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Disabled Children: Support Services

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 23 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the barriers preventing families with disabled children from adequately receiving support services.

My Lords, we recognise the challenges that families of disabled children face in getting the right support. In the past three months we have published the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision Green Paper, and the independent review of children’s social care published its final report. We will publish proposals to improve support for young people with disabilities and their families. Investments in family hubs and local health join-up will all improve support services for families of disabled children.

My Lords, many of the ambitions in the SEND Green Paper are welcome and offer real hope to those of us who want reform. However, the proposal to allow parents of disabled children to pick a school only from a pre-defined list, rather than allowing them to specify one that meets their child’s needs, is plain wrong. I know many carers who have had to fight tooth and nail to get the right school for their child and this change will make it harder. I will ask the Minister one specific question: have the Government made an assessment of whether this policy, if adopted, could create even more barriers for families with disabled children than exist already?

I understand the spirit in which the noble Lord asked this Question. It is an extremely important one that families with disabled children all around the country are asking. He also hinted at the very confrontational system that we have at the moment. The point of our consultation is to understand and listen to families with disabled children. We have a big hill to climb to build trust and confidence with our families but we are absolutely committed to doing that.

My Lords, by key stage 2, at the age of only 11, only 22% of children with special educational needs or disabilities achieve the requisite levels of literacy and numeracy. What is the Government’s plan to address this iniquitous situation and close the SEN and disability attainment gap?

My noble friend rightly points to the gap in outcomes for children with special educational needs and disabilities. He will be aware of the proposals we set out in the schools White Paper, with the aim that 90% of children should leave primary school with the required standard in reading, writing and maths. That can happen only if children with special educational needs see much better outcomes. That is behind the commitment that we set out in the Green Paper, but also the financial commitments we have made in terms of capital and revenue for those children.

Does the Minister agree—I think she has—that the current system is overly legally confrontational and has primarily benefited lawyers? Having said that, what is the Minister going to do to make sure that those with low frequency problems or high needs—by definition there are few places that can support them—can travel in the new regime or have their needs met by people coming to them? That is a real problem for a very few and one that the Government must deal with if they are to get this right.

I absolutely agree that the system is overly confrontational. I cannot comment on the benefits to lawyers, being surrounded by so many of them. Parents tell us that it is overly confrontational. The noble Lord makes a good point. It will be important, and I invite the noble Lord to hold us to account on how we address those issues when we report back on the Green Paper.

Short and long-term care services are broken according to organisations led by the Disabled Children’s Partnership, which is reporting families suffering a litany of physical and mental health issues as a result of the adversarial system we have talked about. Can the Minister assure the House that parents will not be forced to supplement health authorities and local authorities with funding of the advocacy services during the SEND process?

I am not able to reassure the noble Baroness at the Dispatch Box because her question covers such a multitude of different potential situations, but the spirit of our reforms is that we have heard loud and clear from parents about the stress and pressure that this causes them, sometimes including financial pressure, and we are absolutely committed to addressing it.

The Minister will be aware that in April the Down Syndrome Bill, promoted in another place by the right honourable Dr Liam Fox MP and promoted here by my noble friend Lady Hollins, completed all its stages. What progress is being made on implementing the terms of that legislation, and will there be an opportunity for the House to be properly advised about that progress?

I will have to write to the noble Lord setting that out, together with my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the respite innovation fund, which is an excellent example of the right way of tackling the challenges faced by families with disabilities. Can she reassure me that it will be evaluated to high standards, that families will not be allowed on to the scheme unless they understand that evaluation is an important part of it, and that a comprehensive survey will be conducted by a reputable organisation at the beginning, at the end of the intervention and six months later, so that we can learn from this and build on it?

As my noble friend knows, my right honourable friend is a great fan of data and transparency. We have commissioned an independent process and an early outcome evaluation of the first year of delivery to assess the impact of the scheme. It will obviously seek the views of parents and children who are in receipt of the support, as well as those of local authorities and other delivery partners. The evaluation will assess the feasibility of conducting a robust impact assessment of the type my noble friend outlined, for years two and three of delivery.

My Lords, I must press the Minister in respect of the answer she gave to my noble friend Lady Uddin a few moments ago. Surveys by the Disabled Children’s Partnership found that three-quarters of parent carers had suffered a deterioration in mental health due to the fight they were required to undertake to get the right services for their children. In the light of that, can the Minister say how the Government intend to use the SEND Green Paper to reduce the burden of admin and advocacy that currently rests on the shoulders of parents with disabled children?

I think I mentioned our starting point in response to the original Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, which is that part of our challenge is building up trust with parents who have children with a disability. We believe that by having much clearer bandings around provision, so that we reduce some of the regional inconsistencies in the system, and by requiring mediation as part of this, we will reduce confrontation. That is absolutely our intention, but we do not have a closed mind on this. We have held more than 153 consultation events and they are growing all the time. We are very keen to hear from parents on what they think will work.

My Lords, the Disabled Children’s Partnership, to which many noble Lords have referred, points out that the Green Paper does not answer what may be the biggest question for many families: how will councils, schools, the health service and others be held to account if they do not meet their legal duties to provide appropriate support for disabled children and their families?

The noble Baroness is right, and she will be aware that just over 50% of councils inspected by Ofsted got written statements of action, which means they have significant weaknesses in their arrangements for children with special educational needs and disabilities. Obviously, we are planning to improve the system, but we are also planning to improve accountability through new inclusion dashboards for 0 to 25 year-old provision. We hope that that will give us a timely picture of performance that can be used to create a self-improving system.

My Lords, the Government’s national strategy for disabled people was described by them as a strategy to remove barriers and increase participation, but it was judged to be unlawful by the High Court earlier this year because of the dire state of the consultation. Does the Minister agree that overcoming barriers to access is best achieved alongside disabled people, with their full involvement? What is she going to do to make sure we never get into that situation again?

Many disabled people’s groups welcomed the strategy at the time, and we are deeply disappointed and strongly disagree with the finding of the court. The Secretary of State concerned has sought permission to appeal the High Court’s decision. In relation to the Department for Education, the actions that we had in the national strategy are not impacted by the High Court’s decision and we are continuing at pace with all of them.