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26 Oct 2006 : Column 532WH—continued

John Bercow: I am genuinely perplexed and nonplussed. What is the nature of that local accountability to which the Minister refers when arguing the case for retaining the current system? Does he suggest that the authorities are somehow electorally accountable for the attitude that they take to that minority of students? Linda Lascelles of Afasic, and
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Bob Parslow and Marion Strudwick of SOS!SEN in Twickenham, who are well known to me, tell me that they have bulging case files because they undertake adversarial contests with LEAs on behalf of pupils. The LEAs are not in any meaningful sense accountable.

Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. From my experience of considering such issues and their wider politics, local authorities can be held to account for systems and structures in their locality. If he has an idea or a structure that the Government should consider, I shall welcome a letter from him. I am sure that he will consider that.

It is worth remembering that only 0.25 per cent. of cases end up going to appeal. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned that it is very expensive to reach the appeal stage in the first place. However, it is important to put that idea to bed: it does not cost anything to reach that stage. The idea that one must have lawyers and pay them thousands of pounds to go through that system is untrue. Eighty per cent. of people who go through the tribunal process are successful, but the vast majority choose not to do so. The wider context is that two thirds of statemented children go to mainstream schools, and that is where we must place the debate.

The difficulties, stresses and strains for parents during the six-month period have been mentioned. The draft assessment period to which the performance indicator now relates is 18 weeks, and in 92 per cent. of cases it seems to have made a real difference. We are also considering introducing a performance indicator for the 26-week period during which a full statement is produced.

Annette Brooke: Will the Minister clarify the situation for parents who have special educational needs themselves? Does he feel that it is perfectly straightforward for them to go through the tribunal process?

Mr. Dhanda: That is a very good point, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making it. We must take a closer look at that 0.25 per cent. of people, their demographic, where they come from, and whether they are the children of people with special educational needs. I assure the Committee that the Department is keen to undertake that work and to undertake a greater examination of that 0.25 per cent. group.

I am conscious of providing the Committee’s Chairman with an opportunity to respond. I hope that in a nutshell I have been able to cover some of the many and varied points that the Committee made. I accept what hon. Members said about the offence that the tone or the nature of the Government’s reply may have caused. I regret that if it is true. It was certainly never the intention to do so.

There have been many questions, and if I have been unable to tackle any during the short period I have had to respond to the debate, I shall be happy to reply to hon. Members in writing.

5.36 pm

Mr. Sheerman: The Minister has been very generous in providing me with time to respond.

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When we undertake a Committee report, there is teamwork from beginning to end, and we have a very good team. There was nothing planned about the report; I just knew that our team members would, in their unique ways, do a good job of covering all the ground, and so they did. Most people who read the debate will be astonished by the knowledge of, and the differences between, the team members. It is important that there are differences within a team, and one or two members have articulated them. Overall, however, the report contained a unified set of recommendations.

I should not forget that all Committees have another team. In our case, we had two Clerks, two specialist advisers—the researchers—and two administrators. We could not produce excellent reports without an excellent team.

We also had alumni who cut their teeth on our Committee, and Members from all parties are welcome back at any time. They were very good Committee members. We had some very good prospects, too. Like a football manager looking for new talent, I have my eye on some of the people who have contributed today.

So persuasive is the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that I went to the Nuffield speech and language unit, about which he is so passionate. The diminution in the number of pupils sent there is a problem. The money is “velcroed” to the child, and not enough of them are going to the school. It is a shame that such a wonderful and competent group of people are in despair. None the less, I have known the hon. Gentleman for a long time, and if my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) thinks that she is moving towards him, all the signs are that he is moving towards her.

The Minister has not appeared in front of the Committee yet, so I am delighted to hear him respond, very well, to our concerns today. He put our concerns in a nutshell, because many of the statistics that he quoted, which describe how well the Government have done, are in our report. The report is fair. It says that more money is being spent on more resources, and that some very good work is taking place throughout the country. We say also that some closures were down to getting rid of awful, old Victorian buildings and replacing them with bigger, modern facilities. It happened in my constituency. The number of institutions looks smaller, but it is a case of three into two: three institutions have been replaced by two much better ones.

The Committee bent over backwards to be fair. Even after doing so, we find that there is a kernel of truth in our report when we say that, considering all the new resources that we have, the situation is not good enough. Select Committees always seem to Ministers to be whingeing, do they not? They must sit there thinking, “Oh my goodness, it’s another Select Committee report saying what we’re not doing but not saying the good stuff that we are doing.” In this report we did mention the good stuff; it is there for everyone to see. However, as Chairman of the Committee—I believe that I speak for all its members—I must say that it is not good enough. Whether we have phrased things badly or got near to the description that we wanted to give, we will not move away from the fact that the statementing process is plain wrong. If the Minister
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wishes us to come up with a proposal, we will return with one and see how he likes it. Ours is not a Committee that walks away, puts a report on the shelf and lets it gather dust. We maintain a strong interest in something that we care about.

The Minister is quite new to the job, and I hope that the fact that there is not a more senior Minister here is not an indication of the Government’s interest in special education. He will know that when we suggest a review—one or two hon. Members have mentioned a “root and branch” review—we realise that it does not matter how the situation is made good enough. There could be another in-depth look at the specific problems, putting to one side the things that are being done right. It will be easy for the Minister to read the report and the transcript of the debate. It has shown where the system is rubbing, where it is sore and what people feel unhappy about. I hope that, having done that reading, the Minister will see that there are things that the Department can do to make an awful lot of children and adults a lot happier.

When producing a report, a Committee always stumbles over things that it wishes it had done but did not have the time for. I feel that more about this report than any other. We really should have gone on and considered the post-16 situation. When children with special educational needs cease to be of mainstream school age, they are still challenging.

When I went to the constituency of the hon. Member for Buckingham I spoke to 100 parents of
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SEN children. A woman stood up and said, “Look, my Charlie will be a child when I am getting older—when he is 30, when he is 40, when he is 50. Every year he gets worse.” There was despair in her voice at the fact that after the age of 16, 18 or 21 there are diminishing resources. I promise the House and my colleagues on the Committee that we will return to the post-16 situation.

We might also return to the attempt to understand the worrying increase in the number of autistic children and those with a variety of problems, some of which I had not even heard of before conducting this inquiry with the Committee. For instance, why do six times as many boys as girls suffer from the syndrome? Why are the numbers increasing? We were unable to look into that. It is a worrying problem for our society and many others where instances of the syndrome are increasing.

I shall use the very last minute of the debate so that nobody can say that there were not enough contributions. I return to where I began by saying that our society will be judged on how well it looks after not only students with SEN but their families. A family with an SEN member is a family under great stress. The mark of a civilised society is that even when it is tough and resources are short, it prioritises vulnerable families and children. That is how this Government and our society will be remembered.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Six o’clock.

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