HL Deb 25 March 2002 vol 633 cc6-9

2.52 p.m.

Baroness Wilkins

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to implement the commitment made in the White Paper Valuing People: A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the 21st Century (Cm 5086, paragraph 3.22 i that the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills "will work together to find out more about the numbers, characteristics and outcomes" relating to disabled children in residential schools.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, a joint Department of Health and DfES officials working group has been set up to take this work forward. It has met several times over the past three months and is currently agreeing a programme of work to improve the information collected about disabled children in residential placements, including schools, and to ensure that they are properly supported and protected. It will report by the end of this year.

Baroness Wilkins

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that encouraging reply. Is he aware of recent research by the Norah Fry research centre indicating that the current legal framework is not working effectively to safeguard the interests of disabled children in residential schools and that there is confusion among local education and social services staff about their duties to these children? For instance, one in four social services departments does not recognise its duties under the Children Act to review the placements regularly and to consult the children about their wishes. Is the noble Lord further aware that the same research found that some children remain at school for possibly 48 or even 52 weeks a year, and yet parents generally receive no help at all in maintaining contact with their children? What are the Government planning to do to rectify the situation?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness may be referring to a report by the Rowntree Foundation. Yes, that has drawn attention to a number of areas where we believe there is a need to improve standards and practices in a limited number of local authorities. The data collection that I mentioned previously is intended to give a clear foundation as to exactly where children are and what are the particular circumstances of their need. It is true that there has been some confusion about when children are in care and when they are not as a result of joint funding placements, as opposed to placements simply by an education authority rather than with a social services authority.

There is a range of action, but the key to bringing about progress is that, from April this year, the national care standards commission will come into being and will be inspecting all such places in an attempt to ensure that they meet the kind of standards indicated in the Question and that they meet the 33 specifications for good quality care, as well as good quality educational facilities in special residential schools.

Baroness Noakes

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the 1998 Quality Protects programme should, by now, have yielded some practical results for disabled children? What has been done in practice under that programme for disabled children with special educational needs?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the early signs—and it is still relatively early given that this is a 10-year programme—are that it is making a considerable difference already. One example is that £60 million of funding in the Quality Protects programme has been earmarked specifically for services for disabled children. We have a lot of confidence that that is raising the profile of care that is important for children with disabilities, both in social services and in local education authorities.

Lord Addington

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that many of these children who are placed in long-term residential schools have a tremendous problem when it comes to adult life, and are often moved merely from one institution to another? They are usually moved to long-term care institutions, where much of the company is of a much older nature. Are the Government examining this problem and attempting to get such people into a situation where there is a far higher amount of social inter-activity with their own age group?

Lord Filkin

Yes, my Lords, the Government are aware of the problem and of the poor quality of life of young people with disabilities as they move into adulthood. The proportion of those who have their own home, or have a job or have choices over their own form of care is much lower than we believe is desirable or should be the case for the future. That is clearly why the White Paper, Valuing People, set out a range of actions to try to improve the quality of care in that respect.

Perhaps I may make two specific comments. First, we should try to determine the extent to which it is possible to provide the appropriate level of education and social care without putting people into residential schools. A number of local authorities are doing some pioneering work in that respect which may reduce institutionalisation and may increase contacts. Another element is the Connections programme, which attempts to target disabled people as needing specific support so that, wherever possible, they can obtain appropriate work when they finish their full-time education. One should not expect a transformation in either area, because these are difficult and intractable problems. But there is certainly a commitment to make progress in them.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Minister will agree that there is a tendency to describe improvement in terms of the amount of money that is being spent. My noble friend asked for practical examples of how the Quality Protects programme is working on the ground for children in residential homes.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, it is a good question. It may be best if I give a comprehensive reply in writing.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Government's proposal to harmonise the two great departments of state on this issue is very welcome? However, in a sense that deals with only half the problem. Many of the serious difficulties involved for such children lie at local level. There is no legal requirement on local departments to work together; and, often, they do not. Sometimes, they are in conflict, and the children suffer accordingly. Will the Government consider imposing a legal requirement on local departments?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, in one respect the Government have done exactly what my noble friend signals. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 will place, from September this year, a legal obligation on local authorities not to discriminate against the needs of disabled children when making educational judgments. That is exactly the kind of thing that my noble friend was referring to. It is saying that such people cannot be given services that are second-best in quality just because they are disabled. The LEA has to seek to bend its services to meet their needs in a more committed way than might have been the case for what one hopes was a limited number of local authorities. I am certain that there are many other examples as well.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

My Lords, is the number of children with autistic spectrum disorder who are funded by social services authorities to attend residential schools increasing or declining? Is the number of children with profound and multiple learning disabilities who are funded by social services authorities to attend residential schools increasing or declining? Do the Government have a view on whether public resources should be spent on such placements? Does the Minister agree that it is crucial to have proper statistical information in order to plan for such children for the future?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I strongly agree with the noble Baroness's last question and I respect her considerable experience with Childline in that area. On the other two points, my recollection is that there is sonic increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism. The central thrust of the Government's position on residential schooling has been to enable children and their parents to sustain education and normal family life in their home area as far as possible. A number of authorities are radically reviewing their policies and practices in that respect. That is often, but not always, possible, for reasons that the noble Baroness will be aware of. In some situations, either the child's needs are too specific or the family cannot sustain the pressures that are imposed on them. Over the coming years, I expect to see more children who in the past would have gone into residential schooling being helped to stay in domestic circumstances, with the appropriate range of support.