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Mr. Jack: As the hon. Gentleman may have observed, there is more than one source of advice. The Government point to the role of the voluntary sector as a possible source of help. We are debating the Bill in the context of the present arrangements, to which my remarks are directed.

There is an omission in the Bill. What has saddened me more than anything is the fact that, after hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of effort has been put into enabling children to come out of Pear Tree with every possible resource at their disposal to enhance their further living, they then face a real problem that is not dealt with by the Bill--it does not say what is supposed to happen next.

I have known many cases of children who have found it difficult to go into training, employment or, more importantly, the specialist institutions that provide further training, nurture, succour, education and comfort for the children who come from Pear Tree school. One faces an enormous battle to give those children the opportunity to derive benefit from the investment that has been made in them by the Pear Tree schools of this world. Lancashire county council often fights against providing resources for those children. If they do not get those resources, all our efforts to improve special education, whether in mainstream or special schools, will be wasted.

The university sector has not so far been covered in the debate. I received from the university of Lancaster a copy of the minutes of a meeting of its court held on 10 February. It was supportive of the Bill, but said that it could be improved by

I should be grateful for the Minister's assurance that Lancaster university, as well as others, will be contacted, so we can be sure that its observations on the way these powers can be strengthened further will be taken fully into account.

Many of us speak passionately and with some knowledge about special education. The most important thing is to keep the child at the centre of our arguments; but I hope that the Bill will not lead to a lessening of choice or to any diminution of the resources devoted to caring for the many children who find it difficult to give us their own views, and for whom we therefore have a huge responsibility.

8.45 pm

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) indeed spoke with passion. He also spoke with great eloquence, and with first-hand knowledge of the issues. Let me simply say this to the right hon. Gentleman. If the Opposition support the principle of the Bill--as they have said they do--and if they also feel that the Bill needs further amendment, they should surely vote for it on Second Reading, try to amend it in Committee and, if they fail to amend it satisfactorily at that stage, decide whether to vote for Third Reading.

It strikes me as foolish for the Opposition to break the all-party consensus that has been built up, not just in both Houses but among all the organisations that have worked together on the Bill. I ask them to reconsider, even at

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this eleventh hour. By all means let them fight for their amendments in Committee, and then make a decision on Third Reading, but I urge them not to divide the House tonight.

I agree with many members of other parties who have spoken about the importance of special schools. I support such schools. There are many excellent special schools in my constituency; a number of my constituents attend them, are flourishing, and would flourish only in those schools. Nothing in the Bill undermines special schools, but the Opposition amendment would undermine them. Some local education authorities would undoubtedly use it as a cop-out. It would enable them to keep children out of mainstream schools when it was inconvenient for children to be in such schools because the authorities had not made sufficient provision. It would also enable some LEAs not to put children into special schools when that was their parents' wish, because they could not provide the necessary places and wanted to force the children into mainstream schools. If the Opposition are serious about supporting special schools--and I accept that they are, for very good reasons--I ask them to think carefully about their amendment.

We need to continue the dialogue about the Bill. One of the most powerful aspects of its progress is the fact that it has developed as far as it has as a result of dialogue. The Government were accused earlier of not listening, and of not being prepared to accept amendments. In whatever other contexts that may or may not be true, it is not true in the context of this Bill, which has been improved considerably in the House of Lords. The Government have listened, and the Secretary of State said earlier that he was prepared to go on listening if we continued the dialogue.

I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on autism. I would not presume to speak for the group tonight, but my experience of working with it, the people whom I have met and the organisations with which I have been able to discuss the issues have given me some ideas. Before relaying the concerns of autistic people and the organisations that look after them, however, I want to tell the House a story about a child with special needs--not autistic--whom I encountered about three weeks ago, when visiting a mainstream primary school in my constituency. It was one of those mainstream primary schools that were built about 30 years ago. I shall not name it, because the individual concerned might then be identifiable, and the privacy of that person should be respected. The school is in a dreadful state and essentially needs to be replaced. I was visiting to see the damage that had been done to it recently and to talk to the head teacher about the campaign to renew it.

Inside the school hall, there was a little girl who looked very much like my own daughter. She was about six years old and had long, curly hair. She was jumping on a trampoline with the help of a learning assistant, who was holding her hand. The little girl was counting each time she jumped, and, every time she reached the number five, she would fling herself high into the air. She was laughing as she jumped, and her laughter was absolutely infectious and filled the hall.

I continued my tour with the head teacher. When I returned to the hall, the little girl was running across it, still laughing and giggling. She would run back and forth

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and the learning assistant would catch her and then set her free again. As she ran past me, I realised that she had no eyes.

That little girl is in a mainstream school. I suspect that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is the only hon. Member who knows how much guts it must take for that six-year-old to run across a hall with no one there to guide her and no idea of what is in the hall. My right hon. Friend is probably the only hon. Member who has experienced anything remotely like that.

That little girl has so much guts that, if we give her the support she needs, she could achieve anything. As I said, she is being supported in a mainstream primary school, where she is able to fulfil herself. At some point, however, she will have to make the transition to a secondary school. After that, she will have to make the transition to a sixth form, and then to higher education. Each of those transitions could be a huge obstacle for her, but I believe that she can do anything. We have to give her that chance. It is up to us--the House, her local education authority, her parents and her teachers--to give her that chance.

A few weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was reported in the newspapers as saying that he did not think he would ever be Prime Minister because the country was not ready for a blind Prime Minister. I disagree with him. I think that, when the present incumbent decides to give up the post, my right hon. Friend is one of several senior Ministers who would make an excellent Prime Minister.

I also believe that, if we give that little girl the support that she needs throughout her life, if that is the type of course that she decides to pursue, she, too, could make the transition--but only if, throughout her life, she has access to the type of education that is right for her. That is why we have to clear away obstacles and ensure that every mainstream school and every college is available to little girls like her.

The Bill identifies the need to remove obstacles. It says that the parents choice will be paramount. An additional caveat has also been included in the Bill--on the efficiency of education for other children. I admit that, if I had a magic wand, I would wave it and remove that caveat. The only caveat that I would leave in the Bill is the one concerning the primacy of parents' wishes.

Someone has to speak on behalf of the child. If we include caveats such as that proposed by the Opposition, on the particular needs of the child, the parents wishes will no longer be paramount and someone else will have to judge the weight to give to each caveat. The parents wishes will have to be subordinated to the judgment of another authority. Parents wishes are not perfect and some will need a lot of guidance to make choices. However, parents are the best hope we have because they know their children best.

The Bill is going in the right direction, and I hope that the Opposition will come to understand that. The Special Educational Consortium understands that. It says:

Many other organisations have a similar view; my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) quoted many of them. The National Autistic Society certainly has that view, and the society and the Special Educational

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Consortium want the Bill and seek no further amendment to it. They believe that the Bill can have a dramatic effect on the people whom they represent.

The Bill will be important for autistic people because of the duty to provide a mainstream place. Many people have quoted examples of how a mainstream place can be important. The National Autistic Society has identified a girl of average ability with autism who was excluded from mainstream primary schools because the teachers said that her problems were too great. Yet a secondary school was prepared to help her, with a dedicated team that was prepared to look after her needs. She made a great transition to that secondary mainstream school, and has now independently gone on to art college. That shows that we sometimes close our eyes to the possibility of what can be achieved in mainstream schools.

The duty to plan is regarded by the National Autistic Society as a vital amendment in relation to children with autistic spectrum disorders. Two specific areas of planning that need to be considered are transition and staff training. The transition of a child between different schools is vital, and a child who is flourishing in one school must be allowed the opportunity to flourish in the next school.

One example of good practice is Blackpool local education authority, where school support assistants are trained to make transition plans for pupils. An example from the authority is that of an autistic boy who was identified as needing to use public transport to get to his secondary school. The school support assistants made plans to introduce him to public transport and make sure that he could use it to make the transition.

On staff training, an example of which I am aware is that of a little girl who was in a mainstream primary school. She was starting to become disruptive when all the children were sitting around for story-telling and reading. The reason, it was worked out, was that because the child was autistic, she needed a fixed place in the circle. Because she was not given a fixed place, she became uncomfortable and disruptive. The staff realised what was going on and put a red carpet tile down, explaining to her that whenever the class was sitting in a circle, she would sit on the red carpet tile. After that, there was no more trouble from her because she had her place and understood what was necessary. That sort of staff training is vital if we are to introduce autistic children into mainstream schools.

We have to look at teaching strategies. Classes must have visual structures and a clarity of purpose. The objectives of the lesson must be set out so that autistic children can understand them. They will then learn much better and feel more comfortable.

If we are going to plan, we must understand how many people we are planning for. So far as autism is concerned, we still have no real idea. The Government have started to recognise the need to work out how many autistic children there are, but we need to speed up that process. A few decades ago, it was assumed that only four people in 10,000 were autistic. In the 1970s, that figure was raised by studies that suggested that 20 people in 10,000 were autistic. By 1993, the estimate was 71 in 10,000, and the National Autistic Society currently estimates that 91 people in 10,000 are autistic. Recent studies suggest that one person in 175 is autistic.

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Moreover, there has been an increase in the number of pupils who are now considered to be autistic, and perhaps one in eight pupils with a special need are now thought to be autistic. That matter must be addressed, or planning will be impossible.

Early years education for autistic children must also be looked at. If children up to the age of two can be identified as autistic, we can start giving them intensive help, with the result that they will do very much better in later life. However, we must be able to identify such children and to ensure that early years education is available for them. The people who help in the schools must also be able to employ the techniques needed to identify autistic people.

As has been said, the Bill is a milestone. It will dramatically improve the lives of autistic children and make a huge difference to children of all disabilities. At this eleventh hour, I appeal to the Opposition not to break the huge consensus that has built up in support of the Bill. I urge them to step back from the position that they have adopted, and think again.

I hope that the Opposition will work with the Government in Committee to try and get the amendments that they want into the Bill. However, the important thing is that we all carry on working together to deliver what is a vital measure for disabled people.

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