Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, although this instrument marks an important step forward in helping to provide breaks for the carers of disabled children, I am very conscious that this Government are following in the footsteps of the previous Government and of those, many of them in this House—particularly the noble Lord, Lord Rix, whom I am pleased to see, and of course my noble friend Lady Walmsley—who I know have campaigned tirelessly for many years to advance the rights of disabled children. Therefore, it is only right that I should start by paying tribute to all those whose work has led us to this point and to what I hope will be agreement on the next practical step forward.
We know that many in our House speak with huge authority on this subject, as well as from personal experience. I have neither of those qualifications, but it is impossible to listen to them and to the experiences of others and not understand that for many families a short break is almost literally a lifeline. At the very least it provides the opportunity to do the kind of things that most of us are able to take for granted.
The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 amended the Children Act 1989 in order to ensure that short breaks were placed on a statutory footing for the first time. These regulations are being made in order to provide further detail to local authorities about how that duty must be performed. Not only do they set out clearly the range of short breaks that must be offered by local authorities but they also require local authorities to have regard to the needs of different types of carers and to make all that information available to parents and carers. This is, we think, an important step along the road towards better support for the families and carers of disabled children, and I believe it is for that reason that the proposed regulations have been warmly welcomed by the organisation Every Disabled Child Matters.
Short breaks do not, of course, just provide parents and carers with a chance to have some time to do something else; they can also provide an opportunity for disabled children to spend time with a different adult or with children of their own age, helping them to feel more independent or learn something new. That is why we have been clear in these regulations that short breaks should be offered to parents not just as an emergency intervention when things have got really bad but as a way of providing support more generally as part of a package of things to make life a little more tolerable.
However, what seems to have become clear over the years is that short breaks benefit families only if they genuinely provide respite. It is no good, for example, offering a child an hour at a specialist group every week if it is a three-hour round trip to get the child there in the first place and the parent has to sit in the car during the break because it is too far from home to drive back. It is no good either if the only break offered is during the week or if the child’s parent is fine during the week but struggles to cope during school holidays.
That is why it is so important that these regulations are clear that a range of breaks must be in place at different venues and at different times of the day, week and year. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that the service would be meaningless without the flexibility for breaks to be matched to the needs of those families in the local authority’s area. I believe that in most areas parents are beginning to have more of a say about the kind of breaks which really make a difference for them and, crucially, their children, with the result that we are seeing the introduction of all sorts of new breaks.
In addition, Together for Disabled Children, which supports the delivery of short breaks in local areas, reports that there is a link between good engagement by parents in the design of the service and value for money. That is one reason why we have said that we want local authorities to provide information to parents about the services available and to consult them about those services. The short breaks services statement will mean that many more parents can see what is on offer and challenge their local authority where they do not think that the offer is good enough.
The Government are also clear that, in providing a short breaks services statement, local authorities will need to make an assessment of local needs and what local parents want. We know that the opportunities and offers will be different in different areas, and we want local authorities to continue reflecting this in what they offer to disabled children and their parents.
I know that noble Lords will be aware that in December the Department for Education announced that through the early intervention grant it would make more than £800 million available to local authorities over the spending review period for the provision of short breaks. That funding marks an increase from this year and will increase modestly in each year of the spending review. I know that there are questions, to which I am sure we will come, about the ring-fence, but I am sure that noble Lords will agree that in a difficult economic climate this increase is an earnest of our intent and a sign that we are keen to build on the good progress made by the previous Government.
The Department for Education will also publish guidance to accompany these regulations. We are working with a group of local authorities to produce practice guidance, which will provide local authorities with more detail about these regulations, as well as provide good examples of where services have been well received. The guidance document will be published as soon as possible once these regulations have been made. I am sure there will be broad agreement on the importance of providing this detail to local authorities. We believe that these regulations will help to ensure that short breaks services are an important part of the support available to carers and parents of disabled children. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the purpose behind the regulations. As he acknowledged, the issue of breaks for carers was taken extremely seriously by the previous Government, which set out the groundwork for these regulations in the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 and set in train a major investment in support for disabled children through the aiming high for disabled children programme. Our main concern now is to ensure that the progress, the investment and the momentum created by the previous Government are maintained.
The whole issue has come to the fore in the very sad case reported in the press last week of Riven Vincent, who has asked her local authority to take her severely disabled child into care as she can no longer cope because of the lack of respite care. Although this single case has hit the headlines, we can be sure that many other parents are struggling with similar crises in their lives. It is therefore vital that we get the provisions right and relevant to meet the known needs of the estimated 700,000 disabled children in England.
The Government have changed the original intent of the legislation in a number of key ways, including: removing the ring-fencing of the funds, to which the noble Lord has already referred; the monitoring and assessment via the children and young people’s plan; and granting greater autonomy to local authorities to interpret their responsibilities in this area. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that the priority for breaks for carers envisaged in the Act will be maintained.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. First, the department’s own impact assessment states:
“We consider that where LAs indentified and funded their own delivery support, only high performing LAs would continue to improve, leaving a mixed picture of services for families in need”.
Can the Minister reassure me that there will be a comprehensive breaks service across the country rather than the rather patchy service suggested by his department?
Secondly, there was considerable pressure on local authorities to prepare for the duty that would have come into force in April 2011, and a great deal of progress has been made. Can the Minister give an assurance that the Government’s new emphasis on local autonomy will not let local authorities off the hook, so that they are forced to give this issue priority rather than responding to vocal local pressures from electors to fund other issues?
Thirdly, how will the Government monitor progress? What information will be collected centrally and how will the quality of local services for the carers of disabled children be assessed?
Finally, how will the Government ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable families are protected, given that disabled children are much more likely to live in poor housing and be in the lowest income groups? For example, children from BME families are the least likely to access the services currently available. Is there not a danger that services will be provided only to those who shout the loudest and not to those who are the most vulnerable and least able to stand up for themselves and argue for provision in their area?
I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on these points.
My Lords, I welcome the introduction of these draft regulations by the coalition Government. As your Lordships may be aware, in March 2008, along with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, I tabled an amendment to the then Children and Young Persons Bill on this matter. The amendment created a new duty for local authorities to help parents caring for disabled children by providing them with breaks from their caring responsibilities. As the Minister has already kindly stated, my involvement in the campaign for short breaks for disabled children has lasted for many years. I think I introduced a Private Member’s Bill about short breaks as long ago as 1994. It went through the Lords but crashed in the House of Commons. I know that representatives from across the disability sector, including Mencap, of which I am president, and Every Disabled Child Matters, will welcome the introduction of these regulations.
The case for this new duty could not be stronger, and I welcome the £800 million identified by the Government over the next four years to help local authorities provide these short breaks. However, when faced with the competing demands of filling potholes, weekly rubbish collections and street cleaning, I fear that the temptation on local authorities to spend money for short breaks in other areas could be very seductive. That is why I would have preferred to have seen these funds ring-fenced for the specific purpose of short breaks, perhaps with a provision also to address the needs of all disabled people, including adults. It is important to remember that for many parents of disabled children, their responsibilities as carers will continue long after their sons and daughters have grown up. This is particularly the case for adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities, where the case for short breaks is arguably even stronger. However, I acknowledge that this is probably a debate for another day.
As we have been reminded, the pressure on funds for short breaks and respite services received much attention only last week, when we saw a great deal of coverage in the national media about Riven Vincent, a mother who asked for her six year-old daughter, Celyn, to be placed into care after she received a letter from Bristol social services informing her that no more respite care would be available. This extremely unhappy story highlights why it is so important for the parents of disabled children to have regular access to short breaks. Despite the pressure of cuts to services, we must ensure that the funds announced by the coalition Government reach their intended audience, together with the new duty on local authorities to provide short breaks. Can the Minister assure me that these funds will be used for those whose needs are addressed by these regulations?
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for his explanation and welcome the regulations. I also have some questions. Will Regulation 3(b) have regard to the needs of carers whose break from caring may involve an extended leisure activity such as a holiday, rather than simply, as the regulation says, a “regular leisure activity”? I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, about the importance of regular breaks from caring, if that is what carers choose, because I believe that regular breaks—a little bit of respite every now and then—can provide long-term stable care for disabled children, which is vital.
Is it sufficient for local authorities merely to publish their short-break services statements on their website? Surely they should do a little more than that. Should they not be proactive in contacting existing carers, rather than just publishing the information, especially in the light of the fact that the Explanatory Memorandum indicates that only a third of those eligible currently receive short breaks? We do not know whether that is simply because they are not aware of what is available and do not apply or whether it is because of shortage of money. Can the Minister say whether the practice guidance outlined in paragraph 8.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum will provide any guidelines on the criteria by which eligibility for the services outlined in Regulation 4 will be assessed?
I move on to a point about ensuring that this all works out in practice on the ground, which of course is very important. Is there any plan to require local authorities to publish a sufficiency assessment? The Minister talked about quality, but will local authorities also be obliged to publish an assessment of whether the quantity of short breaks that they supply is sufficient?
Can the Minister also say whether he expects a large number of applications for short-break services to result from the publication of these pieces of information by local authorities and whether any extra funding is likely to be allocated to local authorities if they report a large increase in the number of carers applying for short breaks? Does he agree that there may be a risk that, although these regulations may widen the number of people who apply for short breaks, the danger is that the funding per capita will go down to the point where the efficacy of the breaks will deteriorate? I do not think that any of us wish to see that.
Finally, can the Minister say when the Government expect to publish the initial practice guidance, to which he referred? How will this guidance be disseminated to relevant groups and how frequently do the Government intend to update it? Groups such as Every Disabled Child Matters will pay very careful attention to the guidance, but individual parents will also be interested in their local authority’s guidance so that they, as individual parents, can hold the local authority to account against the guidance.
I am grateful for the comments made and for the general welcome for the detail of the regulations. I am glad to have had the endorsement of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Walmsley for her typically probing and detailed questions, some of which I will have to come back to, if she will allow me. I will circulate the letter to those who have an interest in the matter as she raised important questions about monitoring.
There is broad agreement and I am happy to respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, who said that she wanted reassurance that we will build on the momentum that has started and the work that the previous Government have done. I accept fully the point that as arrangements bed down, we will want to ensure that they work well on the ground. The ring-fence has concerned many. There is a tension operating between wanting to give local authorities more freedom to provide services that they think are best, and which best match the needs of local people. We need to bear in mind that the needs of carers in a sparse rural area like Cornwall will be different from those for families in more dense urban areas. We are keen to have flexibility, and it flows from there that we want to give that discretion to local authorities.
I hope to provide some reassurance that there is a statutory duty on local authorities to provide those services. On the publication of the statements, I agree with my noble friend that a website is one way of disseminating information but not the only one. Generally, we will all in our different ways want to make sure that people are aware of their rights and the opportunities open to them. I hope that the provision of information and the shining of a spotlight will bring healthy pressure to bear on the providers of services and make sure that they are of high quality. I accept that we need to keep a careful eye on that. It is not enough just to construct a system, but not see how it operates in practice. We will all have a common interest in pursuing that.
My noble friend Lady Walmsley asked about guidance which will be published very soon. The department has been working on it with local authorities and, as part of the guidance, two local authorities have come up with a draft statement of the services that they provide, which we will disseminate widely. One of the arguments in having a non-statutory approach to the guidance is that one can keep it flexible and keep updating it to take account of circumstances on the ground. Services will develop and we can learn from best practice in different parts of the country. We want to keep things flexible to make sure that those lessons are learnt.
On the point about the obligation and duty on local authorities, Regulation 5 requires local authorities to have regard to the views of carers. The guidance will deal with questions of quality. Overall, I welcome the points made about the benefits of these regulations. Some of the broader concerns raised about how things will work out in practice I accept and understand, and we will work to address them.
I will follow up any specific points that I have not addressed and circulate the responses but I hope that, given the support that these regulations have received from voluntary groups and those concerned in this area generally, the Committee will approve them. I have great pleasure in commending them to the Committee.
Before the Minister sits down, I hope that I may gently press two points that I raised. He may wish to reply to them in writing but I would certainly like an answer at some point. First, if we are not careful, those who provide a good service at the moment will carry on providing a good service and those who do not will carry on providing not such a good service. I am not sure where the impetus is for the new scheme to raise standards across England. Where is the impetus to raise standards across the board? There is a danger that we will carry on having unfair distribution.
Secondly—I ask this question in innocence as much as anything because I do not know the answer—how will the £800,000 be monitored? Will there be a mechanism in place to see how a local authority spends it? Is there any mechanism in place to identify what proportion of the money actually goes into breaks for carers, or are the Government just relying on the good will of local authorities to follow up their statutory duty?
My Lords, I accept the force of the noble Baroness’s first point about wanting to make sure that quality generally is raised and that we are able to learn from good practice and spread it more widely. I understand that we are looking at incentive payments for meeting those duties under the early intervention grant. There may be other more detailed ways in which we are following that up and if there are I will come back to her on those. As regards underperforming local authorities, I understand that we have advertised a contract to continue supporting local authorities to deliver better services working with the voluntary sector. That may also be part of the answer to the noble Baroness’s question.
As regards what one does about following the money, as it were, I come back to my point that there is a statutory duty on local authorities to provide these services, as the noble Baroness recognised. However, it is true that one of the consequences of removing ring fences and devolving responsibility for spending money to local authorities is that one does devolve that money and allows local authorities to make those judgments. However, I think that, collectively, a range of people will want to make sure that those statutory duties are fulfilled and that local authorities provide decent services to some of the most vulnerable people and their carers who do a heroic job and need all the support that they can get.
Committee adjourned at 5.03 pm.