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Damian Green: On early intervention, one of the most important recommendations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) was in respect of the need for local and regional centres. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the charity Find a Voice—which is based in my constituency and of which, irrelevantly, I happen to be president—as a possible model? It has achieved tremendous results in directly helping children and adults to communicate better. It has also helped teachers and therapists throughout Kent and Medway with its resource library of communications aids. Obviously, the Minister is welcome to visit, but he should certainly investigate Find a Voice
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as a model for the future which could be replicated in other areas. It would make a significant practical difference to the lives of many people.

Kevin Brennan: As the review shows, the hon. Member for Buckingham saw all sorts of different approaches taken around the country; they are often imaginative and involve charities such as the one in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ashford. Clearly, they have a big part to play as we commission these kinds of services.

Mr. Scott: Will the Minister examine some of the early interventions and experiences of other countries, particularly those of Scandinavia and Israel? Early interventions there have proved very successful and can help greatly in subsequent years.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman is right; we need to learn from abroad. The hon. Member for Buckingham visited Denmark while undertaking his review for exactly that reason: to find out the sorts of lessons that we can learn from abroad.

We have already committed to taking action in each of the areas highlighted by the hon. Gentleman in his report. We are building on the record of investment and improvements to the work force and the targeted programmes of support already in place for those with communication needs. In the past seven years, local authorities’ planned expenditure on special educational needs has risen from £2.8 billion to £4.9 billion last year. Since 1997, the number of speech and language therapists has risen by more than a third. Our new inclusion development programme is now ensuring that more new teachers and early-years professionals have had training in speech, language and communication needs.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con) rose—

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Will the Minister give way?

Kevin Brennan: In the interests of fairness to all the parties represented in the House, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink).

Bob Spink: Does the Minister intend to take action on the plight of young people with hearing loss, who are suffering from a recent massive increase in the cost of lip-reading classes imposed by uncaring county councils, such as Essex county council, which are not spending their money appropriately?

Kevin Brennan: The role of central Government is to set the standards and framework, and it is for local government to deliver on that. That should be inspected against any action to be taken as and when necessary. I note the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Mr. Hurd: The Minister talks about the plans to invest more in speech and language therapy. The Government are spending some £63 million on education in young offender institutions. Research by Professor Karen Bryan and others indicates that perhaps two thirds of inmates of such institutions cannot access those programmes because of their learning difficulties and language skills. Can the Minister clarify how many full-time speech and language therapists are operating in those institutions, and what plans the Government have to increase that number?

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Kevin Brennan: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that information at this point, but I will be pleased to write to him in order to do so. It is vital that we ensure that young offenders have an opportunity to deal with such issues while they are in custody, and that formed part of the discussion in the report. The Government have indicated that we accept that there is a need for action in all areas covered in the report, and that an implementation plan will be published in the autumn.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): On investment in the education of children through local authorities, is the Minister aware of the fantastic work done at Fairley House school, behind the Tate, where there is a blend of pupils: those from the private sector and—a significant proportion—those who are funded by Westminster city council? However, certainly up to four years ago, the annual fees for that day school were about £18,000, which is a considerable amount of money. What can be done to bring the rest of state sector up to the standards that Fairley House provides for its pupils to deal with their learning difficulties?

Kevin Brennan: We have to approach special educational needs, particularly these sorts of difficulties, from the point of view of the individual child in trying to ensure that we are able to provide the best possible support for them. In the instance that the hon. Gentleman indicates, Westminster city council will have taken a decision that that is the most appropriate provision for such a child at a local level. The more that we can do to implement the recommendations in the report, the more we will raise the standards of what is available at a local level, as well as ensuring that there is more comparability between what is available in local areas, which was a key point in the report.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Kevin Brennan: I will, as I have not given way to a Labour Member, and then I will make some progress.

David Lepper: I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the report by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). Carden school in my constituency was one of those that he visited, and he has acknowledged the excellent work done there. The Minister has emphasised the work being done and support being given in our schools. Does he agree that children’s centres have a unique role to play in bringing together the education service, primary care trusts and other services in one location to work on early intervention with children and their parents?

Kevin Brennan: Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. Like schools, children’s centres have an important part to play in the whole programme and approach as regards early intervention and the co-location of services. The 21st century school, working closely with children’s centres and so on, will be a place where services are co-located and where early intervention is a natural part of its work.

I will now try to make further progress, as the purpose of these debates is to give Back Benchers an opportunity to participate. [ Interruption . ] I am sure I would be
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criticised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) if I did not give way, so I will not apologise to him.

On 9 July, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families launched “Every Child a Talker”, a new £40 million programme that will be rolled out to early-years professionals across the country over the next three years. Characteristically, the hon. Member for Buckingham has not pulled any punches in his report. He made 40 recommendations for further improvements to services for children with communication difficulties, and, given the admonitions from those on the Opposition Front Bench, the House will be relieved to know that I do not intend to go through all 40 during the course of this short speech. I can confirm, however, that we agree on the need for action in each of the areas that he has addressed. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families has announced that the Government will invest up to £12 million for this purpose. Later this year, we will produce a detailed action plan, setting out how we will implement each recommendation, the relevant time scales and the way we will allocate our investment.

For now, I shall just comment on each of the five main themes of the report. First, we agree fully with the hon. Member for Buckingham that communication is critical for all children and young people, and I can confirm that we will create a ministerial-level communication council. We will appoint a communication champion, who will oversee a national year of speech, language and communication, and we will ensure that good quality information, advice and support are available to parents. Secondly, we agree that early identification of needs and early intervention are vital, and we will introduce measures to improve the monitoring of children across the age range.

Thirdly, we agree that speech and language services should form a continuum around the family. As the report recommends, my Department and the Department of Health will work together to develop a joint commissioning framework for universal targeted and specialist services, and we will do that through pathfinders in a number of local areas throughout the country. Fourthly, we agree with the call for joint working between agencies at all levels, from strategic managers to front-line professionals. As the report says, children’s trusts have an important role to play, and we agree that each trust should consider appointing a senior lead on speech, language and communication issues. Fifthly, we agree that there must be greater consistency in the services provided for children, young people and families with communication needs in different areas of the country. We will, therefore, use our commissioning guidance to promote better monitoring of performance. In particular, we will encourage better use of the data on the educational attainment of children and young people with speech, language and communication needs.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Buckingham for his excellent work on these important issues. His review challenges us to support local areas and front-line professionals in transforming the lives and prospects of children and young people with speech, language and communication needs, and we will do our utmost to meet the challenge that he has set for us.

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Royal assent

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Appropriation (No. 2) Act 2008

Finance Act 2008

Sale of Student Loans Act 2008

Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008

Statute Law (Repeals) Act 2008

Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008

Health and Social Care Act 2008

Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Act 2008

National Insurance Contributions Act 2008

London Local Authorities and Transport for London Act 2008

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Bercow Review

Question again proposed .

4.53 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), and I am particularly grateful to him for his generous remarks this afternoon. I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge and pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, who have been unstinting in their support and encouragement of me in this venture during the past 10 months.

A great many colleagues have engaged with the review, either by inviting me to visit a pre-school, primary school, secondary school or somewhere with post-16 provision, or by making a written submission. To each and every one of them, for their contribution to an important task, I am greatly indebted. Although it is invidious to single out an individual, I am moved to pay a special tribute to someone who has gone the extra mile—way beyond the call of duty—in submitting material to me and offering me personal support and encouragement throughout, and that is the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), whom I am delighted to see in his place.

The Under-Secretary referred to the process through which my colleagues on the review advisory group and I have gone in the past 10 months. We have sought evidence from four different sources. First, we launched an online consultation questionnaire in October, to which, on the due date of 18 January, we had received more than 2,000 replies, of which just over half were from parents, telling us what they thought, what worked, what did not work, and what was needed.

Secondly, we staged a series of focus or consultation groups around the country, calling on children, young people and their parents to offer their impressions of the state of services. In addition, we thought it justified and prudent to stage two particular focus groups on the thorny questions of augmentative and alternative communication under the auspices of Scope on the one hand, and of provision for young offenders, courtesy of the Prison Reform Trust, on the other.

Thirdly, as the Under-Secretary said, we went round the country, visiting pre-schools, primary schools, secondary schools and post-16 facilities. A plethora of different examples were presented to us. We wanted to see not only London and the south-east but the midlands, the north and the south-west, urban and rural areas, mixed communities, different social cohorts and so on, to get the widest possible representative picture of what currently is—and is not—on offer.

Finally, we thought it right to secure the services of some noted and distinguished academic researchers in speech, language and communication, a group of whom have engaged in a detailed project to look at service provision in six different areas, and seek to adduce evidence from their studies, the better to inform future policy making and the prospects of necessary and beneficial research.

We have formed some fairly clear and explicit conclusions, based on what we saw around the country. Without doubt, some excellent professionals and high-quality
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services are out there, but, on the whole, the current state of speech, language and communication provision is highly unsatisfactory. Access to information and services is often poor; the quality of services is very mixed; continuity across the age range is lacking; joint working between health and education professionals, which is so critical to achieving success, is rare, and the system is characterised by high variability and a lack of equity, the short-hand translation of which is that a postcode lottery currently exists throughout the country. Above all, the priority attached to communication is too low. In our judgment, that must change.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the report. I wrote to him about specific problems in my constituency with the recognition and treatment of dyslexia. Will he say a word about his findings about the more difficult conditions of autism and Asperger’s syndrome, which appear increasingly to affect children nowadays?

John Bercow: I certainly will pick up on the theme that my hon. Friend has identified, because it is essential to cater for all the groups on the spectrum. I will say something more shortly about the need for a broad range of provision.

The Under-Secretary referred to the five themes around which the review’s recommendations have been formulated. Communication is crucial—it is the key life skill that enables children to learn, achieve, make friends and interact with the world around them. It is a vital part of the equipment of citizenship, yet all too often it has not enjoyed that priority in the minds of commissioners or policy makers. Sometimes an unwritten, unspoken and—dare I say it?—lazy assumption has been made that children will speak when they are ready, and other important aspects of the children’s development agenda have tended to elbow speech, language and communication out of the way.

That is why we have recommended the creation of a ministerial communication council upon which both the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families would be prominently represented. We believe, too, that an identified individual with relevant expertise and commitment—a communication champion—should be appointed to drive forward the process of implementation, to report to the communication council, to raise awareness and to disseminate best practice. The communication champion will, over time and after appropriate and due preparation, have responsibility for overseeing and running the national year of speech, language and communication.

As part of that process of investing in speech, language and communication services and making them a great priority, it is right that information at key ages and stages of a child’s development should be proactively made available, in a readily accessible form, to children, young people and, in particular, their parents, charting the normal course of communication development, indicating where a person should go if there is a difficulty and advising parents on how best they can assist in the process of bolstering their children’s speech, language and communication development. That concept—that communication is crucial—accompanied and reinforced by a series of specific recommendations, is very important.

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