HL Deb 12 February 2002 vol 631 cc1000-2

3.9 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether local authorities are entitled to disregard government guidance on deafblind adults and children issued under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970.

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

My Lords, guidance issued by the Secretary of State for Health under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 has statutory force and authorities would be open to judicial review if they failed to comply.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's response. However, does he agree that deafblindness is a devastating dual disability— a stunning disability—and that it requires special measures? I am sure that my noble friend has checked his files in relation to this Question. Does he recall his letter to me on 29th September 2000, stating that Section 7 guidance was being issued by the Government, enjoining local authorities to assess deafblind people in their area and to provide the necessary services? The letter stated that the guidance was "legally binding". The disability organisation, Sense, which specialises in deafblindness, recently stated that many local authorities are doing very little, indeed practically nothing. What effective action will the Government now take?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, first, perhaps I may pay tribute to my noble friend. The result of the Private Member's Bill that he introduced in this House a couple of years ago was very influential in the issuing by the Government of Section 7 guidance.

My noble friend is right to point to the terrible effect that deafblindness can have on many people and on their families. That is why we issued the Section 7 guidance. I have seen the report by Sense, which is the result of a survey sent to parents of deafblind children in October 2001. It indicates some of the problems and deficiencies in the provision of services to date. However, the survey needs to be put into context. Local authorities were given a new responsibility from last April. My understanding is that they have responded to the new requirements. As a result of the statutory guidance, they will have a much better idea of the issues that they face at local level and will be able to offer an assessment where it is required by deafblind people or by their parents; and we can look to see the kind of improved services that my noble friend wishes to see.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, surely the local authorities are not entitled to disregard guidance. That is the answer to the Question, is it not?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. We expect local authorities to follow the guidance. We shall be monitoring their performance. If we come across cases in the next few months where local authorities are not following the guidance, we shall draw it to their attention.

Baroness Wilkins

My Lords, there can be no more isolating disability impairment than deafblindness. Does the Minister agree that local authorities should make the assessment and the one-to-one support services needed by deafblind children and adults their first priority in the provision of services? Is it not scandalous that provision under the Section 7 guidance is still very patchy throughout Britain?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I find myself in the unusual position of defending local authorities. It is fair to say that the guidance was issued only last April. In our view it is being implemented by local authorities. But, inevitably, it takes time to get the machinery into place. The whole point of the guidance was to give local authorities a much clearer idea of the problems and difficulties that they would have to face. The evidence that I have shows that local authorities are getting on with the job. One-to-one support is one of the factors that needs to be considered in the assessment that a local authority will be required to offer to a deafblind person if it is requested. We need to give the situation a few more months to settle down before we can make a decent judgment about how local authorities are doing the job.

Lord Addington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the first step must be the identification of all those who are deafblind? Roughly, when can local authorities be reasonably expected to have an idea of the number of deafblind people in their areas?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. In the guidance issued to local authorities we called on them to identify, make contact with, and keep a record of deafblind people in their catchment area. The progress of each local authority is bound to be different. Some authorities have done very well in this area, and others not so well. We shall be monitoring the situation. By autumn this year we shall expect to know how well each local authority has done.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, the Minister said that local authorities must abide by guidance. But guidance is not approved by Parliament, whereas regulations are. What is the difference, therefore, between guidance and regulations in terms of their mandatory effect on local authorities?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the point is that guidance was issued under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. The implication is that, although local authorities are not under a legal obligation to follow Section 7 guidance to the letter, it has been held in case law that they are required to follow the path charted by the Secretary of State and that 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. In experience, local authorities recognise that they are expected to comply with the guidance.