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Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, despite the good news on employment prospects given by the noble Lord, is it not a fact that when the Government took office in 1997 unemployment in the North East was 2.6 per cent higher than the national average? Today it is 3.9 per cent higher. What will the Government do about that?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point out that the gap between the level of unemployment in the North East and that in the rest of the United Kingdom has worsened over the past few years, although I believe that the latest figures will show that the gap has now shrunk a little. I have outlined the efforts being made by the local RDA and the Government to reverse that trend. The Government regard it as a priority to try to close the gap so that relative prosperity in the North East may be assured.
Lord Dearing: My Lords, does the Minister agree that a helpful measure which could be taken by the Government as regards the North East would be to progressively implement their decision to introduce consolidated regional budgets covering all the relevant departments, and to do that with great speed and
Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is important that moneys allocated for development in the North East should be consolidated and flexible as regards local decision taking. As to the local RDA budget, it is intended that a single budget will be drawn up to cover the RDA's entire current spending programmes. Work is under way to complete the work so that the new budgets will be in place by April 2002. The coming financial year will be regarded as a transitional year. After that, the RDA will have moved on to a single budget which will offer the kind of flexibility being sought by the noble Lord.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, following the Department of Health's deafblindness consultation, we intend to issue guidance under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970, saying that authorities should identify the deafblind people in their areas and should ensure that assessment (to include consideration of one-to-one support) and service provision are appropriate to people with dual sensory impairment.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the guidance to be issued under Section 7 will be legally binding on local authorities? If it is, can he further confirm that it will meet all the requirements provided for in my Deafblind Persons Bill? If those conditions are met, I shall immediately withdraw my Bill.
While I thank my noble friend very warmly, is he aware that I am echoing the views of 23,000 deafblind people living in Britain, most of whom have been neglected and isolated for many years? In fact, almost half of them have received no support at all. Happily, however, this new government policy will put an end to that scandalous state of affairs. Will the Government monitor progress to ensure that local authorities no longer evade their responsibilities to deafblind people?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the provision of adequate and appropriate services to deafblind people should be seen as a core part of a local authority's responsibilities. We expect local authorities to ensure that they discharge those responsibilities.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, my Lords. I do not consider that ring-fencing is appropriate. As I have already suggested, this is a core responsibility of local authorities. Often deafblind people are already in receipt of services, but sometimes those are inadequate. It may be a case of local authorities using their resources more efficiently rather than of needing extra resources. In any event, this should be seen in the context of the real growth in resources that the Government are giving to local authorities for expenditure on social service provision.
Earl Howe: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the limiting factors in the provision of services is that there are few appropriate training courses for people who want to work with deafblind people? Do I understand from his previous answers that he believes local authorities should make room for the funding of such courses from their core budgets?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Earl is right to draw attention to issues in relation to training for deafblind services. My understanding is that training is available and is currently provided by a number of organisations, including the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People, Sense and Deafblind UK among others. But it is not mandatory and it is not a part of the standard social work training. As a result of the process of implementing the Section 7 guidance, I believe that local authorities will be in a better position to assess the needs of deafblind people in their areas. They will then be able to make a judgment as to whether they have the staff with the right training and qualifications to enable them to provide such services. Clearly, part of that will rest on a local authority's own expenditure decisions. But there may also be instances where, at a national level, we would need to consider whether any particular changes should be made in relation to the curricula of social work training to take account of specific deafblind needs.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. Certainly the Government's intention is that every effort will be made to ensure that diagnoses are made correctly. I am not sure whether this comes under the compass of the Section 7 guidance because that is aimed specifically at the duties of local authorities in providing services and support to deafblind people. But it is a substantive point which the National Health Service should take particularly into account.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I am sorry to come back again, but is my noble friend aware that, because there are only 23,000 deafblind people in Britain, paying for these services is peanuts in terms of local authority expenditure? It would be a shabby, shoddy excuse for local authorities to dodge their responsibilities on the grounds of cost.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I have made it clear that we expect local authorities to implement with enthusiasm the guidance we will be issuing and to ensure that deafblind people receive a high quality of service and support. I do not believe that the resources question should be allowed to get in the way of local authorities providing what deafblind people have every right to expect.