HC Deb 02 February 1977 vol 925 cc567-70

4.13 p.m.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Social Security Act 1975 to provide attendance allowance to foster children. Section 35(6) of the Social Security Act 1975 enables the Secretary of State for Social Services by regulation to withhold attendance allowance from persons for whom accommodation is provided under a series of enactments. For the most part, the people concerned are those in long-term hospital or residential care. Therefore, it is reasonable to exclude them from entitlement to an allowance which is designed to cover the extra costs which a severely handicapped or disabled person entails when being looked after by other people at home, by day or by night.

However, these regulations also include handicapped children who are boarded out by local authorities with foster parents. Therefore, they do not at present receive the attendance allowance but rely instead on these local councils to provide a special care allowance in lieu of the tax-free allowance that they would receive if they were living with their parents or relatives.

I should emphasise that there is a very small number involved, possibly about 300 children. Therefore, I am not proposing significant increases in public expenditure. In fact, every time a dedicated foster parent is found who is prepared to undertake the demanding work that caring for a handicapped child entails, a substantial saving in public spending is achieved. The costs of running and providing expensive residential care for such children is probably £90 to £100 a week. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree on the overall objective that we all have—to find for such children warm, loving homes rather than the segregation of a disablement institution or hospital. We should therefore be offering every help we can to couples who are willing to offer family life to these handicapped youngsters.

Until two years ago it was assumed that such encouragement was being given by local authorities. It was believed that their special allowances matched the level of the attendance allowance. But I found increasing evidence of a wide disparity between the different local authority allowances and a substantial short-fall in many instances.

In an Adjournment debate on 14th April last year I raised the whole question and quoted examples from a survey carried out in 1975, which showed that only a quarter of the local authorities surveyed were paying the allowance up to the level of the attendance allowance. In that debate the Under-Secretary with special responsibility for the disabled, whose compassion for the handicapped is not in question, appeared to accept my argument that it was more logical to treat foster parents like other parents than put them on a par with institutions and that is was irrational to deprive them of assistance when it is agreed without reservation that foster care is more beneficial for children.

In that debate and on subsequent occasions the Minister implied acceptance of my arguments and arguments put forward by other han. Members on both sides of the House. In correspondence with his Department in May there was an intimation that a change in legislation could take place before the end of 1976. The weeks and months have slipped by and, in the words of the song, It's a long, long time from May to September". No move was made, so today I am presenting this little measure in the hope that the House will give it a fair wind through all its stages.

An injustice is being done to these children and their foster parents who read of the Government's intentions to provide foster homes rather than institutions but who are denied a tax-free allowance which would be given to them as of right if they were the real parents rather than foster parents. In fact, the Government have accepted the principle I am expounding by paying the mobility allowance to a disabled child regardless of his status. Whether he is with foster parents, in residential care, in hospital or with his own parents, he is still entitled to the mobility allowance.

Another argument to be taken into account is the financial circumstances of local authorities in these days of cash limits and cut-backs. Whereas the attendance allowance is inflation-proof, as it must be if it is to cover the extra costs the severely disabled incur in clothing, diets, special equipment and assistance, the local allowances provided by the local authorities not only vary from the inadequate to the passable but are not likely to keep pace with the cost of living.

Having said that, I must add that since the debate last April, when I gave details of the survey of local authorities, there has been a range of substantial improvements by many of them. In Avon, for example, the maximum additional allowance has been raised from only £2.31 per week to £25. In Bolton there is a rise from £9.03 a week to a no-limit allowance, and the Isle of Wight, which a year ago was the worst of all local authorities, now provides £8.50 a week. Improvements are taking place, but they do not come up to the level of the attendance allowance.

However, a recent set-back has been reported in Wiltshire, where foster parents looking after a severely mentally handicapped child and receiving an extra £5 per week have been taxed on that allowance. If the child had been their own, they would have received a tax-free allowance. This is a cruel anomaly which would be eliminated by the passage of the Bill.

There are two principal effects of present policy. First, foster parents may be prepared through dedication and devotion to undertake the very arduous work involved, and willingly do so, although they are given less consideration and assistance than natural parents. The commitment of many 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 depriv ing the child, but we are depriving even more those children in residential care or in hospital who could be fostered, if suitable foster parents were willing and available to do so. Those children are being deprived of a home life.

The Government's consultative document last year accentuated the need to provide boarding out and fostering for as many children as possible in preference to expensive residential home care. Representations on this matter have come not only from sympathetic Members in the all-party disablement group, but from organisations as disparate as the Association of County Council and Metropolitan Authorities, the Disablement Income Group, and the Health and Handicaps Group of the National Council of Social Services.

It is often difficult to obtain the agreement of the various organisations dealing with the handicapped, but when it is the unanimous opinion of so many that a change in the regulations would assist them and local authorities in caring for handicapped children, surely this House, with its manifest compassion for the disabled, should respond.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Hannam, Mrs. Lynda Chalker, Mr. Jack Ashley, Dr. Gerald Vaughan, Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones, Sir George Young, Mr. George Park, Mr. David Price, Mr. Norman Tebbit and Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg.