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18 Apr 2007 : Column 135WH—continued

4.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): I congratulate the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on securing this debate and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on his contribution to it.

Our responsibility in government is to ensure that children and young people with special educational needs are well served. Regrettably, some recent news coverage has contained fundamental misunderstandings about our policies in respect of special provision. I shall clear those up at the start. For the record, we have no policy to close down special schools, although I appreciate that that has not been said during the course of this debate. Nor do we have a policy to force pupils into mainstream schools without regard for their individual situations. Since the publication in 2004 of our long-term strategy for special educational needs, the overriding aim has been to build capacity across the whole education system by giving local authorities the power to determine the most appropriate range of provision for local children.

Special schools have an important role to play in meeting the particular needs of some children. I want to make it clear that we value special schools extremely highly. Before I turn to Broomhill Bank, I shall explain the process involved in making changes to a special school. As has always been the case, changes will continue to be made to individual schools—special and mainstream—in the light of local needs and demands. Openings, closures and redesignations of schools are not matters on which central Government decide; they are, as the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling
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made clear, local matters for local consideration. When a local authority proposes a change to a school, it first conducts a local consultation exercise. Only when that is complete will the authority decide whether it will publish a formal statutory notice. I understand that that is the position of the Kent local authority and Broomhill Bank at present.

Broomhill Bank is a good school that is popular with the parents of the children who attend it. Nevertheless, it may be necessary to keep pace with local change. I understand that Kent has a £105 million special school capital investment plan, which is already under way to adapt schools to meet children’s changing needs. That considers Broomhill Bank to be a part of that wider jigsaw of local provision. As the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells said, the school is designated to take up to 92 girls and has up to 66 residential places. However, I understand that currently there are only about 28 residential pupils, more than half of whom, as he said, are placed at the school by local authorities other than Kent.

In recent years, the pupil profile of the school has changed and the school has already begun to accommodate a number of pupils with more complex needs. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that Kent county council is consulting on a proposal to change the school from being girls-only to being co-ed, expand the range of special educational needs that it caters for, discontinue residential provision and change the age range from seven to 19, to five to 16.

Kent county council’s consultation proposes that Broomhill Bank school will provide for boys and girls aged five to 16 with autistic spectrum disorders and/or specific language disorders. The school will act as a centre of expertise for communication and interaction in the west Kent area. There are already special schools in the mid and east Kent areas that similarly provide for children with communication and interaction difficulties.

The consultation period ends next week, and responses to the consultation will be reported to a meeting of Kent’s school organisation advisory board on 16 May. That meeting will be open to the public and to the press and only then will a decision be made whether to bring forward a formal proposal.

I recognise—I can see it myself—that the future of the school has attracted much local interest. Two hundred people attended a public meeting on the proposals on 7 March and it would be unusual if such an alteration to a school, especially a good school, did not cause consternation, but we would all agree that these changes are not taken lightly by the local authority. Nor are they to be decided unilaterally. Kent has used the normal consultation process and has consulted local schools, governors and parents. If it decides to proceed with the proposals, everyone, whether or not they have been involved in the consultation process thus far, will have the opportunity to put forward their objections, or to make comments following publication of the proposals, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do so.

Greg Clark: The consultation has not quite closed, as the Minister said. If the final tally of objectors versus supporters is consistent with the present pattern, which, as I said, is 981 against and three in favour, what will he conclude from it?

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Mr. Dhanda: I will come in a moment to the role of Ministers and the local authority in the process. Obviously, the consultation is not an opinion poll, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. I will happily come on to the role of the Department in a moment.

If there are objections during the formal objection period, the matter may then be referred to the independent schools adjudicator, whose decision will be final.

Although it is ultimately a local decision, I want to say a few words about the future process of school reorganisation involving children with special educational needs. The availability of alternative provision is one of the most important considerations when a local authority proposes changes to school provision which would result in pupils being displaced. That is why we are introducing a special educational needs improvement test and setting it out in guidance. It means that, when a local authority is proposing any reorganisation of SEN provision, the authority will have to demonstrate how the proposed alternative arrangements are likely to lead to improvements in the standard, quality and range of SEN provision. We have recently completed consultation on the guidance and after analysing the responses we expect to issue the guidance later this year.

As many will be aware, the proposed changes at Broomhill Bank are part of Kent’s 2002 special school review, which led to the county plan for special schools. The plan identified a need to provide more places for children with autism, behavioural, emotional, social and/or complex medical needs. Kent is addressing the shortfall in places for certain types of need and seeking to reduce the travelling times to schools, especially for primary-age pupils.

Broomhill Bank is the last of the special schools to face proposed changes. In this instance, children should not be displaced as a result of the planned alterations. I understand that pupils who are already at Broomhill would continue to attend the school until they finish their schooling, even if that takes them up to their 19th year. Should the proposals go ahead, the implementation date will be a year from now, as the school buildings will
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require significant refurbishment, including the development of a new multi-agency service space for use by therapists and other professionals.

Although I understand the concerns that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells has represented about making changes to what Ofsted has described—I agree—as a good school, changes to schools must be local matters born of local insight and knowledge. As Kent is carrying out a proper consultation process, it would not be right for me as a Minister to make any comment that might influence that decision. I am sure that that is the answer that the hon. Gentleman was expecting as well.

Greg Clark: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Dhanda: I need to make a bit of progress, because a couple of contributions have curtailed the time and I want to come to some of the points about post-16 provision if I can. There is a shortage of specialist autism provision. In general, the Government welcome the development of provision to meet that shortage. It will benefit the children in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I am sure.

We cannot dictate from Whitehall, and I do not think that anyone would want us to. To improve outcomes for children with special educational needs takes the insight and sensitivity of those familiar with the local situation and local issues. It is clear that Kent has thought long and hard about how to provide the best possible education for special needs children in the authority, and that it has ambitious plans to use capital investment —£105 million of it—to achieve its vision. I hope that the concerns of local parents and constituents can be addressed fully, and that through open dialogue, a consensus benefiting all local children can be achieved.

The hon. Gentleman also made some points about post-16 provision. Were Kent to proceed with the proposal, girls with moderate learning difficulty who might previously have attended the school would be able, for example, to attend other local schools.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): Order. We must now move on to the last debate.

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Local Government (Cornwall)

4.52 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, as we discuss what I know you also believe is an important subject—local government reform. It is extremely important to the whole of Cornwall. I hope to speak for only a few minutes, to allow other hon. Members to participate as well. It is important to everybody in the county.

It might be helpful to provide some context. I shall take the past 20 years as a convenient period, because it straddles 10 years of Conservative rule and 10 years of Labour Administration. For the first 10 years I was a councillor, and for the last 10 years I have of course been the MP for South-East Cornwall.

The first 10 years were an interesting time. We suffered the poll tax and then the interim tax known as council tax, which many of my constituents still suffer. We endured the sell-off of our council housing, so that we now have virtually none available in the county for those who require it. We experienced water privatisation, which has given us the highest water bills in the whole country—some £200 a year more than anybody else. Our agricultural industry grappled with the BSE fiasco. Some schools had a preponderance of outside toilets, as well as classrooms that were not weatherproof. Cancelled road schemes caused major congestion for our tourist industry. Threats of hospital closures brought thousands on to the streets, and the deregulation of our buses has left us with virtually no public bus transport in the county.

When we were told 10 years ago that things could only get better, we had no doubt that that was the case. But now we see no change in council tax, which is still going up. We are still enduring water charges, despite many petitions, debates, letters and meetings with Ministers. Thankfully, we have not had BSE, but we had foot and mouth, and the latest fiasco, the single farm payment, has hardly assisted our agricultural industry. Our hospitals remain threatened, and even today we are concerned about whether they will continue. Our public transport remains decimated. I must acknowledge that we have had some school building, that two valuable road schemes are in progress and that we have had some very modest progress on social housing, but now, of course, we have the spectre of no NHS dentistry.

One might therefore imagine that the people of Cornwall are not exactly best pleased with how they find themselves, after 20 years of overriding centralisation by two Administrations. The greatest feature of that has been the central diktat and the centralisation of decision making, controlled by endless rounds of debilitating bidding for almost everything under the sun, targets that have skewed performance and wasted billions of pounds, and bureaucracy in every public service so that we are paying more and more for less and less.

Plans for the reform of local government therefore have a hollow ring for many people who just want central Government to butt out and restore real local government. We need 21st-century administration, a modernised funding structure and a new relationship between central and local government built on understanding, respect and trust, with a recognition that each has a distinctive role but neither has a monopoly on wisdom. The task is not to be underestimated, and only radical, fundamental change will do.

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To endure the upheaval, change and additional work required in any reform process, the reward must be substantial. Its essence must be devolution; a devolution of responsibilities and above all of resources and decision making. That must happen from the very top to the bottom, with powers devolved down from central and regional government, regional quangos and the counties to the lower tiers. It clearly cannot be achieved overnight but there must be agreement that it is the direction in which we must travel, and some sort of milestones or timetables must be established.

It would be premature and inappropriate to go into great detail about how that can be achieved, and in any case it must be tackled by those who will be affected locally by any change. Change must not just be imposed on them once again by an overbearing central Administration on a “we know what’s best,” one-size-fits-all basis. I wish at this stage merely to emphasise that only a proper return to locally elected, accountable bodies will satisfy the people of Cornwall. I have tried to indicate in the past 20 years how they have been affected and how they have suffered, and I hope that the Minister appreciates that the decision to be taken in the next few months is extremely important.

We have for 20 years endured interference, maladministration, the decline of services, increasing tax and charges and excessive bureaucracy. Frankly, the people of Cornwall have had enough. We want a strong, accountable strategic authority for Cornwall responsible for dealing with our economic regeneration; inadequate public transport system; dearth of affordable housing, local health care services, local schools, post offices and shops; underfunded community facilities and much more. The existing structures are simply inappropriate. They are wasteful and have too much duplication and overlapping. There are many examples of that, such as in the waste services, whereby the district councils are responsible for collection and the county council for disposal, and in parking, which is in conflict on and off-street.

There are too many quangos with no elected representation. Current problems with our primary care trusts and health services are a supreme example. It has become too time-consuming to do things; there is too much consultation between inefficient bodies, so it takes far too long to achieve anything. Most of the time, the services are not directly responsible for what local people want and pay for.

Cornwall is distinctive. Its history, culture, geography and well defined community mean that Trelawney’s army has in every sense had to march on many occasions more recent than a few hundred years ago. People have been out on the streets to protest against the poll tax, to save threatened hospitals, to oppose rail service cuts, to restore bus services and to save their post offices and small schools. Yes, they have also come all the way up here to invade Twickenham and support Cornish rugby—and at this stage we all ought to congratulate the Pirates for their victory on Sunday.

The Government have a real opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to localism, which we hear about all the time—not by some anaemic, sterile, bog-standard unitary authority but a full-blooded devolution of powers and responsibilities to forge a new partnership between central and local government. That will benefit both parties, but above all it will provide a real response to
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the people of Cornwall who have suffered for too long from external and remote decision making that has caused so much misery.

5 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): It is an enormous pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), whose remarks I thoroughly endorse. I fully appreciate that the Minister will be constrained by law as to what she can say in response to the points and questions raised through today’s debate. She also has the pleasure, as I think if it, of having the box set—the full parliamentary team for Cornwall—here to listen to her words in a moment.

The underlying theme of what we wish to convey to the Minister and the Government today is that we do not want to see simply the delivery or imposition of a Government agenda in Cornwall as a result of this great opportunity. We should be working with Ministers to ensure that Cornwall is enabled to provide a Cornish solution to our problems. That may mean having a different solution from those that may apply in different parts of the country, and I hope that the Minister will be reasonable and flexible where that is concerned. I have in fact recently written to her colleague, the Minister for Local Government, to seek a meeting between ourselves, the county council and other councils in Cornwall who are supporting the bid in order to take some of these issues a stage further forward. I hope that the Minister will encourage her colleague to accede to that request.

The key issues that we need to have addressed are currently threefold. First, because pain inevitably comes with reorganisation—and there will be a great deal, particularly for those councils that are abolished, and the jobs and democratically elected positions that will be lost as a result of that reorganisation—there is enormous anxiety and a tremendous and, I would argue, a gathering opposition to the proposal in Cornwall at the moment. We must listen to that and take great account of it, but it is critical that we ensure that that pain is balanced with significant gain along the lines that my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall has just explained. In other words, we need a demonstration that the Government are prepared to devolve strategic decision-making powers to Cornwall in the fields of health, economic development, planning, police and other services.

Unless there is at least some indication that the Government will meet that ambition—and be prepared to talk with us about those issues, so that those ambitions can be taken forward in future negotiations—I fear that this process will stall very quickly in Cornwall. As I am sure the Minister fully appreciates, we have strong ambitions for the future of Cornwall. In fact, we believe that the city region agenda should apply to Cornwall. We are in fact the rural equivalent of a city region, and we hope that chapter 4 of the White Paper will apply to Cornwall.

Secondly, the current bid has plenty of opportunity for disagreement, and that is currently being fully exploited by its opponents, particularly on subordinate matters about the numbers of members, where the boundaries of community networks may apply and so on. My real point for the Minister is: some of those subordinate issues—about numbers and boundaries, and the devolution within Cornwall to community networks, parish councils and others—are ones on which we could so easily be
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tripped up, given the opposition to them, that it is important that the Minister gives us real clarity and that flexibility can be applied. It would be helpful to receive clear advice on the extent to which the Government are prepared to allow flexibility in the bid document that was lodged by Cornwall county council. The council would like to explore the extent to which the proposals in the document might change in the coming months without invalidating the bid.

My third point relates to the 12-week time period. I share the concerns of some district councils that are gathering in opposition to the bid, which argue that there should be a longer period of consultation. There is good reason for optimism, but I fear that a short consultation period will give opponents of the reorganisation of devolution and local government in Cornwall more grist to the mill and a greater chance of success in generating strong opposition to the bid, as we will not have the opportunity to explore the flexible, alternative solutions that are required to enable us to make a positive bid for Cornwall. I hope that the Minister will indicate whether there is any flexibility in the consultation period.

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