Deafblind Persons Bill [H.L.]

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Ashley of Stoke.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[THE DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Strabolgi) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Register of deafblind persons]:

Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 10, after ("the") insert ("numbers and the").

The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak to Amendment No. 2. With regard to the amendments in my name, I am grateful to Sense, and in particular Caroline Ellis, for the excellent briefing they have provided. It is help I warmly appreciate.

The purpose of the amendment is to clarify and emphasise the necessity, in order to plan and provide services, for each local authority to have access to reliable statistics about numbers of deafblind people in their area. The Department of Health should also have accurate information for formulating policy and developing nation-wide deafblind services. The estimate of 40 per 100,000 people was based on the average numbers of deafblind people identified across a number of local surveys in the 1980s and 1990s. But some recent surveys have found a higher incidence.

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While I welcome the consultation announced to the House by my noble friend Lord Hunt at Second Reading, the Government will not gain accurate numbers as regards deafblind people from a consultation exercise. That will only result from implementing the provisions of the Bill. I believe that the Government are making a great mistake if they intend to pursue their opposition. They are making a rod for their own back. Interest is already being expressed in the House of Commons.

Amendment No. 2 raises the issue of the contribution of my noble friend Lord Hunt at Second Reading. He seems to think that there is no need for specific provision for deafblind people in law. He could not be more mistaken. There is currently no requirement on local authorities in primary legislation, or by direction from the Department of Health, to identify, locate or register separately deafblind people. As the law stands, it provides no guarantee that deafblind people will be identified. I believe that that is an irresponsible omission which this House will hope to change.

The evidence and experience available to deafblind organisations point to a duty to identify and separately register deafblind people. The crux of the issue is a separate register. It is an essential prerequisite for monitoring and meeting needs, and planning service provision for those people.

Many local authorities still claim that they have few or no deafblind people in their areas. Alternatively, they say that they do not know the number. That is not good enough. Yet according to Sense, when those local authorities specifically set out to identify deafblind people, they find at least 40 per 100,000 people, if not more. If local authorities do not know how many deafblind people they have, or where they are, they are unable to provide for their needs. They are unable to monitor or assess those people. Nor will they provide the essential specialist one-to-one support services required. That is impossible, by definition.

My noble friend may have been right to say at Second Reading that only a small proportion of visually impaired people are likely to be registered, and that an even smaller proportion are hearing impaired. It is a problem, but not necessarily a barrier to deafblind registration. Nor is it an argument against registration.

The essential point is that deafblind people are a different group with distinct needs for specialist services. Being registered blind, for example, is only one way in which the deafblind person might--I emphasise the word "might"--eventually come to the attention of social services as someone who requires a different and distinct approach.

Deafblind registration is an issue of a different order. I see those people, as I am sure other noble Lords do, as having an entirely different species of disability. In the provisions of the Bill, a deafblind register would involve an identification and location exercise using a range of methods of which cross-references of existing registers are only one small part. Such exercises have involved checks on records held on

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elderly people and people with learning disabilities, and close liaison between social services departments, education departments, health authorities, voluntary organisations, general practitioners, audiology and ophthalmology departments, geriatric wards of hospitals, residential care homes and ethnic minorities. All are involved in one way or another and all must be tapped and consulted and have all their records checked.

We need a deafblind persons register to be actively maintained because of the extreme isolation and vulnerability of deafblind people and their tendency to lose contact with local authorities, often as a direct function of their disability. It is essential that we tackle this isolation. If the House agrees to the register, local authorities will have to have a system of updating and maintaining their register which means that deafblind people are regularly monitored. Without the monitoring, the registering could simply wither and die.

Both those receiving services and those who at some future date might need help will be assisted. This is particularly important given that many deafblind people have deteriorating conditions. At one stage in their lives they do not perhaps require urgent help, but they may need it later because of the deterioration. Only by the register being kept up to date can we guarantee that they will be cared for.

The essential point of the amendments is that deafblindness should be treated as a specific, special category of disability. When it is established, the Department of Health might pursue deafblind registration as a benchmark for improving the registration of other groups. This is an opportunity for the department and the House to strike a great blow for many disabled people, but specifically today we are dealing with deafblind people. I hope that the two amendments will be accepted. I beg to move.

A-Z to Deafblindness