report, “The state of social care in England 2005-06” from the Commission for Social Care Inspection, which discussed services for children with disability and council expenditure. Last week, the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills published its review of services for children and young people, which included a detailed section on the needs of children with disability.
The report I particularly want to discuss was produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), me and several other Members, supported by a consortium of children’s charities—Children Now, Contact a Family, the Council for Disabled Children, Mencap and the Special Education Consortium. The Government had previously recognised the importance of the issue. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that the comprehensive spending review would include consideration of
“how services can provide greater support to families with disabled children to improve their life chances”.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and I were pleased to be asked to contribute to the review, and we invited Members from all political parties to join us. With the support of the consortium we set about organising hearings at Westminster, which produced powerful testimony from parents about the pressures they experience.
It is abundantly clear that disabled children do not enjoy the same life chances as other children, so it is vital that all the reports lead to positive action. Before I set out the key recommendations arising from the parliamentary hearings, I want to pay tribute to the Government for their work. Much has happened over recent years. The Office for Disability Issues was set up, with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), as the lead Minister. There are new disability equality duties for public authorities. There is a 10-year child care strategy. The Childcare Act 2006 prioritises the needs of disabled children and the children’s national service framework specifically refers to disabled children. As the recent CSCI report points out, there has been substantial financial investment by the Government in social care for children.
The report notes that there was a 10.1 per cent. increase in funding for family support services between 2003-04 and 2004-05, and a 7.1 per cent. increase in children’s social work, although it does not say how much of the increase for children’s services is for services for children with disability.
Does the hon. Lady know what happens in Northern Ireland when a young person with profound learning disabilities—and, quite often, physical disabilities as well—reaches the age of 19? If they are not going into employment, their education completely stops. They have a body of 19, but a mind of perhaps a five or seven-year-old. What other child does not receive education—or have the right to receive it—at the age of five or seven? Is that equal opportunities?
I freely admit that I am no expert on the education system in Northern Ireland, but I will come on later in my contribution to talk about the problems associated with the transition from children’s to adult services, as important issues also arise in the rest of the UK.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When I talk about the transition from children’s to adult services, I do so because our services have age limits applied to them—and they can be arbitrary, particularly when we are talking about people with disabilities. As the hon. Gentleman so rightly says, some 19-year-olds with disabilities are, to all intents and purposes, children, while others of the same age may have high intellectual abilities. They may have a physical disability, but be more than capable of dealing with the world of work or the world of further or higher education. One of the key messages that should come out of our debate is that we must take account of individuals. Everyone is an individual; we are all individuals. A young person with a disability is most certainly an individual and should be listened to on that basis.
For that reason I welcome the Government’s £13 million investment in the early support programme pilot, which has produced some very good work. A further £27 million has been invested in children’s hospices. Brian House children’s hospice is in my constituency, so I know that it does excellent work. I thank the Minister for what she has provided, but I would add a brief postscript of “more please”. That investment has also been matched by a huge increase in expenditure on education.
Key questions nevertheless must be asked. Is there enough money in the system? Is it being spent in the right way and is it going to the right people? Are the Government’s excellent policies being implemented and are they changing people’s lives? When I hear Ministers tell us how much money has gone into the system, I accept it, but I hear from my own constituents—and some Members heard from the parents at the parliamentary hearings—that they often do not see much evidence of it. We therefore need to look more closely into where the money has gone and why some families clearly have difficulty accessing the services that they need. The hearings clearly showed that a family with a disabled child is more likely to be poor, more likely to face barriers to work and barriers to the enjoyment of the many everyday things that we take for granted—holidays, visits to the cinema, visits to the park and so forth. What those people wanted more than anything was to live ordinary lives, to be socially included, to have equity in services and support.
Poverty and the additional costs of disability put enormous pressure on families. A Contact a Family survey of 2004 showed that only 6 per cent. of disabled families reported being “comfortably off”, with 92.8 per cent. reporting some form of financial difficulty. The support that families need to improve the life chances of disabled children is not just about appropriate care, education or housing; it is about improving the family income, jobs and the child care provided by well trained individuals who understand the needs of their disabled children. It is a hugely complex issue.
We considered all those issues in our report. We produced a list of recommendations that my hon. Friend the Minister has looked at, and she will have seen that No. 1 is the need for significant additional funding, but that funding must be targeted at disabled children and their families. I very much hope that more money will come from the comprehensive spending review, but it should be given in an open and transparent way, as an investment in services, with clear obligations on service deliverers to show where the money has gone.
The hon. Members who put together the report hope that a care offer will be developed to create a universal entitlement to a minimum service. We also recommend that the key worker schemes should be extended beyond the excellent early support programme. Families with children with disability need those key workers, and if their children have complex needs, they need them all the way through to the transition to adult services.
One very important issue for many of those families is the provision of short-break services. According to the Treasury review, 3,000 children are on waiting lists for family-based short breaks. CSCI’s figures for 2005 show that only one in 13 disabled children receives regular support services, including short breaks and direct payments.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the provision of short respite breaks very much represents investing to save if it holds the family together, avoids a child being placed in residential care and perhaps keeps the parents’ relationship together? Surely, that is such a saving overall to society that that money is well spent.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. Short breaks are useful to the child; they are useful to the parents—they are often a relationship’s lifesaver, as she mentions—but they are also important to other children in the family. We sometimes forget in debates on families with children with disability that they often have non-disabled children as well, and those siblings are all too often forgotten because their parents understandably concentrate on the child with disability, yet the other children also need some of their parents’ love, affection and time, and short breaks and respite care give them that, so they are essential for everyone concerned.
In an intervention on the Minister, I mentioned advocacy services, and I declare an interest as the president of Blackpool Advocacy. I see how important advocacy services are, because families with children with disabilities do not always have the voice to speak for themselves—they do not understand some of the issues—and they need someone else to express that voice for them. There are also instances when children, especially as they become adolescents, want to be heard. Sometimes, they want something different from what the rest of family wants. Again, their voice needs to be heard, and advocacy services should be a key part of the development of future services for children with disability.
I agree with the hon. Member for South-West Surrey that benefits need to be simplified. It is not just that benefits for families with children with disabilities are complex, but sometimes the families do not understand what the benefits are supposed to deliver. There is a huge amount of misunderstanding about what disability living allowance is given for.
Again, I declare an interest: Warbreck House in Blackpool is the headquarters of the disability living allowance unit, and I speak to the staff who deliver the service and do the assessments. Sometimes they get people claiming although they do not have an entitlement because they think that the benefit is paid as compensation for disability. It is not; it is paid for the social care needs that arise from the disability, and much more publicity is needed about what is available to families.
Why do families who have children with long-term conditions that are not going to vary over the years have to keep reapplying? Surely disability living allowance could be given to some of those families for a longer period. I applaud the Minister for the references to the subject in the 2006 annual report of the Department for Work and Pensions, “Opportunity for all”. In that report, the Secretary of State emphasises the need to “improve support for families”,
“ensure disabled children benefit from the development and expansion of early years’ services”
and “promote equality of opportunity”. This is yet another report that details the needs and says what should be done. The question is whether those things are being done. Are families with children with disabilities being helped to go through the complex benefits system in the way that they should be helped?
Finally on the recommendations from our report, I want to say a few words about the transition to adulthood. Parents who have children with disabilities, unlike most other parents, find that they are under more pressure, not less, when their child reaches adulthood. Even parents who have managed to obtain work when their children are at school, and who have managed to obtain good quality child care, often find that, when the child is 18 or 19 years old and is looking for support through adult provision, that support is not there or is not there full-time. Those parents often have to give up work to look after their adult child, at a time when many other parents are waving goodbye to their adult child, who is going off to further or higher education, or to work, and who is setting up in their own establishment. We have to look carefully at what support services are available to young people of 16, 17 or 18 who still need support. At the same time, we have to recognise that, as some young people with disabilities move into adulthood, they are very capable of living on their own—perhaps with some support—and going into the world of work. It is a case of looking at the needs of the individual and assessing those needs within the family, and doing everything that we can to support them.
On top of that, there are many basic day-to-day problems. For example, the organisation Whizz-Kidz highlights the shortage of mobility equipment and the need for effective wheelchairs that do not just meet clinical needs. All too often when a child goes to hospital and there is talk of getting a wheelchair, people look only at clinical need. But that child will also want independence. They will want a wheelchair that can take them out and about, and that will enable them to go out with their friends. We need to look at effective mobility equipment and communication aids. I keep emphasising the importance of listening to the child, but some children need communication aids to express their opinion. Language barriers for children from ethnic minority communities need to be addressed.
The policy review document from the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills goes into great detail in all those areas, just as our own parliamentary hearings did, and finds examples of good practice, but also a lack of consistency and uniformity. We must build on the good practice that is identified, offer a universal service starting with effective early intervention, use key workers to advise families, and ensure that there is a coherent multi-agency approach all the way to adulthood, delivered by well-trained staff. The Treasury review ends its section on better outcomes for disabled children by saying:
“In the light of this evidence, the Review will consider further what action needs to be taken to improve outcomes and equality of opportunity for disabled children and their families.”
We know what needs to be done. That review highlights a lot of what needs to be done.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for intervening, particularly as she is making an excellent speech and has almost concluded it. Her input into the review was first class and comprehensive, but does she agree that this is perhaps not the right debate in which to have a full discussion on the report, “Policy review of children and young people: A discussion paper”, and will she join me in calling for a debate on it in Government time? The paper is so important that I am sure that the House would welcome that opportunity.
I certainly endorse my right hon. Friend’s call for a debate in Government time. The Treasury-DFES review is an important document, because it will feed into the comprehensive spending review. Those of us who argue for more provision need to debate it in detail and to urge Treasury Ministers to accept that we must invest in services, and the document is a key part of that.
I want the recommendations that we made to the Government in our report and the failures outlined in the Treasury review to be addressed sooner rather than later. In a joint meeting of four or five groups, including the all-party groups on children, on child care and on learning disability, I told Lord Adonis that we need a short-term, a medium-term and a long-term strategy, and I say the same to the Under-Secretary. Then we could move in the right direction, and show parents that we were doing so, having recognised all the information that they gave the Government about their needs.
Finally, lest anyone should think that I see disabled children as a problem, let me point out that they are not; they bring joy as well as pressures to their families. In the foreword to the report on parliamentary hearings, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and I said:
“Disabled children have huge potential. The role of services for disabled children is to help children achieve that potential, and to allow their families to lead ordinary lives.”
That is the task before us, and it is one on which we must deliver.
I begin by declaring an interest as the father of a child who has significant, and probably long-term, special educational needs. It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), because she speaks with integrity and authority on the issues that we are discussing. I also pay warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), who offered the House both a forensic dissection of some of the failings of the system and a philosophical framework that will inform the policy of the next Conservative Government, and I congratulate him on that.
As chair of the all-party group on speech and language difficulties, I would like narrowly to focus my remarks on the 1.2 million children whose disability is to suffer from a speech, language or communication impairment. Each and every right hon. and hon. Member in the Chamber is familiar with, and probably signed up to, the doctrine and mantra of ensuring that there is earlier intervention to address such impairments. We all know the consequences of effective early intervention, and the dangers of its absence. Let us take a child with initial speech, language and communication impairments. If early intervention takes place and is focused and effective, a child with relatively moderate difficulties will be able to read, spell and communicate by the age of five and a half. However, the consequence of the failure of that early intervention, which is an essential prerequisite for recovery and progress, is bleak indeed. Some of the consequences for a child who does not get the benefits of that early intervention are, of course, obvious. Later interventions, because time has been lost, will probably have to be more intensive, and will necessarily entail a greater cost. It is likely, as others have pointed out, that the problem will deteriorate and the condition will worsen so that instead of suffering from a significant but transient condition, the child unfortunately suffers from an impairment that is significant, persistent and even insuperable.
I want to reflect on the consequences for children in such circumstances of the absence of early intervention. There are huge risks, both to the child and to the country. The risks to the child are well known, but they must be underlined so that they are at the forefront of ministerial and other minds in the discussion of public policy. There is a risk of emotional and psychological difficulties; of poor behaviour; of lower educational achievement; of a persistent handicap in communication; of deteriorating employment prospects; of serious challenges to the individual’s mental health; and, yes, there is a notable risk of descent into criminality, of which the individual denied services and the country as a whole are the hapless victims.
I said that there was a problem not just for the individual but for a society as a whole, and it can be viewed in economic terms. I calculate that the lifetime cost of denying effective assistance to the present primary school cohort with language and communication impairments is £26 billion. Without early intervention to address their disability and offer them hope and the prospect of progress, they suffer an economic loss in earnings potential and societal contribution which I CAN calculates to be worth £97,000 per person. In Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, 2,063 people fall into the so-called NIET category—not in education, employment or training—and 1,000 are in that position as a consequence of speech, language and communication impairments that have not been addressed, which is a very serious state of affairs indeed.
We must reflect on the public policy required to address the problem. I do not want large numbers of people to be consigned to unemployment, disability and continuing dependence, or to be deprived of opportunities and denied a chance to contribute effectively to the society of which they are part. They want to assert themselves, to achieve, to be independent, and to prove how much they have to offer, both for their own self-fulfilment and for the benefit of society as a whole.
I wish to identify, in as non-partisan a way as I can—and I think that the record shows that I generally do so—a number of issues that must be dealt with if we are to address the disabilities of those children and of others. First, may I tell Ministers that there is a fundamental weakness and conflict of interest at the heart of the special educational needs system? The local education authority, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey said, has long been in a position of virtual omnipotence, which is an unsatisfactory and indefensible state of affairs. To put it simply, the LEA assesses, decides, pays for and, more often than not, provides the services to meet the assessed needs of the individual disabled child. That seems to me to be fundamentally wrong. It logically follows, as parents—including myself, know from our personal testimony and experience—that when we are seeking a statutory assessment, when we are successful in obtaining a statement of special educational needs, when we are arguing about the precise contents of that statement, or when we are fighting our corner to secure its effective implementation, we are up against an authority that has been in the driving seat throughout the process.
That is wrong, and it is not only my view—it is the view of an authoritative body, after considered reflection and detailed study of the available evidence. I refer, of course, to the Education and Skills Committee, so ably and independent-mindedly chaired by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). Its report was clear that that system needed to change. My own view—and I will not rehearse the detail or the intricacies of the system tonight—is that we need to move towards a system for the delivery of special educational needs, including the determination of eligibility for statements, which is independent of Government, of local education authorities, of the source of funding and of the means of supply. Unless and until we get to that point, there is a lacuna in the system, which I readily concede has applied under successive Governments. The fact that we as a country got it wrong in the past should not in any way cause us to shy away from the issue or abdicate our responsibility.
The hon. Gentleman is making an inspiring and extremely well informed speech. May I reassure him that when our review considered these matters, including the recommendation of the Select Committee, we unanimously endorsed that recommendation? I hope that he will find some comfort in that view.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. That is consistent with the non-partisan spirit that ought, as far as is possible, to inform these debates, and has certainly characterised the discussions that I have had with the right hon. Gentleman over a period of nearly a decade. It was an incisive intervention which happened to help my cause, and I am grateful to him.
We talk, as I said, about early intervention. In very broad terms admitting of some oversimplification, one can categorise the debate in terms of deciding what is needed and then ensuring that it is available. On the subject of determination, I believe that we suffer continually in this country from a problem of late assessment, late identification and late diagnosis. I recognise, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) would argue if I did not, that in the case of a child there is a process involved, that development can proceed at different rates, and that it is legitimate to allow for periods in which changes in behaviour or performance can be achieved. However, I believe that sometimes those operating the system play precisely upon the hopes, as well as the more exaggerated fears, of some parents by saying, “Don’t worry. There’s plenty of time.” Of course, those who are articulating that message very often have a reason of financial self-interest for holding back the provision of what is needed. I say to the hon. Lady that there is a problem in that regard.
There are magnificent people working in the public service for disabled children. I think, for example, of health visitors, early years workers, teaching assistants and qualified teachers. Therefore, it might be politically incorrect to say what I am about to say, but, notwithstanding their experience and their dedication, they are not always remotely well trained or equipped specifically to identify the range of impairments from which children can suffer. We all know of stories from all parts of the House of people who had to wait two, three or four years to get the assessment that is needed. I know of a recent case that was highlighted to me by the National Autistic Society of a child whose diagnosis was incredibly late and who suffered grievously in consequence. We know that one in five schools does not possess a single teacher who has had more than a day’s training in the phenomenon of autism. That person is inevitably not well equipped to identify the difficulties, still less to offer a prescription.
I suggest a practical way forward. Let me ask the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who will respond on behalf of the Government, why not listen to the view of the Association for All Speech Impaired Children, of which I am fortunate recently to have become a patron? It made a submission to the Treasury review on services for disabled children. It suggested the development through specialist expertise of a particular screening test that would help at an early stage in a range of schools to identify who suffered from which impairment and how that child might best be helped. A speech and language therapist could develop such a test at a relatively modest cost, and the expertise could then be spread across the piece.
We must also take account of the problems that result from lack of capacity. I appreciate that the Government have invested significant resources—I respect that, applaud it and believe that some benefits can flow from it. However, a difficulty remains. If a child is integrated into mainstream education, with no additional provision or frills because the impairments are judged to be relatively modest, so be it, but we must still ensure that trained staff are readily accessible to deliver assistance of a quality, in a quantity and at a time required. That does not always happen.
Schools have language units attached to them that often provide for children with somewhat more pronounced difficulties. Again, I declare an interest because my son started school at such a facility last week, and I have high hopes of what might be achieved there. We need more of them and we must ensure that there is a quality team available, preferably in the school. I should like a speech and language therapist to be based in every primary and secondary school in the country. However, when that cannot happen, we need training for people and peripatetic provision of considerable intensity at regular intervals. We must define what we mean by “regular” for individual pupils.
At the severe end of the spectrum, we must ensure either that we have highly qualified local people who can deliver and develop capacity sufficiently to ensure that every child gets what is necessary or we have to go for something else. We must have regional centres of excellence and the use of expertise, the better to cater for such difficulties.
The Under-Secretary knows that in “Every Child Matters”, the word “specialist” is used no fewer than 32 times. In “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, it appears 68 times. He knows that in 2002 the Audit Commission deplored the shortfall in specialist provision and that the Government have said that there must be high quality, intensive, local provision available before a decision is made either to reduce places in a special school or to close whole institutions. I emphasise the importance of that in the context of dealing with low incidence, serious, persistent, complex and multifaceted impairments.
The Government have done some good work, but there are genuine weaknesses in the system that need to be tackled. In my judgment, too many children have suffered too much for too long. They get too little, too late and the recovery that then has to take place is an enormous challenge for them, their families and the educational system. Let us resolve to go forward, improve policy and ensure that every child gets the best deal that can be offered.
The debate so far has been interesting and informative and I am genuinely surprised by what appears to be an attempt by the Opposition to shake off the “nasty party” image and to embrace a more enlightened approach to social policy. I am sure that the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) would agree, however, that in order to be taken seriously the change of image needs to go right down to the grass roots, where the decision takers are taking decisions that affect the life chances of disabled children.
Unfortunately, the enlightenment that has been expressed today is certainly not being felt on the ground in my constituency and in Dudley. I appreciate the non-partisan way in which most of the debate has been conducted but, on behalf of the disabled children and the parents of disabled children who come to my surgeries every week, I need to highlight some issues that I am experiencing as the Member of Parliament for Stourbridge. This is not just about money; it is also about services and about everything that makes up and goes towards a child’s life. I should like to give a few examples of how those children’s life chances are being affected by the cuts in services that are now being made by Dudley council.
The first issue relates to transport for disabled children. Just two days before the Christmas break, my office suffered a deluge of calls from worried parents and from staff at local special needs schools. The day before, they had been told that there was to be a review of the transport for children to their schools and that they had until 15 January—barely a week after they got back from the Christmas break—to get an appeal together to take to what sounded like a kangaroo court. The decision on why the children should still receive this transport was nothing to do with their statement of needs or their annual assessment.
Tonight, there has been a report on the matter in the local paper. It reads:
“Plans to scrap free minibus places to take youngsters with learning difficulties to and from Dudley schools have been shelved in 20 cases—with more than 60 still awaiting a final decision. Plans…to save cash by taking away free transport for the youngsters, some of whom have to travel miles to get to special schools…were revealed in December. The move”—
“initially thought to affect 70 pupils, although the figure is now closer to 90.”
This has caused a tremendous amount of stress over Christmas and the situation is now getting worse.
Two weeks ago, we heard about a cut to voluntary services for youth services, which will affect disabled youngsters. The What? centre in my constituency, which gives counselling to all youngsters, still does not know whether its grant will be re-established from March. The Orchard centre provides play schemes for disabled youngsters and respite and back-up for families. Last year, it took two to three months of correspondence and meetings to ensure that its grants from the council continued. That is despite yet another increase this year in the money coming from the Government to Dudley council.
It is coming up to the 9.30 break, so I shall not go on, but I think that hon. Members are getting the picture. I have worked with children with special needs, and the last time I did so was under a Tory Government and a Tory local regime. That was very difficult. Now that I am the MP for the area, I am coming across cases that are showing me that there has been no change. Therefore, I hope that what appears to be a genuine approach by the Conservatives to walking towards enlightenment will actually go down to the grass roots. I would really appreciate any intervention or assistance from the hon. Member for South-West Surrey in enlightening the local councillors on Dudley council.
We have had a mainly thoughtful debate on the opportunities for the United Kingdom’s 700,000 or so disabled children. We have heard about complexity in the benefits system, duplication in parts of social services and inflexibility in parts of the education system. That all results in a less than fully effective use of taxpayers’ money, which means that we are not reducing child poverty as fast as we would like, that the quality of life for disabled children, their families and carers is not as high as it could be, and that the opportunities open to those children are not as great as they should be.
Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting Hillcrest special school for children with severe learning difficulties in Houghton Regis. The school is very well regarded, and I pay tribute to its staff, and especially to its excellent head, Peter Skingley. I spent my time at the school speaking to a large group of parents and staff about their day-to-day experiences of caring for disabled children. A mother of three children with complex needs told me how, 19 years after first coming into contact with services for disabled children, she and others like her are still fighting for the same things. Recently, their experiences have included fighting for two years even to get a diagnosis, fighting to get a child into the right school, battling for 18 months or more with a tribunal and feeling that they were not being listened to, and waiting for three years to get respite care following the closure in 2003 of Appledore, the only local home in the south of the county providing respite care for children with complex needs.
Both Government and Opposition Members should feel admonished by what those parents had to say. I must say to Ministers that I am a little surprised that the Government amendment is not more realistic about the day-to-day experiences of such parents. Instead, it congratulates and commends the Government on their achievements no less than three times.
Parents say that no one tells them what is available. The provision of a checklist of social security benefits, care services, school placements, health services, disability aids and adaptations and respite care, perhaps by local primary care services, at the start of a disabled child’s life, should be automatic, would cost virtually nothing and would prevent years of missed benefits and services. To his credit, that is a point that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) has raised on more than one occasion in the House.
Last June, a nurse consultant from Bedfordshire Heartlands PCT came to see me to ask my help in dealing with the multiple assessments undergone by disabled adults and children, which cause difficulties for all concerned. As a start, within the Department for Work and Pensions, information on existing databases could be shared, thus saving money that would be spent on creating a new database. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) on the comprehensiveness with which he described the multiple assessment process that applies across Government and also encompasses many local authorities.
The issues that we are dealing with range across several Departments. At the moment there is no Minister from the Department for Education and Skills on the Treasury Bench. I am disappointed about that, as I understand that it is the lead Department, and I want to raise the issue of parents who do not know that their disabled children have been physically restrained at school. I have mentioned the subject in the House before, in the presence of the Minister for Schools. My personal view is that all parents should be told promptly, ideally on the same day, if their child has been physically restrained at school. [Interruption.] Ministers say “Obviously”, but there is only voluntary guidance on the issue. There is a circular known as 10/98 from the Department for Education and Skills which strongly recommends that that should happen, and one or two local authorities—one is St. Helens in Merseyside—make it mandatory throughout maintained schools in their LEA areas.
Members can imagine how serious the situation is for disabled children who cannot tell their parents what happened to them at school that day. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) spoke movingly and powerfully, as he has on many occasions, about the specific needs of children with speech and language difficulties. I commend him for doing so, as I am sure do all Members. Like, probably, everyone who heard him, I was particularly shocked to learn of the proportion of children in his area who are in the “not in education, employment or training” category because of speech and language difficulties. I think that we are all concerned about speech and language therapy, and that statistic alone was highly valuable.
I mentioned physical restraint because of two cases made known to me recently. In one case, a mother only realised what was happening because her child came home from school with tears in her jeans. In another case, a severely autistic child was only able to tell his parents what had happened to him at school a year or so after the event. That is now the subject of an investigation, not before time.
Teachers at special schools have expressed concern to me that there is no longer any initial teacher training for those who want to work with special needs children. I understand that there was such training about 20 years ago. There is now a danger that when the current cohort of special school heads and senior staff retire, the teachers who replace them will not have benefited from the initial training. That was mentioned to me specifically by Peter Skingley of Hillcrest special school, and I think it is a valid point. I am glad to see that an Education Minister is now present, and I hope that he will convey that point to his Department.
The transition from children’s to adults’ services was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) in an intervention, and also by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea). Parents to whom I have spoken locally have raised with me the timing of the assessment involved. It often happens extremely late, just before the transfer, which causes all manner of worry and stress to parents and families.
A transfer might involve an assessment of, for example, a young person wishing to proceed to a college of further education. If it were not carried out in good time, that young person’s chance of getting into the college might well be affected. Indeed, on the subject of education, the issue of special needs places in FE colleges has also been raised with me. Again, I would be grateful if the Department for Education and Skills would look into that. There is no reason why those assessments could not be done a good 18 months to two years in advance of the transfer. That would be sensible. There would be no extra cost involved, and it would reduce the stress for all concerned.
I am sorry that we did not have the chance to hear more Back-Bench speeches tonight. There has been some criticism of the fact that this has been the subject of an Opposition day debate. I do not take that view. These matters are so serious that any opportunity to debate them in this Chamber is valuable.
We have had some constructive suggestions as to how we can take a number of those issues forward. It is the contention of my hon. Friends, and indeed many other hon. Members, that in some cases it should be possible to organise services for disabled children more effectively than is being done at the moment. I hope that there will be an honest recognition of that from Ministers. Those outside the House who are watching this debate or will read transcripts of it afterwards are looking not for party political point scoring but for a realistic appraisal of where we are now, and positive practical proposals to improve the opportunities for disabled children. We want constructive debate, because for the children, their families and carers, these issues are too serious for anything less. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey, the shadow Minister for the disabled, made tonight.
I am delighted that we have had an opportunity to debate these matters. We need to continue to do so. I commend the work undertaken by the two Labour Members who have spoken. I am pleased that we heard, by way of an excellent speech, from the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and, by way of a series of interventions, from her colleague, whose constituency name—he must forgive me—momentarily escapes me. He was one of the co-organisers of the parliamentary hearings. I pay tribute—
As the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If I gave the impression that I thought this subject was inappropriate for such a debate, that was not what I wished to convey—but may I ask for his agreement that the important document issued by the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills entitled “Policy review of children and young people: A discussion paper” requires a debate, and if it is in Government time, so be it?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Were I the shadow Leader of the House, which I am not, I would have no hesitation in asking the Leader of the House to provide a debate in Government time on that important report. I will convey his request to the shadow Leader of the House so that she may raise it with the Leader of the House at business questions on Thursday. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It is a valid one. As I say, these issues are so serious that we need to continue to focus on them to make the improvements that we all want.
I commend the motion, and also my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey, for the work that he has undertaken in this area.
The subject of this debate should unite all parties. We can reflect with some pride on the advances that have been made, but frankly, we still have a long way to go, as the “Every Disabled Child Matters” campaign and the recent parliamentary hearings prove.
We have had a good debate in which many important issues have been raised. I want to begin my speech by paying particular tribute to the work done in this House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friends the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) in shining a long overdue light on the needs of disabled children and their families. I also pay tribute to the children’s charities and carers’ organisations and the many individual parents and professionals who have fought for the rights of disabled children over many decades. I recognise, too, that there are Members of all parties who are genuine in their commitment to improving the life chances of disabled children and their families.
Children with disabilities are children first, with the same right to fulfil their potential, and to have a life free of poverty and full of hopes and dreams, as we seek for every child. Parents have the right to expect support that is personalised to their needs and the needs of their child, and a system that exists to provide solutions, not erect barriers. The mother of a disabled child in my constituency summed things up recently when she told me of her experiences: “Why do I have to shout before anyone will listen?” and “I am the expert when it comes to my son” are just two of the comments that struck an all-too-common chord.
The needs of disabled children and their families represent the beginning of my journey to this House. At the age of 14, I began doing voluntary work for Outreach, a voluntary organisation that still serves my constituents by supporting children with learning disabilities on school holiday play schemes. I then started to support adults with learning disabilities on a leisure integration programme. That became my passion and my career choice. At the age of 19, I set up and ran a small voluntary organisation, Contact, a community care group offering children and adults leisure opportunities as well as providing respite to families. Contact still offers support to adults and their families in my constituency.
Through that work, I learned much about myself, but more importantly I learned so much about the realities faced by disabled people of all ages and their families and carers. That taught me the values that are the foundations of my political beliefs, and it makes me proud to have the opportunity in Government to influence, and sometimes shape, change in that regard. I and my ministerial colleagues are strongly committed to policies such as “in Control”, direct payments and individual budgets, which will transfer power and control in the delivery and shaping of services from organisations to those who use services and their families.
So what are the values to which I refer? Every disabled child is an individual with distinct needs, emotions and potential. Every disabled child has a fundamental right to be included as part of their community and our society. I get angry when I hear some politicians and commentators deride inclusion as having failed and as being simply about political correctness, and when they talk only of those parents seeking special or segregated education, and when they talk about disabled children in a patronising, demeaning way.
Of course our system is not yet as good as it needs to be in terms of specialist expertise, sensitivity and resources; the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made that point. Attitudes, including among some educationalists, are not always as they should be.
I accept that some parents still feel that special schools are the best available option. In my constituency, I am proud of Elms Bank which was one of the first special secondary schools to achieve specialist status and recently made it into the top 5 per cent. of schools for value added performance, including mainstream schools.
I could also however introduce Members to many parents who have fought against the professionals and the system to demand a mainstream education for their children, and who could describe the thrill of their child’s first day alongside their non-disabled brother or sister at the local school, or who have cried themselves to sleep because the local education system has come up with all sorts of reasons why their child has to be excluded from the mainstream system. Those parents deserve to be heard in this debate, and more generally.
The hon. Member for Buckingham, who now has extremely important personal experience, made a fantastic speech which I could not disagree with a word of. He talked about the importance of trained support staff. Our debate should not be about being for or against inclusion; we should recognise that to make a reality of inclusion, which should be the norm for the vast majority of disabled children, we have to get to a situation in which specialist support staff are available to provide the necessary support.
In the context of change, I remember those who vigorously opposed the closure of the long-stay mental handicap hospitals in the 1980s and 1990s. They said that “mentally handicapped” people could not possibly live in the community; that they needed looking after by nurses; that they somehow posed a risk to children. I wish that those people could see today adults with learning disabilities being supported in living in their own homes by organisations such as Outreach and Build, in my constituency. After 30 or 40 years of being locked away in institutions, they live ordinary lives as neighbours, friends and family members in our community. In my current role, and in the aftermath of Cornwall and Orchard Hill, I am determined to ensure that the remaining four hospitals are closed and the residents provided with the support that they deserve in the community.
Change should of course be done properly, for the right reasons and with respect for the needs and preferences of children and their parents, but inclusion is right. Members should reflect on this: how many citizens opt for exclusion from society when given an authentic choice? We need to think about that when we make such policy decisions. Our long-term goal should be to maximise inclusion in education, health, leisure and work and all areas of public policy.
I also want to share with Members my view of Scope’s current campaign as it relates to the recent decision to restrict the growth of a disabled child in the United States of America. I am always reluctant to appear in any way critical of parents and the difficult decisions that they make about their children. That is particularly the case when, owing to a serious disability, the parent may feel genuinely unable to establish the view of the child or young person. However, I believe that every child has the right, irrespective of any disability, to grow into an adult physically, and with all the rights and opportunities available to every other citizen. Scope, in my view, is right to make a stand in this country on that issue.
Over the years, much of my personal inspiration has come from examples of battling parents, grandparents and carers: people such as Lynne Elwell, who, following her many negative experiences of the system as the mother of the late Nicola, has created a national network called Partners in Policymaking. I urge Members in all parts of the House to find out more about that organisation. Parents and people with learning disabilities participate in training courses, leading to the status of a Partners graduate. Partners in Policymaking empowers parents and disabled people to build their confidence, knowledge and support systems, so that they can fight for their rights as partners, not as adversaries of professionals and the system. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood that, in many ways, the best advocates are parents who have themselves been through the system and can represent the interests of other parents. I believe very strongly in building such networks around the country.
When I speak to Raymond, the late Nicola’s father, I feel not only the acute pain of his loss, but his enduring anger at the failure of the system on so many occasions during her life. We should also consider people such as Geraldine Green, who is not only a full-time carer for her grandchildren but runs an enterprising local voluntary organisation called Hurdles, which offers a range of support for disabled children and their families in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). These individuals and, as the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) said in his opening remarks, many others are the heroes whose vision and commitment have been born out of frustration—sometimes anger—at the failings of the system.
I now turn to some of the contributions made by Members. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) talked about the importance of information sharing between agencies to ensure that people get a truly joined-up service. I share that view, but I ask him to reconsider his party’s opposition to data sharing on the sometimes spurious ground of civil liberties. On physical restraint, I should also point out that Opposition Members cannot say that they are against targets imposed by central Government, and then ask us to direct every head teacher in every school in the country to do what, frankly, I believe should be regarded in most schools as best practice. The hon. Gentleman is wrong about initial teacher training, which has a significant focus on the requirement to be sensitive to special educational needs, but we can share more information with him on that issue at another time. As a distinguished member of the Work and Pensions Committee, the hon. Gentleman signed up to a report that said that the Government were on target to halve child poverty by 2010, but tonight he has signed up to a motion claiming that that will not be achieved.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander)—that is a difficult one at this time of night—made an excellent speech. It was fair, balanced, credible and sensible. He made the important point that the interventions that we make in childhood and the early years do not affect the child only during that period of their life, but their whole life opportunities. He made several other important points.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood was once the chair of a social services committee, as I was, and she made several very important points. Of course we have to grapple with the consequences of demographic change, which means that people thankfully live longer and have fuller lives, but their disabilities can also be more complex and more challenging. She was right to refer to the centrality of the transition from being a child to being a young adult, and the need—as we are now doing across Government—to have that as a standing item on the inter-ministerial group that looks at all matters to do with disabled people. She was also right to draw attention to the fact that key workers should be at the heart of a future system, in terms of guiding parents through all the complex issues.
I am afraid that I have no time to give way to the hon. Gentleman.
As I have said, the hon. Member for Buckingham made an excellent speech. He speaks with great authority, credibility and integrity on these matters and he does not seek to make cheap party political points. I could not disagree with one single element of the contribution that he made to the debate. I would gently say to him that we do now have a common assessment framework for children for the first time. It is being rolled out across the country and I hope that it will add value and make a difference. The hon. Gentleman mentioned children with autism, and our extension of the child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—teams across the country means that we now have more specialist professionals who have expertise in autism and who are able to make assessments at an early stages as part of the CAMHS system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) mentioned cuts being imposed by a Tory council in Dudley on transport for disabled children and voluntary youth services. I urge Opposition Front Benchers to intervene with their colleagues who run that local authority.
In nearly 10 years, this Government have done a lot that has had a positive impact on the daily lives of disabled children, their parents and families. I want to pay particular tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who has done a tremendous job in her capacity as the Minister with responsibility for disabled people.
We have doubled the NHS budget since 1997 and will have almost tripled it by 2008. We have increased education funding per pupil since 1997 from £3,050 to £4,490. We have identified as one of our nation’s top priorities the elimination of child poverty. We have funded the early support programme to improve the quality of co-ordination for young disabled children. We have published a range of supporting guidance on transition, complex disability, palliative care and autism. We have significantly increased funding for short breaks through the carer’s grant, extended the mobility element of the DLA to children from the age of three, and doubled the disabled child and carer’s premium since 1997. We have awarded £27 million for three years, starting in 2006-07, to support children’s hospices and the provision of palliative care. We have developed Sure Start and new children’s centres in every community. We have established the Office for Disability Issues. We are currently considering as a priority the needs of disabled children and their families as part of the comprehensive spending review process, and I will soon announce a new deal for carers, including specific funding for emergency respite care.
Every disabled child matters. All parties have a duty to seek improvements that will achieve a truly joined-up system, for children and for those at the crucial transition stage between childhood and adulthood.
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.
Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
The House proceeded to a Division.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House welcomes the fact that this Government acknowledged the challenges faced by disabled children and their families by publishing a report in 2005, Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People; welcomes the establishment of an Office for Disability Issues to improve coordination of disability policy across Whitehall and provide a forum for the voice of disabled people; recognises that the Government committed itself to improve outcomes for all children and young people through its change programme – Every Child Matters - which is driving change in local areas through the establishment of Children’s Trusts; commends the Government in its specific focus on disabled children in the disabled children’s standard of the Children’s National Service Framework and the Special Educational Needs strategy, Removing Barriers to Achievement; acknowledges the Government’s close working with stakeholders from the disabled children sector in developing its work programme; notes the Government’s investment in support services for families with disabled children through its funding of the Family Fund and the Contact a Family national help line; commends the success of the Government’s Early Support Programme for young disabled children; further commends the introduction of direct payments for families with disabled children and disabled young people, which increase choice and control and empowers those families; and congratulates the Government’s commitment to further improving services for disabled children through the disability strand of the Children and Young People Policy Review.