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Child Trust Funds: Children with Learning Disabilities

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards enabling children with learning disabilities to access their Child Trust Funds.

My Lords, since my noble friend’s last Question on this matter six weeks ago, I have met ministerial colleagues and Members of the other place. I have considered the legal issues that arise. I have also met the acting president and vice-president of the Court of Protection. While court processes are a matter for the judiciary, I have been assured that child trust funds and the application forms will be on the agenda of the next Civil Procedure Rules Committee meeting to be held on 20 April.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his personal commitment to solving this problem, but he will understand my disappointment at his letter of 23 March, which says basically that no progress has been made since I raised this issue in January. Hollie Squire requires 24-hour care. Her mother Tammie is managing on £605 a month that Hollie gets from the DWP. If Tammie can be trusted with this money from the taxpayer, why can she not be trusted with Hollie’s money from her own trust fund without complex and time-consuming court procedures?

My Lords, my noble friend raises a very good point. I can assure Tammie and Hollie Squire that it is not a question of trust. It is, I am afraid, a question of law. The DWP benefits appointee scheme applies only to benefits from the state and does not extend or apply to an individual’s own assets. That legal position is governed by the Mental Capacity Act. I have to work within the confines of the Act, which is why I am working with the judiciary to make the legal route easier, cheaper and quicker.

My Lords, I draw attention to my registered interest as vice-president of Mencap, which has been working with the MoJ on this issue. Can the Minister give the House an update on what progress the advisory group has made to date?

My Lords, the advisory group has been meeting not only organisations in the third sector such as Mencap but the financial providers. We have looked at a number of legal and regulatory issues. We believe that the way through this is by working with the Court of Protection. Quite properly, judges control the court and that is the way through to resolving this long-standing problem.

I do not envy my noble friend’s position at this point. In the past he has said that the rules need to be appropriate, accessible and proportionate. Given the time it takes to access money that the child might have been waiting for, and that the parents of disabled children have so much to deal with, will my noble friend take back to the department the idea of adopting the change in law that was adopted for families whose children have life-threatening conditions in order to allow access to their own money in these circumstances? The industry itself, commendably, wants to help them with this.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. We have looked at the legislative options. Amending primary legislation is not likely to be quick or easy. However, I must emphasise that the rules of the Court of Protection are a matter for the judiciary, not the Government. We therefore have to work with the judiciary, which I know is committed to this issue. Indeed, the Court of Protection has been working hard during the pandemic to ensure that its business is kept up to date.

My Lords, I declare that I chair the National Mental Capacity Forum. The Mental Capacity Act aims to protect against exploitation and support decision-making, but Covid lockdowns have caused delays in the Court of Protection. How is the backlog of these financial cases being mitigated by digital processes to ensure that the welfare of a young person is appropriately safeguarded, in particular if they are in a care home or have other care arrangements?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that fundamentally this is about safeguarding the interests of the young person. On the Court of Protection, staff have been coming into the court throughout the pandemic to make sure that it can continue to function. They are putting in place new digital ways of working to streamline and simplify their processes and will ensure that there is as little administrative and procedural delay as possible.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the National Autistic Society. The needs of autistic youngsters differ: some lack capacity to make financial decisions, the capacity of others may fluctuate, but the need for parental support is vital. Yet the Mental Capacity Act code of practice says that family members should be appointed as welfare deputies in only the most difficult cases. This adds to the problem that parents of autistic youngsters have in accessing the child trust fund. Mr Justice Hayden in the High Court said that the wording of the guidance should be revisited; when are the Government going to do this?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for referring to Mr Justice Hayden, with whom I have met and who I know is personally committed to resolving this. It is fair to say that our understanding of all sorts of mental capacity is considerably greater now than it was in 2005, when the Act was passed, and in 1995, when the Law Commission reported on this issue. We are therefore looking to address this.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Young, for bringing this to our attention and for his wonderful summary of that letter. If we agree that the money is for the children, and that they are capable of spending money in other situations, why have the Government not used the capacity of this Chamber and the other place to make sure that this happens?

My Lords, the position is this: in 1995, when the Law Commission reported on this, it recommended a small claims exception to the Mental Capacity Act. Parliament did not do that; it put in a Mental Capacity Act with no exceptions at all. That is the legislative background against which I now have to operate.

My Lords, increased legal requirements have made it ever more expensive to gain access to children’s trust funds. The Government justify the extra costs as providing the necessary protection needed for those who lack the mental capacity to act for themselves. More straightforward and less expensive access paths to child trust funds are needed. Does the Minister agree that a more robust approach is now justified in dealing with the Mental Capacity Act?

My Lords, the short answer is yes. We have put in place mechanisms on fees to ensure that anybody applying to the Court of Protection, in respect of a child trust fund only, does not have to pay any fees. I know that the court is looking at the forms to make sure that they are suitably accessible, so that one can fill them in and make an application without having to pay a solicitor.

My Lords, the Minister last met The Investing and Savings Alliance some two months ago and, as far as I understand, there are no further dates in the diary. When will the Minister next meet The Investing and Savings Alliance?

My Lords, I am looking to arrange meetings with it, but have been working on the issues that it has raised in any event. In particular, I have looked at whether there is a trust law solution to the problem, but I am afraid that there is not. The route is to make sure that people can get applications through the Court of Protection as quickly and cheaply as possible. That involves the judiciary, which rightly controls the Court of Protection, and I am getting good engagement from the judiciary.

My Lords, some providers of child trust funds are allowing parents access to them with other proof, without going through the procedures of the Mental Capacity Act. Can the Minister assure me and the House that those who offer such expedited help to parents or carers will not be subject to any sanctions?

My Lords, I cannot give that assurance because sanctions are not a matter for the Government; independent bodies are in place. Whether these industry providers are complying with the protections under the Mental Capacity Act is not something on which I can give an opinion. I am sure that they have looked at that issue. Ultimately, the Mental Capacity Act is there to protect vulnerable people.

I declare my interest in the register of interests from working with The Investing and Savings Alliance. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Young for his assiduousness on this and to my noble friend Lord Wolfson for the way that he is gripping this issue. In the absence of a legislative solution, there has to be a practical one. The Government Digital Service has a mantra: “What is the user need?” Simpler forms and no fees—we can get a lot done without legislation.

My Lords, with respect, I agree. No fees are in my bailiwick; we have done that. Simpler forms are in the judiciary’s bailiwick; I am working with the judiciary to encourage it to put simpler forms in place. Ultimately, there is a constitutional position here. The courts are run by the judiciary, not by government Ministers, and that is how it should be.