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25 Apr 2006 : Column 541

Nuffield Speech and Language Unit

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watts.]

6.4 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am proud to rise to champion the cause of the Nuffield speech and language unit, which is based in Ealing. It is a centre of excellence that now faces the threat of closure.

It is right that the House and those interested in the subject should understand the background. The Nuffield speech and language unit is a part of the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear hospital, which in turn is part of the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust. Since 1971, the unit has provided specialist intensive therapy and teaching to children aged between four and seven with the most severe speech and language disorders. No provision of comparable quality for such children does or can exist in mainstream education.

It is important to understand that children typically attend the unit for an average of two years. The severity of their impairments means that they are not able to participate in, or be integrated into, mainstream education. Quite apart from its teaching and therapy work, the unit has established itself intellectually and professionally as the repository of excellence in research and good practice, and the Nuffield dyspraxia programme is used in countries all over the world.

The unit is small, catering for between 12 and 14 children. I have described the teaching and therapy that it provides, and the significance of its globally imitated dyspraxia programme. In addition, the unit is inextricably bound up with the Nuffield hearing and speech centre, which receives some 40 requests each week—from parents and professionals, by telephone, e-mail and post—seeking advice on speech therapy.

That is the background to the unit's significance. It is exemplary and deservedly celebrated, but is now facing the threat of closure. For the best part of five successive years, the unit has been either full or over-subscribed. As a result, it had become a net financial contributor to its parent trust. This year, however, it is suffering a lack of referrals for 2006–07 and so is falling into deficit for the first time.

Two factors explain the lack of referrals. First, the local education authority is resistant to the issuing of statements, and to agreeing to and providing finance for out-of-area placements. Secondly, there is a widespread and—dare I say it?—almost pervasive ignorance of the unit's existence. I attribute that ignorance to the fact that the Royal Free Hampstead trust has devoted a degree of energy to marketing the trust that is somewhere between minimal and nil.

I emphasise to the Minister that, on the strength of that one-year deficit, the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust is proposing to close this distinguished and celebrated unit.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I received a telephone call today from a constituent, Dr. Deirdre Lucas, a distinguished audiology consultant who has nothing but praise for the unit's special and unique work. She expressed in the strongest terms her
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fear that that centre of excellence and expertise could be lost for ever. It is without equal and, if we are not careful, we are going to lose a very precious resource.

John Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes his point eloquently and pithily. In preparing for the debate, I became aware of Dr. Deirdre Lucas, but it is a pretty safe bet that she will not be aware of me. I know of her authority and expertise in the field. She is one of a number of people who are determined to fight the good fight to preserve the unit because she has professional knowledge of its indispensability.

My hon. Friend wisely used the word "unique", which leads me to the arguments against closure of the unit. The facility is unique. That word may be hackneyed; it is overused and frequently used inappropriately but it could scarcely be more appositely deployed than in respect of the unit. There is no other facility of its kind either in London or anywhere else in the country, so it is unique and it is also irreplaceable. However, the Minister does not need to take that from me. He can take it from the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust's consultation document, which puts the point clearly, stating helpfully that

Significantly, it adds that if the unit ceases to exist, the future potential of the children whom it serves will be severely damaged. I could not put it more effectively than that.

We are describing a vital national resource, which on my reckoning at least 16 local education authorities have used over the years. We cannot afford lightly, if at all, to dispense with existing centres of excellence. We should be proud of them. We should be defending them and building on them, championing and supporting them, and if they are under threat it is the responsibility of all political parties, including pre-eminently the governing party, to get involved: to take a stance, to lend a hand and not to back off—a point to which I will, in due course, return.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that one of the problems is that to a certain extent the unit is seen as a Cinderella part of the national health and the education services? I have personal experience of the problem. My five-year-old son had a minor speech problem that was difficult to have attended to in the state system, so to hear that a unit with such national excellence is to close is extremely worrying.

John Bercow: I entirely agree. My hon. Friend reinforces the argument and the impression, which I am glad to say is correct and growing, that there is strong support for the unit.

We are entitled to look at the long-term outcomes of the Nuffield unit's work—for example, over the period between 1998 and 2003. I re-emphasise that we are talking about help for severely disadvantaged children. After two years at the unit, 41 per cent. of children are able to go on to mainstream education; 7 per cent. go on to local language units attached to mainstream schools; 38 per cent. go to the Meath school, a specialist school
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that caters specifically for children with severe speech and language disorders; and 13 per cent. go to other specialist schools.

Early intervention is of the essence. I underline that point. We have to ensure that children in special and intense need are assisted at an early stage. If we do that, help, treatment, therapy and teaching can be highly effective. What is more, that can result in cost savings in the medium to long term. On the other hand, if we intervene very late, there are grave risks, such as emotional and psychological damage, lower educational attainment, a persistent communication handicap and poorer employment prospects. For all those reasons, it is vital that children get a chance without the procrastination, delay and politicking that prevent them from getting the help that they need. We cannot simply intervene later and rescue the situation. Serious, grave and potentially irrevocable damage can be done to the opportunities and life chances of children who are so delayed or neglected.

I want to say something about the support that exists for the unit. My hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) have already referred to that, but let it be underlined. A plethora of testimonials is now emerging in support of the unit. I call in aid first of all Pamela Williams, who is the chief speech therapist at the Nuffield speech and language unit and also chair of the Dyspraxia Foundation. Her words should carry weight and be listened to with respect by all hon. Members. She has said:

Hers is not the only voice.

Let us listen to the verdict of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, which has publicly stated and communicated to me its belief that the demise of the unit would cause an "erosion of expertise" and a "loss of capacity", with the result that patients would be left "unsupported". Let us hear, too, the verdict of Janet Farrugia, a distinguished speech and language therapist of 25 years' experience. She says:

Significantly and ominously, she goes on to add that children who go elsewhere for their treatment or education make "significantly slower" progress.

From the range of parents, I would like to cite in particular Dr. Tony Canas, who has founded the Friends of the Nuffield Speech and Language Unit. He is a truly remarkable man who is fighting as David against Goliath in the battle. He has set up a website and devoted an enormous amount of time and his considerable intellectual prowess to try to make arguments in support of the unit. He and his wife Angela have a son, Vincente, at the unit. They had to go through an enormous, debilitating, protracted, expensive and potentially soul-destroying battle to get their son into the unit, which they did, and he has now been there for the best part of an academic year. Tony Canas says:

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That is the considered judgment of a range of people who know of the unit, who can see its benefit, who are alarmed at the threat to its existence and who are determined to protect it.

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