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House of Commons

Friday 15 May 2009

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 163).

A Division was called; Dr. Desmond Turner and Mr. Andrew Dismore were appointed T ellers for the Noes, but only one Member, John Bercow , being appointed Teller for the Ayes, the Deputy Speaker declared that the Noes had it.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Yesterday’s Order Paper stated that today’s Bill No. 3, in the name of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), was the Employment Opportunities Bill. Today, however, that Bill seems to have disappeared. Its purpose, among other things, was to abolish the minimum wage. I find it surprising that the hon. Gentleman should have pulled his Bill at such short notice, without informing the House—particularly bearing in mind that a number of Members, including me, have prepared to speak on it. Is it not at the very least a gross discourtesy to the House to pull a Bill on that basis? Is there anything that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, can do to try to reinstate it, so that we can have a debate on an important issue?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, there is absolutely nothing that I can do to reinstate that business; what hon. Members in charge of Bills do with them is entirely their affair. It is to be hoped that whatever is done is for the convenience of the House, although it might not have been on this occasion. I have the feeling that there is ample material on the Order Paper for the House to consider this morning.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—this is the first time in 40 years, so it is quite a moment for me. As I know from having worked there, the practice in the Council of Europe is that if a person does not turn up for their Bill, the speech that they were going to give is delivered to the official report so that it can be printed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: As the right hon. Gentleman must know, we have not adopted that procedure in this Parliament; very strong views may be held on the subject.

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Special Educational Needs and Disability (Support) Bill

Second Reading

9.37 am

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I begin by declaring an interest as an adviser to the board of the Priory Group, which owns a number of special schools around the country. However, much more importantly, because special schools are certainly not part of the thrust of my remarks today, I should like to make an appropriate expression of thanks. I thank the National Autistic Society for its inspiration, and co-operation with me, in getting us to where we are today. It took the lead in drafting the Bill, and I am thoroughly indebted to that fantastic and dedicated group of professionals. I also acknowledge the pioneering work of the Special Educational Consortium and of TreeHouse, which is both a school for children on the autistic spectrum and an established and renowned charity for people in that sector.

On Wednesday this week, I had a seminar, or round-table discussion, on the issues appertaining to my Bill, and I greatly profited from it. It was attended by experts in the field, including General Teaching Council representatives, Sir Alan Steer and a number of others. They have recognised expertise, are interested in the issues, broadly support what I seek to do and are anxious to add to the quality of the debate and the progress likely to be made.

In that sense, we are in a good position. We are also in a stronger position in conducting this debate by virtue of the fact that on a Friday, which is traditionally a constituency day, a significant number of colleagues are present. I am grateful to them. I should like at the outset to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, with whom, as well as with whose boss, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, I have had discussions over recent weeks about the contents of my Bill. They have been thoroughly constructive and convivial exchanges, and I am grateful to her and to the right hon. Gentleman.

I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who shadows for my party on children’s issues, and about whom I was able to say at a meeting the other day, without exaggeration, that he has forgotten more about children’s issues and special educational needs provision than most of us knew in the first place. I welcome, too, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), who I assume will speak from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench on this matter today.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The reason there are so many people here on a busy constituency Friday, as the hon. Gentleman points out, is that we recognise not only the importance of the matters covered in the Bill and the needs of the people to whom it is directed, but his own personal and long-standing commitment to making progress on these issues for the sake of the people whose needs the Bill seeks to meet.

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John Bercow: That was an unsolicited tribute—something that one does not expect to hear often in our business. At a time when we are all held in quite the deepest imaginable public opprobrium, I can say only that I express heartfelt thanks to the hon. Gentleman; I appreciate his remarks. He and I work together across the party divide on many issues, of which this is one. I suspect that if we worked constructively and dispassionately, on a non-partisan basis, on more issues, more consistently and more often, we would, on the whole, be held in higher esteem by the mass of the electorate than currently we are.

I should like to set the scene, establish the background and underline the rationale behind the introduction of my Bill. Let me put some fairly straightforward facts on the record. Twenty per cent. of children of school age have special educational needs or disability, and 7 per cent. of the sector are specifically disabled. What concerns me about this category of children and young people is the relative paucity of the outcomes that they are currently able to achieve in their settings. I do not want to subject my colleagues to a litany of statistics, but I will favour the House with just a sprinkling so that people listening to our debate can better understand the present plight and the need for improvement.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his Bill—very welcome it is, too. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). This is indeed an issue of cross-party support that brings us here at a difficult time.

The hon. Gentleman refers to 20 per cent. of our young people. Is that figure based on the number of children who have been identified through the systems that we have in place, or is it a best estimate of the real number of children with special educational needs?

John Bercow: My understanding is that the statistic reflects the current known reality. It is not a guess or a prognostication, or written on the back of a fag packet: it reflects the numbers of children with SEN in school at the moment. If the hon. Gentleman’s supposition is that the real figure might be higher, he could be right; if he has such intelligence, I am all ears.

Mr. Flello: I do indeed fear that the number of young people in our schools, and in pre-school, with special educational needs is far higher than the number that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I am afraid that the evidence is purely anecdotal. In the light of my experience in life, in previous work with a children’s charity, and what, as a constituency MP, I see happening in my local schools, I fear that the figure is much greater.

John Bercow: I am in no position to give any alternative estimate, let alone an authoritative one, but it seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is palpably on to something. My own study of special educational needs provision across the country includes the work that I undertook on speech and language services, in collaboration with the Government, between 2007 and 2008. In that period, I had 70 meetings across the country on the subject of the delivery of services, and I frequently encountered people who, spontaneously and independently of each other, said to me, “There are more children here who
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have a problem which took a long time to detect or which has still not been officially recognised, and for whom neither a label nor a provision has yet been made available.” That is tantamount to agreeing with the hon. Gentleman that my figure of 20 per cent. is overwhelmingly likely to be an underestimate. It is not a bad thing to err on the side of an underestimate, as long as one accompanies it with the helpful and welcome caveat that he issued. The situation that I am describing factually is very bad, but in all probability the true position is considerably worse.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this Bill before the House. Like him, I have a child with special needs. I am aware of the importance of this issue, in which I have taken an interest since I was a school governor in south London. One of the observations that I have made, as a Member of Parliament and when I was a school governor, is that the statistics are far worse in areas of deprivation. In one school that I represented, more than 42 per cent. of the children had some form of special needs. Is that the sort of fact that my hon. Friend has seen in doing his analysis? He talks about a figure of 20 per cent., but the points that he makes in his Bill are perhaps most relevant in areas of deprivation and poverty.

John Bercow: Yes is the short answer to my hon. Friend. Like him, I have a child with special educational needs. My wife and I have a five-year-old son, Oliver, who has speech and language difficulties and has been diagnosed as exhibiting the characteristics of high-functioning autism. There is a degree of empathy between me and my hon. Friend on these issues, not least as a result of that shared experience.

It is certainly true that, as in so many other walks of life and features of public policy, the chances of getting justice are not equal. In short, and without wishing to exaggerate the point, I have found, going around the country, talking to people, hearing from people, and studying the evidence that people have submitted in writing, that the chances are that someone who is educated, articulate, middle class, willing to write a decent letter, capable of jousting with authority, and unperturbed by the prospect of having to appear in front of some sort of official forum or tribunal will probably get all, or much, of what their child needs, and in some cases they may even succeed in garnering additional provision, on the precautionary principle, beyond what their child is subsequently shown to have needed. Conversely—this is the logical corollary of that point—someone who is uneducated, inarticulate, incapable of writing a really good letter, petrified at the thought of jousting with authority, and wholly intimidated by the prospect of meeting officialdom in some sort of adversarial scenario will probably not get what their child needs.

I might add—I was struck by this as I went around the country visiting some very deprived communities—that we have to reckon with another factor apart from deprivation itself. One will meet families, sometimes run by single parents, sometimes not, in which the sheer plethora of problems with which the family head is daily confronted is such that although he or she adores the affected child, the fact of the child’s speech or
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language difficulty or other special educational need is not writ large in his or her priorities. That parent might have addiction problems, mental health problems or debt problems, they might suffer from a problem of domestic violence or marital relationship breakdown, or they might have issues of offending or reoffending. It is therefore incumbent on right hon. and hon. Members who are, by all accounts, relatively fortunate, to try to put ourselves in the position of, and to make effective provision for, those who are, frankly, very much less fortunate than we are.

Mr. Flello rose—

John Bercow: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, and then I really should like to make some progress with my background comments.

Mr. Flello: The hon. Gentleman is very kind, and I appreciate his giving way. He is being patient with me, and he is making an extremely good speech.

May I add to the litany of difficulties and problems? There is a perception among some parents of all social classes, backgrounds and wealth that there is a stigma attached to having a special educational needs statement. For some parents, loving as they are, and much as they care about their loved one and want the best for their child in some of the most horrendous circumstances imaginable, there is a bit of a stigma that makes them say to themselves, “I don’t want to put my child forward as needing a statement or extra support, because that will make them stand out.” Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me about that?

John Bercow: I agree entirely. I have come across a great many cases, not least in some disadvantaged communities, in which parents instinctively feel that they want their child to be in with everybody else for reasons of social acceptance. That sometimes causes them to understate the significance of their child’s problem. I entirely understand why they might think that way, but it is absolutely critical that people should not feel stigmatised or embarrassed about acknowledging their child’s particular difficulty, and even perhaps about having a label appended to it. That is the lever that will secure for the parent or parents the necessary support for their child. But yes, that is a problem, and one that we must work to overcome.

I said that 20 per cent. of children have special educational needs, and 7 per cent. of children in schools are disabled. We can examine the outcomes. According to the latest statistics that are available, those children manage to get five A* to C-grade GCSEs in only 14 per cent. of cases, whereas the figure for the rest of their age cohort—those who do not experience special educational needs or disability—is no less than 65 per cent. The children about whom I am speaking are nine times—I repeat, nine times—more likely to be permanently excluded from school, and 80 per cent. of children with learning difficulties have suffered bullying. In 2009, 75 per cent. of the children and young people in our pupil referral units, to the massive overhaul and improvement of which I know the Minister is committed, are those with special educational needs.

If we look at the end of the educational career journey, we see that 50 per cent. and more of disabled adults in this country are unemployed. Even that shocking and harrowing statistic blurs the reality that within it,
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there are significant variants on the theme depending on the particular condition from which an individual suffers. For example, the evidence shows that only somewhere between 12 and 15 per cent. of adults on the autistic spectrum end up in employment.

That is a massively serious situation, and it is a tribute to the Government that in response to the interim report of the Lamb review—Brian Lamb’s review of parental confidence in the special educational needs system—Ministers have announced funding of £31 million for pilot projects to improve expectations and outcomes for children with SEN and disability. I welcome that, but I argue that at least some of the contributory factors to the unsatisfactory outcomes from which those children suffer include issues that I address today in the Bill—a lack of sufficient expertise and training to cater to the needs of SEN and disability children; a frankly deficient inspection process, which often fails to identify the prevalence and nature of the special educational needs or disability of pupils in schools; and a relentless drive in some parts of the country for permanent exclusions from school, including of children with marked special educational needs and disability. I shall come to that in more detail later.

I say with all courtesy to the Minister that that situation is unsatisfactory and cannot go unchecked. There is scope for beneficial reform, and I look to the Minister today either to embrace the provisions of my Bill or to set out alternative means by which its objectives can and will be delivered.

Mr. Newmark: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s patience in giving way. I understand the motives driving the points that he makes, but when it comes to the points in the Bill about training, I should like to mention two very good special educational needs schools in my constituency. Both Edith Borthwick school and Southview school do an excellent job and have excellent teachers who do a great job with the children in their care. Is his Bill driven towards special educational needs schools as well as mainstream schools, or are the latter his primary focus?

John Bercow: One of the things that I find most disappointing and disconcerting about the SEN debate is that all too often, whatever the intentions of its participants, it tends to boil down into a kind of ping-pong match in which the players are expected to be either the advocates of wholesale inclusion on the one hand or the supporters of special schools on the other.

The argument that I have sought consistently to make, when challenged as to the side of the argument upon which I fall, is that what I believe is necessary if we are effectively to cater to the needs of SEN and disability children across the country is a continuum of provision. We need mainstream schools, with support, to cater to the often quite modest and maybe temporary needs of some SEN children. We also need language units or other resourced provisions, attached to and forming part of mainstream schools, in which the appropriate designated children will spend a proportion of their time as part of their school experience, and we need special schools. We have to have that mix.

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