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8.30 pm

Mr. Shaun Woodward (St. Helens, South): The Minister has come under something of an attack. I was surprised by that because over the years the subject of special educational needs has been a matter of consensus rather than combat. SEN policies have been criticised before. I shall remind the Minister of a speech in which it was said:

That is the sort of speech that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) might have made, but in fact those were the words of the then Member for Finchley.

Special educational needs are important. They involve a vulnerable group of people, and the House needs to be cautious when it chooses to use such people as the subject of an Opposition day debate. It is easy to make criticisms that turn vulnerable people into political footballs without providing adequate ideas about how we should deal with the problem.

Indeed, we have been dealing with the problem for a long time. The solutions evolve as we learn more about the problems of children with SEN and children with autism. The shadow Leader of the House, when he was an Education Minister in 1992, said:

Again, I caution the hon. Member for Epping Forest about the dangers of turning the debate into a combat rather than a matter of consensus.

The problem of a shortfall of specialist teachers is not new either. Back in 1994, it was said:

just 200—

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We need to be careful of ignoring the fact that the problems are not new. They are continuing and will remain with us for as long as the problem remains with us.

Mrs. Laing: Strange as it may seem, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is not a matter for party political banter—as I said. He is right to say that the problems have always been with us and are still with us now. We must not look back at statistics, but forwards at what can be done. If a consensus that allows us all to work together can be achieved, let us achieve it.

Mr. Woodward: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for saying that. However, she needs to achieve greater consensus within her party, which faces the eternal problem of how to fund policies. She talks about the importance of greater resources and more provision, but if a party is committed to reducing Government spending to 35 per cent. of GDP, it raises the fundamental question of where it is going to make the cuts. Knowing her as I do, I am sure that the hon. Lady would want to ring-fence this area. Clearly, we would wish to give her the opportunity to say so this evening.

I shall remind the hon. Lady again of the words of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) a couple of years ago:

He was absolutely right. The head teachers of special schools in my county, however, say that they have heard such ideas before. They are absolutely right—they have heard them before. They are all too well aware of the funding implications. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire continued:

The hon. Lady therefore needs to consult her colleagues on this issue. She also needs to bear in mind, when she puts forward this combative motion, the words of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), among others of her hon. Friends, who recently said:

We must therefore see the issue in its real context.

The real criticism relates to how the problem was dealt with before 1991. The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the problem of statistics. The fact is that before 1991 we did not even count the numbers. There is real criticism to be made of those lost years, for the sake of those forgotten children—today's adults—who suffered so much. The statistics are important, and she is right to remind Ministers of the importance of continuing to collate them.

The hon. Lady referred earlier to all those tragedies, but we must also be careful to avoid talking only about tragedies. As a result of the changes in our thinking, on which the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and others have commented, we—including the hon. Lady's

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party, when in office—have achieved notable success. We must therefore be careful to avoid pointing only to what is going wrong, not to what is going right. The number of pupils with statements has increased each year since 1991, but the reason for that, of course, is that we are diagnosing those children. There are not suddenly more of them than there were before, but now we know where they are and who they are.

How are we to respond to the problem? Again, it is to the credit of the Conservative Government that the Education Act 1996 sought to give effect to the principle that pupils with special educational needs should normally be educated in mainstream schools. We must not lose sight of the importance of that decision, and the real progress that was achieved when that Government made it. As a principle of provision, the present Government have continued that policy since the election in 1997. That is right, and there have been some fantastic successes. In 1991, 165,875 children were identified as pupils with statements. That figure was up by nearly 100,000 in 1997, and today it is 269,000.

Crucially, those children have gone into mainstream education wherever possible. Let us celebrate that success. In 1991, 42 per cent. were in maintained mainstream schools; today that figure is 61 per cent. That is a good thing. In 1991, 54 per cent. were in special schools and pupil referral units; by 2000 that figure was down to 36 per cent. That is a cause for real celebration. That inclusion was achieved by the hon. Lady's party when in government, and was continued by the Labour party in government. Consensus across the House has been important in achieving that. I note the importance of caution with regard to turning the issue of children with special educational needs into an area of political combat. We have done well to keep it away from that, and we now need to be cautious about moving it into the arena as a political football.

In opposition the Labour party produced the document "Every Child is Special", which rightly drew attention to the fact that

and that too much time was spent on

The Government were right to tackle some of that. They were also right to increase the funding in special schools, despite the fall in the overall balance by 20 per cent. We should acknowledge that that funding has gone in. We should also acknowledge the Government's success in making it possible for children in mainstream schools to have access to such funding. That is not a criticism of the previous Government, but an observation of where our priorities as a society were.

In 1996–97 the extra budget made available to help to make the mainstream accessible to disabled pupils was £10 million. In 2001 it was £50 million, and over the next three years there is a commitment to spend £220 million under the schools access initiative. That is a good record, but we can do more.

The motion draws on the document "Autism in schools: crisis or challenge?" produced by the National Autistic Society. I am proud to be involved with that organisation, and I have enjoyed helping it with fund raising. We owe the society a great debt for the work that it has done. However, let us be fair about the figures. Even the

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society's current report says that it is surprised by the numbers of children with autism. It points out that only 90 per cent. of all teachers are trained in the specific problems of children with autism, but it realises that catch-up inevitably has to follow diagnosis. Training of teachers will follow recognition of the problem.

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