With the Conservatives winning a majority in last week’s General Election it would seem there is unlikely to be any radical change in law or policy affecting disabled children from the last Government. The focus must surely be delivery of the reforms introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014. With that in mind here are five suggestions for urgent action by the new Minister (most likely the old Minister, Edward Timpson MP) and his colleagues in Health:
- Extend the timeframe for transfer from statements and Learning Difficulty Assessments (LDAs) to Education, Health and Care Plans (EHC Plans). It was never going to be possible to transfer all children and young people with statements / LDAs over to EHC Plans by April 2018 unless the transfer process was going to be a sham. And in many areas that seems to be exactly what has happened – no proper transfer review, simply a rebadging of statements as Plans often led by the school with minimal Local Authority input. The Minister should now consult on a sensible extension of the timetable for transfer, predicated on every Local Authority ensuring that a proper transfer review takes place in every case, involving social care and health as required.
- Extend the timeframe for carrying out EHC assessments. I anticipate this one may be controversial – but it seems to me very difficult for a local authority to ensure that in every case a proper EHC assessment is carried out with input from social care and health and for the process to be completed within 20 weeks. In my view the Minister should consult widely on whether a slightly longer timeframe should be allowed, again with an absolute expectation that the assessment process will be carried out properly in every case. It seems to me that a proper assessment leading to a lawful Plan is more important than a quick assessment and ropey Plan – but I understand that families may think speed and quality are equally important.
- Sort out the confusion in relation to social care assessments. For disabled children who do not qualify for an EHC assessment, the key assessment duty remains section 17 of the Children Act 1989. However the courts have had to read the duty to assess into the Children Act, and there is nothing in section 17 which specifies the form or type of assessment required. Answers to questions like who has to carry out the assessment, what issues it must cover and the timescale are left to guidance, currently Working Together to Safeguard Children. However the High Court in R (L and P) v Warwickshire has held that not all disabled children are entitled to a social work assessment under Working Together. Yet Working Together gives no steer as to which children are entitled to a ‘full’ assessment, and which children can be assessed via ‘Early Help’. It would greatly assist if the Minister were to consult on guidance specific to disabled children which would clarify this critical point.
- Make the Local Offer real for social care. The Local Offer under section 30 of the Children and Families Act 2014 has the potential to create a baseline entitlement for all disabled children and families, but only if there are actually services available for families to access under it. One important step which could be taken by the Minister to help achieve this would be to issue guidance requiring every Local Authority to have a minimum short break entitlement with no or very minimal assessment and eligibility criteria. This would obviously be additional to the support available to children who hit eligibility criteria for support under the CSDPA 1970. Guidance currently describes this kind of offer of unassessed short breaks as good practice, but if it were to be mandatory then the Local Offer in social care would start to have some real value.
- Reissue the National Framework for Children and Young People’s Continuing Care. It is vital that disabled children with complex health needs get a package of care and support that is properly co-ordinated and centred on their needs in their family context. The National Framework is supposed to achieve this, but it is badly out of date and does not reflect the reforms introduced by the Health and Social Care Act 2012. For example, the Framework still refers to ‘Primary Care Trusts’ which have been abolished and replaced by Clinical Commissioning Groups. It also does not reflect the vital role of NHS England in commissioning packages of care for children with the most complex needs. The National Framework therefore needs to be reissued urgently, and when this is done its status must be clarified; CCGs and Local Authorities need to know whether they are expected to follow it or the question will be left to the courts to decide.
I am not suggesting that any of these measures, either individually or taken together, will lead to the kind of radical transformation in education, care and support that disabled children and their families need and deserve. However they seem to me to be the kind of practical steps that the Minister can take to help the system introduced last year work more effectively.
Comments on these ideas and other ideas for priority action most welcome below.