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Mrs. Laing: Nor, indeed, to my hon. Friend's letter. If the Secretary of State has not even responded to a simple question about salaries, how can the Minister doubt why I should be concerned about his commitment and that of his Government to special educational needs?
Does the Minister know just how many special schools throughout the country are currently under threat of closure? Oak View school in my constituency is under threat of closure because of funding problems and the enormous bureaucracy heaped on it. How many more schools are in a similar position? I will happily give way to the Minister if he wants to respond. I understand why he does not want to respond when I ask how many schoolsperhaps he does not have that information at his fingertipsbut will he tell the House whether he has any plans for stopping special schools closing? He clearly does not want to respond. I understand that. I take it to mean that he has no plans.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): On special needs schools, Brook Farm school in my constituency closed, despite a year's stay of execution following many appeals and representations to the former Minister. Its closure has added to the deep anxiety felt by parents of children who require special needs education. Not only have school places gone, necessitating longer journeys, but the introduction of the initial code caused great anxiety about certainty and quantification, particularly in respect of respite opportunities. For at least a year, and in my constituency for two years, parents and children have lived in a state of deep and unnecessary anxiety, because the situation was not handled by Government in a timely and more responsible manner.
The Government have not provided certainty. The Minister's presence in the House today to introduce a different code of practice from the one introduced only four months ago shows clearly that certainty has not been provided by the Government. It is not surprising that parents of children who attended the school described by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) are more than concerned. Of course they do not trust what the Government say, because the Government change their mind this way and that. If a Government can change their mind right in the middle of a vote that is still taking place on an order laid before the House, they can change their mind any time and in any way.
If the Minister wants to show real commitment to special education needs, we will have to be convinced that he and his colleagues intend to provide the right funding for their plans, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet said. They will have to convince us that their plans are consistent and that they will do what they say they will do.
In this area more than any otherthere are many, many others in which the Government say one thing and do anotherwe have a striking example of the Government saying one thing and doing another. On this occasion, we are pleased that they are doing what they said they would not do, as they are now doing the right thing. The Minister gestures as if he is confused by what I am saying. I am not confused. The people who are confused are the parents of children who require special educational provision. They are among the most vulnerable in our society. They should not be confused. They should be able to depend on the Government's word, and they should know that if the Minister says something in the House, he means it.
Mr. O'Brien: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to me a second time. She is making a powerful point. Our welcome for the Government's U-turn on the code does not diminish the unnecessary and untimely suffering and deep concern caused to families by the terms of the original draft order. They immediately recognised that it would throw into great uncertainty the care that they had already arranged. There was a deep suspicion that that was being done on financial grounds, rather than being motivated by concern for children and their needs.
Mrs. Laing: Once again, my hon. Friend is correct. Those parents have had more than a year of anxiety, not knowing what would happen to their children, what the Government would do, or whether the Government would listen to their concerns, as expressed by organisations such as the RNIB and IPSEA. At first, the Government did not listen, but now they have listened, at least in part. Parents have nothing on which to rely. That is wrong. Their children are among the most vulnerable people in our society and they deserve better.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): It was incredibly sad to hear the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) use her first major contribution at the Dispatch Box to deliver a party political attack on the Government on an issue of such importance and sensitivity. The fact that she had nothing whatever to say about some of the core issues relating to the code demonstrates the lack of integrity of an Opposition who have clearly not come to grips with the fact that unless
Mr. Willis: I will not give way. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] There is no doubt that, in respect of schools, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 was an important landmark on the journey towards a more inclusive society. The work of previous Conservative Governments on the matter dates back to the Education Act 1981the first major education Act which introduced statements. Today's performance does a disservice to past Secretaries of State who did an enormous amount to establish inclusive education in our schools. Baroness Blatch needs a special mention for the work that she has done on the issue, together with my hon. Friends in both Houses.
This morning, I accepted a cheque, presented by Abbey National, on behalf of Barnados, which operates a restaurant employing young adults with learning disabilities in Harrogate. Virtually half of the young trainees who work in that commercial restaurant have Down's syndrome. When I met them this morning, I was reminded of the comment made by Lord Rix in another place when the code of practice was debated. He mentioned that he had just spent a wonderful day with his grandson, who is a Down's syndrome child. Lord Rix, peers like him and others who have fought for an inclusive society will have their dreams brought one stage nearer. We hope that in years to come, Lord Rix's grandson will enjoy the fruits of the code of practice, if the Government implement it in its entirety.
We welcome the U-turn by the Government, if that is what it is. There was a vicious attack on the Government in the House, and there would have been a similar attack in another place, over the code of practice that failed to include the quantity of resources attached to statements.
When one looks back to 1981 and to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, one sees that the great deficiency in special needs provision in schools was the quantifying of statements. Previous Governments did not achieve that. I worked in schools that pioneered inclusive education for children with physical difficulties, sensory impairments and severe learning difficulties. As a headmaster, I never had sufficient resources to deliver what parents, children and teachers needed. We should seek to move a stage further towards delivering that. I do not criticise previous Governments, who made noble efforts in that direction, but we must keep that constantly in mind.
The code of practice does many good things. It is absolutely right to reduce from five to three the steps to be taken before statements are issued. I agree that there should be two steps for schools, and most schools will welcome more simplicity in respect of record keeping. However, Liberal Democrats particularly welcome placing parents at the heart of this issue and establishing, through local education authorities, proper parent panels and discussion forums to ensure that problems do not arise in the schools but are sorted out beforehand.
The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made two interventions with which I absolutely agreed. The issue of parents is crucial. LEAs do not have sufficient resources to do what they are expected to do and they are now being given new responsibilities. How are they supposed to set up the new organisations under paragraph 2:17 and run them efficiently unless they have additional resources?
Mr. Gale: As the hon. Gentleman has come thus far with me, perhaps he would come a little further. Does he agree that, given that we shall lose good special schools because of the doctrinaire approach that will force children into mainstream education, that mainstream education and support will be even more expensive, so we shall need even more resources?