New rules for Lancashire special needs respite service

The future of a short break service for children with special educational needs and disabilities has finally been settled – more than two years after it was proposed to cancel it.

Lancashire County Council’s cabinet has approved new terms for its Break Time scheme, which funds group activities for youngsters and gives their families a few hours away from their caring responsibilities.

New eligibility criteria will limit use of the service to those aged between five and 18, while users will be entitled to access the heavily-subsidised programme for a maximum of 78 hours per year.

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Previously, there was no cap on the hours available, although families will now get the option to purchase additional time themselves. They will also be able to request a full social care assessment of their wider needs if they do not feel that the new maximum hours are sufficient.

Changes to Lancashire's short break scheme for children with special needs and disabilities were first proposed more than two years ago

The £1 per hour hour nominal parental contribution to the cost of the activities, which are operated by independent providers, will double to £2, having not risen for over a decade.

The changes will be introduced from April 2022 and follow a consultation held late last year – the third in just 18 months.

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Parents and carers were first asked for their views in 2019, after the £1m annual cost of the service was earmarked as a potential budget saving. A group of parents threatened legal action over the move and the county council then embarked on a wholesale review of all of its respite services for disabled children later that year.

The authority opted to continue with Break Time last March, pending the further consultation on which the new arrangements have now been based.

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Cabinet member for children and young people Phillippa Williamson said that the council wanted to “better explain [the] criteria and apply them properly through an annual application process” in order to guarantee a consistent service across the county.

She added that the provision of a social care assessment for families who felt 78 hours’ provision was inadequate showed that the authority wanted “to ensure that children and young people’s needs are properly understood and met”.

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“If [they] need more care…then we should be providing it,” County Cllr Williamson said.

Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali thanked those who had run and taken part in the consultation, but said it was “very disappointing that young people with SEND…will have their access to Break Time cut off” at the age of 18.

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A report presented to the cabinet noted that over-18s would have access to adult services, while there was also more universal provision available for the under-fives.

County Cllr Ali also called for regular reports to be brought back to cabinet to monitor the sufficiency of the new service – something to which the ruling Conservative group agreed, stating that it had already committed to monitoring demand.

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Three quarters of the 1,200 children who benefited from Break Time in 2018/19 accessed fewer than the new maximum hours.

However, a Lytham St Annes mum who began, but later abandoned, a judicial review of the current funding for the scheme, said that the limit would not offer enough support for people in her situation.

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“Most of those 78 hours would be used up just by accessing holiday clubs – so I’d have to look at cutting back on those in order to maintain some respite during term-term,” explained Miranda Hyman, two of whose children attend Break Time activities.

“The way children have been stuck at home during the pandemic means that they are actually going to need more rather than less when this is over.

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“I wouldn’t be able to afford to buy extra hours either, if they are charged at the full rate. I’m sure I can’t be the only one who’ll be left struggling because of this,” said Ms. Hyman, who added that she had little faith in the social care assessment process to meet any outstanding needs.

It is estimated that just over a third of children who accessed Breaktime during 2018/19 were not eligible to use the service, largely because they already received a social care support package – a discrepancy which cost the council £287,000 that year alone.

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It had been proposed that access to the revised service be prioritised for children with an education, health and care plan (EHCP), but that idea was dropped after the latest consultation. Places will now be allocated based on order of date application for them, with anybody who misses out in one year being prioritised the next.

A new service – Break Time Plus – will also be made available for those who want to use funding allocated to them as part of a formal support package to access activities under the scheme.

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The budget for the revised Break Time when it starts next year will be £1.1m, up from the £765,000 allocated for 2021/22, and marginally above the level in place when the service was first threatened with closure.

There will be no changes to the separate Day Time and Night Time short break services provided by the county council, which will continue to be accessible only via a social care assessment.