Lancashire special needs respite service gets a rethink

A respite service for families of children with special needs and disabilities is set to continue – but on different terms.

Lancashire County Council had initially proposed to scrap the so-called “Breaktime” programme as part of budget savings proposals last year. The service provides group activities for children and gives their families a few hours away from their caring responsibilities.

But following a consultation - and the threat of a legal challenge from parents and carers - the authority went back to the drawing board to consult with families as part of a wider review of its entire short breaks offering for disabled children.

County Hall has now come up with a series of recommendations for the future of Breaktime – all of which will be subject to a further period of consultation.

Nikki Kimber and Sue Armstrong had campaigned against the closure of the Lancashire Breaktime service

It is proposed that each child is allowed to access between 10 and a maximum of 50 hours of activities per year – provided they are not living with or supported by paid carers. Currently, around 60 percent of Breaktime users access fewer than 50 hours a week and under the new regime, families would be able to purchase additional activity time.

The required minimum hourly contribution from families would double under the plans to £2 – the first increase in a decade – and children with an assessed social care need would be able to access Breaktime for the first time.

If the event of demand exceeding available places, they would be allocated on the basis of need.

St Annes mum Sue Armstrong, who was involved in the campaign to save Breaktime last year, was broadly supportive of the proposals.

“I am happy that they are not just blanket removing all support, but I would be interested to see where and what they are offering in terms of activities.

“I also really hope that the consultation process is supported by parents and acted upon – and so results in a system that provides what is needed, rather than what is cheapest,” added Sue, whose 12-year-old severely disabled daughter, Thea, attends Breaktime activities.

Fellow parent and campaigner Nikki Kimber also welcomed the fact that the service would continue, but said that the proposed budget for it - between £483,000 and £788,000 depending on demand - was a cut from the £1m spent on the current Breaktime offering.

"It is great that a very thorough consultation was completed along with face-to-face meetings and workshops. This is a very different way of working for Lancashire - and a welcome change to just having decisions made about our children with no parental contribution.

"The SEND team have clearly spent a lot of time collating the responses and devising a new strategy for short breaks. It will be interesting to see what response they get from the next round of consultations and how fair and transparent the short breaks system is going forward," Nikki added.

Cabinet member for young people, Phillippa Williamson, said that the recommendations for the future of the service “focus on meeting the needs of as many families as possible across the whole of the county”.

“There was agreement that any newly-shaped short breaks offer should be more flexible, equitable, accessible.

“We want to improve the quality, desirability and the reach of the activities that this service provides,” she added.

Council leader Geoff Driver said he now wanted to hear the views of parents, carers and young people as part of the consultation, while Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali welcomed the work that had gone into redesigning the service.

Papers presented to cabinet revealed that the existing rules regarding entitlement to Breaktime activities – including the maximum age of attendees – had not been enforced. A quarter of the current numbers accessing the service do not have an identified special need or disability.

Under the new proposals, the independent providers who supply Breaktime will be able to bid to offer their services at several points throughout the year – rather than being on a “preferred provider” list. Cabinet members were told that the move could increase the types of activities on offer.

The same commissioning arrangements would also apply to general daytime and overnight respite, which would be available only to those who have had a social care assessment.