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11.55 am

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): I am very pleased to take part in this debate. I am afraid that I will speak not as magniloquently as some of the previous speakers, but briefly.

The only charity in which I have any involvement is a charity for Down's syndrome children. I have recently been to see it in action, not in Britain but in Moscow. I hope that the House will forgive me if I begin by giving everybody in Britain a pat on the back for the way we treat people with severe learning disabilities. The objective of the charity—it is called Downside Up, and I have absolutely no inhibition about plugging it in the House—is to export to Russia our ideas about what constitutes disability and how parents should cope with having a disabled child.

It is no exaggeration to say that during the communist epoch—and, indeed, it continues to be so to this day—the Russian approach to Down's syndrome children has been barbaric. In many Russian hospitals, as soon as Down's is diagnosed in a new-born child—from the epicanthal fold, the disposition of the thumb and so on—parents are told that it would be best if their infant were left to die and if nature were allowed to take its course as soon as possible.

I met a man called Alexander who received just such a verdict seven years ago on the birth of his daughter. He told me of his fury at that verdict and of his joy at what his daughter had since achieved. One could see that she could read fluently, sing, dance and all the rest of it. She patently enjoyed life to the full.

I felt that the charity was doing something wonderful and remarkable in exporting a particularly British concept of the value of the individual, not as a unit that might be deemed valueless to communist collectivity, but as a person with rights and potential. That is of course the theme of the White Paper "Valuing People". You might be surprised to discover, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I have read it very carefully. I think that it is rather good; on the whole, I find it hard to dissent from anything that it says, although I am not quite sure that the Minister is entitled to crow in such extravagant terms about the absence of jargon in it.

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I listened with great interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), in which he dwelt so eloquently on the themes of social inclusion and exclusion. We now use those bits of jargon repeatedly in the course of our daily lives, but I have to confess to the House that I do not know what they mean. What is social inclusion and what is social exclusion? I know that the Minister has other things on her mind, but I should be grateful if, when she replies to our debate, she could supply a snappy definition of social inclusion, as well as social exclusion; is it not being invited to top parties? The Deputy Prime Minister, I believe, runs the social exclusion unit; doubtless, such a definition would help him to explicate its function to the wider world.

The White Paper is admirable in its aims. However, Members will not be surprised that I wish that it had more bearing on the situation on the ground as I see it week in, week out in south Oxfordshire. My experience is of parents at the end of their tether, trying to cope with children with severe learning disabilities, and who are now finding that central props in their lives have been, or are about to be, kicked away. Because of its great affluence, Oxfordshire has had a poor per capita settlement in social services, and there is currently a shortfall of at least £5 million. As Members will know, housing in Oxfordshire is expensive and it is hard to recruit and retain staff, which is why valuable day care centres are under threat. Families in the Henley area in particular are greatly concerned about the future of the Chiltern respite centre, where overnight stays have just been curtailed. I am currently in lengthy correspondence with the parents of a severely disabled young man who faces eviction from his care home and has nowhere else to go because of shortages and difficulties in social services in south Oxfordshire.

In conclusion, for all the White Paper's fine words and good intentions, it envisages only £50 million of new money. How much of that will go to help the most vulnerable people in Henley and south Oxfordshire? One cannot but admire the White Paper's intentions, but it is legitimate to wonder how many parsnips its fine words will butter in the day care centres of south Oxfordshire. I hope that the Minister can give some comfort to the most vulnerable people in my constituency and society at large.

12.2 pm

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): If there is one thing that we, as Members of Parliament, must do for our constituents, it is to value the people whom we are elected to represent. I therefore welcome the White Paper and all the contributions to our debate.

We rightly approach the issue largely through consensus, as we all encounter it every week in our constituencies. People who are disadvantaged for whatever reason deserve our support and the backing of Members of Parliament on both sides of the House. I therefore thank the Minister for presenting the White Paper. As was made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), Opposition Members endorse an overwhelming majority of the points that it raises and we shall certainly work alongside Government Members to achieve many of its objectives. As the House knows, I am a new Member, elected for the first time last year. I had not encountered the issue before, and it is yet another area in which I am getting an education. Most citizens do

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not often come across people with learning disabilities who are disadvantaged in the ways that we have discussed today.

As a Member holding regular weekly surgeries, it is my experience that parents of people with learning disabilities come to see their parliamentary representative to ask me to raise issues in Parliament or with the local council; I am a councillor and will remain one until the local elections. I feel responsible; it is my duty as an MP to do everything that I can and use every possible opportunity to raise issues of concern to parents who have to live with their children's disabilities day in, day out, and to the voluntary sector. I shall therefore raise those issues, as is my duty, in the London borough of Havering, of which my constituency is part, and the United Kingdom Parliament.

We must do everything in our power to support the voluntary sector. Government schemes are not necessarily the way forward. If we can use as many of the available resources as possible to assist local voluntary groups to provide a service to the community, that is often a far better way of providing for those with learning disabilities. There are many such local organisations and voluntary groups in my constituency and in the London borough of Havering.

Mr. Boswell: Does my hon. Friend agree that the system of direct payments to service users and their carers is almost tailor-made for accessing the range of opportunities that the voluntary sector can offer?

Mr. Rosindell: I endorse my hon. Friend's point. In all areas of Government policy, we should ensure as far as possible that money is given directly to those providing the service. That is a more efficient system that reduces red tape and bureaucracy and means fewer bureaucrats and civil servants spending taxpayers' money, which can instead be spent directly where it is most needed, by those at the grass roots who understand the priorities and how the money can be used to best effect for the people whom we wish to help.

In my constituency and in the London borough of Havering, we are fortunate to have so many organisations dedicated to the care of those who suffer from learning disabilities and to assisting the parents and relatives who live with the problem day in, day out. Last Friday, I visited St. Bernard's day centre in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) with my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). The centre serves all three of the borough's constituencies—Romford, Hornchurch and Upminster. I met the parents and afterwards the people who attend the day centre and who need vital care.

Parents raised several issues that I hope the Minister will consider. There seems to be an immense shortage of respite care. I hope that the Government will find ways of enhancing the opportunities for respite care, which is so badly needed, particularly when the parents are elderly. It is incredibly difficult for people reaching their later years—people in their 60s or 70s or even older—to cope with a child who is growing older and who has huge problems and learning disabilities. Respite care would go a long way to assist them. That was the main issue that parents raised.

I have not heard mention today of speech therapy, which is another matter regularly raised by parents. Recently, the parents of a young boy called Patrick who

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lives in my constituency came to see me. They are distraught. He attends a local special needs school, Dycourts, which is in the Upminster constituency but serves the entire borough of Havering. He desperately needs more speech therapy, but there is a chronic shortage of teachers who can provide that service. It is difficult to find people willing to take on the task.

Patrick's parents, who are not necessarily well off, are told that they can pay £50 an hour for that service through the private sector, but the local authority cannot provide the service because of the shortage of speech therapists. I hope that the Minister will look into that matter, too. The problem is growing. The ability to communicate is the most important tool that any human being can have. People with learning disabilities who cannot speak or communicate with their family or those around them are hugely disadvantaged. I hope that the Government will consider further the role of speech therapy. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health on 21 November about the specific case to which I referred—I have the letter here—but I am sorry to say that I have not yet received a reply. I hope that the Minister will look into the matter.

I welcome the White Paper and practically everything that it contains. I should like to highlight one or two points. The Prime Minister speaks in the foreword about a brighter and more fulfilling life for people with learning disabilities. He says:

I applaud that commitment and I hope that he intends to follow it through, but without adequate funding, such words can mean nothing. I hope that the Minister will ensure that, whatever proposals are made, the Government will make certain that adequate funding is made available for the aims that we all want to be achieved. I applaud everything that has been said, but believe that we must not give false hope to people who are in great need of help. We must be careful not to promise the earth and propose services that cannot be provided simply because the resources are not made available. I urge caution on the Minister with regard to making promises that we might not be able to keep. We must be careful about the words that we use. Maximising opportunities for disabled children must be our first priority. Disabled children in Britain need and deserve better support and protection and greater opportunities. I hope that we will all work to ensure that that is what they get.

I mentioned respite care and the need to support those who dedicate their lives to looking after disadvantaged people. I refer especially to the parents of such children. I urge the Government to do more for those carers—people who could probably do so many other things with their lives, but who devote themselves to their children and others who need their support. Respite care is one means of giving such people greater opportunities to take the rest that they need from having to cope with the daily life of caring for somebody who has severe learning disabilities.

I am pleased that housing is highlighted in the White Paper. We must ensure that the institutional development and buildings that we have had for many years are phased out. We should give people the opportunity to live in places where they feel comfortable. Residential care is so much better for everybody. We should work towards purpose-built modern buildings, so I am glad that that is highlighted. Such work is being done in my borough, and I applaud it.

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The White Paper also talks about giving people a fulfilled life—something that we all endorse. That includes modernising day services, giving people equal access to education and lifelong learning and opposing any form of discrimination. Yes, discrimination does exist. I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) about the puzzling nature of some of the expressions that are used. There is uncertainty about what terms such as "inclusiveness" mean. When such expressions are used, it is most important that we see action that improves people's lives. Words often mean little to people. I think that they mean little to the vast majority of our constituents, who want positive changes and action that will allow people to lead happier, better and more fulfilled lives. Words are not as important as real action, which will provide a better future for people who deserve a better life. As Members of Parliament, or, in the case of the Minister, as members of the Government, we can use our power to achieve those things for the people whom we represent.

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