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8 Oct 2008 : Column 94WH—continued

Tim Loughton: And it is time consuming. Part of the problem is that local authorities have three roles: they assess the child’s needs; they are the paymasters for funding what needs to be supplied; and they are often the suppliers of special educational needs provision. The service is made to fit the cash available; it is not tailor-made to fit the child’s needs. Parents must be articulate to navigate their way through the system, and it is often the most deprived who miss out. It can be a very lonely time for parents, which is why my party, through the Sir Robert Balchin commission, has come up with proposals, which we are considering, to replace statements with special needs profiles drawn up by profile assessors—educational psychologists—who are independent of local authorities and who concentrate on early intervention and regular review. We should have special needs profiles that allocate children not only to one designation, but perhaps to one of a dozen support categories, often because they have complex needs that require multiple application. There should be portable funding to mainstream schools, and the assessors should be independent of local authorities and should
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be peer reviewed. There should also be a special needs mediation service with tribunals as the last resort, which has also been mentioned today. We want some big changes in the way in which we assess special educational needs, so that the assessments are tailor-made to the children.

Many hon. Members have mentioned support groups such as the National Autistic Society and TreeHouse, which do fantastic work. TreeHouse’s constructive campaigning parent support project provides vital help to parents, who often feel alienated and isolated. The experience of school is not just about learning in the classroom; it is about the social interaction of children with their peers, which is why it is so important to concentrate on communication skills from an early stage. It was interesting to hear the hon. the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who is so knowledgeable about the subject, speaking about the importance of listening to mums.

I have a lot of sympathy with the National Autistic Society’s ongoing research and its report, “make school make sense”, which rightly says that we need more research into the nature of exclusions. We need greater availability of expertise in mainstream and specialist schools. That takes up the point in the NUT survey that three quarters of teachers are ill equipped to look after children with autism.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), who has expertise in education, have mentioned, we must give greater seniority to SENCOs and provide them with more autism training, which must be ongoing, earlier. We must also look at halfway houses, so that we have some specialist units within mainstream schools. It is not a question of going to a specialist school or going to a mainstream school and hopefully receiving some support. There must be as much flexibility in the system as possible.

Many parents complain about delays in starting support and are left waiting, often at a crucial time, even when their child’s special educational needs have been identified and a support package has supposedly been put in place. There is an impact on the classmates of a child with special educational needs. It is not a one-way-street; it is a learning process for other children and adults in society to discover how best to integrate and relate to people who happen to have a special educational need that is autism. That does not make them a different or lesser person. Support for parents and carers is as vital as special educational needs identification for a child, whatever the educational setting.

I was taken by the suggestion from the hon. Member for Ceredigion about the cradle-to-grave pilots in Wales, and the autism ambassadors, which is another way of raising the profile of the issue and its importance in schools. Many hon. Members mentioned the transition points—20 per cent. of children have special educational needs below the age of 16, but that drops to 7.3 per cent. at the age of 16, and worse at the age of 18. They are dropping out of the system, but their disabilities do not go away because they have dropped off the radar. We need better transitions, and we must boost the Government’s transition support programme. The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), who has such expertise in this area, mentioned that.

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It is complicated, but it is essential to intervene early, and to invest to save so much later. We spend around £2.7 billion on intervention for children with autism, but that rises to £25 billion for adults with autism. It is a no-brainer that we should front-load that investment rather more than we are at the moment to prevent so many more problems in the personal experience of those children as they reach adulthood.

10.49 am

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has said, we have had an excellent debate this morning. I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) not only on securing the debate, but on showing that he is one of the most able communicators in the House. It is a tribute to him that those abilities inform the passion with which he views those who are lacking in communication skills and enables him to pursue their interests so assiduously in the House.

We have heard speeches from a number of right hon. and hon. Members, and I would love to be able to address all the points that have been made. However, I will try to canter through what I can in the time remaining. As the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) has said, whatever views have been expressed, I know that we all start with the aim of giving every child the best possible start in life, the best quality of education and the brightest prospects for their future.

A good education should not be the privilege of a fortunate few; it is something that every child should have. However, some children and families need a bit of extra support to make that a reality. It is the state’s responsibility, and one of the priorities of this Government, to create a system that can provide that. Such a system should enable children with autism and other special educational needs to be provided for within mainstream education, if that is what they and their parents want. Those children should be able to have lessons with their peers, make friends, and lead as normal a life as possible. However, such a system should also offer more targeted provision through special schools, if that is what is needed, and be flexible enough to adapt to the needs of children and their families on a case by case basis. A consistent standard across the national picture needs to be maintained, without prescribing a blanket formula from the top.

A growing number of children have been identified with autism over the past few years and local authorities, schools, charities and independent providers have made huge efforts to meet the growing need for specialist provision. More children with autism are receiving extra, tailored provision, and the number of children whose primary difficulty is autism and who have an special educational needs statement has increased by more than 10,000 in the past 4 years. The number of maintained special schools now approved to take children with autism has increased by 140 over the same period. A wealth of new provision has opened up in the non-maintained and independent sectors, and the majority increase in SEN-resourced provision or units in mainstream schools has been specifically for autistic children, or those with social, emotional, or behavioural difficulties. As we know from Ofsted’s findings, that provision has led to better outcomes for children with SEN.

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Those achievements are considerable and are indicative of a system that is responding to the challenges of an increasing number of children who have been identified with autism spectrum disorders. However, we need to move to a position in which high-quality, readily available services are the norm rather than the exception. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) has said, there is still some way to go to achieve that.

The first subject to which the hon. Member for Buckingham turned was exclusions, and, as he said, statistics on that show that children with autism are nine times more likely to be excluded from school than other children. That discrepancy is unacceptable. In “The Children’s Plan” we committed to learning from those authorities that are leading the way in reducing exclusions among children with SEN. Our national strategies teams are leading that work and will develop best practice materials, so that we can move towards a more consistent national picture.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the problem of informal exclusion. He is right: the guidance makes it clear that informal or unofficial exclusions are unlawful and reminds schools of their duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Mr. Flello: When my hon. Friend considers the authorities that are showing best practice in this area, will he also ask his officials to look at whether there is a correlation with the speed at which they produce statements? From my knowledge of my own local authority, I am aware that there can be long delays in getting statements through for a lot of young people.

Jim Knight: I am happy to consider what my hon. Friend has said. I take a consistent interest in matters relating to his city, and I will take his comments on board. In respect of exclusion, it would be remiss of me not to underscore the importance that I place on having an appeal system. For children who have been wrongly excluded because of the much mentioned problems with those in the teaching work force having the confidence to understand the disorders, it is crucial that that appeal right is maintained. I urge the Opposition to take note of that.

The hon. Member for Buckingham also discussed bullying. It is a sad and disturbing fact that young people with disabilities can become a target for bullies. Bullying of any kind and of anybody is unacceptable, particularly when it is directed at those who are most vulnerable. Improved communication skills for autistic children will lead to better social interaction with other young people. Of course, that is the case for every child and not just for those who live with a disability. For that reason, an increased emphasis has been put on social issues and skills in the curriculum. The social and emotional aspects of learning programme is helping all pupils relate to one another better, to understand people who are different from us, to manage conflict better and to treat one another with respect. That is becoming much more embedded in primary schools and has been extended to secondary schools. I regret that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) described it as ghastly, because it is a really important programme that runs in our schools, particularly because
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it tackles such bullying. We are grateful to the National Autistic Society for its help in producing our guidance on bullying involving children with SEN and disabilities. We will be working with the Anti-Bullying Alliance to ensure that its principles are embedded.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): The Minister is probably aware that the Robert Ogden school, which is run by the National Autistic Society, is in Thurnscoe in my constituency. It is the biggest autistic school in western Europe and is a beacon of excellence for autistic provision. Does the Minister agree that such schools have a vital role to play in spreading best practice among surrounding local education authorities and local primary care trusts?

Jim Knight: I certainly do. There is some excellent expertise in the school system and in schools such as Robert Ogden, and I pay tribute to the work that they do. Across the public sector, we should all be learning from and tapping into that expertise. We should network that expertise into improvements generally and into how we treat and look after these individuals and support their parents.

I shall turn to what the hon. Member for Buckingham described as the elephant in the room—the teacher training and support issue. It is important that we increase understanding of autism and its effects beyond the family setting, so that parents do not feel isolated in dealing with it, or when trying to access the support that they need. Although teachers are not health professionals—indeed, because they are not—it is vital that they have the knowledge and understanding of autism to be able to recognise behavioural patterns, to support those children, and to point their families in the direction of any additional services that they might need.

John Bercow: May I simply draw the Minister’s attention to Prime Performance Solutions Limited? Julie Inglis and a former respected Member of the House, Kerry Pollard, are representatives of that organisation who came to see me on Monday afternoon. They provide courses for professionals, parents and the voluntary sector and already claim that they are not only helping to foster greater independence in adulthood, but saving £50,000 a year recurring to the public and private purse as a result of the excellent training that they provide. Often the best trainers are people who are autistic or Asperger’s—on the spectrum themselves—or who have family members who are. We can learn from that.

Jim Knight: I will ensure that my noble Friend Baroness Morgan, who has departmental responsibility for those matters, is referred to the work that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

We have heard about work on the inclusion development programme, which provides training materials for current school and early years staff. This year, our work to raise awareness among teachers through the programme has focused on dyslexia, and speech, language and communication needs. Next year, we will focus specifically on autism, and we will keep a careful eye on the effects of training materials to ensure that they really are making a difference. In June, the Training and Development Agency for Schools launched comprehensive training
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resources for initial teacher training at primary undergraduate level. That resource includes material on recognising and supporting children with autistic spectrum disorders and a placement scheme in special provision for trainees.

We are also developing a masters in teaching and learning, so in the early years of teaching we can embed more consistent continuous professional development. In particular, we wish to ensure that there is more consistent quality training in dealing with children with special educational needs. Through “The Children’s Plan”, we have been trying to extend early intervention and multi-agency working. We will also deepen the Children’s Trust arrangements, on which we will be legislating in due course, so that we can ensure that the needs of these children are properly assessed and addressed.

There were a number of other points that I would love to have addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) made some important points—as did all the speakers. On transitions and information, there are all sorts of things I could say, but I am running out of time.

To continue challenging our thinking, and moving forward on this issue, we have established an Autism Education Trust, which is being led by the National Autistic Society, TreeHouse, and the Council for Disabled Children. The trust will bring together specialists, spread good practice and be a representative voice of the autism community to central and local government. We will continue to work with professionals and autism specialists to ensure that the provision for some of our most vulnerable young people is world class. No child should be left behind. Those who need extra support to stay ahead are this Government’s priority.

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Northamptonshire Police

11 am

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me the debate. He has been very generous in providing a series of debates relating to Northamptonshire to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and to me. Only yesterday, my hon. Friend introduced a debate on policing persistent and youth offenders in Northamptonshire. Yet again, he has spoken up not only for his constituents, but for all the people of north Northamptonshire. I appreciate his attendance and support in today’s debate.

I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), who has spent years supporting the people of Northampton and Northamptonshire in his role as a senior county councillor and as a Member of the House. It is encouraging to have half the Members of Parliament for Northamptonshire present for today’s Westminster Hall debate. I thank the Minister for his attendance. I believe that this is only his second debate as an Under-Secretary at the Home Office; the first was yesterday’s debate. I am grateful to him for the immense amount of time that he has put in and the interest that he is showing in policing in Northamptonshire.

The men and women of Northamptonshire police do a fantastic job and work very hard for the people of the county. They are held in very high regard by my constituents. The only problem is that there are not enough of them. I pay particular tribute to Chief Superintendent Paul Fell, area commander for Northamptonshire North, for all his help and advice. I should also mention the excellent work by our police community support officers, who play a valuable role in the community. However, they have a specific role and function and are not there to replace police officers, although on occasion that seems to be the Government’s policy.

So what is the reason for the debate today? In July 2008, the results of the British crime survey were published, showing that there were 1,199 crimes per 10,000 adults in Northamptonshire—the second worst rate in England and Wales. It is right to say that the No. 1 issue in my constituency has always been crime. I regularly send a “Listening” survey to my constituents. That simple tracking survey is sent out throughout Wellingborough and the surrounding areas to give my constituents the opportunity to tell me what issues concern them. Crime has always come out as the No. 1 issue.

Up to 20 per cent. of the people whom I represent are afraid to go out after dark, because of groups of teenagers loitering, or thugs or vandals—or more often all three—which is commonly referred to as antisocial behaviour. That is what the people of Wellingborough want action on. They want the problem dealt with and its back broken so that they can feel safe in the street and so that they can leave their house at night without always looking over their shoulder and worrying about whom they might come across. That major concern is not, however, reflected in national targets. Antisocial behaviour is not seen as a big issue, perhaps because making people feel safe on the streets will not create attention-grabbing headlines. As it is not recorded as a crime unless there is criminal damage, the police are not
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rewarded for tackling antisocial behaviour. At the moment, as a target does not focus on it, police performance in tackling antisocial behaviour is irrelevant in any potential league tables. It is the No. 1 issue for my constituents, yet committing time and resources to tackling antisocial behaviour in effect punishes the police in Northamptonshire.

Some excellent initiatives are running in Wellingborough and Northamptonshire, including Farmwatch. On Saturday, I attended the launch of the street pastors initiative, which is led by churches in Rushden and east Northamptonshire. Street pastors work alongside local authorities and the police. The people involved go out at night and talk to troubled youngsters about their problems and their lives to help to stop them turning to crime. One innovative contribution from the police is the gift of hundreds of lollipops. Giving youngsters a lolly when beginning a discussion keeps their mouths busy and can prevent them from talking back or shouting. It encourages them to listen and stay calm. That is a simple solution to a difficult problem.

In Northamptonshire, there are not enough police officers out on the beat, catching criminals and deterring crime. One weekend recently, only two police vehicles were operating to cover a 70-square-mile area. That is a pitiful number and nowhere near enough to allow the police to serve the community effectively. The latest available police manpower statistics show that, on 31 March 2008, there were 1,309 police officers in Northamptonshire, which equates to 196 police officers per 100,000 of population. It is the lowest figure of any of the other forces with which Northamptonshire is compared and the eighth worst of all police forces in the country. The national average is 264 police officers per 100,000 of population. In Northamptonshire, we have a quarter fewer police officers than the average in the country. Even if we had an additional 400 officers today, we would still be below the national average. We are asking too few police officers to do too much work.

My constituents worry most about how much time police officers spend patrolling the streets of Northamptonshire. They do not want them locked away in police stations, signing forms, attending strategy meetings and doing diversity training. They want them out on the street, catching criminals and deterring crime, so I thought that I would ask the Home Secretary what percentage of their time a police officer spends patrolling. I guessed that it might be as high as 75 per cent.; it would definitely be more than 50 per cent. I have just received the parliamentary answer. Incredibly, in 2004-05 in Northamptonshire, a police officer was on patrol for only 15 per cent. of their time. Despite that figure being woefully low, it almost matched the national average.

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