Labour MP Ed Balls, a close ally of chancellor Gordon Brown, tells Amy Taylor of his plans to improve support for disabled children and their families
Tucked away on page 102 of last week’s Budget report is a pledge to review policy on children and young people’s services, with a particular focus on improving support for families with disabled children.
This promise bears the mark of chancellor Gordon Brown’s closest political ally, former chief economic adviser to the Treasury and now MP for Normanton, Ed Balls, who lobbied for the review along with a group of disabled children’s charities.
Balls has become a champion of disabled children and their families since entering the House of Commons last May, launching a private members’ bill in February to improve support for this group.
Balls explains how a chat last year with Francine Bates, chief executive of charity Contact a Family, led to him visiting Kingsland School for children with severe learning difficulties in his West Yorkshire constituency. He was shocked by the problems the pupils’ families faced.
“The issues that were particularly raised with me were a lack of available respite care, particularly in the summer holidays, and the lack of available speech therapy,” he says.
After further talks with Contact a Family, the Council for Disabled Children, Mencap and the Special Education Consortium, Balls learned that the issues faced by the parents at Kingsland were far from unique. “Many families of disabled children are not getting an assessment and there’s also often poor collaboration between the local authority and the health authority,” he says.
So in February he launched a bill under the 10-minute rule that would make it clear in law for the first time that councils must assess disabled children and provide them with services assessed as necessary. It would also give disabled children and their families an explicit right to short breaks and respite care.
“[The charities] said that part of the problem under the Children Act 1989 was that the right of children to have an assessment for services and the services provided are not as clear as they are for adults.
“This is something that we are discussing with care services minister Liam Byrne and we have a further follow-up meeting with children’s minister Maria Eagle.”
Another part of the bill would require NHS bodies to work with local authorities to promote the health and welfare of disabled children and enhance the delivery of services, such as speech and languagetherapy.
Ten-minute rule bills rarely become law in their own right, but Balls hopes the government will take up his plans, saying he detects “sympathetic noises” among ministers.
Should this not happen, he will have another chance to introduce a private members’ bill in the autumn.
Balls describes last week’s Budget announcement as “excellent”. Drawing on his Treasury experience, he welcomes the fact that it has the support of more than one department, as a joint Treasury and Department for Education and Skills review.
He says it is now up to him and the charities to ensure that the review’s terms of reference are correct and that it is provided with evidence to show the scale of the problem.
Balls also wants the government to introduce a cross-cutting public service agreement for disabled children to ensure they receive enough care and support. This would be decided as part of next year’s comprehensive spending review.
He sees the children’s policy review as a “real chance for progress” and is adamant that he and the charities will not let it go to waste. “It’s a huge and great opportunity and we have to grasp it,” he says.