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12 Dec 2006 : Column 233WH—continued

12.8 pm

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): It is a privilege to follow the contributions of so many passionate and committed speakers. The one most likely to stay in my mind was that of the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), who told us of her conversation with the consultant and his saying about her son, “With a case like this, I would not be too optimistic.” Her experience, and how she dealt with it, is testimony to the quiet heroism of the many hundreds of thousands of parents seeking to deal with the huge challenge of trying to give the best possible childhood to their disabled children.

I add my congratulations to the “Every Disabled Child Matters” consortium for raising the issue and pushing it up the political agenda. In particular, I thank the organisations that make up that consortium: Contact a Family, the Council for Disabled Children, Mencap and the Special Education Consortium. I add my heartfelt thanks and congratulations to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on the excellent way in which they have chaired the parliamentary inquiry on this issue. The inquiry had an enormous impact on moving this issue up the political agenda. I hope the result will be that, finally, a wrong is righted in terms of how we, as a society, address the issue of disabled children.

Groucho Marx said that politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies. Many parents of disabled children would feel that that echoes their experiences. I suggest that the plight of disabled children should be central to social policy today because it concerns the health of our families. A healthy society has healthy families; social breakdown occurs when there is family breakdown. At the moment there are many things wrong with state support—for example, the bureaucracy of social services and the inflexibility of local education
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authorities. Parents who face the enormous challenge of dealing with a disabled child—perhaps the biggest challenge that they have had in their life—find that instead of focusing all their energy, attention and love on bringing up that child, they are forced to focus their energy and attention on fighting the system to get the best possible deal. That cannot be right.

I will give hon. Members an example from my constituency that I heard quite recently, where a child with cerebral palsy was placed in a school that his mother did not agree was right for her son. She told me about the 11 steps it took to get that decision changed. Step 1 involved the mother questioning whether the LEA’s choice of school was right and at step 2 the child was assessed by an educational psychologist at nursery school and at home. Step 3 involved the LEA case officer giving the mother just 10 days to identify alternative schools for her son, but refusing to tell her which schools were accessible. At step 4 the mother searched frantically for 10 days to try and find alternative schools and by step 5 the mother was told she had been allocated two schools—neither of which were on her preferred shortlist. One of the schools was a one hour and 10 minutes drive away and would have meant a two hours 20 minutes drive every day. At step 6, a panel confirmed a place at the nearer of the two schools, but it was not one of the schools she had chosen. By step 7 she was given two more weeks to identify an alternative school. At step 8 she was finally offered a place at a local mainstream school that she thought would be appropriate, but at step 9 was told her child could not be offered a place because there were no accessible toilets. Step 10 involved the mother fighting the school to ask a surveyor to assess the cost of introducing accessible toilets and by step 11 the LEA finally allowed the child to go to the school, but only from 9 to 12 in the morning for the first year because the accessible toilets would not be completed. That is an example of the nightmare that parents up and down the country face with the statementing system.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green described the education provision for autistic children as “shocking” and “appalling” in his role as children’s commissioner. There is copious evidence from the parliamentary inquiry that parents think that social care and education provision are poor. The inquiry stated:

There is not simply a shortage of money. We spend £3.5 billion on special educational needs, £14.4 billion on social care and £14.7 billion on disability benefits. Often, a shortage of imagination, as well as a shortage of money, is the root cause of the problem. We have heard from hon. Members today that the numbers of disabled children are increasing. Taking into account all the different types of cerebral palsy—hemiplegia, diplegia, quadriplegia—one in 400 children is born with cerebral palsy. The number of severely disabled children is around 49,000, which has doubled since 1988. Yet the support that those children receive from the state is appalling. A recent survey by Mencap said that seven out of 10 families with a severely disabled child are at breaking point because of a lack of short
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breaks. An earlier survey said that 48 per cent. of such families receive no help at all and 30 per cent. receive less than two hours help a week.

I would like the Minister to consider what I think some of the solutions are. We need a simplified benefits system with a single assessment process. According to one Mencap survey, 37 per cent. of families are dealing with eight or more different professionals. The “Every Disabled Child Matters” consortium talks about the key worker concept mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). In Austria, a disabled child is assessed by a single multidisciplinary team, which includes a paediatric nurse, a children’s doctor, a physiotherapist and an information officer. That team is at the disposal of parents and, from the moment of assessment, is available to help them. Such an assessment should be passportable so that if parents move to a different part of the country they can take it with them, it is recognised by other authorities and they do not have to go back to square one.

The benefits system and the accessing of resources are hugely complicated. The different sources of finance include: the disability living allowance; the severe disability premium; the individual learning fund; the wheelchair service; and funding from the local council for housing adaptations, from social services and from the LEA. The result of that complexity is low take-up rates; of the 772,000 disabled children in this country, only half are claiming DLA. A recent excellent survey, “Out of Reach”, by the Child Poverty Action Group and Contact A Family, described a survey in which 27 per cent. of parents took more than two years to discover that they were entitled to DLA. A third could not identify the fact that claiming DLA was not related to how much they were earning and a third were put off claiming by the length of the form.

We need a reformed statementing system and to look at whether we can have an independent assessment of children’s needs. There should be more creativity in special educational needs teaching. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) talked about the chronic shortage of speech and language therapists, and we need to solve that problem. As well as focusing on the basics, we need to concentrate on the things that build the confidence of disabled children. As one parent of a disabled child said at a seminar that I went to, “We need to educate the soul of the child because the soul of the child is not disabled.” There is huge disappointment—I ask the Minister to address this—at the Government’s response to the Select Committee on Education and Skills report, particularly the statement in the response that

The Minister would need only to talk to two or three parents who have gone through the statementing process and he would find that his mind changed very quickly on that.

I would like the Government to consider links to poverty and social exclusion. The Government know that the income in disabled households is 20 to 30 per cent. lower than in other households and that statemented children are three times more likely to be
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excluded. Special educational needs children account for 64 per cent. of all exclusions and are twice as likely to be on free school meals as other children. That is the group to target if we wish to address poverty and social exclusion among children.

Bill Clinton once said that being leader of a political party is like working in a graveyard: there are lots of people underneath, but they are not necessarily listening. I hope that our leaders and other people are listening and that this can be the start of a change in policy for parents who just want to be parents, for families who just want to be families, and for children who, despite the enormous challenges that nature has thrown in their path, just want to have a happy and fulfilled childhood.

12.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): It is good to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Taylor. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on securing the debate. She has done a terrific job not only in securing it, but in the role that she played in the parliamentary hearings. We heard testimony to that throughout the debate. For a Minister, it is quite nice sometimes to throw away one’s speaking notes and be in listening mode, and this has been a good opportunity to do that because, as my hon. Friend said, those parliamentary hearings will play a key role in the Government’s children and young people’s review. The role that she played alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) is supported by hon. Members throughout the House who played a role in the hearings, not least my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who has joined us in this debate. The least we can do is pay credit to him for acting as a catalyst at the outset of the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood talked about the early support pilots and the value of key workers, and it has been interesting to see that. She makes a very good point, and in the context of the debate, we will take a close look at that issue. It is useful to have that feedback from her about what is happening on the ground with those pilots.

My hon. Friend also mentioned, as did most contributors to the debate, the value of short breaks. She will be aware that, within existing legislation, there is provision for short breaks, but I appreciate from what we have been finding and hearing, not just in the debate but in other forums, that parents of disabled children bring up that issue time and again, so I am grateful to her for making that clear to us again today.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill made it clear that he would not talk about the problems that have been identified and the additional billions of pounds of funding, so I shall not do so either. It would be easy to talk about how things have moved on and changed, but we are here today in the context of the parliamentary hearings and the role that they will play as part of the children and young people’s review, in which the Department for Education and Skills and Her Majesty’s Treasury are
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involved jointly. It is important to listen to that review. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who is sitting alongside me, has said that the interim findings in relation to the hearings and the evidence that my hon. Friends have taken will be available in January. I hope that that will be useful and helpful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) talked about the science of the issue—I am quite accustomed to him doing that. He had me quite concerned when he talked about tall people with long fingers and the ramifications of that for their health. He also said that he was doing a lot of coaching for disabled children in his constituency. His coaching of my good self has not done me a great deal of good over the years, but there we are. He also made a very good point about the need for greater joined-up working across Government with regard to ME. The DFES and the Department of Health need to take that on board. We are conscious that it is an area in which it is important to have greater and stronger working across Government.

I think that the most passionate contribution to the debate was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), who talked about her personal experience from 1973. That made me think. In 1973, I was two years old, so I am probably of a similar age to her son. She also talked about the effects of DLA and the difficulties that people have with forms. I note that, among the 27 recommendations, there is a section on that on page 71 of the report on the hearings, so we will look at it in the context of our review. My hon. Friend also said, very passionately, that this issue is not just about money; it is about a change in people’s attitudes to children with disabilities. That could not have been explained in any starker terms than the ones she used when she told us what happened when she and her child saw a consultant back in 1973.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink)—another veteran of the Select Committee on Science and Technology—made interesting points about special schools, as did the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt). Rather than getting into a long and in-depth discussion on that issue, I say to both of them that I was in Westminster Hall just a few weeks ago for a three-hour discussion on it, in response to a report produced by the Select Committee on Education and Skills. I urge both hon. Gentlemen to obtain the relevant copy of Hansard, because it was a comprehensive and interesting debate. We are doing everything that we can to support parental choice, and we are doing some excellent things on specialist educational provision, but rather than opening that up in this debate, I urge hon. Members to have a look at the record of that debate if they get the chance to do so.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) also contributed to the debate—we
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must stop meeting like this; we will probably do so again later today when we have a discussion about looked-after children. As is her way, she peppered me with an array of questions, and I promise to write to her to try to answer some of them. I disagree with her on one aspect of what she said. I think that it was probably a slip of the tongue more than anything else when she said that it is sad to see the increase in the number of disabled children; the figure is now at 770,000. I believe that we need to celebrate what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North said, which is that more children are surviving. There have been real changes over the years in terms of science and technology and medical breakthroughs. However, I agree entirely with the hon. Lady that the role of the key worker is very important. That was also highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood. The hon. Lady made kind comments about the roll-out of I CAN and what we are doing in the DFES to support that, and I appreciate her remarks.

The hon. Member for South-West Surrey said that this issue is not just about finance. He mentioned independent statementing as well, and again I refer him to the debate of a few weeks ago, because on that occasion, as on many others, we were asked whether, in terms of the direction of travel, we are talking about taking that out of local democratic accountability. I do not think that that is the most effective way forward. A great deal of work is being done on statementing and the period in which parents should have a response, but I urge the hon. Gentleman, if he has the opportunity, to take a closer look at the record of that debate. If he wanted to get into correspondence with me, I would be happy for him to do so.

The exercise that we are discussing has been very worthwhile and innovative. As the document says:

In my short time in government and my longer time in Parliament, I have never been aware of a process linking a Government and departmental review with a series of parliamentary hearings set up by a group of Back Benchers, involving not only hon. Members on both sides of the House but, as has been mentioned, charities and voluntary organisations—the third sector. It has been a very worthwhile process. I look forward to taking a closer look at the report and its 27 recommendations. It is a sign of just how important the issue is that sitting alongside me is someone who is not only one of the guiding lights of the process, but a Treasury Minister. I congratulate all involved in securing the debate, most particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood.

David Taylor (in the Chair): The next debate, on community policing in Somerset, will be opened by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne).

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Community Policing (Somerset)

12.30 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Taylor, for that introduction, which, if I may say so, sounded rather enthusiastic.

Perhaps I may set out a little context before I come to the substance of my remarks. I go out and about in my constituency at the end of the week and over the weekend, speaking to people, as I am sure most hon. Members do. I knock on their doors and ask them what their concerns are. Overwhelmingly the biggest concern reported to me, which is mentioned again and again, is not the health service or education—although those subjects come up—but neighbourhood crime and antisocial behaviour.

I want to cite a particular example from this Saturday, precisely because it is so unexceptional. It is very routine, and I am sure that other hon. Members present will have had the same experience. I knocked on the door of a woman in her 20s living on her own in a nice area of Taunton, and said, “What is of concern to you; is there anything that I may be able to turn my mind to as your Member of Parliament?” She said, “There are a couple of things that particularly bother me. One is that I have a fence running along the side of my garden and groups of local young people knock the fence over routinely, mainly because it gives them a short cut and they do not have to walk the long way round.” She said that when they have knocked it over, many other people rather inconsiderately use the short cut as well, and she keeps having to mend it. Sometimes, however, what happens is even more gratuitous and pointless than that, because even when a hole has already been made in the fence people still kick at other bits of it, and try to knock them down. The woman said that the only solution she could think of was to build a wall instead, which would obviously be expensive.

The other point that the young woman raised was that on the public footpath going beyond the house a lot of teenagers routinely use mopeds, or some of those little motorbike objects, which causes her disturbance and irritation. She has been in correspondence with the police, and has even met the police officer for her area and raised her concerns with him. I use that example, not because it is exceptional but because it is wholly unexceptional, to show the importance that people attach to the matter of antisocial behaviour. I realise that the Government attach importance to it as well. It is probably the matter of greatest day-to-day concern to people in my constituency.

This is not a subject unique to major cities. It applies just as much in towns—even quite small towns—and rural communities. The people I talk to say that what bothers them is late night noise, the people in the flat above who play loud rhythmic music at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning or argue in the middle of the night, people walking back from the pub who vandalise wing mirrors on cars on their way, graffiti bring sprayed on shop shutters—after all, why are those shutters there in the first place if not because people fear that the glass would be broken without them?—graffiti on walls or fences on private property, vandalism at bus stops,
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abandoned supermarket trolleys or even as small a thing as litter and the way it diminishes the quality of life in a neighbourhood.

Against that backdrop, I was very pleased when the Government announced in their White Paper “Building Communities, Beating Crime” in 2004 that there would be a major expansion of the number of police community support officers. There are some people who have reservations about police community support officers and are concerned that they may be seen as a replacement for the regular police, rather than an additional resource. That is not on the whole a concern that I share. I think that their contribution is extremely useful, as long as they do not replace the regular police. I understand the anxiety that some people may have, but, assuming that it is not borne out, PCSOs are extremely important.

My experience in the communities that I represent is that much of the necessary work does not need high-level policing or armed response units. It requires people in the neighbourhood who know the names of the main figures in the community, work with local voluntary groups and even know the names of the regular troublemakers and who their parents are, and who have got down to the nitty-gritty and become woven into the concerns of the community. I think that PCSOs can fulfil that function extremely effectively. They represent a figure of authority and provide an element of visibility, which is an aspect of policing that many people appreciate. I am a huge admirer of PCSOs and the role that they can perform.

I was delighted when the Government made a commitment to providing 24,000 additional PCSOs by 2008. Not only was that commitment in the White Paper in 2004; it was in the Labour general election manifesto in 2005. I like to think as well as possible of everyone, and I therefore assumed that it was likely that the commitment would be put into practice if Labour won a majority in the House at the general election. I was surprised, therefore, and saddened, like many other hon. Members, when on 27 November, only a few weeks ago, the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety made a written statement to the House of Commons and said:

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