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25 May 2006 : Column 1708

I have been there personally on four of the past five weekends. I was there last Friday and it was pretty bad. I observed many kids with drink in their hands. I was there on Saturday. It was less bad then—not too bad at all. I patrolled the streets with the police on Saturday night, and I pay tribute to them. They are doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances. If they had better resources, they could do the job better. I pay particular tribute to Kevin Diable-White of Essex police, who is trying to organise the defence of the community and to find long-term solutions to the problem. He is doing a good job.

The statutory responsibility lies with the council and the police force. Things were very bad on Canvey island 18 months ago and a curfew order was introduced. That quietened things down, the situation improved and the curfew order was lifted. I complained at the time. Since the curfew order has been lifted, things have become much worse very quickly. Now we must get tough in Castle Point.

We need zero tolerance of yobs. We need to bring back the curfew order and try dispersal orders. The police must attend residents’ 999 calls without exception and without excuse. That is not happening at present. The police must use my under-age drinking law more. Sadly, that is the most used law in the country, apart from road traffic regulations. On every occasion that the police use the law to remove drink from under-age children, they should use the whole of the law, which gives them the duty to bring in the parents and involve them. They must let the parents know what the kids are doing, so that the parents can understand and take responsibility and so that, where appropriate, the police can impose parenting contracts.

The council needs to provide decent facilities for all our kids. That may not stop the bad ones, but it will take the decent ones away from the action. All this must be done in close co-ordination with the community. As a sort of knee-jerk reaction, a teen shelter has been suggested for the King George park. Residents are extremely concerned about that. Any such decision must be made with the community rather than being inopportunely imposed on it in a way that simply exacerbates matters.

I called for a meeting of the local council, police and residents so that we can again listen carefully to residents. That should be a good start in tackling the problems, but the solutions will take a long time to develop and put in place.

Nationally, we need a deeper understanding of the cause of, and sustainable solutions for, antisocial behaviour. We cannot dismiss the fact that some kids are simply bad and need tough lessons. Of course, it cannot be denied that the prime responsibility lies with the parents, although it is difficult when there is only one. We all accept that sometimes parents can do their best and still experience problems with their kids. The Government must accept some blame for the increasing problems. Their reluctance to allow proper discipline from the earliest age has not been without consequence.

The over-focus on children’s rights rather than their responsibilities from a young age is an increasing problem. The roll-out of the Government’s Sure Start programme, with inadequate evidence of its impact on families, children and developing antisocial behaviour,
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is a specific example of bad Government policy. Another Government policy of getting mothers back to work and denigrating the role of the housewife may have wide and as yet unrecognised consequences for society. That is all part of the Government’s politically correct agenda, and provides a backdrop against which the growth in antisocial behaviour occurs.

My local council on Canvey island and the mainland has been negligent because it has failed to provide and maintain a decent range of facilities for young and older children. It has removed children’s play areas, forcing children, from six to 16, on to the streets and into culs-de-sac to play football and congregate simply because they do not have a park. At 4 o’clock, I have a meeting in Central Lobby with the Heritage Lottery Fund about providing two new parks for my area. One would go well in the Woodside area in Benfleet. I hope that I can make some progress on that. I will, of course, stay for the next speech.

Castle Point is a great community but we are suffering infrastructure breakdown. We experience massive and intolerable congestion on our local roads, overcrowding on our rail line and serious flooding, water, sewage and air quality problems. Residents cannot get their children into their local schools. Some live next door to a school but cannot get their children into it. Two schoolchildren who have lived in my constituency for nine months still go to school in Dagenham. That is ridiculous. What do those responsible do about it? They plan to build 1,000 more houses without any infrastructure. Our green land is under constant threat. We want local councillors to stand up for the residents, not be apologists for the developers or the Deputy Prime Minister.

We need new access to Canvey island and a new terminus railway station. Let me make a small but indicative local point: we need decent public toilet provision throughout the borough. The public toilets were closed without consultation. The council has changed its policy only after massive pressure from the public and press. It has done a U-turn—perhaps I should say a U-bend. It is beginning to reinstate the decent public toilet provision and disabled access that it took away. That is especially needed by elderly and vulnerable people. Perhaps we think that it is a light matter and we can laugh and joke about it, but it is serious for many people in our communities. I congratulate the Yellow Advertiser and especially Paul Peterson, who fought for decent toilets. The council should, as a gesture of good will, ask Paul Peterson of the Yellow Advertiser to open officially the new disabled access toilets that his fight has forced it to provide.

On a much more serious and fundamental issue, our democracy and election processes are held to be precious, but they have been damaged in Castle Point. It should be for the people, not for a small group with its own secret agenda, to decide who should represent them, and who should make vital decisions on planning, or on the sale—or the suggested giveaway—of major public assets, or on the award of contracts. Such decisions should be taken transparently in the council chamber, not in smoke-filled back rooms by a self-selected group of elected and unelected individuals. This is quite a sinister development. The
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public know about it, however—hence the extraordinary Castle Point election result last month, in which the Conservatives lost five of the six seats that they fought on Canvey Island. They were all safe Conservative seats in an area in which, in stark contrast, those same local people gave me the second biggest swing achieved by any Tory against Labour at the general election last year. If that swing had been replicated across the country, we would be sitting on the other side of the House today.

There is a clear message here. The people understand what is going on and they demand action from the authorities who are in control, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, whom I mentioned in the House earlier. I was emphatically elected by the people of Castle Point to deal openly and properly with these difficult matters on their behalf, and to stand above party political interests in defending our democracy and fighting for what is right. I can readily accept councillors criticising me for speaking out, but I will not stand by and do nothing. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

In Castle Point, our democracy has been abused. Our council and great political structures have been brought into public disrepute, and we must take action to regain public respect and trust. Writing in the Evening Echo newspaper this week, Tony Burnell sagely said:

I have long agreed with that.

4.11 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I should like to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that if he has constituents or anyone else waiting for him, I shall take no offence if he chooses to go to be with them now.

We have had our usual interesting debate on a wide range of issues this afternoon. Health and antisocial behaviour matters have been to the fore, although housing, transport and urban planning issues have also been raised, among others. I want to focus exclusively on education, however, and on what is going on in our schools, and I make no apology for doing so in a week in which the Education and Inspections Bill has dominated the proceedings of the House.

The first issue that I want to consider is the provision of schooling for children with special needs. I am aware that the Education and Skills Committee is undertaking a report on this important subject, and we look forward with great interest to reading its findings when they are put before the House. In almost five years in the House, I have noticed a real increase in the number of people coming to my surgeries to tell me that their children are on the autistic spectrum or that they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or any one of a range of learning difficulties. I have discovered from talking to other hon. Members across the House that this is a common theme.

There has been a real increase in the number of children with some form of learning difficulty having problems in accessing the curriculum properly, and this is a matter of great concern for Members on both sides of the House. I remember when the right hon. Member
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for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) was the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, he made a statement to the House on the subject. He expressed his concern at the way in which parents had to battle through the system to get the right provision for their children.

It is obviously deeply distressing for a parent to have a child with some form of learning difficulty or special educational needs, and schools need to do their very best to cope with those requirements. We have a system that fairly routinely forces parents to spend huge amounts of money to represent themselves, and it can take an enormous time—in some cases, many years—to get a proper resolution. When there are considerable differences in the type of provision available in different local authority areas, I think that there is great cause for concern. Particularly in view of how long it takes some parents to sort the issues out, we must remember that children have only one chance, and that if they miss vital years of their education without getting the right support, that is very wrong indeed.

As for the costs, I know of some parents who have spent up to £5,000 or £6,000 fighting and presenting their case to the local authority in order to get the right type of education for their children. I shall mention one specific case in my constituency. I have spoken to the parent, who is happy for me to discuss her case, which has recently been flagged up on the BBC education website. The parent, Michelle Chambers, has a six-year-old daughter with severe speech and language difficulties. Although the daughter is six, she has the language ability of a three-year-old child. When her mother recently accessed the school records, she was concerned to find out that her daughter had had to be physically removed from classrooms or restrained or taken to different parts of the school on some 37 different occasions between 13 January and21 March.

I am concerned about several aspects of that case. The parents were not automatically told what was happening by the school. I understand that the local education authority, Bedfordshire county council, fully investigated the case when it was raised by Mrs. Chambers and it tells me that the correct procedures were followed. It is worrying in itself if the national guidelines for schools mean that children can be treated in that way over such a long period without the parents being informed. That is deeply wrong and unfair to parents. If they are to be fully knowledgeable and involved in what is happening to their children at school, they must know the facts about what is going on.

I know from talking to hon. Members throughout the House that language and speech problems can present real difficulties for many people. Part of the medical provision comes through the local primary care trust, but the principal authority for the child’s education is obviously the local education authority. Time and again, it seems that there is a gap between the PCT on the one hand and the LEA on the other, often with considerable finger pointing going on between the two. I am concerned that vulnerable children are literally falling through that gap. In my own area, Bedfordshire Heartlands primary care trust has a£20 million deficit, which it has been ordered to rectify.
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It has recently had to remove one specialist, who provided help with speech and language training in Leighton Buzzard.

The hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) spoke about local area agreements. When I first heard about them, I made it clear to my local authority that I would judge the success of that Government initiative on the practical basis of exactly what it would do to close the gap between the education service and the health service for these vulnerable children who have speech and language difficulties.

Special educational needs are a very great concern. I do not think that we have it right yet, because of the fact that parents must battle for so long. There is obviously great concern about the number of special schools that have been closed recently. I was sorry that that Labour and Liberal Members were unable to back us on new clause 5 during the consideration of the Education and Inspections Bill yesterday, although it would only have ensured that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills kept special schools open unless sufficient places of the right quality were available in nearby schools. The disappearance of special provision is certainly very worrying.

The second education issue that I want to deal with is bullying in schools. Last night I saw Dame Kelly Holmes referring to that on television. I think that she is heading a campaign this week. What has struck me recently is the great difference in practice in schools’ anti-bullying policies—and I am pleased to see that the Deputy Leader of the House is agreeing with me. By law, every maintained school in the land must have an anti-bullying policy—as I know, because I am a governor of a local school—but there is all the difference in the world between a policy that is perhaps checked by the school governors who look at it, ensure that it is fine and then put it back into the file, and one that is enforced as the school’s central purpose with the head teacher putting life and meaning into it.

When children arrive in the schools with the very best practice, they are told from the very start exactly what bullying is. It is any form of behaviour that is distressing or causes anxiety to other children at the school. It is very far from just being physical. It can manifest itself in all sorts of ways and often happens outside lessons: in the corridor while waiting for a lesson, in the lunch queue or in the playground, and so on. Again, as a country we have not really got to grips with bullying in schools. I should like children, perhaps at the end of each year, to write down confidentially and anonymously their experiences of what bullying was like in the school. Perhaps that way, the school and the LEA would have some idea of what was really going on, and the head teacher and the governors could be presented with that information.

I should like to commend a school in my constituency—Vandyke upper school in Leighton Buzzard—for recently getting every child, bar a very few children who were concerned about bullying but who did not want to sign the anti-bullying contract for individual reasons of conscience, to sign its anti-bullying policy in front of the whole school. Signing a policy is one thing—it was a good innovation—but the real issue is whether it is put into practice and enforced.

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I am disappointed by the attitude of parents when they are told that their child is bullying other children. Perhaps that is not something that schools can do a great deal about, but it saddens and depresses me hugely sometimes. If most decent parents are told that their child is bullying other children, first they feel incredibly sorry and upset about the effect on the children who are being bullied, and try to contact the parents of those children to express their sorrow and give them complete reassurance that they will do something about it. Obviously, they then work with the school to try to ensure that their child’s behaviour becomes acceptable—and, of course, to get to the bottom of what it is in their own child that is causing them to bully other children.

My experience recently, however, is that when parents are confronted with the fact that their child is bullying other children, their first reaction is often to think, “Gosh, will it hurt my child’s prospects? Will it damage their school report?” I am tremendously saddened when that sort of attitude is prevalent among parents. Perhaps when parents sign home-school contracts—which, again, we debated yesterday—it could be impressed on them that they have a duty to be thoroughly responsible. If their child is bullying other children in any way, they have an obligation to try to deal with it and to assist the school, thereby ensuring that our schools are safe and happy learning environments for all our children, where education can take place properly. None of us should underestimate the distress caused to children when they suffer any form of bullying.

The third and final area that I want to touch on is the level of basic literacy in our schools, by which I mean our children’s ability to read, write and do basic arithmetic—the three R’s, as they used to be called. A couple of weeks ago, I went round an upper school in my constituency with the headmaster and was taken to the learning support area to speak to the outstanding lady who heads that unit. The children at the school are aged between 14 and 16, and that teacher told me that in her estimation, about a quarter of them have difficulty with reading and writing. I was shocked by that statement. We have had a number of debates on the Education and Inspections Bill this week, but it strikes me that that is a national outrage.

I do not seek to make party political points here, because I do not think that things were much better when we were in power. I will make a deal with the Deputy Leader of the House: I will not blame the Government now, if he will not come back and say that it was our fault when we were in power. This issue should shock and anger us all. Here we are, the fifth largest economy in the world and a major western industrialised nation, and in some cases—

Norman Lamb rose—

Andrew Selous: I will give way in a moment. I looked at the figures before the debate: Sir Claus Moser said in 2000 that about one in five adults were functionally illiterate, while Digby Jones of the CBI has said one in seven. Whatever the figures—they vary in different parts of the country—they are far too high. It is, I am
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afraid, an incredible indictment of what is going on in our schools that so many children cannot read and write properly.

Norman Lamb: I agree with the concerns that the hon. Gentleman is expressing. Is he aware that this country has about the longest tail of under-achievement for students leaving school at 16? It is incumbent on us all to try to understand why that is. Does he also accept that that clearly relates to social class? There is discrimination in education. Educational attainment relates to where people come from, which is unacceptable.

Andrew Selous: I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. If about one in five or one in seven of our nation’s children cannot handle basic reading and writing and basic numeracy—in some parts of the country, the figure is even higher, at 40 per cent.—that is unbelievably serious. For goodness’ sake, what have children been doing in our schools for the 11 years between the ages of five and 16 if they leave unable to read properly?

Looking at the issue from first principles, it strikes me that when such a problem is identified when children leave lower school or primary school, there should be intensive—almost exclusive—concentration on teaching them to read and write. What is the point of taking them on and teaching them history, geography, religious education and all those other subjects if they cannot read and write properly?

I gather that in some schools in the Caribbean, and even in places such as Ghana, children do not move up a year unless they have mastered the basics of that year. I spoke earlier this week to our shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), and to my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who has been instrumental in bringing the teaching of synthetic phonics into greater national focus. All credit to the Government, as they have taken on board many of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. He told me that it is possible, through an intensive 10-week course, to give any seven-year-old child basic reading skills.

Earlier in the debate, we heard about antisocial behaviour from my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and for Castle Point. If we cannot get these basics right in our schools, what hope do we have of conquering problems such as antisocial behaviour if children aged 16 or older leave without the basics—being able to read and write and get a job of any sort in the employment system?

Why is there no sense of anger about that? Why are MPs not picketing their local directors of education? Why are we not having tough conversations with heads outside this House? Why does this issue not dominate Education and Skills questions? The Public Accounts Committee’s report last year, “Skills for Life: Improving adult literacy and numeracy”, drew the following hugely understated conclusion about raising basic levels of literacy and numeracy:

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