HL Deb 31 October 2000 vol 618 cc789-91

2.58 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any proposals to deal with the identification, assessment and provision of one-to-one services for deafblind people as outlined in the Deafblind Persons Bill.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, following the Department of Health's deafblindness consultation, we intend to issue guidance under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970, saying that authorities should identify the deafblind people in their areas and should ensure that assessment (to include consideration of one-to-one support) and service provision are appropriate to people with dual sensory impairment.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the guidance to be issued under Section 7 will be legally binding on local authorities? If it is, can he further confirm that it will meet all the requirements provided for in my Deafblind Persons Bill? If those conditions are met, I shall immediately withdraw my Bill.

While I thank my noble friend very warmly, is he aware that I am echoing the views of 23,000 deafblind people living in Britain, most of whom have been neglected and isolated for many years? In fact, almost half of them have received no support at all. Happily, however, this new government policy will put an end to that scandalous state of affairs. Will the Government monitor progress to ensure that local authorities no longer evade their responsibilities to deafblind people?

Lord Hunt off Kings Heath

My Lords, perhaps I may first pay tribute to my noble friend for his determination in this important area, and to other noble Lords who took part in the debate on his Bill.

I can confirm that, although local authorities are not under an obligation to follow Section 7 guidance to the letter, they are required to follow the path charted by the Secretary of State; they are not free to deviate from the guidance unless there is good reason to do so. In any case, they are not free to follow a substantially different course. I can assure my noble friend that we shall monitor the implementation of the guidance.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, if local authorities decide that they have not got the money, is this deemed "good reason", to use the Minister's words?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the provision of adequate and appropriate services to deafblind people should be seen as a core part of a local authority's responsibilities. We expect local authorities to ensure that they discharge those responsibilities.

Baroness Wilkins

My Lords, I warmly welcome the Minister's announcement. Will he consider ring-fencing the money which is essential for the provision of these services?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

No, my Lords. I do not consider that ring-fencing is appropriate. As I have already suggested, this is a core responsibility of local authorities. Often deafblind people are already in receipt of services, but sometimes those are inadequate. It may be a case of local authorities using their resources more efficiently rather than of needing extra resources. In any event, this should be seen in the context of the real growth in resources that the Government are giving to local authorities for expenditure on social service provision.

Earl Howe

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the limiting factors in the provision of services is that there are few appropriate training courses for people who want to work with deafblind people? Do I understand from his previous answers that he believes local authorities should make room for the funding of such courses from their core budgets?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Earl is right to draw attention to issues in relation to training for deafblind services. My understanding is that training is available and is currently provided by a number of organisations, including the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People, Sense and Deafblind UK among others. But it is not mandatory and it is not a part of the standard social work training. As a result of the process of implementing the Section 7 guidance, I believe that local authorities will be in a better position to assess the needs of deafblind people in their areas. They will then be able to make a judgment as to whether they have the staff with the right training and qualifications to enable them to provide such services. Clearly, part of that will rest on a local authority's own expenditure decisions. But there may also be instances where, at a national level, we would need to consider whether any particular changes should be made in relation to the curricula of social work training to take account of specific deafblind needs.

Lord Addington

My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that when the new guidance is brought into play it will take into account that there has been a considerable history of misdiagnosis in this area? For instance, people have been termed "learning disabled" when they have suffered from a dual sensory impairment. Will this be kept in mind and worked into the structure? If a person was to be diagnosed as having an intellectual impairment when, in reality, he was suffering from a sensory impairment, the amount of psychological damage to that person could be catastrophic.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. Certainly the Government's intention is that every effort will be made to ensure that diagnoses are made correctly. I am not sure whether this comes under the compass of the Section 7 guidance because that is aimed specifically at the duties of local authorities in providing services and support to deafblind people. But it is a substantive point which the National Health Service should take particularly into account.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I am sorry to come back again, but is my noble friend aware that, because there are only 23,000 deafblind people in Britain, paying for these services is peanuts in terms of local authority expenditure? It would be a shabby, shoddy excuse for local authorities to dodge their responsibilities on the grounds of cost.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I have made it clear that we expect local authorities to implement with enthusiasm the guidance we will be issuing and to ensure that deafblind people receive a high quality of service and support. I do not believe that the resources question should be allowed to get in the way of local authorities providing what deafblind people have every right to expect.