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28 Nov 2006 : Column 21WH—continued

10.49 am

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): So much to say, so little time to say it. This excellent debate was instigated by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). Beyond offering him the customary congratulations on securing it, let me genuinely pay tribute to him for his impassioned, informed, highly articulate and fluent presentation of his argument, which, as everyone has said, is the standard to which we have grown accustomed from him. We are grateful to him for introducing a well informed debate.

I wish to respond mainly to the hon. Gentleman’s points, but I shall first run through some of those made by other hon. Members. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made a good speech, particularly on the problems of his constituent, Jade Chambers, and wanted me to address the matter of physical restraint. The Department’s guidance states that physical restraint should be used, where necessary, in a way that is reasonable and proportional to the threat or danger posed, and that parents should be informed. We are working on guidance on the use of physical force specified in the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and we need to address training on the matter for teachers and other staff in schools. I anticipate that the basis of the guidance will be much as it is at the moment, whereby parents must be informed. If I need to write to the hon. Gentleman with further details, I shall certainly do so.

We were all struck by the information pack mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett). Naturally, I would be delighted to see it.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) reiterated my view that local authorities should develop choice. I was married in Basingstoke and have a great affection for it. I used to live there and I hope to return in the new year to visit Queen Mary’s college and one or two other establishments.

The hon. Lady talked about the funding for Hampshire. In Dorset, we look jealously at the funding per pupil that Hampshire receives, because it qualifies for additional cost adjustment, which we in Dorset do
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not. In my constituency, we have excellent special educational needs provision despite the paucity of funding, with an outstanding school for pupils with moderate learning difficulties and a brand new special school for severe learning difficulties pupils that I look forward to opening in the next few months. It is possible to give priority to such things.

I shall examine with interest what is going on in the three pyramids about which the hon. Lady is concerned and the matter of the eight-month checks in north Hampshire, and I shall correspond with her.

I wish to discuss the points made by the hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink), for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), in response to the main points made by the hon. Member for Buckingham in his excellent speech. First, as is customary, I should mention evidence of the real progress that has been made in helping children with special educational needs and disabilities to achieve their potential. Ofsted, as has been referred to, has reported improvements since we published “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, our long-term SEN strategy, in 2004. We can see those improvements, for example, in the declining percentage of children with SEN not achieving at least level 3 in maths at key stage 2. It decreased from 28 to 25 per cent. in just the two years from 2003 to 2005. In English, the percentage of children not achieving at least level 3 decreased from 31 to 27 per cent.

Those improvements undoubtedly reflect the hard work of dedicated staff and the support that they receive from parents with the passion and impatience that was so well articulated by the hon. Member for Buckingham. Also, they are there thanks to increasing investment by the Government in children with SEN.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned only the Government’s inputs, not our outputs, so I have started with the outputs, but the inputs are also great. He will be familiar with, for example, the rise of 43 per cent. from £1.3 billion in 2003-04 to £1.8 billion in 2006-07 in SEN funding for mainstream schools, and the 23 per cent. rise over the same period for special schools. I shall not dwell on that, because we must always do better.

The hon. Gentleman rightly put great emphasis on early intervention. When a child is experiencing difficulties, it is of course important that they are identified as soon as possible and that steps are taken to address them. Early identification and intervention are central to our approach to SEN. Children with two years of high-quality early education can boost their overall development by up to six months.

For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, pre-school education is particularly important in raising development above the expected minimum in literacy, language and numeracy at key stage 1—in other words, in preparing them for key stage 2. The Childcare Act 2006 places important new duties on local authorities to improve outcomes and reduce inequality for children, which I hope will have an important effect on early intervention. It requires them to secure sufficient child care provision to meet the needs of parents of disabled children who wish to resume or remain in work or undertake educational
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training. It also requires them to provide information, advice and training to those children’s child care providers.

Language plays a central role in supporting children’s attainment later in their lives. The Government are supporting a number of schemes in that respect—for example, the early support programme for very young children with disabilities has improved inter-agency working, planning and delivery across local services by providing information for parents, some of which I have in front of me. One set of information focuses on speech and language difficulties, and explains how children normally develop communication, language and speech; how adults can help; and when and how to seek help from professionals. We have commissioned the communication matters project, and through national strategies we are doing important work.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that great importance is attached to the use of speech and language therapists. All the measures that I have mentioned, and others that I wish to mention, help to ensure that the school work force are equipped to deal with speech, language and communication needs, but for some children direct input from a specialist will be needed.

Whenever possible, therapists should agree intervention strategies that can be implemented where children normally learn. They should discuss and agree an approach with teachers so that changes are made to a child’s whole learning experience. When such arrangements are made, children benefit from a rounded programme of support geared to their particular needs. Teachers benefit too: their contact with therapists helps them to have heightened awareness of some of the less obvious problems that children face and thus equips them to nip such problems in the bud.

The prime responsibility for the training, supply and deployment of therapists lies with the national health service, but where speech and language therapy is specified as an educational provision in a child’s statement of special educational needs, the local authority is ultimately responsible for securing that provision, even if the local primary care trust cannot or
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will not provide it. We are aware that some local authorities and schools are increasingly having difficulties in securing such provision from the NHS, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for focusing my mind on the matter. I shall continue to keep an eye on it.

Local authorities have to use their own funds to procure private therapy services if they cannot secure them from the NHS. I hope that that is a way to address the problem, which he spoke about so eloquently, of there being unemployed therapists and yet a shortage of therapists in the NHS. We hope also to address it through our joint study work, and I hear the comments about the joint study with the Department of Health. The delay was not down to the research team or the DFES; it arose because of problems in securing ethical approval from PCTs. That was frustrating.

Mr. Hayes: Will the Minister give way?

Jim Knight: I cannot, because I have so much to say.

I look forward to the report early in the new year, and I shall be pressing officials to ensure that it comes, and we can respond to it, as soon as possible, given the concerns raised today.

I agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham that we need to improve joint commissioning and use the children’s trusts to do so. We must use extended schools as a way to bring together a multi-agency approach—the infamous joined-up working that we all chase after and get frustrated about because we do not see it in our constituencies.

The Government are broadly in sympathy with the general thrust of where the hon. Gentleman wants us to go. I entirely accept his impatience and belief that we are not going fast or effectively enough in certain cases. There is something of a lottery, which is down to how certain local authorities choose to commission services. I shall reflect on that and consider the extent to which we should take a national lead in helping the new children’s trusts and the development of extended services to join things up properly.

Ultimately, special schools will definitely be part of future provision. They will be a focus of specialism that can feed out into mainstream schools and bring coherent provision in this important area to needy children across England.

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11 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have the opportunity to bring the issue of Darfur back to Westminster Hall, even though, in many respects, I am doing so for all the wrong reasons, because a great tragedy is still happening before our eyes. I am delighted that the Secretary of State for International Development has chosen, yet again, to respond to the debate. No one could have done more to try to bring some hope to the people of both Darfur and wider Sudan.

I am also pleased by the presence of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), as he can talk about his own recent visit, and my good friend the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who, like me, feels passionately about this situation. He has just talked about his other great passion—special educational needs.

I owe a debt to the all-party group on Sudan, which I have the good fortune to chair. I would like to pay due tribute to its co-ordinator, Senait Petros, who keeps us on the straight and narrow and gives us countless up-to-date pieces of information so that we are hopefully well versed, and to the many non-governmental organisations that support the group. I have just received a good piece of information from Jamie Balfour of Oxfam, but I could mention many others.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his work on Darfur. He has mentioned that he has visited it. Does he understand the frustration of aid workers in the three camps out of the 173 displacement camps in Darfur that are located near el-Fasher? Those camps are well managed and their problems are well understood, and the aid workers there believe that the energies of the constant stream of international and national politicians who visit them would be better devoted to other parts of Darfur, where the problems are less well understood. At the moment, I am sure that such visits feel like displacement tourism to them.

Mr. Drew: It is important that the message gets out. I do not particularly want to get into the argument about whether we know enough about what is going on. It is obvious what is happening on the ground, and I shall say more about that.

The all-party group on Sudan was supposed to visit that country. My good friend the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) was to come with us, but sadly we did not get a visa on time and there were difficulties on the ground. We were not going to Darfur because we felt it would be more appropriate to spend our time in Khartoum. We hope to make that visit in February, but things are still changing on the ground.

I do not intend to talk for very long today, because it is more important that we hear from the Secretary of State and from the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, about what we should be doing. It is not my intention to take the extreme
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positions that some want us to adopt. For example, we could call what is happening genocide and everything would be all right because we would know that we could condemn and take action according to the panoply of UN and other resolutions. The other extreme would be to say, “It is all so complex and it has all got so hopeless that there is nothing we can do.” We must look at sensible intervention, but we must do so using international law. Dare I say that we should condemn when appropriate and take some action to back up that condemnation?

We were cheered to hear what came out of Addis Ababa and what came out of Abuja some time ago. I hope that the mistakes that were made following Abuja are not repeated. It is obvious that we were dealing with only a minority of the rebel groups. We need to encompass all those who have been fighting on the ground, to explain fully what the Addis Ababa agreement has implied and to ensure that people have time to understand that. It seemed that there was an attempt to force the Abuja agreement on to the different groups, and that was counter-productive.

I shall not dwell on the history, which is one of great sadness. We know that about 200,000 people have died in the conflict and that 2.5 million people have been displaced. We hope that on the back of the Addis Ababa talks we can get some greater security, which is greatly needed. At the moment, the situation is deteriorating not only in Darfur but in Chad. Anyone who has read the wires on the conflict will know that many more people are threatened. Apparently, 90,000 Chadians have been displaced. It would be useful to hear what the Secretary of State has to say about what we are doing in Darfur and what we intend to do to deal with the growing problem in Chad.

Let us consider the security situation and the proposal of a hybrid solution, which many of us felt was the only way forward. We have seen the complete and adamant opposition of the President of Sudan, who was apparently willing to lay down his life to oppose the UN coming in formally. A hybrid seemed to be a reasonable way forward.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend seen the report in The Daily Telegraph today in which President al-Bashir is quoted as saying that “not even 9,000” people have been killed? That figure would appear to be a small one. The report stated that he said that there was

and that all the talk of violence

Does my hon. Friend agree that President al-Bashir is either lying through his teeth or is in complete denial, and that it is important that it is made clear to him that he will eventually be held to account by the international community for what has gone on in Darfur?

Mr. Drew: Without casting aspersions, I hear entirely what my hon. Friend says and I know how much interest he takes in this issue. One must be generous and believe that somebody at the top is living in denial, but it is difficult to believe that someone does not know
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what is happening on the ground, given that the entire world’s eyes, periodically at least, are looking at Darfur. Notwithstanding what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said earlier, one of the advantages is that people are able to go there to see things with their own eyes. It is important that all sides begin to recognise that we must obtain a ceasefire that will hold, given that there is currently no ceasefire.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is perfectly understandable that President al-Bashir might think that a western imperialist invasion is imminent or intended. May I put it to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that although one should try to be generous in spirit, one must acknowledge the doctrine that a person must be assumed to intend the natural consequences of his actions? I have no responsibility for negotiation in these matters, but I believe that al-Bashir is a liar, a thug and a manipulator, and I make no apology for saying out loud what seems blindingly obvious from the evidence.

Mr. Drew: I think that our condemnation of the President of Sudan is getting stronger and stronger. That is easily done. I want to take us forward and to see how we might be able to make a solution stick. It would be sensible to point out that we might be talking only about a short-term solution in the immediate future, but such a solution might form the basis of a longer-term one.

I go back to the security situation and the hybrid solution. We have heard what has just been said about the questioning, at least, from the Government of Sudan. We know that they are a coalition; there is a coalition even within the National Islamic Front. They are a coalition involving Salva Kiir Mayardit, whom some of us were able to see several weeks ago when he came here to give his views. He was clearly in favour of a greater role for the UN.

Given all that, I must question the Secretary of State on some points. Where are we in relation to Security Council resolution 1706? With the best will in the world, the Addis Ababa agreement is a row-back from that, so is that resolution one that is just in spirit or is it to be delivered on the ground?

We all agree that it is necessary to up the number of troops—we never reached the magic number of 7,700, to our great shame—but where will they come from and, more particularly, how will they be funded? Sadly, many countries made promises on funding—for all sorts of reasons, personnel would never come from those countries—but they have not delivered on those promises.

What role is there for the Chinese in Addis? During the debate on the Royal Address, I said that the Chinese, after their grand conference, were now key players in Africa, but they have an added responsibility. It is important to know, first, what role they have in ensuring that the forces are invited in; secondly, that they have a clear mandate to operate; and thirdly, that we achieve a genuine ceasefire as well as a longer-lasting peace.

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