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5.32 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): A casual observer looking around the House at the peak time of 5.30 in the afternoon would think that we were discussing a peripheral issue of little consequence. We are not. The code of practice directly affects thousands of the most vulnerable among us, yet there are six interested Labour Members and the Minister and no interested Liberal Democrats other than the party's spokesman. Many of my colleagues are, of course, here because we have—

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Count them!

Mrs. Laing: I cannot because they are behind me, but I know that there are far more Conservative Members present than Labour Members. [Interruption.] Proportionally, there are considerably more.

As ever, it is not quantity that counts, but quality. As the Minister just admitted, it is the quality of our arguments on this extremely important subject of special educational needs that has prevailed. How could the Minister stand at the Dispatch Box and talk about consultation and listening when he has come here to do a huge U-turn?

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): Many Labour Members made the same points during the consultation process as those made by the Opposition and in the other place. It is the result of the total wisdom of all those who were interested that has brought about the changes.

Mrs. Laing: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman makes that point. I pay tribute to the Labour Members who were brave enough to defy their terrifying Chief Whip and stand up for what they, and we, believed was the correct approach. The Minister did not think that we were right, but he has now changed his mind. Like the hon. Gentleman, we are pleased that the Minister has presented yet another draft of the special educational needs code of practice.

Sadly, it is typical of the Government to have tried to implement policy without having thought it through. I hope that the Minister will join me in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and my noble Friend Baroness Blatch, who have shown the Minister the error of his ways and whose arguments he has accepted. He has been saved from making the wrong decision by their arguments and persistence. He and his Government owe them a debt of gratitude.

It is typical that this Government have dogmatically stuck to their original position while ignoring the advice and views of many acknowledged experts on the subject—not Conservative Members but members of outside bodies who devote their lives to trying to improve the plight of children in need of special education, and who ought to have been listened to earlier.

Implementing this code of practice soon is not the same as implementing a code of practice six months or a year ago; more children would have benefited if it had been implemented sooner. So, moving today's motion is not the same as accepting our arguments months or, indeed, years ago—or simply leaving alone the 1994 code of practice, which was implemented by the previous Government.

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It was hard to keep a straight face while watching the Minister. I compliment him on managing to do so while he spoke about consulting and how, from now on, the Government will consult on other matters in the area. I am sure that the Minister now realises that there is no point in consulting if, following the consultation procedure, everything that was said to the Government is totally ignored.

It is a matter of record that the previous version of the code of practice was eventually laid before the House in June after nearly a year of dithering following its publication. On 10 July, a debate took place, in which the Minister ignored the comments of my hon. Friends and some Labour Members.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) has just pointed out, because of our system of deferred voting, about which I suppose I had better not make any particular criticism—hon. Members may well infer it—Labour Members were being whipped into the Lobby to vote for the code of practice at the very moment on 11 July that the Government were withdrawing the motion, just before it was to be put before the other place. We had the farce of Labour Members putting their crosses in the box, voting in favour of a code of practice that at that very moment was being withdrawn. To say that that is inconsistent is an understatement.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): Joined-up government?

Mrs. Laing: It certainly is not joined-up government; the Minister does not know what he is doing. However, a sinner's repentance is always welcome. We welcome the withdrawal of the previous code of practice and the Minister's courage in coming before the House yet again on this subject to introduce a much better one.

It is hard to understand why the previous Secretary of State was so keen to downgrade the need for specificity in the drafting of statements. We did not understand it then, nor do we now. Many of the organisations representing children with special educational needs have long fought to have statements written clearly, without any room for misrepresentation. That is the least that parents of children with special educational needs can reasonably expect. They deserve far better than a woolly, vague statement.

We welcome the fact that the new code of practice requires that a statement contain details of hours of provision, staffing arrangements and any additional equipment that might be necessary. We supported those changes previously and we welcome them now. If only the Minister's colleagues were as brave as he has been in making a U-turn after listening to the better arguments voiced by my hon. Friends. However, I do not take credit for the changes solely for my hon. Friends; I take it for the many groups outside the place—including the Royal National Institute for the Blind and the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice—which argued that the Government were not doing their best for children in great need.

The Government have realised that they were wrong. We are glad to see that they are now almost right. We will not oppose the code of practice, but I feel obliged to point out that it is still not perfect. The RNIB has pointed out that the code includes neither provision for mobility

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education for children with sight impairment, nor provisions on early detection of visual impairment. We share the RNIB's concerns: we agree that, to a child with impaired sight, mobility is as essential as language skills are to any other child. I will give way to the Minister if he would like to respond on that point.

Mr. Timms indicated dissent.

Mrs. Laing: No, the Minister does not wish to respond. Perhaps he will respond in writing later, or perhaps he will take the code of practice away again for redrafting and reintroduction at some future date—although I hasten to add that I do not encourage him to do that. We want the code of practice to pass now. Although we hope that further improvement will be made in future, we do not want to delay the implementation of the code any longer. The Government's dogmatic attitude has caused it to be delayed for long enough.

Mr. Gale: My hon. Friend is being characteristically generous to the Government in applauding the changes to the code of practice. It is all very well to will the ends, but where are the means? I understood the Minister to say that there is to be £25 million over three years for early years provision, presumably spread between approximately 100 local education authorities. Where is the beef?

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend, as usual, makes an excellent point. The Minister spoke, as he and his colleagues always do, in vague terms about funding per child throughout the country. He repeated an announcement that was made earlier this week about additional funding—but additional to what?

It is hard to know what Ministers mean when they talk about additional funding, because we can never be sure how often they have already added in the chunk that they are talking about. The Minister explained that the money he mentioned at the end of his speech was in addition to another sum, and he admitted that it had previously been announced. I will give way to the Minister if he wants to provide clarification, but it appears that he does not want to intervene. If the money is additional, to what is it additional? How often has it been announced? Sometimes, we have difficulty interpreting the figures correctly, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) said, because we can never be sure how many times an announcement has been made.

As I said, we welcome the return to the principle of the clear and precise wording of statements in the 1994 code of practice. We are pleased that the Minister has come to the House to restore the specificity and quantification provisions, as it was vital to do so. Nevertheless, we still doubt the Government's commitment to special educational needs.

Mr. Win Griffiths: Shame.

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman has responded to what I am saying, but the Minister still has not. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman really thinks about the Government's commitment, he will join me in doubting it.

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I have a letter from Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard, whose daughter Claire needs special educational provision. They are just one example of many thousands of parents who are not certain about what will be done for their children, what they can rely on and what sort of plans they can make for their daughter and the rest of their family because they are not certain that they can trust the Government to do what they say they intend or hope to do for children with special educational needs.

In my constituency, I regularly meet the head teacher of Oak View school, an excellent special school. He came to see me recently and explained that, although it is well known that the teacher shortage in our Essex area is critical in schools in general, the position for special schools is very much worse. He told me that a teacher in a special school in Loughton receives approximately £1,000 a year less than a similar teacher who works in outer London, only one mile way away. It is hard enough to recruit teachers to special schools without specific provisions that make it more difficult. Here is a case where teachers are suffering discrimination in the very area—SENs—where we desperately need to recruit them.

I wrote to the Secretary of State's predecessor on 14 December 2000 about that important issue, but I have yet to receive a reply. How can anyone doubt my concern about the Government's commitment if the Secretary of State, in all these months, has not even replied to my letter?

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