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Short Breaks (Disabled Children)

Volume 476: debated on Monday 19 May 2008

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the provision of short breaks for disabled children. (205969)

I meet regularly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to develop the Government’s programme for improving child health and well-being, which includes a transformation in the provision of short breaks for families with disabled children.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. I am pleased with what his Department has done on this issue and with the money that it has given to local authorities. My county, Gloucestershire, is one of the pathfinders. One of my reasons for asking him to talk to the Department of Health is that the Government committed, in the comprehensive spending review, to the NHS matching the funding that his Department makes available. On investigation, I have found that that just is not the case. In Gloucestershire, the primary care trust got exactly the same rise as every other PCT. Gloucestershire is a pathfinder, but has no extra money to provide the necessary services. Will the Secretary of State talk to his colleague the Health Secretary about putting that right?

As the hon. Gentleman has said, we are seeing a transformation. There will be a £280 million increase in spending on short breaks in the next three years from my Department, and a further £90 million in capital spending. Local authority by local authority, that will lead to a doubling, on average, of spending on short breaks, and a fivefold increase in some cases. That will be greatly welcomed by families with disabled children for whom short breaks are often a lifeline in the difficult job that they do.

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of money being matched through PCTs and the health service, and I have talked to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), and the Health Secretary about that in detail. The Health Department rightly takes the view that PCTs have a responsibility, area by area, to find money from their overall budgets to match our spending. Such decisions should be for PCTs, but we are clear, nationally, in our Department and in the Health Department, that PCTs must find the money to fund short breaks. They will be held to account by parents, families and, I hope, by hon. Members on both sides of the House if they do not find the money to do that. Our joint health strategy will ensure that that happens.

At a recent conference in Blackpool, I spoke to parents whose children suffer from various forms of cancer. Children who are disabled because of a life-limiting illness often need respite care—sometimes from health services and sometimes from properly trained social care workers provided by local authorities. Will the Secretary of State ensure, in his discussions with his colleagues in the Health Department, that those families have appropriate, integrated packages to support them through what are often difficult times?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on preparing the way for the Aimhigher plan for disabled children, which we are now implementing. One of the key aspects of the report on this matter was the importance of ensuring that we provide guidance and support for parents so that they can navigate what is often, for them, a complex system, in order to deal with their child’s multiple and complex needs. It is important that we do that for all aspects of a child’s care, including short breaks. In the past, respite breaks have often been seen as providing respite for the parents and siblings. In the transformation of short breaks that we are pursuing, we are also trying to achieve a transformation in the experience for the children themselves, and to make the short breaks genuinely fun and enjoyable. For that to happen, the children must get the care that they need, including the health care. That is why my hon. Friend’s point is so valid. I shall be discussing this matter with the Health Secretary as we take forward our joint child health strategy this summer.

Does the Secretary of State recognise the very special needs of families with children with an autistic spectrum disorder, who are desperately in need of the occasional break? The environment for those children is very specific and must be appropriate to their needs. They thrive on familiarity and often do not respond well to change or to different circumstances, but those breaks are essential, as the Secretary of State has acknowledged, for the parents and siblings as well.

The hon. Lady is quite right. For all children with a learning disability or a physical disability, a short break can work and be trusted by the parents only if they can be confident that it will provide the care and support that that individual child needs, and that the child will be secure. That is true for children with physical disabilities, but it is also true for children with a learning difficulty such as autism. I have visited the TreeHouse school in north London and seen the intense way in which professionals provide care throughout the day. I have also seen how the parents provide that care all on their own in the mornings and evenings, and during the school holidays. For those parents, a short break is vital, but it must be tailored to the needs of the child.