HC Deb 14 April 1976 vol 909 cc1396-407

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dormand.]

12.46 p.m.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

Last Wednesday, as almost her last act as Secretary of State for Social Services, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) gave details of the proposed social security increases next autumn. One of these was to increase the higher rate of attendance allowance to £12.20 and the lower rate to £8.15 per week. This afternoon I am grateful for this opportunity to draw the attention of the House to a small group of severely handicapped children living in the community who will derive no benefit from these increases. These are children in the care of a local authority who are boarded out with foster parents. I should emphasise that there is a very small number involved—possibly about 300—although I hope that if what I advocate today is accepted a number of those children at present in vastly more expensive residential care or hospital care will find foster parents who are willing to undertake the very dedicated and demanding work that caring for a handicapped child entails.

At present, as we have been told in numerous parliamentary replies and in answer to representations from various organisations, the Government believe that all responsibility in this matter should rest with local councils. For example, the former Minister of State, the late Brian O'Malley said, in reply to my Question: Payment of attendance allowance has not been considered appropriate where a local authority has assumed responsibility for the care of a severely disabled child, whether, in one of its own homes or by boarding out."—[Official Report, 4th November 1975; Vol. 899, c. 211.] I shall examine this principle in detail in a few moments but first I wish to stress that by taking this attitude the Government, at current rates, are saving the Exchequer a mere £150,000 a year—a figure which would easily be recouped if a few more children were to be fostered out from expensive residential care.

The Government are fond of taunting the Opposition for advocating individual increases in public expenditure. I hope the Minister will appreciate that my efforts to extend the attendance allowance to a handful of children are no more to be castigated on that score than are his own very proper efforts to increase the take-up rate of the various benefits which he and his colleagues have introduced in the past two years.

The Minister, in a letter to the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) stated that the attendance allowance is intended to help those severely disabled people whose care is not primarily provided out of public funds. I hope to persuade the House that these principles are not overriding, and that, even if they are accepted, the Government have drawn the line in the wrong place. Foster parents receive very little from public funds and should be treated on a par with other parents and not with residential institutions.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will do his best to respond. I have a letter from the Eccles Society for Mentally Handicapped Children, which does great work. It makes this point about the cruel anomalies. We are going to impose a double disability on a disabled child in not having a home—at least, a home with love and happy surroundings. If we are to avoid institutionalisation, we have to give money, in addition, to foster parents to take on this burden. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made this point.

Mr. Hannam

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that further evidence for my case. Fundamentally, I believe that where cash payments are made the Government have a duty to ensure that they are equitable throughout the country. Social security has always been regarded as a national responsibility, and is so even in the Government's proposals for devolution. In those proposals, social security is to be retained centrally. If the Government believe that that principle is so important even for devolution, how can they be prepared to allow this discrimination to continue against such a small and defenceless minority of children?

The Government have themselves already breached their own principle. The mobility allowance will be paid to a child regardless of his status. Whether he is with foster parents, or in residential care, or in hospital, or with his own parents, he will still be entitled to it. The Government draw a distinction, however, in saying that local authorities have a duty to provide attendance but not to provide mobility. That is a false distinction. A foster parent is a parent first and an attendant only second. Although the Government's argument has some plausibility when applied to residential care, in view of the pitiful allowances paid by some local authorities they cannot pretend that their distinction between the mobility allowance and the attendance allowance holds water.

I hope, and have some reason to believe, that the Government may have been waiting to see how the mobility allowance works for children before extending the attendance allowance to foster children, but there is no justification for further delay.

The second reason why the Government should take responsibility for allowing the attendance allowance to foster parents is a pragmatic one. The attendance allowance is one of those benefits that are tied by the Social Security Act to the higher of our two measures of inflation, wages or costs. Whatever our feelings about the announced change in the methods of assessment, it is clear to anyone that those whose benefits are so tied are, in a sense, on to a good thing—rather like the civil servants with their inflation-proof pensions.

Does anyone believe that local authorities, unless they are given a severe prodding by the Government, will match these upratings, pound for pound? Local authorities are now subject to severe cutbacks in their planned social services programmes, and in many authorities inescapable commitments have already devoured all expansion in the coming year. They are also subject to cash limits in the coming year. It is unrealistic and unworldly of the Government to expect local authorities automatically to match the increases that the Exchequer can pay without a mandatory duty being imposed upon them to do so.

The next argument that is raised against extending the allowance to foster parents is even more improbable. On 4th November, Brian O'Malley told me, in reply to another Question: If the attendance allowance became payable for the small number of children that he describes in his Question, many of the foster parents concerned would be no better off, because the local authorities would clearly reflect the receipt of that allowance in the payment made to the foster parent."—[Official Report, 4th November 1975; Vol. 899, c. 211.] I shall describe later the variation in allowances that appear to be paid throughout the country, and I can assure hon. Members that most foster parents would be much better off even if the local authority withdrew the whole of any extra allowance.

Allied to this argument is the point that the local authority is in a better position to judge the actual needs of a child, that it can pay an allowance to children who would not qualify for the attendance allowance, and can pay more than the attendance allowance if the severity of the handicap warrants it. Nothing that I propose affects this in the least. I am merely seeking to ensure that the same basic minimum is payable to those children who satisfy the Attendance Allowances Board's very strict criteria.

In discussions with the All-Party Disablement Group, the Department of Health and Social Security has raised administrative problems—we expect them to be raised by most Government Departments—in refusing this kind of amendment. I do not think that the Department's heart is very deeply in its arguments. It has been suggested that because a child is likely to be boarded out from residential care where the attendance allowance would not be paid, there would be a delay in receipt of the allowance.

Even if this were true—and it would be regrettable—it would be of no great moment. The placement of handicapped children for long-term fostering is a highly specialised business, and there would be plenty of time to make the administrative arrangements.

It has also been claimed that if children were popping in and out of residential care and foster homes the system would break down. That argument is most unlikely, and can be discounted. There are already arrangements in analogous situations for people to retain the allowance when they undergo short-term hospitalisation, for example. This could easily cover short holiday periods, or periods of assessment in a residential home.

I now pass from the theoretical argument to the practical aspect, as it has been represented to me. I would not like my remarks to be taken as a criticism of all local authorities. Some local authorities have very imaginative schemes for fostering children with severe problems, whereby foster parents able and willing to provide care for them receive much-enhanced boarding-out rates. Two authorities which have recently received publicity for their schemes are those in Kent and Birmingham. If authorities throughout the country made similar arrangements—although I believe that the arguments I have already adduced have great weight—I would not be asking for this change in the attendance allowance.

Following the replies from the Department that it had no information on the number of children concerned, a survey was undertaken about 12 months ago to discover how many foster children local authorities considered eligible for attendance allowance at either rate, how many foster parents were receiving enhanced boarding-out allowances for handicapped children, and what value of allowances could be made and was being paid by local authorities.

The survey was not a large one. Forty authorities were approached and 24 replied, and only a proportion of those 24 were able to give substantive replies. Ignoring the fact that non-respondents are perhaps less likely to board out handicapped children, it appears that there are only about 400 children in England and Wales for whom foster parents are receiving additional payments, and only about 300 children boarded out would be eligible at the higher or the lower rate. This figure matches that subsequently estimated by the Department—that the number would be unlikely to exceed 300 and that the cost would not be more than £150,000 a year at current rates of benefit.

What I wish to draw attention to are the actual scales of payment by local authorities to such foster parents. Most authorities operated scales according to age. These ranged from low figures of £3.43 basic allowance plus £2.10 maximum addition, a grand total of £5.53 which compared unfavourably even then with the lower rate of attendance allowance of £6.20. Some authorities ranged up to figures slightly in excess of the attendance allowance. Only a quarter of those who replied could, on their scales, give a maximum extra allowance to parents caring for 17-year-olds equal to the higher rate of attendance allowance introduced last November.

There are two principal effects of Government policy. First, foster parents may, through dedication and devotion, be prepared to undertake the very arduous work involved, and willingly do so, although they are given less consideration and assistance than natural parents. To many their commitment is such that payment or non-payment of the allowance would not alter their decision to undertake the work. Be that as it may, we are still running the risk of depriving the child; but we are depriving even more those children who are in hospital or in residential care and who could be fostered if suitable foster parents were willing and available.

The Government's recent consultative document accentuates the need to provide boarding out and fostering care for as many children as possible in preference to expensive residential home care.

Representations to the Secretary of State have come not only from sympathetic Members but from organisations as disparate as the Associations of County Councils and Metropolitan Authorities, DIG, and the Health and Handicaps Group of the National Council of Social Services. That body has distinguished representatives from all fields of handicap. It is often very difficult to get agreement among organisations for the handicapped, and when it is the unanimous opinion of so many that a change in the Regulations would assist both them and local authorities to care for these children, the Minister should pay close attention.

The existing Regulations are depriving these children—possibly the most severely disadvantaged members of our society—of the type of care that it is accepted is best for them. The Minister is inhibiting good social work practice. It is no use his saying that he has passed responsibility somewhere down the line, to the local authorities. He knows that he has ultimate responsibility for all handicapped children. Should he not have greater rather than less responsibility for those children whose natural parents are unwilling or unable to care for them?

I know that the Minister has great compassion. I am primarily appealing not to his compassion but to his common sense. This is no thin end of the wedge. There is no reason for Treasury knees to get jittery. The net cost to public funds will be minimal, and if only a few children are moved out of residential care the public purse may even make a profit.

I do not believe that the Minister's heart is in this Regulation, and if he amends it he will give a most welcome Easter present to many children.

1.4 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Alfred Morris)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) for raising this important subject. He is the secretary of the All-Party Disablement Group in this House, and, like the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) is well respected in Parliament for the work he has done for disabled people. I join him in paying sincere tribute to all foster parents for their uniquely personal service to deprived children, and more particularly to foster parents who look after handicapped children.

Homes run by local authorities and voluntary organisations alike meet a great need, but there is substantial evidence, most recently in a report from the Director of Social Services for Kent, that the loving care and affection of a family is incomparably more rewarding for children in need of care. I wanted to begin with this brief word of genuine tribute to foster parents—and especially to those with handicapped children—because I should like it to go out from this House that the Government and Parliament as a whole care deeply for the work they do, and are not unsympathetic to their claims.

There can be few groups who command more public sympathy than handicapped children. The Government have demonstrated their sympathy in practical terms by, for example, having paid a further £5 million to the Rowntree Trust Family Fund since the original £3 million given by the previous Administration. As a further earnest of our intentions in this field, the new non-contributory invalidity pension of £7.90 per week has now become payable to foster children over the age of 16 who are incapable of work. Moreover, the new mobility allowance of £5 per week can also be paid on behalf of foster children aged 15 or over. The next broad group to be included in the mobility allowance scheme will be children aged 5 to 14.

Both sides will welcome my announcement that it is my intention that the first claims for children who qualify for the mobility allowance will be accepted in the summer of this year. This is the first time any kind of outdoor mobility help has been given to severely disabled children. I shall announce the precise arrangements at the earliest possible date. Meanwhile I know that the All-Party Disablement Group will welcome that announcement with pleasure.

Attendance allowance, at either the lower rate of £7.10 or the higher rate of £10.60, helps over 38,000 children under the age of 16 although, in the past, both we and our predecessors have felt unable to concede that attendance allowance should be payable for foster children. The hon. Member has previously raised the matter in correspondence and at Question Time in the House on 4th November 1975. It may assist the House if I run through the arguments which have informed the attitude of successive Governments on this matter, though before I have finished I shall be responding constructively to the points which have been made.

I must start my summary of the arguments so far advanced by successive Governments by going back to the origins of attendance allowance. As hon. Gentlemen will recall, it was introduced specifically to help those severely disabled people whose care was not already provided for primarily out of public funds. Broadly speaking, this covered both disabled adults and children who were being cared for at home but excluded those who were receiving free in-patient treatment in hospital and those in local authority homes. As a result, the limited resources available were concentrated on those for whom there was no other direct financial provision from public funds, namely, those being cared for in their own homes.

What about those in local authority or voluntary homes? Some disabled people have been placed in voluntary homes by local authorities which have taken over financial responsibility for particular residents in them. It is clear that such people, though not in local authority homes, are having their accommodation provided primarily out of pubic funds. So when the attendance allowance scheme was set up it was decided that they should not be entitled to the allowance, since otherwise there would be provision twice over from public funds for the same contingency.

Foster children were regarded similarly, but they presented a particularly difficult problem. Although they were not in an institution, in so far as the local authorities were meeting fostering costs, their accommodation and boarding-out allowances were being provided primarily out of public funds.

Governments took the view, therefore, that foster children were more closely aligned to children maintained by local authorities in homes rather than to children being cared for in their own families It was decided that attendance allowance should not be paid for them. When I speak of foster children, I am referring to children fostered out by local authorities. Attendance allowance can, of course, already be paid for children fostered privately.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the Report prepared by Mr. Peter Mitchell, the research assistant to the All-Party Disablement Group in the House, on the financial aspects of fostering handicapped children. The hon. Member may also be aware that the Report has been carefully studied in my Department and that officials have had some discussion with Peter Mitchell. Briefly, he considers that the reasons for not paying attendance allowance for foster children are vitiated by the fact that such children are eligible for the new mobility allowance and for help from the Family Fund.

In the view of the Government, however, mobility allowance and attendance allowance are quite different benefits payable for quite different contingencies. I have already summarised the arguments for not paying attendance allowance for people whose accommodation and care is already provided out of public funds. But this is no reason for not paying mobility allowance to such people. Similarly the Family Fund, with objectives very different from those of the Attendance Allowance Board, is a unique way of providing Government help outside the statutory framework. It is so different that no meaningful comparison can be drawn between it and more conventional schemes such as that for the payment of attendance allowance.

The Report argues cogently that refusal to pay attendance allowance for foster children is contrary to the Government's declared policy for a shift away from institutional to community care. As I indicated at the outset of my speech we strongly favour fostering, but we must also ensure that our policy on attendance allowance is broadly consistent as between comparable groups of disabled people.

Peter Mitchell's Report concludes that central Government should pay attendance allowance for children who are fostered under local authority auspices because the present restrictions on local government expenditure prevent local authorities increasing their boarding out allowances. The reply that has so far been made to this is that central Government are, of course, subject to equally stringent control on expenditure at the present time.

This inevitably brings me on to the question of costs generally. The Report estimates that there are no more than 300 foster children in England and Wales for whom attendance allowance would be payable. We would broadly agree with this estimate. The cost at current rates would probably be about £170,000 per annum rising with the increased rates in November this year to about £200,000. It may be argued that, viewed against the expenditure of my Department as a whole, this is a relatively trifling amount. Yet given the severity of our present constraints, choices for further expenditure are always agonising.

Many authorities already make adequate financial provision for foster parents even to the extent of paying a sum equivalent to or greater than the appropriate rate of attendance allowance on top of the normal boarding-out allowances. For example, in Reading, foster parents are being paid a salary of £136 a month and the London borough of Brent recently advertised a boarding out allowance of up to £35 a week for foster parents for a particularly disturbed teenage girl.

Last autumn my Department's Working Party on Fostering Practice produced a "Guide to Fostering Practice" and, at the same time, it submitted comments and documents to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on topics which had arisen in the course of its deliberations but which were outside its terms of reference. The payment of attendance allowance to foster parents was one such topic and the working party agreed with the principle that foster children should be treated in the same way as other children in the care of local authorities.

As local authorities have complete freedom to fix their own rate of boarding-out allowances, they are able to take a less restricted view of what constitutes handicap than is possible for attendance allowance purposes. They saw this as an added advantage of the present system. I am sure there should be a measure of flexibility, provided of course that it results in adequate financial provision being made for foster parents.

Having related in some detail the reasons for present policy, I can now say that I have been impressed by the eloquent and persuasive case which has been made by the hon. Gentleman and by Peter Mitchell and others of the All-Party Disablement Group, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones), and this is a matter which clearly merits further consideration and I shall be looking at it again to consider, with the Attendance Allowance Board, [whether the Regulations should be changed. I must, however, enter one caveat. Although many foster parents with handicapped children would be better off if the Regulations were changed to enable attendance allowance to be paid to them, some would not and might conceivably be worse off than at present since some local authorities might wish to take it into account when deciding the level of boarding-out allowance to pay. These are difficulties which we shall have to consider in more detail later.

Meanwhile, I conclude by saying that I am pleased to assure the hon. Gentleman that the door is not closed. I shall proceed as quickly as possible but the House and the hon. Gentleman will realise that the change cannot be made immediately.