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15 Oct 2002 : Column 284continued
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): In these rather bizarre circumstances, and in what may, I hope, be seen as part one of my contribution, I intend to say a little bit about why I am concerned about what is currently happening
The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) rightly tried to see whether it was possible to build some consensus in the House. I suspect that there is consensus in all parts of the House at least about the view that local government needs a different and fairer funding system. I hope that I can also build consensus in respect of the bouquets that he gave to the Minister. Indeed, I suspect that nobody in the House would deny the Minister's clear commitment to local government. I give him credit for his willingness to take on a challenge that almost everybody else has failed to tacklein fairness, even the Local Government Association has failed to tackle itand make some proposals about an alternative to the current discredited system.
The fact that I shall be critical of some of the Minister's proposals does not mean that I am critical of his energy in that direction. His commitment to local government has been demonstrated by the fact that it has felt the effects of a number of improvements in the past five years. We have seen a number of significant changes. For instance, capping is now more or less out of the window. Of course, there have also been some improvements in overall funding, but sadly, those increases have often been linked to increases in ring-fenced funding.
Mr. McWalter: Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that there should be consensus throughout the House about the fact that social services receive woefully inadequate funding throughout the country, whether in area cost adjustment areas or elsewhere? It is a vital function of this debate that that historic misery be corrected.
Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. The Minister might even leap to his feet to suggest that, in recognising that deficiency, the Government have put additional money into that block in the SSA formula. Were he to do so, however, he would also have to go a little further and acknowledge that, even with the additional moneys that have been put in, local authorities throughout the country are still reporting that their expenditure is well in excess of the amount that has been given and that many needs are not being met. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point.
Unfortunately, we have waited in vain for five long years for a new formula to replace the current discredited one. After two wasted years spent on the abortive attempt to introduce the plan-led approach, I believe that we are now in danger of rushing the current review through to full completion for the coming financial year in a way that could lead to the same disaster that resulted from rushing through changes to the A-level system. Hasty action now could create problems in future. The Government have left themselves a short time of only a few weeks to consider the many and varied responses to the consultation before they make their final settlement announcement.
Richard Younger-Ross: My hon. Friend referred to floors and ceilings. Will he comment on the Minister's response to my earlier intervention about the long-term impact of formulae on potential? It is fair to say that if the floors exist and there is no impact in the first year, there may be no impact in the second or third year. However, what happens when the floors no longer exist? Will local authorities be worse off?
Mr. Foster: I fear that my hon. Friend's analysis is not correct because it is not necessarily the case that there will be no impact. As the Minister rightly pointed out, the floor refers only to a cash figure, not an inflation-related figure. I am sorry that I was unable to attend his seminars, which, I understand, were extremely good. However, in the seminars and in the Chamber tonight, he failed to state clearly what would happen after the first year. We understand that floors will continue to exist for several years, but the Minister has told us neither the number nor whether they will continue at the same level. For my hon. Friend's council and many others that fear losing out under any new arrangements, there is no certainty for the future.
I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that if the current formula is unfair and changes are required, the distribution mechanism needs to change. As the Minister said, there will always be those who will not get much more compared with others who will.
Mr. Foster: I believe that I was able to point out before the hon. Gentleman intervened that I did not advocate such a proposal. I acknowledge that if we want to change a system, there will be changes for many councils.
Sir Paul Beresford: The point that was made in the earlier intervention puts the Minister in an interesting position, because if his formula is so fair, the floors and ceilings will have to disappear.
Mr. Foster: I have come across no hon. Member, including the Minister, who is capable of fully explaining current local government finance settlement arrangements. The new system that purports to be fairer will involve a complex mechanism. We must all get used to the fact that whatever we do will be relatively complex. That complexity and the need to review the matter in greater detail suggests that although some changes could be introduced in the next financial year, it would be better if the Government postponed them for a year. I shall explain the reasons for that in more detail in part two of my speech next week.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urgently pass legislation both to ensure the restoration of the ASW Sheerness pension fund and to ensure that pensions legislation is more equitable in its treatment of members of company pension schemes.
And the petitioners remain, etc. Peter Holsten, 19 Princess Avenue, Minster, Sheerness.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Interest in the House in autism has been reflected since 1 May 1997 in 154 written parliamentary questions, eight oral parliamentary questions, nine early-day motions and, on my reckoning, at least three Adjournment debates. Those important Adjournment debates on the subject of autism have respectively been initiated by the distinguished chairman of the all-party group on autism, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) on the specific subject of Asperger's syndrome, and, finally, by the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), whose debate took place, fittingly, on 9 January this year, very close to the start of autism awareness year.
Right hon. and hon. Members who take an interest in this subject will doubtless also be conscious that next month will see a further initiative from Autism in Mind, another important campaigning organisation in this field, which will stage a lobby of Parliament. I am, therefore, especially gratifiedon this, our first day back after our lengthy parliamentary recessto have the chance to raise with hon. Members this important issue. I do so conscious of the assistance of the National Autistic Society in general, and of its policy and campaigns manager, Steve Broach, and its parliamentary officer, Senay Camgoz, in particular. They have briefed me. I am not an expert, but I am doing my best to highlight issues of great importance to many of my constituents and to many constituents of Members on both sides of the Chamber.
I begin with a brief consideration of the definition and prevalence of the condition of autism. It is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects the way in which a person communicates with and relates to the people around him or her. It is important to understand that there are many different variants on the theme of autism. We are, after all, dealing with individuals. Some conditions involve learning disabilities, others do not. So there is a great variety. It is, therefore, fitting that the professional experts in the field have come up with the term Xautistic spectrum disorder" to embrace the various different forms of the condition which people experience.
It is estimated that about 520,000 people in this country are autistic. To put it another way, 60 per 10,000 children under the age of eight are involved. That is a substantial number of people. Whatever the differences in their condition and needs, one thing that they have in common is, as one distinguished commentator on this subject has observed, that they suffer from a triad of impairments: an impairment of social interaction; an impairment of social communication; and an impairment of imagination.
Inevitably, we are all influenced in our thinking and pronouncements on this subject by constituency caseslocal examples that have inspired us to think further about a subject about which we perhaps knew little. I have been approached by the mothers of Luke Bennion
Their story is instructive and I am sure that it will have many parallels in the constituencies of other hon. Members. When Christian was three and a half years old, a health visitor suspected that he might be autistic. The suspicion was not confirmed and no diagnosis was given. The family moved from Ruislip in Middlesex to Stone in my Buckingham constituency. It was fully five years later, when Christian was eight and a half years old, that he was diagnosed as autistic. That was after no fewer than three requests for a statement of his special educational needs. He went to a mainstream primary school in Stone. He had one hour a week of speech therapy and, I am horrified to reveal, only one hour per half term of specialist teaching.
Christian has now moved on, temporarily, to a mainstream secondary school, Mandeville upper school. At that institution, he has one hour a week of speech or language therapy and one hour a fortnight of specialist teaching. His overall package of assistance amounts to only half a day's education each day of the week. He is at the school for three hours a day with the support of a dedicated, but non-specialist, teacher and one helper.
In trying to form a picture of what Christian has suffered, it is important to retrace a step. When he was at primary school, he suffered bullying so regular and severe as to cause him to try to commit suicide on no fewer than three occasions. I have conversed and corresponded with Pamela Keszei. She is a remarkable and courageous lady. Her family has undergone the most appalling ordeal. Under the strain, she and her husband are now divorced. She faces childminding costs of #100 a week on average and will shortly have to resign her job as a manager for Age Concern in Aylesbury. She will almost certainly be condemned to live, against her will, on benefits. She may ultimately lose her home. She has focused, almost to the exclusion of everything else in her life and as she has had to do, on the needs and interests of her child.
I salute the indomitable will of that lady and those who support her, but I am horrified that she and her son have been failed by the system at every turn. People who know about the subject will readily testify that autistic children find it especially difficult to deal with change. However, Christian has been obliged to face change in the form of an interrupted education. He will have the chance in May to go to a special school in Princes Risborough that focuses more on education than life skills, although his mother and others would prefer a service that focused more on life skills than education. Remember how much ground has to be made up. That is the experience that that young lad has suffered, but it should not have been necessary.
I want to put a series of legitimate challenges to the Minister in a non-partisan spirit. I shall raise three issues. The first concerns diagnosis, and the reality is that we face a postcode lottery. In 1999, the National Autistic Society discovered that 40 per cent. of parents had waited at least three years for a diagnosis, and that 65 per cent. of them had to see at least three professionals before a diagnosis was given. I know of cases in which as many as 10 professionals have offered a miscellany of different and sometimes hostile opinions to each other. Other hon. Members may be familiar with similar cases.
All too often, it has appeared that the determining factor in what has been on offer has been the availability of services rather than the needs of the child. That has to change. The system has to be flexible enough to adapt to the needs of the individual child because, manifestly, in cases of this kind the child cannot be expected to be flexible enough to adapt to the needs of the system.
We now have the national initiative on autism: screening and assessment. It is designed to provide an assessment of the current situation, to develop a template of good practice, to encourage multi-disciplinary assessment teams, and to propose a framework for training that would facilitate the earliest possible introduction of the new guidelines.
My first challenge to the Minister concerns the NIASA guidelines, which are due to be published in early 2003. Will the Government pledge to support those guidelines and to enable their national roll-out, thereby tackling the postcode lottery and ensuring consistency of diagnostic practice across the country?
The second problem is the gap between diagnosis and access to services. The Minister and other hon. Members will know that Early Bird and Help! are two National Autistic Society schemes that inform parents and others of their entitlements. Will the Government support the development of information and advice systems that effectively empower parents? A related and no less important point has to do with the gap that exists for many children between the expertises of professional agencies. Children do not always fall neatly into categories. Will the Government undertake to issue guidance to social services departments across the country to enable each autistic child to undergo an assessment under the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990, and to ensure that local authorities create pathways for effective support for families with children who experience autism?
The third real challenge relates to education and training. I referred earlier to the possibility that 60 children in 10,000 were involved, but the most recent research from the National Autistic Society suggests that as many as one child in 86 in schools is affected by autism. Whatever the numbers involved, it is essential that the school environment be responsive to the needs of those children, but 72 per cent. of schools have told the National Autistic Society that their teachers are unsatisfactorily trained in that respect.
In making this requestand I have made all these requests, as the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) and others will be aware, on behalf and with the support of the National Autistic SocietyI simply remind the Minister of the campaigning involvement of the Parents Autism Campaign for Education, yet another key body in the field. It highlights in its literature the work of the Mental Health Foundation whose research suggests that even moderate increases in educational provision could result in major savings in later living costs.
This issue is not the subject of cross-party wrangling; it is, thankfully, the subject of cross-party co-operation, and I welcome that. I acknowledge that the Government are concerned about the issue and are taking a number of steps to improve provision which, despite all I have saidlegitimately and with sincerity on behalf of my constituentsis much better than at one time it was. The numbers of people that we know to be experiencing autism are not necessarily that much greater, but reflect improved diagnosis. However, much still remains to be done.