Disabled Children (Family Support) Bill

23rd February 2007

Brooks Newmark supports a bill aimed at providing better support for disabled children and their carers. He specifically welcomes a clause imposing a duty on local authorities to assess the need for short breaks for families with disabled children.


12.42 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): This debate has been going for about three hours and 15 minutes. Almost 100 people are in the Gallery and there are probably thousands of people watching, glued to the Parliament channel at this moment, willing one thing: for this debate to finish. This is one of those unusual debates in which less is probably more. Unless it comes to a conclusion fairly quickly, the Bill will not go through and those of us here will be collectively responsible for talking it out. That is not what we want to do. In that spirit, I shall keep my remarks fairly brief, because if I and the three or four further Back Benchers here who are yet to speak do that, the decision of whether to talk out the debate or let the Bill go through will be on the Minister's conscience.

I am delighted to speak in support of a Bill that has the simple, necessary and laudable aim of offering better support to disabled children and their carers. By including representatives from throughout the sector who believe in the crucial importance of improving the support of some 100,000 children and their families, the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign has shown that it is a true coalition of the willing. I pay tribute to those who have worked so hard to make the Bill a reality. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) for bringing the Bill to the Floor of the House. It is my hope that the Government will do more than simply acknowledge the importance of the principles involved here. Ministers have done that before and they will no doubt do it again. What is needed, and what the Bill would deliver, is a cast-iron commitment to improving the support available to disabled children and their carers. The Bill would achieve that by imposing through clause 2 a specific duty on local authorities to assess the need for short breaks and to provide them.

I want to address two aspects of the duty under that clause-assessment and delivery. Disabled children are en titled to have their needs assessed and services provided under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. Carers have access to a range of en titlement to assessment, services and support but, crucially, the assessment legislation does not include a duty to assess the specific need for disabled children and their families to access short breaks. There is a menu of options for local authorities, but there is also uncertainty of outcome for disabled children. That helps to explain the wide variance across the country in the availability of short breaks.

Clause 2 would correct that deficiency and help to promote consistency by imposing a duty on local authorities to assess the need for short breaks for all those in their area who have parental responsibility for a disabled child and who regularly provide a substantial amount of care. One failing in the support that carers receive is the fact that there is no automatic connection between assessment and delivery. As Mencap found, half of carers who have a carer's assessment still receive no services whatever. That situation is aggravated for many families because there is no legally enforceable right to short breaks for families with disabled children-even once they have been assessed as being in need of them.

The fact that local authorities face only the option of providing short breaks means that services that families receive are at best patchy and at worst non-existent. As we heard earlier, a Mencap survey found that six out of 10 families received either no short breaks at all or short breaks that did not meet their needs, while seven out of 10 families were not offered a choice between different short-break services. For the sake of comparison-my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon alluded to this-eight out of 10 families responded to the same survey that they were close to breaking point due to caring for disabled children without having adequate short breaks. Many hon. Members have referred to that.

The specific duty in clause 2 to provide short breaks would also require local authorities to make sufficient provision available to meet the needs of families in their area. That would represent a marked change from the current situation whereby delivery of short breaks is often inadequate and the lack of capacity means that families often have no choice but to accept inappropriate services or receive nothing at all.

I want briefly to discuss the supposed cost of the duties in clause 2. It has been estimated that carers of all kinds save the Treasury £57 billion a year, a significant fraction of which is saved due the number of parents and their families who care for a disabled child. We have heard those numbers before. When the alternative to disabled children being looked after by their parents can cost up to £200,000 per child per year for full-time residential care, it is easy to see how that staggering sum can be reached. It is simply a false economy for the Government to suggest that the cost of a duty to provide short breaks is unwarranted, given the potential cost of family breakdown that can be caused by the inadequate provision of short breaks.

To their credit, the Government have recognised that fact. The Economic Secretary reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the "Every Disabled Child Matters" campaign and to the urgent need to improve access to short breaks for disabled children and their families in a lecture last Tuesday. He said rightly that

"short breaks help give families with disabled children an ordinary life-the same experience of having a break from each other, to support the love and care that all parents give their children."

The next day, the Minister with responsibility for care services announced a new deal for carers with a commitment of £33 million of extra funding to support carers in advance of the comprehensive spending review. I sincerely hope that some of that extra funding will be made available to disabled children and their families, and that the Minister will give a commitment to that effect.

If emergency respite care warrants extra financial support at this point in time, however, there is little weight in the argument that disabled children and their families must wait for the CSR to be completed. I appreciate that the Government are sensitive to proposals that involve spending commitments-as a member of the Conservative Treasury team, I am particularly cognisant of that. The fact remains, however, that early intervention through a duty to provide better access to short breaks has the potential to save far more money than it would cost.

Early intervention is one of the watchwords of the Department for Education and Skills, yet the cash that would enable such intervention is lacking time and again. The pressure on speech and language therapy funding is of acute concern to my constituents. Other initiatives such as the early support programme, which aims to assist early intervention and the co-ordination of resources, have insecure long-term funding and patchy implementation. Yesterday, it was announced that the CSR has been pushed back until October. I question whether it is good enough to wait until then before taking action to improve support for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

The time to act is now, with this Bill, and not with reference to a vague commitment to improve the situation at some time in the future. Talk is cheap, but in this case even action is affordable, and the payback even greater. The Bill has received support from across the sector, and from all parties. I am grateful to all those who have drawn attention to the issue, and particularly to Georgina Rhymes and her team at the play and resource centre in my constituency, as well as to the Braintree branch of Mencap, the Edith Borthwick school in Bocking and Southview school in Witham.

I am encouraged by the widespread support that the Bill has received, and I only hope that the Government will translate a measure of that support into prompt action.

12.53 pm



Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I, too, am aware of the Economic Secretary's commitment. Unfortunately, the Government seem to be failing, once again, to put money behind the commitment, and we need money behind it if we are to deliver what the Bill seeks.

Mr. Streeter: There is no question but that the duty that we anticipate in the Bill requires a funding package behind it. We all know that local councils throughout the land are hard pressed. It would be wrong for the House to hand down a duty without the money to go with it. The conversation with the Government about that funding is ongoing, and my hon. Friend will want to address that in his remarks later.


Mr. Newmark: The Minister clearly supports that initiative, as do all Members in the Chamber, so once again I ask him to take up the initiative I proposed. Why does not he wrap up his speech in the next six minutes so that we can take the Bill on to the next stage, or is it the Government's intention to filibuster until 2.30?

Mr. Dhanda: I certainly do not intend to filibuster. In fact, I have not spoken as long as the hon. Gentleman did. He will be aware of our reasons for not supporting the Bill, as they were articulated from the Conservative Front Bench earlier in the debate.


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