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If hon. Members were asked whether their local authority was suffering a social services crisis, at least eight out of 10 should answer yes. Eight out of ten is not some random statistic: it is the number of local authorities where, as is the case with Oxfordshire county council, the demand for social services is clearly outstripping resources.
That shortfall of funding is no more evident than with respite care services for children with severe disabilities. Currently, the responsibility for local authorities to provide such discretionary services is a matter of "may" rather than "must". Thus, in the pecking order, those discretionary services come after statutory provision. Where money is tight, they simply fall off the edge.
I am sure that local authorities would welcome a Bill ensuring that the provision of respite care for children was a statutory responsibility that should be properly funded by the Government. In Oxfordshire, the number of respite care centres is likely to be reduced this year from five to three. Parents have managed to save Sycamore house in my constituency, but Chilterns house in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), a sponsor of the Bill, has been lost.
The Bill would simply amend subsections (3) and (6) of section 17 of part III of the Children's Act 1989 by changing the word "may" in both subsections to "must". Of course, that would mean much more than simply a change of words for parents whose children have complex needs. It would help transform their lives by making the respite care arrangements for their children more secure and stable.
Stability is paramount. Initially, Oxfordshire county council thought that it would have to abandon children's respite care provision altogether. After a lot of heartache and lobbying, it has managed to put together a compromise scheme with the local health authority.
Barnardos, which has helped fund respite care in Oxfordshire, has indicated that it will consider its financial contribution to the partnership in Oxfordshire further. It may at some stage be able to revise and enhance its contribution to the partnership, but that will depend on achieving the partnership that I have described. The proposed partnership to save the respite care centres can happen only if Oxfordshire county council has the funds in the future. Barnardos needs financial stability, which should come from the county council's own financial stability, to stabilise respite care provision for parents whose children have learning difficulties.
All too often, voluntary or charitable organisations commit money only to see the statutory foundation funding from social services withdrawn. The stability on which parents depend is dependent on the stability of social services spending and the money received from central Government for social services.
The reason why Oxfordshire's social services have deteriorated to their current extent is that Oxfordshire receives considerably less funding than other neighbouring counties and unitary authorities. Nearby Milton Keynes, for example, gets nearly a fifth more investment than Oxfordshire from central Government. Hampshire and Hertfordshire, moreover, get twice the budget specific to respite care centres than Oxfordshire. Yet clearly the cost of living, the cost of staff and the cost of care are the same in all three areas. I am at a loss to understand why the Government believe that Oxfordshire should have the lowest allocation of funds under the grant system when its cost of living is among the highest in the country.
I am concerned that although several Departments recognise the problem, apparently the Department of Health does not. I and other Oxfordshire Members tabled an early-day motion on the issue before the last standard spending assessment round was allocated last year but, unfortunately, our warnings clearly fell on deaf ears.
If Oxfordshire's social services have to survive with less funding than they need until 2004, more vital services will almost certainly be withdrawn, so imagine my concern last week when the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister announced a review of local authority funding. The review will, we are promised, want new formulae that are fairer, simpler, more intelligible and more stable.
Education would be the biggest loser for Oxfordshire. Education is an important part of the county council's plans for Oxfordshire's respite care centres with after school, play and leisure clubs for children with complex needs. How could those services continue under the Government's funding options?
Ministers have said that Oxfordshire local education authority has a good record on finding places in schools for children with severe disabilities. How will that be maintained? Although I might have more chance of developing post-Einsteinian unified theory than fully understanding the Government's proposal for local authority finance, my figures are supported by the Local Government Association.
No one should doubt the need for respite care centres. I, along with Oxfordshire parliamentary colleagues sponsoring the Bill, have spent a lot of time listening to parents with disabled children in need of respite care in the county. I close my comments by reading a letter, not from a councillor or a parent, but the 12-year-old sister of a child receiving respite care. She says: