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There are magnificent people working in the public service for disabled children. I think, for example, of health visitors, early years workers, teaching assistants and qualified teachers. Therefore, it might be politically incorrect to say what I am about to say, but, notwithstanding their experience and their dedication, they are not always remotely well trained or equipped specifically to identify the range of impairments from which children can suffer. We all know of stories from all parts of the House of people who had to wait two, three or four years to get the assessment that is needed. I know of a recent case that was highlighted to me by the National Autistic Society of a child whose
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diagnosis was incredibly late and who suffered grievously in consequence. We know that one in five schools does not possess a single teacher who has had more than a day’s training in the phenomenon of autism. That person is inevitably not well equipped to identify the difficulties, still less to offer a prescription.

I suggest a practical way forward. Let me ask the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who will respond on behalf of the Government, why not listen to the view of the Association for All Speech Impaired Children, of which I am fortunate recently to have become a patron? It made a submission to the Treasury review on services for disabled children. It suggested the development through specialist expertise of a particular screening test that would help at an early stage in a range of schools to identify who suffered from which impairment and how that child might best be helped. A speech and language therapist could develop such a test at a relatively modest cost, and the expertise could then be spread across the piece.

We must also take account of the problems that result from lack of capacity. I appreciate that the Government have invested significant resources—I respect that, applaud it and believe that some benefits can flow from it. However, a difficulty remains. If a child is integrated into mainstream education, with no additional provision or frills because the impairments are judged to be relatively modest, so be it, but we must still ensure that trained staff are readily accessible to deliver assistance of a quality, in a quantity and at a time required. That does not always happen.

Schools have language units attached to them that often provide for children with somewhat more pronounced difficulties. Again, I declare an interest because my son started school at such a facility last week, and I have high hopes of what might be achieved there. We need more of them and we must ensure that there is a quality team available, preferably in the school. I should like a speech and language therapist to be based in every primary and secondary school in the country. However, when that cannot happen, we need training for people and peripatetic provision of considerable intensity at regular intervals. We must define what we mean by “regular” for individual pupils.

At the severe end of the spectrum, we must ensure either that we have highly qualified local people who can deliver and develop capacity sufficiently to ensure that every child gets what is necessary or we have to go for something else. We must have regional centres of excellence and the use of expertise, the better to cater for such difficulties.

The Under-Secretary knows that in “Every Child Matters”, the word “specialist” is used no fewer than 32 times. In “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, it appears 68 times. He knows that in 2002 the Audit Commission deplored the shortfall in specialist provision and that the Government have said that there must be high quality, intensive, local provision available before a decision is made either to reduce places in a special school or to close whole institutions. I emphasise the importance of that in the context of dealing with low incidence, serious, persistent, complex and multifaceted impairments.

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The Government have done some good work, but there are genuine weaknesses in the system that need to be tackled. In my judgment, too many children have suffered too much for too long. They get too little, too late and the recovery that then has to take place is an enormous challenge for them, their families and the educational system. Let us resolve to go forward, improve policy and ensure that every child gets the best deal that can be offered.

9.24 pm

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): The debate so far has been interesting and informative and I am genuinely surprised by what appears to be an attempt by the Opposition to shake off the “nasty party” image and to embrace a more enlightened approach to social policy. I am sure that the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) would agree, however, that in order to be taken seriously the change of image needs to go right down to the grass roots, where the decision takers are taking decisions that affect the life chances of disabled children.

Unfortunately, the enlightenment that has been expressed today is certainly not being felt on the ground in my constituency and in Dudley. I appreciate the non-partisan way in which most of the debate has been conducted but, on behalf of the disabled children and the parents of disabled children who come to my surgeries every week, I need to highlight some issues that I am experiencing as the Member of Parliament for Stourbridge. This is not just about money; it is also about services and about everything that makes up and goes towards a child’s life. I should like to give a few examples of how those children’s life chances are being affected by the cuts in services that are now being made by Dudley council.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): A Tory council.

Lynda Waltho: Unfortunately, yes.

The first issue relates to transport for disabled children. Just two days before the Christmas break, my office suffered a deluge of calls from worried parents and from staff at local special needs schools. The day before, they had been told that there was to be a review of the transport for children to their schools and that they had until 15 January—barely a week after they got back from the Christmas break—to get an appeal together to take to what sounded like a kangaroo court. The decision on why the children should still receive this transport was nothing to do with their statement of needs or their annual assessment.

Tonight, there has been a report on the matter in the local paper. It reads:


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This has caused a tremendous amount of stress over Christmas and the situation is now getting worse.

Two weeks ago, we heard about a cut to voluntary services for youth services, which will affect disabled youngsters. The What? centre in my constituency, which gives counselling to all youngsters, still does not know whether its grant will be re-established from March. The Orchard centre provides play schemes for disabled youngsters and respite and back-up for families. Last year, it took two to three months of correspondence and meetings to ensure that its grants from the council continued. That is despite yet another increase this year in the money coming from the Government to Dudley council.

It is coming up to the 9.30 break, so I shall not go on, but I think that hon. Members are getting the picture. I have worked with children with special needs, and the last time I did so was under a Tory Government and a Tory local regime. That was very difficult. Now that I am the MP for the area, I am coming across cases that are showing me that there has been no change. Therefore, I hope that what appears to be a genuine approach by the Conservatives to walking towards enlightenment will actually go down to the grass roots. I would really appreciate any intervention or assistance from the hon. Member for South-West Surrey in enlightening the local councillors on Dudley council.

9.29 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): We have had a mainly thoughtful debate on the opportunities for the United Kingdom’s 700,000 or so disabled children. We have heard about complexity in the benefits system, duplication in parts of social services and inflexibility in parts of the education system. That all results in a less than fully effective use of taxpayers’ money, which means that we are not reducing child poverty as fast as we would like, that the quality of life for disabled children, their families and carers is not as high as it could be, and that the opportunities open to those children are not as great as they should be.

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting Hillcrest special school for children with severe learning difficulties in Houghton Regis. The school is very well regarded, and I pay tribute to its staff, and especially to its excellent head, Peter Skingley. I spent my time at the school speaking to a large group of parents and staff about their day-to-day experiences of caring for disabled children. A mother of three children with complex needs told me how, 19 years after first coming into contact with services for disabled children, she and others like her are still fighting for the same things. Recently, their experiences have included fighting for two years even to get a diagnosis, fighting to get a child into the right school, battling for 18 months or more with a tribunal and feeling that they were not being listened to, and waiting for three years to get respite care following the closure in 2003 of Appledore, the only local home in the south of the county providing respite care for children with complex needs.

Both Government and Opposition Members should feel admonished by what those parents had to say. I must say to Ministers that I am a little surprised that
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the Government amendment is not more realistic about the day-to-day experiences of such parents. Instead, it congratulates and commends the Government on their achievements no less than three times.

Parents say that no one tells them what is available. The provision of a checklist of social security benefits, care services, school placements, health services, disability aids and adaptations and respite care, perhaps by local primary care services, at the start of a disabled child’s life, should be automatic, would cost virtually nothing and would prevent years of missed benefits and services. To his credit, that is a point that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) has raised on more than one occasion in the House.

Last June, a nurse consultant from Bedfordshire Heartlands PCT came to see me to ask my help in dealing with the multiple assessments undergone by disabled adults and children, which cause difficulties for all concerned. As a start, within the Department for Work and Pensions, information on existing databases could be shared, thus saving money that would be spent on creating a new database. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) on the comprehensiveness with which he described the multiple assessment process that applies across Government and also encompasses many local authorities.

The issues that we are dealing with range across several Departments. At the moment there is no Minister from the Department for Education and Skills on the Treasury Bench. I am disappointed about that, as I understand that it is the lead Department, and I want to raise the issue of parents who do not know that their disabled children have been physically restrained at school. I have mentioned the subject in the House before, in the presence of the Minister for Schools. My personal view is that all parents should be told promptly, ideally on the same day, if their child has been physically restrained at school. [Interruption.] Ministers say “Obviously”, but there is only voluntary guidance on the issue. There is a circular known as 10/98 from the Department for Education and Skills which strongly recommends that that should happen, and one or two local authorities—one is St. Helens in Merseyside—make it mandatory throughout maintained schools in their LEA areas.

Members can imagine how serious the situation is for disabled children who cannot tell their parents what happened to them at school that day. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) spoke movingly and powerfully, as he has on many occasions, about the specific needs of children with speech and language difficulties. I commend him for doing so, as I am sure do all Members. Like, probably, everyone who heard him, I was particularly shocked to learn of the proportion of children in his area who are in the “not in education, employment or training” category because of speech and language difficulties. I think that we are all concerned about speech and language therapy, and that statistic alone was highly valuable.

I mentioned physical restraint because of two cases made known to me recently. In one case, a mother only realised what was happening because her child came home from school with tears in her jeans. In another case, a severely autistic child was only able to tell his parents what had happened to him at school a year or so after the event. That is now the subject of an investigation, not before time.

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Teachers at special schools have expressed concern to me that there is no longer any initial teacher training for those who want to work with special needs children. I understand that there was such training about 20 years ago. There is now a danger that when the current cohort of special school heads and senior staff retire, the teachers who replace them will not have benefited from the initial training. That was mentioned to me specifically by Peter Skingley of Hillcrest special school, and I think it is a valid point. I am glad to see that an Education Minister is now present, and I hope that he will convey that point to his Department.

The transition from children’s to adults’ services was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) in an intervention, and also by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea). Parents to whom I have spoken locally have raised with me the timing of the assessment involved. It often happens extremely late, just before the transfer, which causes all manner of worry and stress to parents and families.

A transfer might involve an assessment of, for example, a young person wishing to proceed to a college of further education. If it were not carried out in good time, that young person’s chance of getting into the college might well be affected. Indeed, on the subject of education, the issue of special needs places in FE colleges has also been raised with me. Again, I would be grateful if the Department for Education and Skills would look into that. There is no reason why those assessments could not be done a good 18 months to two years in advance of the transfer. That would be sensible. There would be no extra cost involved, and it would reduce the stress for all concerned.

I am sorry that we did not have the chance to hear more Back-Bench speeches tonight. There has been some criticism of the fact that this has been the subject of an Opposition day debate. I do not take that view. These matters are so serious that any opportunity to debate them in this Chamber is valuable.

We have had some constructive suggestions as to how we can take a number of those issues forward. It is the contention of my hon. Friends, and indeed many other hon. Members, that in some cases it should be possible to organise services for disabled children more effectively than is being done at the moment. I hope that there will be an honest recognition of that from Ministers. Those outside the House who are watching this debate or will read transcripts of it afterwards are looking not for party political point scoring but for a realistic appraisal of where we are now, and positive practical proposals to improve the opportunities for disabled children. We want constructive debate, because for the children, their families and carers, these issues are too serious for anything less. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey, the shadow Minister for the disabled, made tonight.

I am delighted that we have had an opportunity to debate these matters. We need to continue to do so. I commend the work undertaken by the two Labour Members who have spoken. I am pleased that we heard, by way of an excellent speech, from the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and, by way of a series of interventions, from her colleague, whose constituency name—he must forgive me—momentarily escapes me. He was one of the co-organisers of the parliamentary hearings. I pay tribute—

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Mr. Tom Clarke: As the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If I gave the impression that I thought this subject was inappropriate for such a debate, that was not what I wished to convey—but may I ask for his agreement that the important document issued by the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills entitled “Policy review of children and young people: A discussion paper” requires a debate, and if it is in Government time, so be it?

Andrew Selous: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Were I the shadow Leader of the House, which I am not, I would have no hesitation in asking the Leader of the House to provide a debate in Government time on that important report. I will convey his request to the shadow Leader of the House so that she may raise it with the Leader of the House at business questions on Thursday. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It is a valid one. As I say, these issues are so serious that we need to continue to focus on them to make the improvements that we all want.

I commend the motion, and also my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey, for the work that he has undertaken in this area.

9.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Ivan Lewis): The subject of this debate should unite all parties. We can reflect with some pride on the advances that have been made, but frankly, we still have a long way to go, as the “Every Disabled Child Matters” campaign and the recent parliamentary hearings prove.

We have had a good debate in which many important issues have been raised. I want to begin my speech by paying particular tribute to the work done in this House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friends the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) in shining a long overdue light on the needs of disabled children and their families. I also pay tribute to the children’s charities and carers’ organisations and the many individual parents and professionals who have fought for the rights of disabled children over many decades. I recognise, too, that there are Members of all parties who are genuine in their commitment to improving the life chances of disabled children and their families.

Children with disabilities are children first, with the same right to fulfil their potential, and to have a life free of poverty and full of hopes and dreams, as we seek for every child. Parents have the right to expect support that is personalised to their needs and the needs of their child, and a system that exists to provide solutions, not erect barriers. The mother of a disabled child in my constituency summed things up recently when she told me of her experiences: “Why do I have to shout before anyone will listen?” and “I am the expert when it comes to my son” are just two of the comments that struck an all-too-common chord.

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