HL Deb 08 June 2004 vol 662 cc135-8

2.47 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

What recent measures they have taken to assist deafblind people.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, in 2001 we issued guidance under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 specifically on services for deafblindness. The guidance has raised awareness among local authorities of deafblindness and services are improving. General measures to improve the accessibility and quality of NHS and local authority services to disabled people will also help deafblind people.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but in view of those activities can she perhaps explain the fact, as revealed by Sense, the organisation for deafblind people, that more than 50 per cent of deafblind people have not even been identified by local authorities and that more than 95 per cent of deafblind people do not have the services of communicator guides that are so essential for that double disability? Will my noble friend try to explain that to the House?

Will my noble friend also tell me if I am right in assuming that the Government made a big mistake in not backing the Private Member's Bill some four years ago? That Bill would have laid a definite duty on all local authorities to locate, identify and assess all deafblind people in their area and then provide the services. That would have been a clear obligation but the Government said, "No thanks", and opted simply for guidance. However, we all know that guidance can be ignored by local authorities. We need a complete change of policy.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to my noble friend for the fact that we have guidance in the first place. He may be disappointed that there was no Bill but the guidance is clear and is working effectively. My noble friend, who has been a friend for many years, will know that this is very much a developing situation. Figures from the Social Services Inspectorate show that in 2001 there was not a single senior manager responsible for deafblind people; now 98 per cent of councils have such a manager. Some 89 per cent of councils now make information available in formats accessible to deafblind people and 82 per cent have a database that identifies deafblind people.

I am the first to agree that a lot more needs to be done, but we are starting from a very low base. It is entirely due to my noble friend that deafblindness is recognised as a unique condition which needs a unique set of services. I hope that he will take some comfort from that and will look forward to more progress being made.

Lord Laming

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that particular attention will be given to the needs of children so that an assessment is made as early as possible and a plan put into operation which will ensure their proper development so that in future we do not have the kind of situation that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, outlined?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Lord. Deafblind children with communication problems that we can hardly begin to comprehend suffer an additional disability. Early assessment is absolutely essential. The early support pilot project will be one way of picking up these young children very quickly. However, much will depend on their assessment under the framework of assessment of children in need, which is a good framework. We need more interveners to work with those children to develop their communication and social skills. That is something that we are working on very aggressively at the moment.

The Lord Bishop of Chester

My Lords, will the Minister add to her original Answer by also paying tribute to the work of the voluntary societies in this area that often work in partnership with local authorities under Section 7 of the Act? I speak from particular experience as president of the Cheshire Deafness Support Network, which last year opened a specific deafblind facility for people who are among the neediest in our society. One can scarcely imagine what it is like to be deafblind but the workers are very dedicated. They are enabled by Section 7 of the Act but work in partnership with a vigorous voluntary society. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to those people, too?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I certainly shall. One of the major contributions of those people is the development of capacity in the service. They are doing so much to develop the specialist profession. I refer to social workers who are specially trained to deal with deafblind people, volunteers who can work on a one-to-one basis who know the real problems that these elderly as well as young people face, and the establishment of a deafblind studies diploma. There is a great deal of partnership with local authorities through the Department of Health. Deafblind UK and Sense are leading the field. I am delighted that we are working so closely with them.

Lord Carter

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the term "deafblind" covers people with a wide degree of problems, from those with a profound problem with communication—the classic example was Helen Keller—to people who are totally blind with hearing loss but would not describe themselves as deafblind? Even the description now used—dual visual and sensory impairment—does not really help, because it is the degree of difficulty of communication that is crucial in the definition.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, that is right, and it is why we owe my noble friend Lord Ashley such a debt for identifying it. We need specialists to address the issues of communication particularly. The effort going into building a capacity to understand the specialist assessments carried out by local authorities is the key to making sure that people get the needed services. Those services cross a very wide range of social services to do with disability and being elderly.

Lord Addington

My Lords, has the Minister been made aware that there are many cases of people referring to the guidance being told by social services departments that it is only guidance, and that they do not have to do much about it? Does the attitude of those responsible for that build any confidence within the Government about any duty that there might be for, for instance, the promotion of equality through any future legislation?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the guidance is statutory guidance under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act. It has to be followed unless there is a very good reason for not following it. We would think it reprehensible for local authorities not to try. We have to allow for the building up of progress and capacity in new areas of policy. I reiterate that the guidance is compulsory; it is being implemented at different rates, but there is no excuse for not implementing it.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend. To put this Question into perspective, is she aware that it was my noble friend Lord Ashley, 35 years ago in 1969, who led the way in enacting—as Section 25 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act—the world's first ever legislation specifically to assist deafblind people? Is that not the very best of credentials for being listened to very carefully on the urgency of the need for further progress in reducing the handicapping effects of this devastating combination of disabilities?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the noble Lord reminds us of exactly how long a history my noble friend Lord Ashley has in developing this area of policy; as, indeed, he does himself. It would be a very unwise government who did not listen to my noble friend, and they would do so to their cost. In terms of implementing his advice, we have a new instrument in the Commission for Social Care Inspection. Its job, following the Social Services Inspectorate, will be to make sure that councils follow the guidance.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Minister said that the guidance was working effectively. Is she aware that, more than three years after it was issued, 13 per cent of local authorities still do not have any kind of services at all appropriate for deafblind people? Does she not agree that the Government have to keep a close eye on the area?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I agree. The figures vary somewhat about who is implementing what at the moment, which is one very good reason for close monitoring. However, with the Commission for Social Care Inspection we have a new and more robust method for following the matter up. With the voluntary sector's participation, I am sure that we will be pressed to reduce the inequalities in the service, as is quite right.