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Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Is not the flaw in the Opposition's argument that, by simultaneously calling for a review while determining that inclusion has gone too far, they have prejudged the outcome of any review? By determining that inclusion has gone too far, they are restricting the very flexibility and choice for parents that they claim to support.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend has ably pointed out the incoherence of, and inconsistency in, the Opposition's approach. In my view, we need now to get the management of special educational needs right at local authority level, so that needs are met, parents have real choices and standards are improved. We have put a team of SEN advisers in place to help local authorities to build capacity and to implement best practice. Our SEN regional partnerships are bringing local authorities together to improve provision in every single English region, and we are making available the investment and capacity to ensure that that happens.

I commend our amendment to the House, and I hope that all colleagues will join me in seeking to improve outcomes for children with special educational needs and their families.

2.20 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I welcome the fact that we are debating the important issue of special educational needs, which is not debated often enough in this Chamber. I am pleased that the Minister has broadened the debate to cover all aspects of SEN, and not just existing buildings. That was an important move, and I hope that my remarks will continue in that vein. At the end of her speech, she mentioned the percentage of children in special schools, and if I heard her correctly, she said that the number has increased. Perhaps I am talking about a different period from the one that she referred to, but according to her 10-year strategy, the percentage has gone down: from 1.5 per cent. in 1983 to 1.1 per cent. in 2004. Perhaps her ministerial colleague can clarify that for the record later on.

In my first speech as education and skills spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, I need to pay a short tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for   Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). He brought to that role 20 years of experience and understanding, as a former headmaster of secondary schools in Yorkshire. Indeed, he brought far more than that. He brought passion about education and made a real contribution to the education debate in this House. I know that he will continue to do so, and I am grateful to him for his advice and for his policy legacy.

I would have liked to congratulate the Secretary of State for Education and Skills—if she were here—on her reappointment. We did in fact know each other before
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we entered this House, and we have discussed many policy issues in the past. I was also the student of her new ministerial colleague from No. 10, Lord Adonis. I gently advise her and other Education Ministers to challenge his latest theories and allegiances, as he has a tendency to change sides mid-way.

I am not sure how long the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the latest Notting Hill star pupil, will be in the class to learn—he has "head boy" elections to participate in. I did not expect him to start canvassing today, but he has. To be fair to him, he has done the House a service today. He introduced an important subject and spoke with balance, sincerity, conviction and understanding, and with the feeling that comes from his own experience. That was helpful.

Mr. Khan : Has the hon. Gentleman had the benefit of reading a recent article in The Independent, in which a contender for the Conservative leadership talked about his party being a compassionate party that believes in parent power? He also said that he will support parents whose SEN schools are being closed down. In the light of that, is the hon. Gentleman surprised that the current Conservative leader has offered no messages of solidarity with those schools in Wandsworth that are being closed down by its Conservative-run council?

Mr. Davey: Not particularly, but I will deal with that point in due course.

Whatever our disagreements on policy—we will doubtless have many—I want to acknowledge that the hon. Member for Witney has helped to put this subject on the political agenda, which is quite an achievement. He talked about the problems in the system and about the human side, on which he was right to focus. For many years, there has been a huge and unmet need for such provision, and some disturbing statistics suggest that that need is growing. The hon. Gentleman pointed to the strategy paper, which suggests that the Government think that numbers will decline as more such children go into mainstream schools. However, the demographics suggest that the need for SEN provision is increasing.

Of course, the existing state system does provide excellent provision for many—indeed, in some cases it is superb, innovative and cutting edge—but many others experience huge frustration in trying to deal with it. I shall name three such problems, the first of which is the delays that parents experience in getting the initial assessment for their child. The Government's strategy in recent years talks about early intervention, but that is a bit of joke, given that it can take months—sometimes years—to get an assessment. When such statements do come, increasingly, they are worded imprecisely, so that the local education authority and any other providers can wriggle out of their legal duties. That gives cause for concern, and even when there is a precise statement based on a decent assessment, parents often find it difficult to enforce those rights. So the system is not working.

There are inherent problems in dealing with this challenging issue, given the extreme variety of special educational needs. As the volte-face by Baroness Warnock has shown, one can have a change of heart, and people can have different opinions on this issue. I
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should point out to the hon. Gentleman that the debate concerning special schools versus inclusion is something of a false debate. We need both, and we need to reach a consensus on that point. We need to explore the different forms of inclusion and of special schools. We need a continuum of provision, involving co-location and special units, for example.

Tom Levitt : I am sure that all of us sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's comments about parents and their relationship with statements; indeed, we learn of such problems from our postbags every day. But does he not agree that bodies such as parent partnerships already exist precisely to tell parents that they are not alone, that they need not reinvent the wheel, and that they do have friends when it comes to understanding and implementing statements?

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for that intervention. I was about to explain how I have come to understand a little of how the system works, not as a parent, but as a constituency MP. I am familiar with such parent partnerships. Sometimes they work, but often, they do not. In my first few years as a Member of this House, many parents—angry mothers, in the main—asked me to help them with their case. Trying to help was frustrating, because we came up against the brick wall of bureaucracy, which was strengthened even by the parent partnerships. The frustration was so great that I decided to get the parents to help themselves, and we set up a support group in the constituency called the Kingston special needs project, whose website I recommend. That group helps parents to get through the minefield of the system. It provides extra support, and parents regard it as more independent than parent partnerships. I acknowledge that such partnerships suit many parents, but many others do not benefit from them. We need to look at other ways of helping them.

Mrs. Dorries : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, given that he has spent much of his allotted time talking about old friends. Does he agree that although parent partnerships and the support networks do a very good job, they do nothing to help children who are being statemented to get the places in special schools that they need? In fact, some authorities are minimising the problems that such children have, in the knowledge that once they are statemented at a certain level, there is nowhere for them to go.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention and I am coming to that issue. My experience in working with such parents and in setting up the self-help group showed me that there are two systemic problems. First, the system is adversarial. It creates hostility, and for some of the reasons that the hon. Lady alluded to, there is lack of trust. Secondly, links between education, health and social services still do not really exist. Ministers will say—as the Minister did in her opening speech—that the 10-year strategy, "Removing Barriers to Achievement", will tackle all these problems, and that the rather narrow audit will add something to the process. But on reading that strategy and examining how the audit has been set up, I doubt whether those policies will address the system's adversarial nature and the need to link services together.
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The adversarial system is, by and large, built around the statementing process. In law, the statement is supposed to provide the rights. Parents battle for statements, and LEAs battle against them to avoid the expenditure that they involve. Appeals are made, solicitors are engaged and experts are consulted. It is probably a familiar, if rather depressing, story for many Members, and certainly for many parents.

The strategy, it seems, is a gradual one: the Government want to create a parallel system where there are some children on statements, but many others taken off or denied statements. The Government are also trying to adopt other policies, such as early intervention, to persuade parents that their children do not need statements, so that they do not need to go through the process. If they can convince parents and win back their trust, that might be reasonable, but the policy has one basic flaw: what happens about the manifest problems of the statementing process in the interim, before new Labour has built the new Jerusalem of perfect SEN provision without a plethora of statements? There is already a problem now, as there seems to be a set of unannounced policies that are undermining the statementing system even before we reach the new Jerusalem.

It is becoming a widely held view that SEN tribunals have been got at and that the Department is increasingly reluctant to put pressure on local authorities to investigate complaints against LEAs that are not performing their legal duties. It is almost as though Ministers want to act as if the statement system has already gone or its terms reduced, but that is not good enough. Ministers are doing little or nothing to improve the statementing system because they want to see it wither on the vine.

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