Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, that we share her objective that children should not be put at a disadvantage if they are compelled to move home as a result of domestic abuse. It is, of course, right that they should be able to access the medical attention that they need and to secure a new school place quickly, and that any gaps in their education must be kept to an absolute minimum.
In relation to Amendment 11, as the noble Baroness acknowledged, it is a key principle of the National Health Service that access to healthcare is on the basis of clinical need. When patients move home and between hospitals, the NHS should take previous waiting time into account and ensure, wherever possible, that these patients are not disadvantaged as a result. Clinicians have the training and expertise to make decisions about clinical prioritisation so that patients who require urgent treatment can expect to be seen more quickly. Of course, waiting times may vary across the country and between services. Different services experience different challenges in local demand, which can affect waiting times, and it is important that there is local flexibility to manage this. However, regardless of circumstance, clinical commissioning groups and providers have a duty to provide services within the maximum waiting times set out in the NHS constitution, as I set out in Committee and as has been noted again today.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Burt and Lady Brinton, asked about the Armed Forces covenant. The framework of the Armed Forces covenant sets out society’s obligation to members of our Armed Forces and their families, with an aim to prevent disadvantages that they face due to the unique nature of service in our Armed Forces. As part of this promise, families of serving personnel
“should retain their relative position on any NHS waiting list, if moved around the UK due to the service person being posted.”
As I set out earlier, the decision still rests with the clinician to make decisions about their clinical priority in relation to the local population and services available. That is the core principle throughout NHS services.
Local healthcare services are commissioned based on an assessment of the needs of the population they serve, and tackling health inequalities is a core part of those considerations. It will be important for the NHS to learn from experience, including the concerning accounts that have been highlighted by noble Lords both in Committee and this evening, so that barriers to accessing services are removed. We will certainly support and encourage that.
I should say at this point that NHS England is developing an action plan to tackle domestic abuse that will raise awareness among NHS staff. I am sure that staff have the skills to identify and refer and, indeed, to address the issue of NHS staff who are themselves victims or perpetrators. One of the tenets of the action plan will be that any and all victims and survivors of domestic abuse and their children will not be unduly disadvantaged in accessing physical and mental health services when they are forced to move to new accommodation in a different area.
Moreover, at a national level, the NHS long-term plan sets out a number of measures to improve access to services, about which I spoke in Committee, such as extra GP appointments, and new waiting time standards for children and young people for eating disorders and for those experiencing a first episode of psychosis. On top to this, at least 345,000 additional children and young people aged up to 25 will be able to access support via NHS-funded mental health services and school or college-based mental health support teams by 2023-24.
Furthermore, at the spending review in December, the Government announced £1 billion of public money to address backlogs and tackle long waiting lists by facilitating up to a million extra checks, scans and operations. On Friday, the Government announced how millions more children and young people will have access to significantly expanded mental health services, backed by £79 million of public money. This announcement means that nearly 3 million children in England will be supported by mental health support teams in schools, around 22,500 more children and young people will be able to access community mental health services, and 2,000 more children and young people will have access to eating disorder services.
Unlike Amendment 11, Amendment 76 seeks to make provision for both England and Wales, and as education is a devolved matter in Wales, we should not be legislating in your Lordships’ House without the consent of the Senedd. My comments therefore address Amendment 76 as it applies to England only.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, has again eloquently explained how children fleeing with a parent from their abuser should not be put at a disadvantage and should not have to wait a long time for a new school place. We agree, which is why the Government are embarking on reform of the English School Admissions Code, which makes better provision for in-year applications and introduces new requirements, including mandatory deadlines for decision-making in relation to in-year admissions and in respect of local authorities’ fair access protocols, helping to ensure that vulnerable school children are allocated a school place as soon as possible. Under the revised code, children fleeing domestic abuse will be eligible to be placed in a school through the fair access protocol if they are struggling to find a school place via the in-year admissions system. These changes should make this process faster and more transparent, and provide a safety net for the most vulnerable children moving school in-year. The Department for Education also proposes to publish new guidance on fair access protocols in England.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, asked when the changes to the School Admissions Code will come into force. They are subject to a full public consultation and, of course, to parliamentary approval, but, subject to that approval, we expect the changes to come into force later this year.
The noble Baroness also asked about the numbers affected on free school meals, and I will take up her offer to write with that information.
The noble Baroness suggested the School Admissions Code should change to give children fleeing domestic abuse, or who have had to move home because of domestic abuse, the same priority as looked-after children when there is a waiting list for school places. This proposal and Amendment 76 focus on the application process for a school place in the normal admissions round—that is, at the start of reception or year 7—rather than in the in-year process, which is when children fleeing domestic abuse are more likely to apply. So this amendment would perhaps not help all the people the noble Baroness and all noble Lords, I am sure, have at the forefront of their minds. Although all mainstream state-funded schools in England must maintain a waiting list, they are required to maintain that list only until the end of the first term of the academic year of admission for the school.
We believe that the changes I have outlined to reform the English School Admissions Code to support in-year admissions will have the greatest impact in ensuring that all vulnerable children are able to access a school place as quickly as possible, including those who are affected by domestic abuse. I hope that the changes I have outlined, and the other positive steps to which I have referred, reassure the noble Baroness and, on that basis, she will be content to withdraw her amendment.