Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Flello: A week or so ago, when the Government were opening the 3,000th Sure Start centre, I visited one of the three centres in my constituency. I, too, observed the fantastic work that is being done. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is almost a duty for staff, who, as she says, are highly qualified and dedicated, to flag up the earliest signs of autism when they appear? I know that there is speculation about how early those signs can
15 May 2009 : Column 1123
be demonstrated, but should not a mechanism operate from the earliest years of a child’s development to ensure that staff are aware that that child may develop autistic tendencies?

Mary Creagh: I agree. Such conditions need to be spotted early. In the centre that I visited, a fully trained teacher was working with children aged under one. One might ask what on earth a trained teacher was doing in a room full of babies. The answer is “Here is someone who has worked in a school, someone who has observed child development and is an expert on it.” That teacher tells parents that they should read books to babies, which I must confess that I have completely failed to do. Tiny babies were lying on their backs being read stories by their parents, which is absolutely fantastic. It is the highest-quality child care service that we can possibly offer, and we should offer it to every child: to children on the Lupset estate, and to children in our poorest, lowest-income communities.

That brings me to my next point, which relates to babies with clear disabilities. A parent who is aware that a child is deaf or blind may be battling to get that child into a Sure Start children’s centre. If I had a child who was deaf or blind, I would certainly want it to go to one of those centres. Everyone knows that parents of disabled children have myriad hospital appointments with physiotherapists, or with speech and language therapists. If a parent wants to continue to work, it is much easier for the professionals to come to the child—although we have introduced the right for parents, particularly those whose children have disabilities, to work flexibly—than for the parent to be constantly leaving the workplace and taking the child to hospital. It may take half an hour to travel to the nursery, an hour to travel to the hospital, an hour to wait to see the professional and an hour to return the nursery. That is the day gone. Frankly, most employers are not prepared to put up with that.

John Bercow: The hon. Lady is making a very good speech, which is of interest to all Members. In the light of what she has just said about deaf children, does she agree with me that it is very disturbing that, according to the National Deaf Children’s Society, deaf children, who should not otherwise be educationally disadvantaged, were on current statistics 41 per cent. less likely to achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE? Does that not suggest that the absence or paucity of early intervention for deaf or hearing-impaired children has a very damaging consequence 10 or 12 years later?

Mary Creagh: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and there can be no excuse. Whenever we look into the causes of that, we always get into a debate about British sign language. It is, of course, right that a child who cannot speak or hear must be able to communicate, because otherwise the frustrations that the hon. Gentleman so eloquently described earlier in our debate are likely to come out. We are probably only at the beginning of understanding how deaf children learn. Deaf children have been warehoused in deaf children’s schools and they have not been expected to achieve—and, of course, if we do not expect a child to achieve and do not push them to do so, they do not achieve. The mainstreaming of deaf children into
15 May 2009 : Column 1124
mainstream schools presents those schools with a huge number of challenges, and I will come to that shortly.

I was talking to a mother with a child in a mainstream school, and she said that there is a pupil who is deaf at that school so every child who attends the school has been learning sign language. They learned it for two years before the child came to the school, and they are all learning it now. She was genuinely mystified as to why every child in the school should learn British sign language when there was just one deaf child. The answer, of course, is that every other child in the school should be able to communicate with the deaf child. We have to turn this on its head and say, “It’s fantastic that your children are learning sign language.” It is a universal language, so often people do not need to understand the language that is being spoken to understand what is being said. Therefore, whenever these children go abroad to any country they will be able to make themselves understood. One only has to observe the Italians to understand the power of gesticulation in communicating across language boundaries. The Italians can always make themselves understood because they are completely uninhibited about gesture, whereas we are British and we keep our hands in our pockets or by our sides—except when we are holding our papers, as I am now—so we are not as good at communicating. I said to that parent, “This is a blessing for your children. It is fantastic and it will be of use throughout their lives.” It is also teaching them that communication is not just about oral communication; it is also about how we stand, use our hands and look at people. For a person who is deaf, a whole series of such means of communication have to be deployed.

I know that myself, as somebody who wore hearing aids for seven or eight years, from my mid-20s to my early-30s. My experience, as someone who acquired a hearing disability, was that it is extremely challenging. I was working as a university lecturer, and I had to go to my boss and say, “I’ve got a real problem; I can’t hear what my students are telling me in the lecture halls.” It was beyond embarrassing to have to keep on asking people—sometimes two or three times—to repeat themselves. The university had to install—it had the support of the Department for Work and Pensions—a hearing loop so I could hear what was going on. In my work as a councillor, I was also unable to hear what was going on in the chamber, particularly because in local politics, as in national politics, things can sometimes get a little rowdy. I could not hear what was being said off-microphone when my hearing aid was switched to the loop system.

Unless someone has physically experienced the frustrations of not hearing, and the stigma, they cannot fully understand. Babies will pull hearing aids out of their ears because they are uncomfortable, but adults do not want to wear a hearing aid because they are concerned that it makes them look stupid. I confronted that stigma and prejudice myself. Wearing a hearing aid is not like wearing spectacles; there are no designer hearing aids. Armani does not make hearing aids; they just sit on the back of a person’s head and other people think they are not very clever. The challenge is to change that. As soon as someone puts on a hearing aid, their IQ goes down by 50 points in other people’s eyes. That is a huge problem, which we have to face up to. It is to do with our own internal prejudices. That is also why people in
15 May 2009 : Column 1125
later life do not wish to wear hearing aids. There is a big issue to do with how we feel about disability, and it is incredibly important that we overcome the challenges before us.

Mr. Flello: I am greatly enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech, and I shall keep my intervention brief. Does she agree with me that the breaking down of such prejudice barriers is one of the many benefits brought about by the inclusion in the mainstream of pupils with special educational needs of any kind? It is good for the young person concerned to be in mainstream education—with the proper support for that—and it is also phenomenally good for other people around that to see that this is also normality.

Mary Creagh: I could not agree more. It is vital that we all understand that people are different. It is vital that children are not shoved off where we do not see them into special schools—as they were even just 20 or 30 years ago. Nobody ever emerged from them until they were 18, and then they went into special training workplaces. What we are doing on that issue is incredibly important. The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 has been very important, particularly in matters such as making schools wheelchair-accessible. Why should the fact that a child cannot use their legs mean that they are excluded from mainstream education? Education is for every child and every disabled child matters. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and my hon. Friend the Minister are making such huge inroads into addressing the issue of the place of disabled children in our society.

I was watching CBBC with my young children a month or so ago, and I was surprised to see that one of its presenters was a young woman who did not have a hand. She had her sleeve rolled up so that was obvious, and I was quite taken aback, but I was also very pleased. I said to my son, “That lady does not have a hand. What do you think about that?” He said, “Well, it’s a bit strange—and maybe a little bit scary.” That gave me the chance to say, “There’s nothing to be scared about if somebody doesn’t have a hand, Clem. Maybe she had a bad accident or was sick when she was very little, but she is just an ordinary person like you and me.” Seeing disability gives us the chance to do that. The importance of seeing disability on our television screens cannot be underestimated, and we should expect nothing less from our public service broadcaster than to show that. I was incredibly disappointed subsequently to read in the newspapers that there had been a series of complaints to the broadcaster about children being upset. I cannot understand why a parent watching with a child did not use that opportunity positively and proactively to talk about such issues with their very young child.

John Bercow: The hon. Lady is making a racy and intoxicating speech, which I am richly enjoying. As she knows because we co-operate on many matters, I very often agree with her, and I absolutely agree with her on this matter. May I put it to her that this is analogous to many other things in life? I was horrified by that narrow-minded and rather bigoted reaction from some parent viewers. If one keeps something in the closet, that implies that it is something that is somehow inferior, something of which to be ashamed and something that
15 May 2009 : Column 1126
should not be allowed to be discussed in polite company. The opposite is in fact true; we should bring it out into the open and let children come to be aware that it is part of life. It is something to be accepted and welcomed, and the people who suffer from disabilities are just like the rest of us. We want to be their friends and to enjoy life with them, not to regard them as somehow some sort of oddity.

Mary Creagh: Once again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments—that is the first time I have been called intoxicating in this Chamber, but I hope it will not be the last. [Interruption.] I could get used to this! I totally agree with his point, because hiding these things is part of a cultural reluctance to talk about them. If one had a disabled child 40 or 50 years ago, it was an issue of shame; people would give up their babies and send them off to homes to be looked after. Some of the stories coming out about the closure of the asylum institutions have involved people who would never be living in an institution these days; they would be living perfectly happy lives in supported communities. I welcome the cultural change and the culture of human rights that has taken a firm hold in this country, which plays to the nation’s very deep-rooted sense of justice and rights for all, and openness. I welcome the fact that the BBC took this courageous step—hats off to it for doing so—and good luck to that presenter in her future career.

I wish to talk a little about the Waterton junior and infants school in Wakefield, which serves the Lupset estate and is under consultation for closure. I visited it a couple of months ago, and when I talked to the teachers, I was struck by the situation there, because the school has a higher than average number of children with special educational statements. The Government need to examine what happens when local authorities consult on school closure programmes. In addition to the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, which talks about inspections, some further statutory guidance needs to be issued to local authorities on what happens to pupils with special educational needs in any closure programme and any transfer programme.

We know that when children with SEN form a relationship with their special educational needs co-ordinator of additional help or with a particular teacher, that relationship is vital and precious to their learning. In some cases, the help will carry on with the child throughout the school. As soon as the question of closure is raised in any school, we see the flight of staff, because understandably they will think, “Which school are the children going to transfer to? Will there be an opening for me? Will there be a vacancy for me?” They will make their own arrangements and start applying for other jobs. I cannot stress enough to the Minister how important the needs of pupils with SEN are and that in order for the transition to a new school to be made it is vital that those SEN helpers and assistants transfer with the children. Where an ordinary child is only just starting school, is six years old, has had one or two years at their school and is transferring to another, bigger school, where they perhaps do not know anybody—perhaps they are transferring with their class cohort or perhaps the other children have scattered to different schools—such a move is challenging. We must understand that for a child who has special educational needs not only does such a move involve the fear that can come with it, but they lose the person who helped them to do
15 May 2009 : Column 1127
well in class and to keep up with the other children. That is of particular concern to parents in my constituency, so will the Minister respond to that in her speech? Perhaps she could also write to me, so that I can work with the school to ensure that if the authority does decide to close it, the process can be properly handled.

The hon. Gentleman has said that provision falls into a black hole in the teenage years, when children enter secondary school, and that is often the case. A lady who had two children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder came to my constituency surgery a month or two ago. One of the children was in a residential school and the other was at home with her. The issue was not so much about the support that he was getting in school—he was at an appropriate school for his needs—but that he was getting up two or three times in the night. She had a teenager, but in reality it was like dealing with a newborn baby—and it had been like that ever since he was a newborn baby. Those of us who have had children and remember those hectic early months of a child’s life, where one is in an intense period of parenting, getting up to answer 2 am, 4 am and 6 am calls and sacrificing one’s own sleep pattern, cannot begin to imagine what that lady was suffering over a period of 10, 12, 15 years with her son.

Mr. Flello: My hon. Friend’s comments flagged up in my mind a case of someone who came to see me a couple of years ago in one of my surgeries—this also draws on a point made by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). Not only had the mother had that experience of getting up during the night with her teenage child year upon year, but during the day, when she might have tried to catch up on a few hours’ sleep, she was getting phone calls from the school to say, “Your child is being disruptive. Please come to take them home.” What is my hon. Friend’s view on that?

Mary Creagh: My view is that it is incredibly important that the local education authority works with social services to provide proper personalised support to those families. The point that I was about to make is that, in respect of children who have severe and complex needs, the local authority can often feel, “Well, they have got the statement and they are in the school. They are where they are. We have done that for them. Case closed.” The authority may feel that everything is tickety-boo, but the child’s needs do not stop after the eight hours of compulsory schooling; those needs carry on for the 18 hours when the child is at home and where their behaviour may be incredibly difficult. With the best will in the world, all the parenting classes in the world will not help a parent to deal with such a situation.

That brings me on to the point I wish to make about respite care for these children, in respect of which we need to reach a redefinition. Respite care is in very short supply across the country, and I know that the Government are looking at how we can further help carers. In looking at the needs and the life patterns of parents who are dealing with children with these complex needs and complex diagnoses, we need to consider how we make provision to give parents a night or two off. Just one or two good nights’ sleep can be a tonic and can help them face the future. That is a very important
15 May 2009 : Column 1128
point, and I would like the Minister to think about how social services look at the care of these children.

Another constituent who came to my surgery was dealing with a very violent child of 10 or 11. She had rung her social services to say that the child was kicking, biting and punching her, only to be told, “Until you hit him, we will not intervene.” She thought, “Of course I am not going to hit him. He is my son. I love him, so I am not going to hit him. That is against everything I believe in.” She had contacted social services because she was in the very early stages of what was going to be almost an abusive domestic violence relationship. We are only at the beginning of our understanding of domestic violence. I have met female constituents in their sixties who have been beaten up by their 30-year-old sons. Those sons did not start beating their mothers when they were 30—the pattern started earlier. I met a woman in a refuge whose son had observed violence being perpetrated against her. It had been sanctioned in the home as he grew up and he felt able to continue with it.

My constituent’s case was not domestic violence, of course, but she was suffering injury and asking for help. Social services need to be able support parents in that situation and work with them to deal with challenging behaviour of that sort.

John Bercow: Bringing up a disabled child can be a very rewarding experience for a parent, but it can also be harrowing and debilitating, as the hon. Lady has described. In addition to the interface that parents need with education authorities and the health service, they also need to deal with the Department for Work and Pensions. Does she have a view on the importance of the non-means-tested benefit of disability living allowance? Of course the Government have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayer and must guard against fraud, but does she agree that it is a matter of concern that, even after being slimmed down, the application form for DLA is still 52 pages long? Nor is it solely a matter of box-ticking, because it requires a considerable narrative from applicants, which for people who may have SEN or disabilities themselves can be extraordinarily challenging.

Mary Creagh: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that interesting point and there is a problem with our definition of disability and what effect it has on people’s lives. For example, we pay higher rate disability benefits only to people with visual impairments, which shows how much further we have to go. Most people accept that if someone is blind, it is more difficult for them to find their way about, but I had a case recently in which a mother had applied for DLA on the grounds of her daughter’s deafness but the application had been rejected. I asked the Royal National Institute for Deaf People about this and it said that each case was considered individually. Charities need to give us better advice, but we also need better advice from the DWP. As a child gets older, we expect them to be able to go to school on their own. Perhaps they can walk to primary school at 10—in my case, I was seven, but times have changed—and go on a bus, with friends, to secondary school at 11. For the parent of a child with a disability, all bets are off. If the child has a physical disability, they will probably be eligible for school transport provided by the local authority, but in the case of a child with deafness, it is more of a
15 May 2009 : Column 1129
judgment call about whether it matters that they cannot hear the traffic. Rather than let their child walk to school in those circumstances, and perhaps then get the telephone call that every parent dreads, most would prefer to play it safe and take the child to school safely right through to 18. That brings us back to the question of how parents can balance that with their working lives.

I mentioned ADHD and I wanted to stress the need for the interface with child and adolescent mental health services. Many children with behavioural issues are under the supervision of a psychiatrist, or on medication under such supervision. The silo problem then arises, with one approach from the school, another from health services and yet another from social services, and never the three shall speak. We need to join up the services for those children.

The hon. Gentleman said that children can fall into an abyss at age 11, but they face an utter void at 18. Most mental health trusts have no provision for adult ADHD services. In a way, the children we are debating today are privileged, because they are being taken into consideration, but when children turn 18, they are no longer eligible for child and adolescent mental health services. They become subject to the adult psychiatric service. I pay tribute to a constituent of mine who has attended my surgery several times and spoken very movingly about the challenges he has faced in acquiring an adult diagnosis and proper psychiatric support for his son. Through that parent’s diligence and persistence, Wakefield mental health services, together with Kirklees and Huddersfield, has set up its first ever adult ADHD service, starting from this April. As the hon. Gentleman knows, young people with ADHD are more likely not to be able to find a job and to get in trouble with the police. They often do not have a daily structure to their lives, because they are no longer in secondary education, and they no longer have proper medical supervision because they are now adults and, obviously, instantly better. That is clearly not the case, and the Government must look at that issue very seriously. We need to avoid having a postcode lottery, in which such services are a priority for some areas, which have a campaigning individual, but are ignored by health chiefs in other areas.

Next Section Index Home Page