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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) rose

Mrs. Laing: No, I will not give way to the hon. Lady. It is time for others to have their chance to speak. Labour Members who keep sneering at a genuine attempt to ask genuine questions of a genuine Minister are doing their Government and the people they serve as Members of Parliament a great disservice. I am sure that the Minister will not reply in the tone that his hon. Friends who are doughnuting behind him are adopting at present. It is far too sad a situation for that, and I do not know why hon. Members are laughing. It is ridiculous to laugh or sneer. The situation matters too much to families who desperately need help.

We all want to give every child in Britain today the best possible opportunity to develop his or her talents to their fullest potential. That is much more difficult in the case of children with special needs, so much more effort must be put into helping them. I believe that the Minister has, personally, the best of intentions, and I pay every respect to him for that. But good intentions are not the same as action, and it is action that we now need from the Government.

7.46 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said that she wanted to avoid party point-scoring in the debate. That was a laudable objective, but unfortunately she

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wavered in her determination on that score on several occasions. This is not a party issue, because there is enormous interest in special educational needs across the House, and in the other place as well. I counsel the hon. Lady against patronising some of the people we are talking about and their parents. That is a temptation that we need to avoid.

It is essential that all children, whatever their circumstances, should have the opportunity to develop to their full potential as individuals, to contribute economically to our society and to play a full part as active citizens in their communities. That is our conviction, which will be shared across the House. That is why we made it clear, right from the start of the Government's term in office, that we wanted substantially to improve provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. It was not by any means at the end of any list. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope) said, the Green Paper on special educational needs appeared early on—in October 1997, less than six months after the general election. It was a high priority, reflecting the importance that we attach to the whole matter.

The hon. Lady referred to the publication of the National Autistic Society's report for autism awareness week, which adds helpfully to our understanding of the developing picture on autism and raises some important issues. We are working closely with the society, which is doing important work. Several of the matters covered in the report will be addressed in the guidance to be issued by the autism working group, on which the National Autistic Society is represented. We expect that to be published in the summer.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): On autism, I have been horrified by the stories that I hear parents tell of the battles that they have with, in my case, Norfolk county council's education department in trying to get funding for the Lovaas scheme and the Son-Rise programme. When they get somewhere near the point of securing funding, the health authority tells them that it will not fund the health element, or that speech therapy, which is part of the statement, will not be funded by the education department. There is no attempt to co-ordinate the efforts of the health authority and the education department. Will the Minister look into that to ensure that there is proper co-ordination and joined-up government?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman is right that some parents struggle to get satisfactory provision for their children. Anxieties about that lie behind our recent changes, to which I shall refer shortly. It is especially important that we join up the various sources of support and ensure co-operation to fulfil parents' needs. He is right to draw attention to the difficulties that many people have encountered.

Mrs. Laing: The Minister agreed with the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), and therefore with me, that many parents have a struggle. Will he acknowledge that some parents are less able to struggle than others? It is not patronising to say that; I am simply stating the facts because I want to do the best for the most vulnerable.

Mr. Timms: We must ensure that the special educational needs of children are met, and that is the aim of our changes.

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The hon. Lady referred to the policy on inclusion, which the Conservative Government initiated in some respects. I was pleased that two thirds of the respondents to the report by the National Autistic Society believed that inclusion worked for children with autistic spectrum disorders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby said, that confirms the society's earlier findings. However, I accept that several pressing issues must be tackled.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): During the passage of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, I raised teaching the deaf. I referred to a school in my constituency that had a superb unit for the hearing impaired. Does the Minister seriously believe that it has been effective to dissipate the energy and talent in that school and spread it thinly around a group of less specialist schools in the name of inclusion?

Mr. Timms: Those decisions should be made locally. I shall comment on special schools because the hon. Member for Epping Forest mentioned them in her speech. Support should be provided in a variety of ways, depending on the resources available in each area, and the decisions should be made locally.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: The Minister says that decisions should be made locally. He knows that the school adjudicator in the case of the first special school in Gloucestershire to close lived in Darlington. How was that decision local?

Mr. Timms: Arrangements for dealing with such matters, including appeals to the adjudicator, are well known. In 1990, just over 99,000 pupils were enrolled in special schools; in 2001, the figure was just under 96,000. Conservative Members must bear the figures in mind. They give a different impression from Opposition Members.

After the publication of the Green Paper in 1997, we issued the SEN programme of action in the following year. That led to the publication of a new SEN code of practice in November last year. Hon. Members will recall that we debated it twice in the House. At the end of last year, we also published additional guidance in the form of the SEN toolkit, which offers advice, for example, on writing statements, encouraging effective partnership with parents, and the role of health and social services working alongside education services. The Teacher Training Agency published material to help to identify teachers' training needs. All that constitutes a large package of support for those who deal with SEN on the ground.

The new code has several key themes, which were widely welcomed in the consultation that we undertook. The first is identifying needs as soon as possible. I believe that we all agree that we have made much progress in recent years and that identification is important in ensuring that we fulfil the needs of as many children as possible. The second key requirement is improving partnership with parents and the third is taking account of the child's views. The fourth key requirement is promoting effective school-based provision and the fifth is reducing unnecessary paperwork for teachers.

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The code of practice is the cornerstone of our approach to SEN: a detailed framework in which people can operate and that is designed to promote a consistent approach by placing children with special needs at the heart of the process.

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