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Support for disabled children must be easy and accessible

January 16, 2008 12:00 AM
By John Barrett
John Barrett MP for Edinburgh West

John Barrett, Shadow Spokesman on Disability

am delighted to be able to sum up on behalf of the Liberal Democrats; I have just been appointed the party's disability spokesman, and this is my first debate in post. I thank the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) for triggering the debate, and for his well-thought-out introduction. I also thank the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) for their excellent contributions.

I have had many discussions over the years with the right hon. Gentleman about international development issues, and I suspect that we might have a few more in the years to come about disability issues. We know that both subjects affect the lives of the most vulnerable children, in this country and elsewhere in the world. After many years on my party's international development team, I have witnessed at first hand children suffering from the most horrendous disabilities-some man-made, others easily avoided. Before I consider the issue closer to home, I would like to say a few words about the wider problem.

We must not forget the millions of children who will never have access to the services that we aspire to in this country. I think of those young children whom I met in Sierra Leone with the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), children whose limbs had been macheted off deliberately to disable them and to burden their families. I think also of others who have lost their sight because of river blindness, despite the fact that the annual cost of protecting one person against that disease is only 12p.

Although we are discussing services for children with disabilities in this country, we must continue to press for improvements for those living in the developing world, who can only dream of the level of service that we have here at present-children whose lives are already difficult enough. However, there is much to be done, and many issues need to be addressed here at home.

This should not be a party political issue, as the welfare and provision of services for children with disabilities is something that no party would not wish to improve. I look forward to working with the Minister, and with the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, in a constructive way. Indeed, it was at Capability Scotland in my constituency that the leader of the Conservative party launched a major statement on his party's commitment to the issue late in 2006. I have seen at first hand the excellent work done by that organisation-for the avoidance of doubt, I mean Capability Scotland-as it works with children and parents to bring out the potential of those children receiving its support.

Much good work is being done by many excellent organisations throughout the country. However, when the services for disabled children and their families are described as a national scandal, as they were by the Children's Commissioner for England, something is clearly wrong, and no stone should be left unturned in the search for ways to improve those services. I will not repeat the concerns raised on five or six occasions about the situation in Scotland; I simply ask the Minister and his colleague to make representations to the Secretary of State for Scotland to stress the point to the First Minister at the earliest possible opportunity. It is a serious concern north of the border.

The scale of the problem is huge, and the numbers of children requiring support services is growing. In the United Kingdom, there are more than half a million disabled children under the age of 16; 98 per cent. of disabled children live at home and are supported by their families; and 55 per cent. of disabled children grow up in, or at the margins of, poverty. Disabled children are 13 times more likely to be excluded from school. More recently, we have become much more aware of those who are bullied at school, and the support they need to cope-and to stop it happening in the first place.

Working with a disabled child can not only be exhausting: it can also be the most rewarding experience imaginable. I pay tribute to the many often unsung heroes in that field-the parents and the workers who make the difference. Often, they provide the most basic service, but it can transform a life, providing the love and care that develops the dignity that should be experienced by us all, and not only by the able-bodied.

The support offered should say that we are all equal, even if moving towards that will be a real struggle for many. Sometimes that struggle will be physical, at others emotional, and it can also be a financial struggle. The facts are stark. The income of families with disabled children is 23 per cent. below the UK average, yet it costs up to three times as much to raise a disabled child as it does to raise a child without disabilities. Families with disabled children spend approximately 10 times as much on loan repayments a week compared with the UK average. Caring for a disabled child can cause many other problems; stress, depression and lack of sleep are commonly experienced by parents and carers.

Accessing the support available from Departments-the benefits, the local authority services and negotiating the maze of paperwork and bureaucracy involved-is hard enough for most people, but for those with a disabled child the problems multiply. Half of the appeals against disability living allowance awards are upheld, which shows how many mistakes are made. That is why some time ago I produced a special needs pack for those of my constituents who are parents of children with disabilities. It was intended to make it as simple as possible to access everything to which they were entitled to in my constituency.

I therefore urge the Minister and the Minister with responsibility for disabled people to develop such a pack, making it available to all mothers who have the experience of giving birth to a disabled child. From day one, they should have the support to which they are entitled rather than finding out, sometimes years after the child is born, that they have been unaware of help that could have changed their lives.

For disabled children to have a future, many will require work when they become adults. It is therefore a real concern that although many disabled adults are ready, able and willing to work, half of them are not in employment. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government will do to work with groups, organisations, business and the community to ensure that disabled children have a future to look forward to-one in which many of them can play a full part and which includes having access to a reasonable income that they have earned.

In a Mencap survey, eight out of 10 families with severely disabled children described themselves as being at breaking point. Improving the situation for parents with disabled children must therefore be a priority, so I was delighted when the children's plan, which was mentioned earlier, was published. Crucially, it was published alongside a commitment to make an extra £90 million available to help local authorities provide accessible short breaks. Like other hon. Members, I was encouraged by the Prime Minister's words about carers early last week and I would appreciate any indication from the Minister as to the likely impact on those caring for children with disabilities.

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families described the aiming high commitments as a down payment on change. Today's debate has highlighted some of the changes that I and others would like to see, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we can work together to deliver them