Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11.31 am

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate, even though it draws us away from our constituency engagements on a Friday. For me that is unusual, but this is such an important debate that it is a privilege to take part in it, especially given the tone of the discussion so far. Hon. Members may put different emphasis on different policies, but everybody in the House wants to see the same outcomes, and we have already heard some thoughtful speeches.

As the Minister would expect, I want to talk about special educational needs in the overall context of what we have to do to prevent people from being excluded from society. The White Paper, like the debate so far, acknowledges that many people are excluded from society through no fault of their own.

Before I entered the House, my main occupation was in the textile industry and in manufacturing, but for four or five years immediately before I came here I did a lot of charity work and fundraising, some of it on a professional basis. One of my roles immediately before I was elected was working with homeless women in London.

1 Feb 2002 : Column 560

That was an eye-opener, and also in some ways a useful introduction to the House of Commons, because the people with whom we were dealing had severe problems and were excluded from society. It is interesting to note that the people who wanted to help them came from what could be described as the elite, and the job stretched my abilities—and, I should add, my education—in every direction. That was a useful preparation for coming to the House, because when we deal with our constituents we often get stretched in many directions.

What struck me particularly at that time was the prevalence of mental illness, and the way in which it affected people. My role was to raise money to create a hostel for homeless women in London, and that was successfully done. The home took in homeless people and resettled them, but it was not simply a matter of putting someone in a home and then finding them a flat. We had to get people to try to understand why they had become homeless in the first place, and to deal with the problems that had caused that. When we got them into their own home again, we had to continue to work with them to ensure that they did not have further problems.

Many of those people had mental illnesses. They were not necessarily young people; some were older, and some were refugees. They came from all walks of life.

One of the common factors was that those people had never been rich; they were obviously quite poor. That does not mean that rich people do not have mental illnesses or become homeless. They certainly do. I became aware of many quite well-off people who had mental illnesses and had become homeless, but they were shielded from the glare of publicity, and did not become obvious to us or to the rest of society because they had friends who could look after them.

Many people with learning disabilities and mental illnesses do not have such friends, and they end up in hostels or on the streets, with severe problems. That taught me a thing or two about what is going on in society—both what we see and what we do not see. My work had a profound effect on me.

When I entered the House I, like many other Members, was asked to make one or two speeches on crime, and I began to think about the massive changes that had taken place in the 20th century. The rise in crime was pretty constant during that century and, on the face of it, it is difficult to correlate social factors with that rise in crime. The provision of health care, education and housing was far better at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning, and there was far more prosperity, so I began to ask myself why, if all those social factors had improved, had crime increased so tremendously during that century?

I came to two conclusions. One was that attitudes had changed. The world had changed, and people were not taught to tell right from wrong as they once were. However, to say that is to oversimplify. It also became clear that there was a group of people who probably had not shared in the great improvements and advances of the century—people who had not got much better health care or education and were not much better off.

Mr. Boswell: I shall not go into all the interesting points that my hon. Friend is beginning to touch on, such as the relationship of social developments with criminality, and I would not want to identify deficiencies

1 Feb 2002 : Column 561

in basic skills too closely with learning difficulties, although there is some correlation between them—but does my hon. Friend not find it remarkable and disturbing, as I do, that about 60 per cent. of the population of our prisons now have severe functional difficulties with basic skills, which may by definition make them unfit for economic participation in the labour force?

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend is right, and has picked up a point that I was going to make.

If we think about the people who have not shared in the great advances of the 20th century, we begin to understand why things have gone wrong for some people. I do not, of course, mean to suggest that everybody in that category ends up as a criminal. That is obviously not true, and I do not think that anybody in the House would assume that that is what I am saying.

As I continued to study crime and the prison population, I found that, as my hon. Friend says, about 60 per cent. of the prison population are either illiterate or semi-illiterate. Again, I am not saying that anyone who is illiterate will automatically commit a crime, but there is a reason to look more deeply for the causes of crime.

I am not saying that all prison sentences are strong enough; indeed, I think that many of them should be stronger. None the less, we need to understand why the crimes are committed in the first place. There is an obvious correlation between the crime figures and a lack of education and basic skills. I was astounded when I checked up on this, because I could not believe the figures, but I found that more than 90 per cent. of prisoners have some form of mental illness or other mental problem.

Those problems fall into five different categories, but most prisoners—indeed, almost all prisoners—have some form of what used to be called mental deficiency. I hesitate to use that term, but do so in the absence of a better one. There is a great problem. Yes, we must address sentencing policy, but that is a matter for another debate; in this debate, we must examine why people end up in that position when we allegedly have an education system that prevents that.

Many people leave school either illiterate or semi-literate. That is a factor in crime and social exclusion. Today's world is extremely competitive. In that respect, the world has changed more in the past 20 years than in the preceding 80 years. I have the pleasure of being a member of the Standing Committee on the Office of Communications Bill, in which we are discussing the massive changes that have taken place not only in television programmes, but through the emergence of the internet.

The changes in the world and the pace with which they have taken place are incredible. Now, only the strong survive—but in a civilised society we must do better than that. People who are not properly educated will be disadvantaged and excluded from society to some extent. We have to ensure not only that they have some way of making up ground, but—more important—that they do not fall by the wayside and become involved in crime or drugs. That is a big challenge.

There is a problem of acceptance. I hope that I will be allowed to take a gentle swipe at politicians, perhaps even those of my own party. There has been a reluctance to

1 Feb 2002 : Column 562

accept that people who are not well educated and who therefore have no job or are caught up in the dependency culture are more likely to fall by the wayside and to turn to crime. The problem is that that is regarded as an excuse for crime. It is not an excuse: many people in the same circumstances do not turn to crime. However, it sometimes serves as an explanation, and as a reason to look deeper.

I am glad that the shadow Home Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), has recently opened up that debate, and I applaud him for doing so. He made it quite clear—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman must relate his interesting remarks to the White Paper on people with learning disabilities.

Mr. Robertson: I certainly shall, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I apologise for straying.

My point is that learning disabilities or mental illness are often not recognised. Physical illness is much more easily recognised than mental illness. That failure to recognise and address the issues might be because of the stigma that attached to mental illness in the past, or because we find it frightening to talk about, or because we find the people who suffer mental illness rather challenging.

Some of the problems that children have, such as autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia—an illness I came across only recently—are not recognised and identified quickly enough, and not dealt with properly. The result is that many children, through no fault of their own but because of their learning disabilities, do not receive the education that they deserve.

The need to provide education to such children brings me to the issue of special educational needs. With my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and the Minister, who was then at the Department for Education and Skills, I had the pleasure to serve on the Committee that considered the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. Although we welcomed much of its content, certain aspects of that legislation caused me concern.

The legislation emphasised inclusion, which in theory I applaud, but when that inclusion in education does not provide for the child, that child becomes excluded from society later. The legislation was rather prescriptive, stating that the child had to be educated in a mainstream school unless there was an appropriate statement; and even if there was a statement, the child had to be educated in the mainstream unless that was

The emphasis was on inclusion.

Many children, especially those with moderate learning difficulties, are included and do very well in mainstream schools. However, in my opinion, many children with moderate or more severe learning difficulties—perhaps with emotional and behavioural difficulties—need special provision. The 2001 Act was not helpful in that respect—in fact, it was rather destructive.

My remarks are founded on my experience in Gloucestershire, which, for the avoidance of doubt, is run these days by an unholy Lib-Lab alliance, or pact as it

1 Feb 2002 : Column 563

used to be called. I make that point lest people think that Gloucestershire is run by the Conservatives; it has not been for a long time. I am greatly concerned about education policy in Gloucestershire. I am not the only one concerned about special educational needs provision; a damning Ofsted report was published in January.

Inappropriate education can lead to exclusion, even though the intention is to include. Although it might be regarded as inclusive to educate all children in one school, if some children fall behind because they cannot cope with that education, they will end up excluded from society. The theory will not work in practice. Many pupils and parents in Gloucestershire are concerned about the removal of the special schools.

The Minister, dealing with the 2001 Act, said repeatedly that the Act and Government policy at that time should not lead to the wholesale closure of special schools, but Gloucestershire county council decided otherwise and that it should close the special schools. Bownham Park school in Stroud was earmarked for closure. Parents, pupils and everyone else connected with the school ran a tremendous campaign to keep it open; unfortunately, the adjudicator decided that the school should close, with the decision being announced the day after the general election. That is not a political point; it is a fact.

That was extremely sad, not only for those involved in that school, but for many other teachers and head teachers throughout the mainstream sector. They recognise that, regardless of the good intentions of any Government, historically resources have never followed pupils. Mainstream schools have never had adequate resources to provide the support required by children with special needs.

The council has not learned the lesson. This morning, I received an e-mail telling me that Gloucestershire's cabinet has now raised closure notices on Dean Hall school and Oakdene school in Forest of Dean. Oakdene provides for children with severe learning difficulties. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) is to present to the cabinet a petition carrying 5,000 signatures, protesting against the closures. Although we hear from the Government that their policies are not intended to lead to the wholesale closure of special schools, in Gloucestershire—the area that I am paid to represent—there is a programme of wholesale closure of special schools.

The one special school that falls in my constituency, Alderman Knight school, has sent a delegation to the House of Commons and run a tremendous campaign to try to protect itself. Not only do pupils at that school have learning disabilities as described in the White Paper, but they have physical disabilities as well. It is extremely difficult for those children to be educated in mainstream schools. The Minister will be tired of hearing me make this plea, but I urge the Government to re-examine their policy of inclusion.

I do not want the House to think that it is only my opinion that provision for special educational needs is not working well in Gloucestershire. Paragraph 5 of the Ofsted report describes the background in Gloucestershire, and states:

One of the serious weaknesses listed is the strategy for special educational needs. The process that I have been describing is one such reason for the Ofsted report's criticism.

1 Feb 2002 : Column 564

Looking in more detail at the section in the Ofsted report on special educational needs, one paragraph says:

Again we find that the policy is leading to the wholesale closure of such schools. The report continues:

Scare stories lead to staff disappearing, which then leads to falling roll numbers. Then people can turn round and say that there is no demand for the services of such schools—but we all know that there is.

The report goes on to say:

That means that because the schools are earmarked for closure, but there is not an adequate replacement policy, the resources will not follow the pupils into mainstream schools. The report goes on to make another point:

That is the crucial point. In other words, we are talking about theories and not setting out how the standards of achievement of pupils with special educational needs will be attained.

Highlighting the problem further, the report goes on to say:

of which I am proud—

this is the crucial point—

The report recommends that the LEA needs to

The statementing situation is obviously of great concern. I fear that you will call me to order if I go down that road, Madam Deputy Speaker, so suffice it to say that the approach is rather "one size fits all", which we want to try to avoid.

1 Feb 2002 : Column 565

In general, I welcome the fact that the White Paper addresses the difficulties caused to many people by the fact that they have learning disabilities, whatever that means—the definition is quite wide. I have tried to highlight one or two areas where people can fall by the wayside, end up homeless or perhaps committing crime, or are excluded from society even if they are not homeless or criminals. I hope that the White Paper will address those issues. I hope that it is also able to identify ways in which we can put things right.

I did not go to a grammar school, because, as I have said before in the House, I failed to negotiate the 11-plus successfully. I went to a secondary modern school. I make that point only because I went to the school appropriate for me; it provided me with the appropriate education. So I would not want people for the sake of the theory of inclusivity to be excluded from society. That is the plea that I yet again make to the Minister, with whom I have some sympathy because, even though she has changed Departments, she still has to suffer my pleas.

Next Section

IndexHome Page