A genuine agenda of choice for disabled children

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The Independent Online

It comes to something when some of the most practical and insightful recommendations for improving the lot of families with disabled children comes not from the political left, but from the right. A report out today from the Centre for Policy Studies, however, demonstrates that useful ideas should be recognised and implemented as such, whatever their political provenance.

The burden of the CPS study - Helping the Most Vulnerable - is that social services for families with disabled children, as currently provided, are hopelessly inadequate for "far too many" of the 49,000 disabled children in this country. It also points out that this inadequacy - annual spending on each disabled child is less than one third of that spent on each juvenile prisoner - will only become more grievous as more disabled children live longer thanks to medical advances.

Among the chief criticisms are the patchiness of services across the country (the "post-code lottery"), the lack of co-ordination and competition for funds between the NHS, education, social services and other agencies, and the reality that parents often have to make themselves difficult in order to receive help to which they are entitled. This will hardly come as news to most parents of disabled children. Indeed, one of the virtues of this study is that it draws as much on the experiences of the families concerned as on the views of those responsible for providing the services.

The report argues that very many parents of disabled children appreciate better than hard-pressed departments how their children can best be helped - in terms of training, care or equipment. It recommends that the money currently spent on provision be paid direct to the families, leaving them free to decide how it is spent. One-stop centres should also be introduced for assessing needs.

Some local authorities are experimenting with a similar à la carte system for the care of elderly people. Enabling the users of services to decide their own provision is surely the shape of the future - along with a drastic and urgently-needed improvement in provision. It is what the Government's much-peddled "choice" agenda should really mean.