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Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I am sure the Minister will agree that we need fair, robust and disciplined training for our armed forces. When I went through basic training as a 16-year-old soldier, one thing that we had then which we do not have now to address the myriad problems that young people have was trained soldiers in the barrack rooms with us throughout our basic training. When I recently visited the training regiment at Pirbright, several times while I
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was there the question was, “Would you like to have training soldiers in the rooms with you?” and the answer was, “Yes, we would,” because it addresses the camaraderie and the training that they needed. Will the Minister consider that? He mentioned that we would debate the Armed Forces Bill when it returns from the other place. Can he confirm that we will have an opportunity to debate it in the House?

Mr. Ingram: On the latter point, was the hon. Gentleman asking when or whether the Bill would come back to the House?

Mike Penning: Will it come back here for debate?

Mr. Ingram: That depends what happens in the other place. I am not the master of that. The fact that the Bill is to be amended means that it will have to come back. I will not go into parliamentary procedure, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to say what he wants to say about the detail.

On the subject of trained soldiers alongside recruits, is that desirable? Does it raise accommodation issues? I prefer to hear what those who are expert in the matter say, rather than expressing the ministerial position. It could be a sensible proposition. The hon. Gentleman said it helped him, but maybe he needed a lot of help.

Mike Penning: Trained soldiers asked me, because they needed help.

Mr. Ingram: We must consider what benefits would flow from the proposal. Then there is the question of how many people would be required. Is there a benefit? Possibly. How many would need to be available to deliver it? The instructors are trained soldiers, as we know—

Mike Penning: No, they are not.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I know the hon. Gentleman is an ex-serviceman and has a great deal of knowledge, but when he asks a question of a Minister, he must get a reply, just as in the Army, when the sergeant starts speaking, he has to listen.

Mr. Ingram: I hope I do not get the same admonition, Mr. Speaker.

One of the aims that we seek to achieve with the new accommodation blocks is a better spirit of camaraderie. One of the failings of single living accommodation was that it allowed individuals, trained or untrained, to live in an isolated room of their own. We have therefore reconstructed our approach so that there is now a common area and more integration. We need trained personnel close to all of that, but—at the risk of contradicting my earlier comment that it would be wrong of a Minister to try to impose a solution—it would have to be with a light touch, not a heavy touch. It must be carefully managed so that people grow and are not dragged up. People should grow naturally with best example, not forced example.

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Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I want to preface my remarks to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I know that the hon. Lady is a new Member. She does not need to preface her remarks to an Opposition Member. She needs to ask the Minister one supplementary question.

Meg Hillier: Forgive me, Mr. Speaker. I will speak to the hon. Member for Woodspring later. I have three quick questions—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have said just one.

Meg Hillier: I have one quick question. I am heartened that the Minister has written to Surrey police, but I want to place it on the record that I have not received a response to my letter to Surrey police in two and a half months and that none of the families—I represent the Gray family—has received anything. Can anything be done to pursue that matter? On recommendation 31, I fully endorse the comments by my right hon. Friend the Minister and wonder what conversations he has had with the Department for Constitutional Affairs. On recommendation 26, has he had any contact with the Canadian forces about their experiment with an ombudsman, which has been highly successful and did not involve anyone with a military background? I welcome the steps in response to recommendation 26, but I wonder what further progress will be made.

Mr. Ingram: I am sorry that my hon. Friend did not get the chance to put all her questions. I am also sorry to hear her comments about Surrey police, and suggest that she take up the matter with the relevant Minister. It is a matter of regret that the families have not received a response, and I will see what more I can do in that particular area. On the experience of others, whether it involves Canadians, Australians or the Dutch, we have examined how we can best deliver our objectives. I have not had a discussion with the Canadian forces, but I have examined what is possible in terms of structure and therefore output.

The window has been left slightly open because of the Armed Forces Bill. We have defined the broad parameters of what we are seeking to do, and our objectives are comprehensive and will make a substantial difference. If, however, other examples are brought into play during the process of consideration, we must consider them and respond according to the normal democratic processes. There is no doubt in my mind that the debate in the other place on that issue will be intense.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Nicholas Blake clearly stated that if the Government refused to establish an independent commissioner for military complaints, he would call for a full, independent public inquiry into the Deepcut deaths. Is it not obvious that the Government have refused that specific recommendation and that years of co-operation and patience on the part of the parents have been paid back with secrecy and defensiveness by the authorities and a
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process that actually refers complaints back into the chain of command for action? Does the Minister recognise that he has left us no option but to force a full independent public inquiry, presumably with Nicholas Blake’s support, without which the parents will receive few answers, little disclosure, no commissioner and no justice?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman and I have worked closely on this matter, but a big gap has appeared, which I regret. Nicholas Blake did not make that point in his report and did not make it a condition, and only he can comment on whether he is satisfied or otherwise with our recommendations. Rather than jumping to the conclusion that Mr. Blake is not satisfied, the hon. Gentleman should wait to hear what, if anything, Mr. Blake says. I do not accept that there has been secrecy and defensiveness. I do not know how many statements I have made to the House or how much more transparency is required. Our actions have been extensive, and I think that we have gone a considerable way to meeting what the hon. Gentleman wants. The point underlying the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that the chain of command should be stripped of responsibility.

Lembit Öpik indicated dissent.

Mr. Ingram: I am trying to interpret what the hon. Gentleman has said, in the same way as he interpreted what Mr. Blake has said. If he is saying that putting the complaint back to the chain of command somehow undermines the quality of the decision-making process, I disagree fundamentally, and I will tell him why. The chain of command has to ensure proper discipline and structure in the organisation for which it is responsible. We cannot allow that to be transferred to someone else, even someone with a military background. We have rejected Mr. Blake’s recommendation that someone with a civilian background should try to determine the right to go to legal process, because there is nowhere in our civil processes where that would apply.

This matter has been given very careful consideration. I uphold the primacy of the chain of command. I recognise that it has made mistakes in the past and will do so in the future. It is not perfect, but that is not for the want of professionalism, commitment and a determination to deliver what is best. The hon. Gentleman’s judgment should be based on how many recruits go through that training environment year upon year. It is not a broken regime. If anything, it is an exemplar for the rest of the public service, and it passes muster with anything internationally.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Following Deepcut and, perhaps more importantly, the growing separation between the military and the rest of society and the enormous operational commitment now undertaken by the armed forces, the challenge faced by the training establishment in producing the world-class soldiers referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) grows all the time. Does the Minister accept not only that the Army must put its best officers and NCOs into the training establishment, but that the Government must support investment in
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the training establishment—preferably with money from the Treasury, but if that is not available, from the balance of resources that he presides over? The training establishment will have to get more resources, perhaps at the expense of the equipment programme or other areas, because people who are making the change from ordinary members of society into world-class soldiers must have the necessary investment now and a growing scale of investment in future.

Mr. Ingram: If I did not know that before, I certainly know it now, not only because of what the hon. Gentleman has said but because of the learning process that I have had to go through over the past five years in dealing with this issue. That is why more resources have been put into the training environment and why we corrected the decision made in past years. I am not making an adverse comment, but merely saying that a decision was taken that had to be reversed because it had not produced the right results, and we therefore had to find a new way of doing things.

We are instituting the “train the trainer” environment and opening up a new school for all instructors because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the best soldier is not necessarily the best instructor and the best officer is not necessarily the best person to run a training establishment. It is a question of finding the right people for the right roles. If someone needs to make up a deficiency in their knowledge base, that is what their training process will entail. It will lift their skills and knowledge and the subtleties that they have to apply in dealing with young people, and sometimes not-so-young people, as they put them through that training environment. I would argue that we have very high-quality training, although I know that the hon. Gentleman is not saying anything different. I agree, however, that we have to make it even better because of the demands that are now placed upon our service personnel.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The introduction of the service complaints commissioner provides a new process by which people can make complaints, but it is a formal process which some recruits might find intimidating. Does the Minister agree that the Army chaplaincy plays a valuable role as regards complaints within the armed services? Is he aware that currently the Territorial Army is 26 undermanned as far as chaplains are concerned and that the regular Army is looking for 16 extra chaplains? What will he do to address that important issue?

Mr. Ingram: I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. Others should listen to the way in which the argument was presented. If the process that we are considering has to be triggered, that almost constitutes a failure because it means that all the other duty of care mechanisms that we have put in place will somehow not have picked up the problem. That is why we are investing so heavily not only in the chaplaincy but in all the other informal and formal structures so that people know that anonymous helplines are available, that they can go to Samaritans, the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and a range of contact points.

The other important aspect is that all our instructors will be better trained to pick up the noises off. If there
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is a problem, they should tackle it quickly. If anything goes to the commissioner, that is, in a sense, a failure, assuming that the case is proven. It may not be—a case could be anecdotal or not add up to anything. However, we need the protective mechanism so that, if people feel that nobody has been listening to them—that has been part of the complaint in the past—that final recourse is available. It could end up on a Minister’s desk. The process is therefore well rounded but it has to succeed at the bottom, not only at the top. If it does not succeed at the bottom, we have a problem. I do not believe that we have a problem; we have issues to which we must attend, and we are doing that.

I cannot provide a specific answer on the chaplaincy—we do not have the power to dragoon members of the Churches or of other faiths into uniform. However, I appreciate that it is an important part of what we do and I hope that the Churches and other faith groups are examining how best they can help us.

bill presented

Honours (Prevention of Corruption)

Mr. Angus MacNeil, supported by Dr. Richard Taylor, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. Alex Salmond, Adam Price, Angus Robertson, Hywel Williams, Mr. Mike Weir, Stewart Hosie and Pete Wishart, presented a Bill to regulate the award of life peerages to donors to political parties; to create an Honours and Appointments Commission with responsibilities relating to the awarding of certain honours and life peerages to donors to political parties; to create a quarantine period between the award of an honour and a donation to a political party; to regulate donations to political parties from individuals or organisations who benefit from government contracts or sponsor government programmes; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October, and to be printed. [Bill 196].

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Special Educational Needs

4.31 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I beg to move,

In that context, I declare an interest as the father of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy who will almost certainly have special educational needs.

Interest in special educational needs in the House since the general election has been reflected in no fewer than 93 written and oral parliamentary questions. In addition, although there has been no debate on the subject in Government time, three debates have been held on the issue, notably those initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on 22 June last year in Opposition time, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on 29 November and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on 7 March, whose debate covered Asperger’s syndrome in her constituency.

What are the central facts about special educational needs? There are currently 1,230,800 children with special educational needs, but without a statement, in this country. In addition, 242,600 children have special educational needs and a statement. Of course, the needs vary greatly. They can result from learning difficulties, sensory impairments or physical disabilities. It is important to understand that they can be moderate and one-dimensional. However, they can also be severe, complex and multifaceted. We can be fairly sure of one fact in that labyrinthine field: there is no evidence to suggest that any reduction in the number of children with special educational needs is likely soon. Indeed, the evidence points overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. A continuing increase in the number of children with special educational needs is expected.

It is therefore noteworthy and a source of concern that, as a result of direct Government encouragement, the number of new statements of special educational needs is in marked decline. In 1998, 35,650 new statements were issued; by 2004, the figure had fallen to 26,000. It is important for all right hon. and hon. Members to reflect and to come to a view on the statementing process.

I want to make a number of observations that seem to be fair-minded and relevant. First, a great many parents regard a statement as a lever that they can pull, a source of comfort or a guarantee of assistance. I do not sniff at that; it is extremely important. However, large numbers of them are simultaneously gravely concerned by the weaknesses in the existing statementing process. To put it simply, the process is too bureaucratic, too adversarial, too time-consuming, too expensive and, all too often, too vague. As a consequence of those failings in the system, too many children wait too long, are promised too little and receive even less.

We can observe the evidence recently produced in a serious study by the National Autistic Society. It conducted a survey that showed that 31 per cent. of children, according to their parents, are not getting the
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help that has been promised in their statement, and that only 55 per cent. of children are receiving the speech and language therapy that their statement stipulates that they should receive. In the light of those statistics, it is perhaps unsurprising that 79 per cent. of the parents who appeal, in protest against that lamentable state of affairs, to the special educational needs and disability tribunal—SENDIST—are successful in their appeals.

This is a serious situation. People have to wait a long time and are often promised less than they think is their due. They then find that they are not even to be given what they have belatedly and inadequately been promised. It is incredibly difficult even to enforce the entitlement that they have, in a very delayed fashion, been given. These are serious concerns.

The second concern involves SENDIST itself. Thousands of parents appeal every year. They do so because they have been denied a statutory assessment of their child, or because they have been denied the issue of a statement for their child. They appeal because there is an insufficiency of specific support in their child’s statement, or because they have been denied their preference of school for their child.

Significantly, increasingly and ominously, however, there is evidence of difference in success at the tribunals depending on socio-economic status. To put it bluntly, someone who is educated, articulate and relatively deep-pocketed will do well at a tribunal because they make their appeal, they hire the solicitors, they secure the specialist reports and they fight the system. Those people are successful. However, people who are uneducated, inarticulate and have no money are less likely to go to a tribunal. If they do, they are less likely to succeed, because they are less likely to be able to afford or secure the specialist services that are often a prerequisite of success. They will fail. They will lose.

The time has come to change the system, and I would like to make a number of specific suggestions in the context of adopting a new approach. First, we should dispense with statements and replace them with special needs profiles. The responsibility for crafting such profiles would fall to accredited assessors from the educational psychology profession. They would decide on the level of support that should be provided to the child, choosing from a number of tiers.

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