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Child Trust Funds: Children with Learning Disabilities

Volume 808: debated on Thursday 3 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to facilitate access to Child Trust Funds by children with learning disabilities.

My Lords, children with learning disabilities might not have the mental capacity to manage their finances and might need someone to do this on their behalf. Parents need legal authority to access funds on their adult children’s behalf and might need to apply to the Court of Protection. This is an important protection set out in the Mental Capacity Act 2005, and the Government are taking steps to improve the support available to parents in this position.

My Lords, last March the Telegraph drew attention to the problems facing 150,000 children with child trust funds who cannot access their cash when they are 18 because of their disability and whose parents have to go to the Court of Protection—a cumbersome and time-consuming process involving 47 forms and 100 questions. Will the working group that was announced yesterday by the Minister look at the alternative system of appointees used by the Department for Work and Pensions to pay exactly the same group of children, which is far quicker, simpler and cheaper?

The noble Lord makes a very interesting point. I know that the Ministry of Justice is looking at and working on this. I have just heard that the DWP is, in fact, joining the working group, but the DWP appointees procedure does not extend to property and assets of the individual. It deals solely with government benefits. Extending the appointees scheme to include child trust funds would not be appropriate as it is at the moment, as it would not provide the protections currently delivered by the Mental Capacity Act.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that some children with learning disabilities who want to access trust funds might have life-limiting conditions? There might not be much time available for legal processes to be gone through. Can she assure the House that, if such situations have not already been considered, they will be given the attention that they deserve?

They are absolutely being given the attention they deserve, but there are already procedures in place such that, if a young person has a life-limiting condition, that issue can be dealt with almost immediately by the courts.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham has identified what is actually a larger problem. I took all stages of the Mental Capacity Act through another place and also did the post-legislative scrutiny in our House. I say to my noble friend—and I declare an interest—that for parents of both children with learning disabilities and many on the autism spectrum, resort purely to the Court of Protection or to expensive legal trusts is really no help to parents of limited means who try to provide for their children throughout their lifetime. I hope that my noble friend will consider what more is needed to look at the situation we now have, particularly with more people living independently.

I thank my noble friend; she is absolutely right. That is why the Government made the announcement yesterday that we want to reduce the obstacles to supporting young people who lack mental capacity. There are other things that can be done instead of the Court of Protection: if the young person has the mental capacity to have an involvement, then there is, of course, the much cheaper and easier way of lasting powers of attorney.

My Lords, on this International Day of People with Disabilities, it is particularly important that registered contacts and carers are helped to access child trust funds to meet the increasing needs of children with disabilities turning 18. Does the Minister agree that, while speedier permission from the Court of Protection is desirable, it is also in the interests of the child to ensure that enduring powers of attorney are still sufficient and fit for purpose to prevent possible misuse of funds?

I agree with the noble Lord. This is a balance. It is important to make sure that those young people who do not have the mental capacity to access their funds get them easily, quickly and without cost, and that is what the Government are looking at. However, there are other ways, as the noble Lord says, such as lasting powers of attorney, where the young person can have an involvement in what happens to their finances.

I had the privilege 20 years ago of initiating the research on, and then working with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to set up, the child trust fund. We never envisaged at that time that this situation would arise. I want to reinforce the suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Young—as usual, very sensible—about trying to fast-track this and to ensure that the two big providers that are trying to find a way through are supported and enabled, rather than having obstacles put in their way.

I absolutely agree, and, as I have said, we are trying, through a working party, to find a way to reduce the obstacles that the families are facing. There is also a fee remission, which ensures that families who need to go to the Court of Protection to access these funds will not suffer financially as a result. If they have already paid any money, they can get that reimbursed. Now there is the working group looking further at how we can improve the process.

My Lords, is this not something about which the House should once again congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Young, on pointing out an absurdity? Will the Government give us an undertaking that, if they cannot find an ad hoc solution quickly, they will find that little bit of parliamentary time that is needed to ensure that we have a workable solution to this?

I am not going to make a promise of extra time, but I can say that the working group has now been put together involving the MoJ, the Treasury, the DWP, the charities and the Court of Protection to make sure that all the accessibility issues are sorted out, that it is a much more streamlined process and that it will not cost the parents any money.

My Lords, I am delighted that the Government have established a working party and congratulate them on the decision about the fee remission. However, with the numbers involved here, there could be 25,000 court cases a year on this issue over the next eight years or so, with Covid delays and capacity issues at court. Given that these parents are trusted by the Department for Work and Pensions to manage their child’s benefits, would it not make sense to ask the department to take seriously the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham to use an established procedure?

We absolutely will and are looking at my noble friend Lord Young’s ideas and, as I say, the DWP has just joined the working party, which is starting straight away and will report back to the Minister in early January. We are not stopping on that but looking at the best way of dealing with these issues.

My Lords, being disabled in Britain should not mean being a second-class citizen, but that is how it must seem for children with learning disabilities whose families face an expensive battle to gain access to the child trust fund. Imagine the outcry if big city investors, or perhaps pensioners, were denied access to their own money. The Government would then be rushing to their aid. The Prime Minister has pledged to level up. Will the Minister tell him that these children can have access to their money now? The message is simple: get this done.

I am afraid, as I have said before, that we are doing everything we possibly can. It is not costly any longer because the fee remission will ensure that families can go to the Court of Protection and not suffer financially. We will get it done but we have to take into account the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and the fact that these young people are at times vulnerable and need protection through that Act.

My Lords, more than 700,000 teenagers will be given the keys to their child trust funds over the next 12 months. It was never made clear to parents that disabled children will be unable to access the funds at 18, due to their lack of mental capacity. With an application to the Court of Protection on behalf of a disabled child, they might be able to do that but there is no surety that they could. Parents care greatly about their children and this is a tragic situation. I was reassured by many of the answers that the Minister has given and hope that everything will work out, and access will be readily available.

I can assure the noble Baroness that there is no way in which those children will not get access eventually but it is about how they get it.