HC Deb 05 May 2000 vol 349 cc397-408

'(1) If a person with parental responsibility for a disabled child—

  1. (a) provides or intends to provide a substantial amount of care on a regular basis for the child; and
  2. (b) asks a local authority to carry out an assessment of his ability to provide and to continue to provide care for the child,
the local authority must carry out such an assessment if it is satisfied that the child and his family are persons for whom it may provide or arrange for the provision of services under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 ("the 1989 Act").

(2) For the purposes of such an assessment, the local authority may take into account, so far as it considers it to be material, an assessment under section 1(2) of the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995.

(3) The Secretary of State (or, in relation to Wales, the National Assembly for Wales) may give directions as to the manner in which an assessment under subsection (1) is to be carried out or the form it is to take.

(4) Subject to any such directions, it is to be carried out in such manner, and is to take such form, as the local authority considers appropriate.

(5) The local authority must take the assessment into account when deciding what, if any, services to provide under section 17 of the 1989 Act.

(6) Terms used in this section have the same meanings as in Part III of the 1989 Act.'.—[Mr. Hutton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.34 am
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 29, in clause 4, page 2, line 42, leave out '(1)' and insert '(2)'.

No. 30, in page 2, line 43, leave out '(1A)' and insert '(2A)'.

No. 31, in page 2, line 43, leave out 'such an assessment' and insert— 'an assessment under subsection (1) or (2)'. No. 32, in page 3, line 1, after '1', insert— 'or (Assessments: parents of disabled children)'. No. 41, in clause 6, page 3, line 44, leave out 'parent of' and insert— 'person with parental responsibility for'. No. 22, in page 3, line 44, after 'parent', insert— ', grandparent, step parent or foster parent'. No. 44, in page 4, line 24, leave out 'parent of' and insert— 'person with parental responsibility for'. No. 25, in page 4, line 24, after 'parent', insert— ', grandparent, step parent or foster parent'. No. 45, in page 4, line 26, leave out 'parent' and insert 'person with parental responsibility'.

No. 46, in page 4, line 27, leave out first 'parent' and insert 'person with parental responsibility'.

No. 47, in page 4, line 27, leave out 'the parent may' and insert 'that person may'.

No. 35, in clause 10, page 5, line 20, after '(1), insert— 'Except as provided in section (Assessments: parents of disabled children)(6),'.

Mr. Hutton

I am grateful to have caught your eye, Madam Speaker. Perhaps it might be helpful to explain why I, and not my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), have moved the new clause. My hon. Friend has been poorly recently. I am happy to take some of the burden off him. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health supports the proposal too.

On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) and the hon. Members for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) all raised genuine concerns that persons with parental responsibility for a disabled child would be excluded from having an assessment under the Bill. Although support for that group of carers under the Children Act 1989 has been available for some time, and the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 has already given such carers a right to ask for an assessment of their ability to provide and to continue to provide care for their disabled child, reports from the social services inspectorate and from other sources have shown that they are often poorly served under the existing arrangements. Those points were made eloquently both on Second Reading and in Committee.

Experience of the Children Act indicates that there are problems not with the legislation itself, but, rather, with the implementation of that important landmark legislation. Therefore, during the Standing Committee, I made a commitment to look at how we might give that important group of carers a right to ask for an assessment under the Bill, which would be linked to the delivery of services under the Children Act.

The Government's objective in developing the national carers strategy and, in particular, in supporting the Bill, is to listen to what carers say they want, so that they feel cared for themselves, and can see that their needs are being understood and that progress is being made in ensuring that those needs are met. Parent carers in particular have asked me to ensure that, through the Bill, it is made explicit that the needs of persons with parental responsibility for disabled children must be supported to the same extent as the needs of any other carer who provides, or intends to provide, a substantial amount of care regularly for a person who is aged 18 or over.

New clause 3 underlines the existing arrangements whereby councils are empowered under the Children Act to provide a wide range of services to disabled children and their families. Those services include advice, guidance, counselling, occupational, social, cultural or recreational activities, home help and attendances at a family centre. The Government have listened to the concerns that have been expressed and, with my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, have taken action to strengthen the Bill in that important area. The new clause makes it clear that persons with parental responsibility for disabled children will have a right to ask for an assessment under the Bill. For those carers, services will continue to be provided under the Children Act to safeguard and to promote the welfare of those children.

Amendments Nos. 29, 30, 31 and 32 expand clause 4, so that, for the purpose of the community care assessment and an assessment of a disabled child under the 1995 Act, a local council may take into account, so far as it considers it to be material, an assessment under the new clause.

Amendment No. 35 meets the need for a minor technical consequential amendment to clause 10. It takes account of the fact that the definition of "local authority" is different in the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 and in the Children Act. Some amendments are technical and often do not look as if they make any sense. I assure my hon. Friends and the House as a whole that amendment No. 35 does make sense. It is purely technical. I hope that the House will support it, and, therefore, the new clause.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Before my hon. Friend finishes his speech, can he tell us what implications the measure has for the costs for local authorities?

Mr. Hutton

I do not think that the new clause will add to the responsibilities of local authorities. It declares on the face of the Bill the existing provisions. These are services that local authorities are already able to provide for parent carers under the 1989 and 1995 Acts. Perhaps I did not make the point clear enough, and we need to look at the origins of the argument.

On Second Reading, the reasonable concerns of, for example, organisations that represent parent carers were aired. They felt that, inadvertently, we were excluding parent carers from the Bill. Consequently, they felt that a signal was being sent that we did not value the importance of their contribution and the role that they play—but nothing could be further from the truth. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde in particular feels strongly that the role of parent carers is very important.

A significant part of the national carers strategy itself is to ensure that the Government, working with our partners and local authorities, provide a better range of services to meet the needs of young carers and disabled children and parent carers. That is precisely what the legislation is about. New clause 3 is therefore essentially a declaratory amendment. It will not add anything to local authorities' range of responsibilities, but will make it clear that, under the Bill's provisions, a parent carer could seek the assessment that I mentioned. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is clear on that point.

I shall now speak to amendments Nos. 41, 44, 45, 46 and 47. The Bill provides for direct payments and vouchers to parents of disabled children, but not to others who might have parental responsibility for disabled children, such as grandparents. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) has a particular interest in the subject and has tabled his own amendments, which we may discuss shortly.

This group of amendments will ensure that the advantages of direct payments and vouchers—which my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde is introducing as an innovation in the Bill—are available not only to parents, but to all those who have parental responsibility. The amendments are necessary to ensure that the new rights of parent carers are more widely available.

The Bill, by including everyone with parental responsibility, will encompass people in whose favour a residence order, for example, has been granted in respect of a child. A residence order automatically confers parental responsibility. Therefore, when step-parents or grandparents or other members of the family have parental responsibility for a disabled child, they will in future also have rights to direct payments and vouchers. It would make no sense at all—and there would be no justification for it—to exclude those people from the scope of the innovatory provisions.

The amendments will make the Bill more consistent with the policy, guidance and practice guide on the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995. A note in the policy guidance states that the word "carer" in the 1995 Act is used to include parents and others with parental responsibility who care for disabled children. We are simply making the legislation more consistent.

The intention behind the amendments is therefore to make it clear in the Bill that all those who have parental responsibility for disabled children will have access to the benefits of the new legislation. I hope that hon. Members will be able to support new clause 3 and amendments Nos. 29, 30, 31, 32, 41, 44, 45, 46 and 47.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I shall speak to my amendments Nos. 22 and 25.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) inspired me to seek to speak on Second Reading, but I was not so fortunate as to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair. I am therefore particularly pleased to be able today to support my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), with whom I have worked on various issues in his promotion of the Carers and Disabled Children Bill.

My two amendments are probing amendments, to flag up the rights of those who take over parental responsibility but are not the child's parents. As we all know, there are occasions when, for whatever reason, a child's parent is no longer that child's guardian.

Clause 6(1) will insert two new sections—17A and 17B—into the Children Act 1989, and it is worth recapping what the new sections will do. According to the Bill's explanatory notes, new section 17A enables a local authority, instead of providing services for a disabled child under the Children Act, to make to the parent carer a direct payment in lieu of those services to enable the parent carer to arrange for provision of those services rather than rely on direct service provision from the local authorities. 9.45 am

New section 17B will enable the Secretary of State or, as the case may be, the National Assembly for Wales, to make provision in regulations for the issue of vouchers by local authorities to parent carers to enable the parent carer to arrange for someone to care for their disabled child while they take a short break from their caring responsibilities. My amendments extend those opportunities to a grandparent, step-parent or foster parent.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde said: I am aware that parents like to have as much freedom as possible when making arrangements for the care of their disabled children. The clause will give them far greater choice. He is absolutely right about the effect of clause 6. My amendments seek merely to extend that freedom to grandparents, step-parents and foster parents.

My hon. Friend went on to say: Direct payments will be particularly helpful to young disabled people leaving home—for example, to enter further or higher education, or perhaps to enjoy a more independent life.—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 15 March 2000; c. 54.]

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, too. My amendments simply extend the same opportunities available to parents with responsibility for care to grandparents, step-parents and foster parents with responsibility for care.

The Carers National Association has provided a very useful briefing for today's debate. On clause 6, on vouchers for breaks, it states: The principle of vouchers is similar to direct payments as it gives control to disabled people and carers, giving them, rather than officials, the freedom to choose where and when to take a break. Vouchers effectively "cut out the middle-man".

In my two amendments, and in other probing amendments, we want to ensure that the freedoms provided in the Bill for parents are extended to grandparents, step-parents and foster parents. My hon. Friend the Minister has made some made positive comments, which show that the Government are already dealing with those concerns.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I commiserate with the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry). It is always sad when one reaches the final stage of the drama to find that one of the main protagonists is indisposed. Nevertheless, we needed to hear the Minister's comments on this important new clause and group of amendments.

New clause 3 is absolutely key, addressing an issue that was raised quickly by all those who spoke on Second Reading. Hon. Members on both sides of the House were concerned about the danger that, quite inadvertently, the legislation as originally drafted would disadvantage parent carers. However, on 8 March, the Minister gave us the assurance that a declaratory amendment would be tabled for today's debate, making explicit parent carers' right to assessment. For that reason, we particularly welcome these corrections. Conservatives are never interested in the proliferation of legislation for its own sake, but we can safely say that the new clause will close a loophole and it will be in everybody's interests—the parent carers, the cared-for person and the state—to ensure that that group of carers is not disadvantaged.

I have a couple of slight concerns about the remaining inconsistencies. I am pleased that the new clause puts more pressure on local authorities to carry out assessments by the use of the word "must", but that is an interesting change of style and tone from other aspects of the Bill, where the word "may" is more often used. In Committee, the Minister assured us that "may" means "will", but we have the word "must" here. For the sake of consistency, we should get our definitions right.

Mr. Hutton

The hon. Lady has misquoted me. When I said that "may" could be interpreted as "will" I was talking about the Secretary of State's intention to use his powers to issue regulations or guidance. I did not mean that "may" meant "will" in the context of carrying out an assessment, because that would not be consistent.

Mrs. Spelman

I thank the Minister for that clarification. I shall need to look back at the exact wording of Hansard, but he certainly got my point in Committee. We have all seen examples of the word "may" turning out in practice to be a bit weak. Amendments Nos. 4, 7 and 24, which we shall debate later, would strengthen the Bill by changing "may" to "shall". I am sure that hon Members understand my point about the inconsistencies that can occur with the use of apparently simple little words. However, we welcome that important change.

The amendments cover two different categories, but the point about the need to widen the definition of a parent carer is well taken. I am sure that none of us wishes to see someone who takes on the enormous parental responsibility for a disabled child excluded from the opportunities that should be available to deserving carers. The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) made that point, although I could not resist a slight smile about his new-found enthusiasm for voucher systems. I am sure that there have been long and substantial debates in this place about voucher systems in the past. It is interesting to hear Labour Members being newly positive about their virtues.

Parent carers are a special category, because they most directly bear the responsibility for being on point for a disabled child. Yet as they and the Carers National Association have made plain, they have sometimes found themselves inadvertently disadvantaged under existing legislation—which tends to be child-focused—although they are the last group to complain. There is sound logic in tidying up the issue and ensuring that a deserving group of carers is not inadvertently disadvantaged.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I looked at the new clause with a sense of déjà vu, because at one time in my past I spent a lot of time dealing with assessment, albeit in a different context—I refer to the special educational needs code of practice under an altogether different Bill. Underlying the wording of the new clause are some potential difficulties. I have a few questions for the Minister, as the new clause is in his name as well as that of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry). I join other hon. Members in expressing my sympathy for the hon. Gentleman, who is the sponsor of the Bill. He has bravely managed to be here today, but on this occasion—although I would normally deprecate the practice—we accept that the Minister may well bear much of the brunt of replying, for reasons that we all understand.

The new clause perhaps inevitably uses terms with a wide range of possible interpretations, such as a substantial amount of care and an assessment of his ability. This is well-worn territory, but every time we seek to extend the scope of legislation, we inevitably raise questions about whether the inevitable bureaucracy will be able properly to support the aim of that legislation. My first simple question for the Minister is whether he is satisfied that the use of such words is tight enough and whether sufficient guidance is given to ensure that a key phrase such as a substantial amount of care will be properly interpreted and put into effect.

That problem is even greater in respect of subsection (1)(b). The phrase carry out an assessment of his ability to provide and to continue to provide care for the child raises various questions about the meaning of the word "ability". I thought that the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, which is referred to in the new clause, might give greater guidance. However, I have to disappoint you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as well as myself and some others, by saying that it does not. It simply uses the same form of words.

We have to ask whether the term "ability to provide" is sufficiently well understood or easily interpreted to eliminate any doubt. Some of the issues are covered by later amendments, so I do not want to dwell on them unduly, but as well as referring literally to the skills necessary, that phrase could also cover areas of character, which might more appropriately be regarded as suitability. I should like guidance from the Minister on whether that is the intention.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point about phrases such as "a substantial amount" and their interpretation not just by us, but by carers. Does he agree that the answers for our constituents and for carers might be found in the regulations referred to in clause 10 rather than in the Bill, which does not go into such details of interpretation?

Mr. Forth

I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman says. This is familiar territory to all of us. How far is it reasonable, proper or even profitable to expect such detail in a Bill and how far should we look to regulations? I am looking for reassurances that the Minister is satisfied that we have sufficient guidance in the Bill to enable us to be confident that the regulations that will flow from it will provide answers. That is all that we can reasonably expect at this stage.

My final point is about finance. The Minister will delighted to know that I have a copy of the Children Act 1989 with me; I am sure that he, too, has a copy. Clause 17 of that Act explicitly refers to finance. We shall have an interesting debate later on amendments, one of which I tabled, to try to elucidate matters. However, in the context of new clause 3, I simply inquire whether "ability" encompasses financial capability. Skills, character and finance are potential aspects of "ability". That raises important questions, which may affect the regulations that would underpin new clause 3. They are vital to a full understanding by carers, authorities and all those who will be involved in interpreting the Bill. Clarification and interpretation are therefore necessary.

10 am

I tabled an amendment, which was not selected, to try to clarify the new clause's provisions on appeals. In the special educational needs code, we were careful to make proper provision for appeals in cases when a bureaucracy makes an assessment. That has become increasingly commonplace. Some would argue that it was self-evident that erecting a second bureaucracy to second-guess a first was counter-productive and costly. However, nowadays, we rightly want to pay more attention to the rights of individuals, who are often vulnerable against a bureaucracy. In cases of doubt, we should tip the balance in favour of individuals.

if the House accepts that, we should be able properly to identify a mechanism whereby someone who has undergone an assessment process such as that which the clause outlines, and is dissatisfied with the result, can appeal. Such dissatisfaction often occurred in the educational context because local authorities and their officers were worried about the financial aspects of an assessment process. With more than half an eye to that, local authority officers may take a narrower and more rigorous view of the responsibilities than the sponsors of the Bill or the Minister intended. Against that background, an appeals mechanism becomes even more important.

Is the Minister satisfied that there is sufficient opportunity for individuals to appeal or to come back to the local authority after the assessment process?

Mr. Bennett

I understand the arguments for an appeals procedure, but the assessment process takes time and can be bureaucratic. In pressing for an appeals process, the right hon. Gentleman is in danger of supporting further bureaucracy. Would it not be better to use the local government ombudsman, and the power of local councillors or Members of Parliament to make a fuss?

Mr. Forth

Those are possibilities. The ombudsman is a splendid institution, but we are all aware of the shortcomings of the ombudsman process. I narrowly interpret the role of Members of Parliament vis-à-vis such processes, although I have a much greater regard for the role of councillors. However, that role is not necessarily adequate to solve the problem; it was not when we considered the educational context. We set up a tribunal process, which has proved its worth. Will the Minister be able to satisfy those who are likely to undergo the assessment process that, if something goes wrong and they feel that they have not had a fair deal, proper recourse is available? I put that in simple terms so that I do not overcomplicate matters. Given that my amendment was not selected, I cannot pursue the subject of tribunals at greater length. However, an important question needs to be tackled.

Our discussion today is valuable because it enables us properly to explore the sort of questions that I raised and, as far as we can, to resolve doubts. After all, that is why we are here. The Minister has an opportunity to explain his views; that will provide guidance about what may happen subsequently at a later stage in the Bill's progress or in preparing regulations.

I hope that the Minister will be able to provide full and proper replies and set my mind at rest that the areas of unhappiness that I identified will be properly resolved.

Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis)

I welcome new clause 3 and support the proposal to include step-parents, grandparents and foster parents in the provision. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the anxieties that I and others expressed on Second Reading and in Committee about the fact that parents were not specifically mentioned in the Bill. The omission was not deliberate, but the new clause gives us an opportunity to rectify a clear oversight.

It has already been said that the Children Act 1989 and the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 provide for services for disabled children. It is right that the needs of disabled children are met specifically by a children's service. In many cases, that service is more than adequate for their needs. However, parents and their needs are increasingly overlooked—we know that through information we have received from the Carers National Association and Contact a Family. Both organisations expressed anxiety about those who undertake considerable responsibilities for their children over a long period. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be the parents of healthy children realise that while responsibilities do not disappear completely as they grow older, they decrease. That is rarely the case for parents of children with disabilities.

Contact a Family has stressed the importance of the fact that many disabled children have complex needs, many have more than one disability and many have severe behavioural problems. Let us stop for a moment and consider what that might mean for the parents, not occasionally, but every day of those children's lives. To highlight that, I shall refer to two examples, one of which concerns a young child. We readily think of young children as being in need of parental care, but we should remember that parents of disabled children, even when the children become adults with disabilities, continue to have responsibilities.

I take the examples from research by Saul Becker and Richard Silburn that was published in June last year. The first example is of the Shah family: Joy Shah is 9. Her birth was extremely premature, and for some months her continued survival was in doubt. She has cerebral palsy with almost complete loss of mobility. She spends most of her time in a lying position or sitting propped up. She is doubly incontinent. Her sight, hearing and speech are unimpaired, as are her mental faculties, so she is able to attend an integrated school. She is cared for by both her parents, although it is her mother who is the primary carer. No matter what services are provided for that little girl, although they will obviously help her parents to care for her, they will not necessarily meet her parents' needs. On Second Reading we asked for parents' needs to be assessed, and that is now happening. The Government have listened to their Back Benchers and to organisations working on behalf of carers—all carers, but parent carers in particular.

I shall now refer to someone much older than that little girl: a man of 44. From an early age his development and behaviour were such that it was suggested he had severe learning difficulties. It was many years later and almost by accident that the more accurate diagnosis of autism was made. Throughout his life he has been cared for by his parents. However his father David suffered a stroke 13 years ago since when his mother Sarah has had to care for both son and husband. I think it right and just for us to consider carefully the needs of parents who undertake such responsibilities over what is often a very long period.

The new clause allows parent carers to receive the same rights to assessment and services as all other carers. That sense of equality and social justice must run through legislation of this kind. I welcome the change, and the new clause. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) that we should consider the position of step-parents and grandparents. In many instances circumstances change and it is left to people other than the natural parents to care for children.

This is an excellent move by the Government and I welcome the changes.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I shall be brief, but I want to pick up a point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). We discussed the issues of tribunals and appeals in Committee, partly as a result of an amendment tabled by Opposition Front Benchers. The assessment process leads to a care plan, and we ascertained from the Minister that there would be a separate care plan for the carer. That important distinction also arose from the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995.

Because assessment is a never-ending process—because a cared-for person's needs change, and because a carer's needs may well change, possibly as a consequence of the needs of the cared-for person but also owing to his or her own circumstances—I am not convinced that a tribunal mechanism similar to the one applying to statements about special educational needs is applicable. What is essential is clear documentation: clear statements that can be used to contest the local authority's determination of what it proposes to offer through the care plan. There must be clear procedures for local authorities to operate so that carers can challenge statements in the care plan.

I welcome both the new clause and the amendments, which go a long way towards meeting the concerns raised on Second Reading and in Committee—especially the declaratory amendment which clarifies further the issue of whether parents with caring responsibilities for disabled children is covered.

10.15 am
Mr. Hutton

I thank right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), for the support that they have expressed for the new clause and amendments. Some hon. Members raised specific points, which I shall try to answer.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) were right to say that we are trying to respond to concerns that were legitimately expressed about the original drafting of the Bill. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) nor I had any intention of excluding parent carers from the benefits that it provides, because they do a good deal of important work in communities throughout the country. We value and cherish that work and we want to strengthen the support that we give them. We are putting the matter right, and we are putting it beyond any doubt.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made three points. He expressed concern about what he described as loose wording and drafting in the Bill. In fact, some of the wording that he considered suspect mirrors the terms of the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, in whose passage the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), played such an important part. I think that, as a former Minister, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will recognise that there is a case for ensuring that subsequent legislation is consistent with the terms of similar legislation, and that is what we are trying to do.

The right hon. Gentleman was particularly concerned about terms such as "suitability" and "ability". We shall be able to use the powers that we have under the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 to give local authorities guidance about the implementation of the Bill. We have always made clear our intention to use those powers to ensure that authorities implement the Bill in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde—and others would wish. There is no risk that things will go wrong in the way that the right hon. Gentleman identified.

Because of the Bill's history and the fact that it builds on earlier Acts, if there had been any evidence that its language would cause serious difficulty in its practical implementation we would probably have known about it by now. As there is no such evidence, we are fairly confident—as, as I am sure, is my hon. Friend—that the legislation is satisfactory in that respect.

The right hon. Gentleman raised another point, which I know he wants to discuss later, so I shall not spend too much time on it now. He was concerned about the extent to which the new clause would enable local authorities to take resources into account when assessing the needs of parent carers. He has a good memory, as all Labour Members know—particularly on Fridays when we debate private Members' Bills. He may wish to be reminded, however, that when he was a Minister the Government of whom he was a member considered these issues in the context of the guidance and advice that they gave to local authorities. The position is clear: according to existing guidance and practice, it is not acceptable for authorities to take resources into account when assessing a person's needs.

The right hon. Gentleman wants something slightly different—we shall discuss that amendment later—but I think the current position is right. It is not appropriate for resources to be taken into account in the assessment of a person's need for support services. Charging may be an issue—we shall discuss that later as well—but when a person's needs are being assessed that person's means are irrelevant and should not be part of the assessment. That would be putting the cart before the horse. We are clear about this, and so were the right hon. Gentleman's Government, who took the same view.

I want to deal with amendments Nos. 22 and 25, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas). My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and I have already tabled amendments to make it clear that the term "parent" means all those with parental responsibility for disabled children. If, for example, a disabled child is being brought up by step-parents or grandparents, the Bill allows them to receive direct payments and to take advantage of the new voucher scheme. The problem with the amendments is that they also refer to foster parents.

Foster parents do not usually have parental responsibility for the children for whom they care. Parental responsibility remains with the parent, or may, as the result of a court order, have been granted to the local authority. When foster carers are looking after disabled children, the local authority has a range of responsibilities under the Children Act 1989 to support those placements.

Mr. Forth

I hesitate to ask this question because I have not had much experience in this area. However, it occurs to me that foster parents have been deemed to be suitable and appropriate, and the authorities have had to be satisfied as to their role. That might not always be the case with step-parents or grandparents and, therefore, what the Minister says appears to be back to front. Cannot we have greater reliance on the status of foster parents, rather than step-parents or grandparents?

Mr. Hutton

It does not usually stop the right hon. Gentleman asking questions if he does not know anything about the subject matter. I was talking about a specific concept of parental responsibility. It is not always the case that step-parents or grandparents have parental responsibility for a child with whom they happen to live. Parental responsibility is a legal concept, and we have to be clear about it.

Local authorities could arrange respite care for a disabled child to give the child a special holiday or to give the foster family a break, and regular reviews of all children in foster care provide the opportunity for ensuring that the welfare of the child has been promoted and the placement is receiving proper support. Where grandparents and step-parents do not look after disabled children, or indeed if they do but do not have parental responsibility, it is not for them to ask for direct payments or vouchers—it is for the parents who look after the children or child to do so.

The Bill is aimed at those with parental responsibility and at those in greatest need. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West will agree that we should not extend the provisions of the Bill to other family members, who may have a proper interest in the disabled child but do not have parental responsibility for him or her. I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw his amendments.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot speak again on this matter. His amendments will stand or fall according to the decisions of the House before they come in the sequence.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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