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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 30 March 2011

[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]

Children with Special Educational Needs

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Goodwill.)

9.30 am

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I am delighted to have secured this debate on provision for children with special educational needs. The Table Office has advised me that at the outset I should declare an interest: my wife is a lawyer who specialises in educational matters, particularly in representing children with special educational needs. It was her frustration and my outrage, on hearing reports from parents, that sparked my personal interest in this subject, many years ago. The Government’s Green Paper on special educational needs prompted my request to the Speaker for this debate. I hope that it will be the first of many held in the House before the publication of the White Paper.

I welcome the approach taken by the Minister, and was fortunate to receive a briefing on her intentions a couple of weeks ago. She and her colleagues have a genuine passion to make a difference on this issue, and acknowledge the waste, delay, frustration and anger that is often felt about the current system. The Green Paper underlines the Government’s wish to develop a less adversarial approach, offer a greater choice to parents, and encourage and facilitate better working and co-operation between schools, local education authorities, health bodies, the independent sector and parents. A multi-agency approach up to the age of 25, with more support from the independent sector and increased opportunities for free schools, will offer choice and continuity. The Green Paper outlines how early identification can make a significant difference to outcomes for individuals, and says that teachers need to be better qualified in identifying special educational needs.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He alluded to the importance of teacher training; does he agree that one of the great strengths of the Green Paper is not just the emphasis it puts on initial teacher training, but the opportunity for teachers to develop their professionalism throughout their careers? He talks about frustration more generally, but there must be frustration in the teaching profession with the fact that they have not been given the tools to deliver the kind of education that he and I want to see right across the board.

Alun Cairns: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for underlining an important point that is acknowledged in the Green Paper and, I think, far and wide. Teacher training is extremely important in the initial stages, but so is continued professional development. That is particularly important in relation to school exclusions. Evidence from Mencap suggests that 72% of pupils who have been excluded have special educational needs. I believe strongly that lack of support for a special need is often the cause of disruptive behaviour, and in view

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of the Government’s plan to change the school exclusion legislation, I hope that changes to SEN policy and teacher training will help reduce that percentage. The exclusion of those pupils is our fault, not theirs, if their needs have not been addressed. The Green Paper also considers how the statementing process should be changed so that resources are used in a more efficient way. That is the area on which I wish to focus today.

I was delighted to see that the Green Paper proposes maintaining the principle of a statement of SEN. It aims to reform the process, so that there is a single education, health and care plan, but still recognises the need for statutory protection for parents and pupils with regard to the provision of SEN support. That is great comfort and reassurance to all parents. The current system is cumbersome, costly and inconsistent, and is seen as being used by some authorities as a delaying tactic to frustrate the wishes of many parents.

In spite of that flawed process, the system is seen by parents as the back-stop that can guarantee a level of provision. If a parent can find their way through the maze, a statement can deliver what they want and what their child needs. Clearly, all sides are spending significant sums of money considering and discussing the matters. The money spent on advocacy and the challenges involved would be better spent on delivering provision. The new approach aims to make the process swifter, simpler and more efficient, but I have some questions and concerns about how and whether all aspects will work, so I want to talk the Chamber through the current process and compare that with my understanding of the proposals in the Green Paper.

The starting point is typically a parent or teacher identifying, or raising a question about, a child’s special educational need. Once the request for assessment has been made, the authority has six weeks to decide whether to assess the child. That will lead to a 10-week period in which the assessment is conducted. If a local authority questions or objects to the need for a statutory assessment, a parent will have to follow a cumbersome process to appeal via a tribunal; that comes with a significant delay. I am aware, for example, of an appeal just to obtain a statutory assessment that was registered on 10 August 2010 and not heard until mid-January 2011.

After the assessment, a decision will be made on whether a statement of SEN is needed; if it is, a proposed statement must be issued within two weeks. The parents are given the proposed statement and an opportunity to make representations within two weeks. After a further six weeks, the local authority will present its final statement.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. In my constituency, there are a number of schools with children who have special needs. According to the Library research paper, on 9 March 2011, The Daily Telegraph stated:

“Thousands of children will be removed from school ‘special needs’ registers under Government plans to stop teachers over-diagnosing behaviour and learning problems.”

The parents whom I speak to have a real difficulty with that; does the hon. Gentleman agree with them?

Alun Cairns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. That is certainly an issue that causes worry among many parents. However, we need to recognise

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that the school funding formula almost leads to a perverse incentive for schools to classify children as having SEN. Very often, what is needed is additional support in the classroom, rather than a classification of SEN. It is the perverse incentive that is the root of that problem, but I accept absolutely that the issue needs to be teased out and clarified while the White Paper is being drafted.

The whole statementing process is meant to take 26 weeks, but we need to add in the delays due to the tribunal, which I have mentioned. If a parent is dissatisfied with a statement, they can appeal to the tribunal again. Delays such as the August-to-January delay that I mentioned earlier in relation to the assessment appeal will also be incurred in the case of a statement appeal. Parents who have to go through two appeals and the 26-week statementing process can therefore be left waiting for a total of 16 months to get a statement confirmed. That delay in securing the right SEN support can be damaging, particularly to a young child of four, five or six, as 16 months is a significant percentage of a child’s life.

The Green Paper highlights the Government’s will to speed up the process, and proposes cutting the 26-week period to 20 weeks. That is welcome, but the wait for the tribunal hearing also needs to be addressed if we are genuinely to speed up the process from start to finish. The Green Paper, however, talks about a mediation requirement. In principle, I can see the attraction of that, but I question its merit in practice because of the new delay that that could introduce. An insistence that mediation should take place before the right to appeal would be detrimental due to that delay, and I ask the Minister to allow mediation to take place in parallel with the wait for the tribunal hearing. In reality, discussions already take place right up to the day of the tribunal. It is most frustrating for an authority to agree to something on the morning of a hearing when the parents have been asking for it for the previous six to eight months.

Furthermore, I am not wholly convinced that mediation will work in practice. Parent partnerships already exist to allow for mediation, but few people take up the option because the relationship has usually broken down. We need to consider the pressure on the parent of an autistic child who has to battle month after month with a school and a local education authority, and then face a tribunal.

The Green Paper highlights extended choice for parents, but we need to recognise that legislation already offers parents significant choice. It is often the disagreement caused by the difference between the wishes of parents and the offer from the local education authority that leads to tribunal proceedings.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Might not the term “mediation” often be used to talk the parent out of getting their child statemented, and to let the school authorities off their responsibility to ensure appropriate education for the child?

Alun Cairns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It underlines a point that I plan to make later about the support that parents need. Mediation

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could possibly work, but we need to understand the breakdown in relationships and the support that parents therefore need.

I turn to the statement itself and the issues that can lead to disagreements and appeals. More often than not, draft statements are vague and imprecise. Parents will seek to make changes in order to gain an appropriately detailed statement that guarantees the provision that they need. Let me offer an example relating to the provision of speech and language therapy. A poor statement would read, “The child will have access to a communication programme,” whereas a well-prepared statement would record, “The child will have direct speech and language therapy with a therapist once a week for a period of 30 minutes.” That detail is important because if the speech and language therapist is sick for a period or goes on maternity leave, a local authority will rarely move to reappoint a suitably qualified individual, even if they can, given the shortage of therapists. If the provision is specified in a statement, parents can demand it, even from the private or third sector, if necessary. Clearly, it is in the interest of the local education authority to draft a vague statement to prevent such demands reaching the High Court.

That leads me to the backdrop of the tension that develops between parents and local authorities. Parents want a detailed, appropriate statement. They sometimes request that support be given more frequently than is offered, or seek a placement in a specific school, possibly out of county, and that has financial consequences. In a small number of cases, an independent special school is requested. Parents may even press for one-to-one support in a mainstream school. Those demands, which stem from the choice already afforded to parents in current legislation, will always have cost implications. That is usually at the core of the differences between the two parties.

Section 86 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1988 states:

“The duty imposed”—

that is, the duty on the authority to comply with parents’ preferences—

“does not apply…if compliance with the preference would prejudice the provision of efficient education or the efficient use of resources”.

A similar term is used in the Green Paper, which states on page 17:

“unless it would not meet the needs of the child”


“would be incompatible with the efficient education of other children”.

It is obvious why such clauses and statements need to be included in legislation and Green Papers, but as long as they are, we will always end up with parents rightly demanding more for their children and local authorities seeking to reduce provision on the basis of cost. I do not see how legislation could be drafted without such a clause to protect the public purse, but it will always be the point on which disagreements will arise.

One option could be a better definition of what a parent can expect, but that focuses on inputs rather than outputs and runs against the principle of facilitating the best outcomes possible, which is at the core of the Green Paper. I have no doubt that many measures in the Green Paper will make a significant difference in supporting children with special educational needs. Early identification,

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a multi-agency approach, and assessment by health visitors in particular—the number of health visitors is to increase—are extremely welcome. The simplification of school action and school action plus is welcomed by parents, because they are often seen as a delay to the statutory assessment that I referred to earlier.

David Simpson: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the shortage of speech and language therapists. Would he agree that that is a key component of all this? There is a major shortage of therapists across the whole of the United Kingdom, and the Government need to do something to encourage young people into that profession.

Alun Cairns: I am grateful for that intervention. Without a doubt, the shortage of speech and language therapy is a significant difficulty, but as I highlighted earlier, if need for it is recorded in the statement of special educational needs, parents can rightly demand it, and can even go to the High Court to secure it. I am familiar with some cases where that has been done. However, I worry about those pupils who need speech and language therapy support but who do not have a statement. The shortage of such support does not make things easy for local authorities, assuming that they have the resources to provide it, and it naturally drives up costs. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point.

Improved training of teachers will make a positive difference in reducing special educational needs later on. The point about speech and language therapy is particularly relevant, because if support is provided early on, soon after screening at the age of two and a half, which is mentioned in the Green Paper, that can save significant sums later. I would like to believe that the Minister recognises the importance of that issue.

Budgets for parents to buy services directly will also help significantly. That is the principle of choice. One example that I can offer relates to sensory integration therapy, which local education authorities fail to recognise but the parents of autistic children value hugely. That service is provided by specially trained occupational therapists.

More explanation is needed of how budgets will be allocated, so that parents can exercise the choice and freedom that we want to give them. Will it be on a banding basis? If so, it will lead to further challenges and appeals aimed at moving the child to a higher band that would give greater access to resources and better provision. The new assessment regime and joint working with various agencies will simplify the process, but there needs to be clarification on whether there will be a single assessment regime as well.

Finally, I want to underline my concern for parents who do not have the capacity to challenge the system. This point was made earlier in an intervention. To get the best chance of securing provision, a parent may employ an advocate, independent speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and educational psychologists to give evidence to challenge the local authority’s case. After all, the local authority has ready access to such services. Clearly, that would be a significant expense for any individual or family, but if their call is that an independent special school costing, say, up to £100,000 a year is the only way to secure provision for their child, paying such experts at the appeal stage could be seen by them as an investment.

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My worry is that the parents of some children with special educational needs will not have the necessary capacity; many may have special educational needs themselves. It angers me that those with the resources and the capacity who can work their way through the system will get what they need, but the children of parents who cannot afford it or cannot work their way through the system will be left without appropriate provision. I am sure that the Minister will agree that stopping those who can is not an option, and that the challenge is to deliver a system that provides the right support at the outset to those who cannot.

I am grateful for the support that I have received for this debate, and for the interventions that have been made. I hope the Minister will accept my comments as a positive welcome for the Green Paper.

9.49 am

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I am pleased to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). He is a compassionate Conservative, and he has demonstrated that today. I was astonished at the level of expertise he displayed, and I learned a lot from his speech.

As a candidate and now as a Member of Parliament, I have been very pleased to speak to Harlow parents whose children have special needs. I am a supporter of the Harlow Parents of Autistic Children Together, or PACT, and I have often met its chair, Sam Fancett, and vice-chair, Wendy Merry, and others. They are very IT friendly, and we usually speak via Blackberry messenger. I want to raise on their behalf some problems that are sometimes thought to be little things, but actually make a big difference.

First, parents believe that it would be helpful if more special schools could specialise—for example, in autism therapy—instead of being just an alternative to mainstream schools when children can no longer cope. If that is impossible, more mainstream schools could develop a specialised autism unit on site, or a unit could be shared between several schools. At present, I understand that, if a parent chooses a school that is more suited to their child’s needs, but is outside their catchment area, they must provide their own transport, and sign a disclaimer saying that they will never request transport in future. We all know that funds are limited, but there should not be a postcode lottery in such cases. As the free school reforms come through, I urge the Government to look at home-to-school transport and access to expert special education.

Secondly, why are parents of children on the autistic spectrum, especially those with severe difficulties, unable to get a blue badge to park their car? Parents of those children struggle daily, sometimes in extremely difficult situations. They have told me that parking a car when a child is having a meltdown can be highly dangerous. The Government are cracking down on people who abuse blue badges, but will the Minister do what she can to nudge local authorities to make blue badges more available to those with autistic children or children with significant special needs? It is worth taking much stronger action against those who wrongly park in bays for disabled drivers, because that causes incredible difficulties for those with severe disabilities.

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Thirdly, on special educational needs, there is a question about arbitrary limits. A constituent of mine, Jackie Stedman, has suffered a constant battle to get a good education for her two children. Again and again, she has run up against problems due to random limits on financial support, which are tied to age rather than to need, or to children’s potential to learn. I accept, of course, the overall need to cut the deficit, and to be careful with our finances, but the sums involved are not significant in the context of the overall budget—in this case, that of Essex county council.

The context is that the council pays for home-to-school transport for Jackie’s two children, who both travel in the same car to the same school, but the council is now saying that, according to the rules, it can pay for one child, and not the other, even though the car will have to make the journey anyway. The absurdity is extraordinary. That is unaffordable for the family, and it feels like a “Little Britain” sketch, when “the computer says no”, just because one of her children is now 16.

I understand the need for local government to set criteria, but the rules sometimes seem arbitrary, and hurt decent families who simply want a good education for their children. A similar problem is seen with therapies offered by local primary care trusts. Sam Fancett gives the example that not all children are offered sensory integration therapy or auditory integration therapy. It depends on their PCT, but those therapies can transform children’s lives, and drastically improve behaviour at an early age. She also queries why speech therapy seems to finish at the end of year 7. Again, that seems to be an arbitrary limit, which does not relate to children’s needs or potential.

A potential casualty of the difficult economy was going to be a Thursday evening session of respite care in a Harlow community centre called Sam’s Place. Thankfully, the council worked hard to rescue it, and I congratulate the leader of Harlow council, Andrew Johnson, Councillor Joel Charles and council officers on their hard work in achieving a solution. One of the lessons that came out of that was that most parents are happy to take on the responsibility of running services for their children, but we cannot ask them to take on legal liabilities, compliance duties and other red tape. Parents with children with special needs have enough to worry about without having to do all that. I know that the Government are looking at such matters in the context of the big society reviews, and I would be grateful if the issue could be specifically considered.

As I have suggested, the solution must involve the big society. At the moment, if someone with an autistic child wants to talk to the local education authority or PCT, it is like trying to get through to a mobile phone company with instructions to press 1, press 2 and so on. Parents need a much more personal service. That may cost a lot of money, but a reduction in the number of appeals and complaints might save money in the long run. Essex county council has been moving towards that, but the results are patchy, and I urge it to use its back-office savings to hire more, dedicated, proper relationship managers—human beings—who would understand the issues and liaise directly with families such as those in the Harlow PACT.

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Another problem is that the computer always seems to say no. Why should it say no to parents who are struggling against the odds? Decisions are arbitrary or tied to arbitrary age limits and catchment areas, which are largely random or created for bureaucratic convenience.

Alun Cairns: My hon. Friend is making some extremely important points about the arbitrary limits. My understanding is that the legislation does not provide for such arbitrary limits. We need to provide for the child, but local authorities use the system to prevent a child from gaining access. If a parent battles through the maze of the statementing process, they may win, but bearing in mind the delays to which I referred, very few, sadly, have the resources or the capacity to do that.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is exactly right. My point is that given what parents must face, and their difficulties with special needs children, why should they have to battle? Mrs Jackie Stedman has spent years battling with the courts and relevant authorities to try to obtain proper treatment for her children. She has often been successful, but why should she have to go through that in the first place? To borrow a phrase, our public services need to speak “human”, and that means looking at each individual case on its merits, and talking to the parents and children involved.

Mr Mark Williams: Perhaps I should have declared an interest earlier, Mr Brady, as a former teacher and still a member of the NASUWT. Does my hon. Friend agree that schools find themselves in the middle of a conundrum? Teachers may see the problem of children on the autistic spectrum or with dyslexia and make a diagnosis, but they are frustrated because the resources and support that parents rightly demand are also lacking for teachers. They want to get on with the job. They may have identified the problem and know the direction of travel, but LEAs are often lacking resources.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is right. If the teacher is well placed to understand and diagnose the problem, the matter should be sorted out from there. However, they often have to wade through relentless bureaucracy. It does not matter which local authority is involved, it is always “rule this, regulation that.” That is what makes lives difficult.

Parents are used to fighting to get a fair deal for their children, but we must not burden them with tons of forms, legal liabilities and compliance. We have to make it easier. I know that the Minister is looking into the matter, and I would be grateful if she reassured my constituents about the direction of Government policy.

10 am

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I did not plan to speak in the debate. Many hon. Members take a strong interest in this subject, but there are undoubtedly other meetings and Committees sitting this morning that have prevented them from attending the debate. I anticipated contributions from some of those hon. Members to whom I have often listened when they spoke about this subject. Since I have the opportunity to speak, however, I would like to raise one or two issues.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing the debate. It is an interesting time for such a debate due to the publication of the

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Green Paper and the consultation. If we return to the subject in a few months, I suspect that we will have heard more from our constituents who are beginning to engage with the process and to look at the issues set out by my hon. Friend the Minister in the Green Paper.

If we look back at educational experiences over the generations, it is clear that there is now—thankfully—more recognition of the needs of pupils. Rather than seeking to exclude or blame pupils for the challenges they face, usually with huge courage and fortitude, there is now more recognition of those problems. Strategies have been developed to support pupils who face those various challenges and experiences.

Of course there is an issue of resources, and the challenge set out in the Green Paper to bring different agencies together and to come forward collectively with solutions is crucial for a number of reasons. As hon. Members have pointed out, families going through such problems often have to pursue multiple challenges with different agencies working alongside each other. Given how the system is currently configured, they have not only to fight with the local authority or even the school, if things have reached that stage, but to take on the local health trust to receive the provision that they need.

During my time representing the larger constituency of North Cornwall, as it was then constituted, I was involved in a fantastic campaign run by a wonderful woman called Sandy Lawrence. Sadly, the boundary has changed so I no longer have the benefit of her experience as a constituent, but she continues to work across Cornwall for children with Down’s syndrome. She brought to my attention the ludicrous provision in place for providing mobility aids for children who are perhaps slow to develop with walking, and pointed out the rather strange rules put in place by the primary care trusts that are split up across Cornwall.

A contract was provided by a neighbouring health trust to supply those pieces of equipment, but the commissioning was simply not up to the job or robust enough. When I, together with Sandy whose campaign it is, began to probe that situation, no one was able to say how much of a service and how many pieces of equipment had been provided for the money handed over by the local PCT, and over what period that had happened and for what purpose. The management information was dreadful. Sandy was going through that experience on behalf of a child who was approaching school age, and that equipment was crucial for engagement and moving into school. That fight was completely separate from anything to do with education, but it is crucial to bring those things together so that collaborative approaches can be drawn up.

Such an approach would also make it harder for different agencies to hide from each other. As we know, when resources are at stake, there is a tendency to say that it is someone else’s problem. If there is any opportunity to pass things on to someone else’s budget, people will grasp that opportunity. That is done not out of a sense of malice, but because people are under pressure. If we could develop a more collaborative approach, we will come up with solutions that will work better for families and children. That would be the case in the sort of situation I have outlined, which has improved drastically.

We know that child and adolescent mental health services are patchy across the country, and in a rural area such as my constituency it is challenging to provide

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support. The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) described the support network of parents in a more urban setting. Such things exist in rural areas, but for all the reasons outlined, there are challenges in getting together because of difficulties with transport that can be acute. The determination to bring health providers to the table for debates and discussions is crucial, and I pay tribute to the Minister for the work that she has done in securing that initial collaboration with the Department of Health. I look forward to working with other hon. Members to ensure that that collaboration is delivered and becomes the reality.

I want to pick up on the point about providers of education that offer an inclusive model. That has been a subject of much debate, and it is right to ensure that special schools exist for those families for whom that is the right solution. At times, however, we do not give enough recognition to those schools that have determined to offer an inclusive programme of education. I recently met with Mr Ewan Murray, the head teacher of Robartes junior school in Bodmin. He spoke about some of the pupils in the school who were let down by other educational environments but who are now thriving. They travel past several other schools in order to get to his school because it specialises in ensuring that everybody works together and provides support.

I sit on the Committee that is considering the Education Bill currently going through the House. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan mentioned the approach taken to exclusion, but the other side of the coin is to ensure that we have confidence in early intervention so that exclusion is a last resort. Head teachers get frustrated if the situation reaches a point at which they need a permanent exclusion but know that an appeal could overturn that and put the child back in the school. There may have been earlier failures, and the Green Paper needs to look at that to identify those problems and to ensure that the situation is dealt with at an early stage.

Under the current system, which is due to change if the Bill is enacted in its current form, if the current appeals panel puts someone back in a school, the relationship with that school has often broken down and can be difficult to rebuild. The measures in the Bill concerning schools retaining an involvement and a responsibility for that pupil, and the provision they receive elsewhere, is a useful model. I welcome the work that will be done on that through pilot schemes and so on. Crucially, we must deal with problems early on so that the situation never gets near exclusion.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan on securing this debate and raising this issue at the time of the consultation. I suspect that we will return to the debate as other hon. Members get more involved and wish to contribute to the process. The determination set out by the Minister in the Green Paper to bring agencies together, particularly those in the health sector, is crucial, and I hope that it comes to fruition. It can make a huge difference for families and children who have been let down in the past.

10.9 am

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I thank the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun

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Cairns) for bringing this very important subject to the Chamber. I was a little hesitant—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) felt the same—about taking part in the debate, even though I have a passion for the subject, because there is a difference between the arrangements in our part of the United Kingdom under the devolved Administration and those on the mainland. However, we can learn from each other’s experiences, and it is vital that we do. The devolved Administration should examine the current proposals and see what can be taken from them and what can be learned from them.

Some of the statements made by Ministers on this subject are certainly helpful. According to the pack prepared by the Library for the debate, the Government say that they will tackle the problem, which has never been addressed before. It then mentions a number of things that the Government propose. This Minister—the Children’s Minister—says:

“We have heard time and time again that parents are frustrated with endless delays to getting the help their child needs and by being caught in the middle when local services don’t work together.”

The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who is responsible for public health, says:

“It is vital that children, whatever their needs, get the best possible start in life.”

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning says:

“This Government wants to do more to help people overcome barriers that hold them back.”

All those statements are grand, but quite often we have had fancy statements from Ministers in the past. We will judge them by what they do, because statements of special educational needs will, without adequate finances, just be statements.

Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is talking about statements by Ministers and politicians. Many parents are concerned not only about the statement of special educational needs that their child receives, but about the quality of the education that their child receives. That is about the way in which their child is able to learn and whether their school, whether it be a private school—an independent school—a school in the voluntary aided sector or whatever, is able to assist them. The issue is more the help that is provided, rather than the statement for the child.

Dr McCrea: Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The statements by Ministers that I read out contain fundamental principles that the Government are setting down. There is a review of this area, and the Government intend to make progress. All those fundamental statements by Ministers are important. All I am saying is that we will judge them by the actions thereafter, because the statements by Ministers will amount to nothing but air if they are not followed through and action is not taken to give the best possible educational opportunity to children with special needs.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann, I have special needs schools in my constituency and I know that many parents are battling for their children. When it comes to the statementing of children, my

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experience as a Member of Parliament is that my constituents have great difficulty in getting help when they really need it. Let us be honest: there are parents who do not have a great interest in the educational attainment of their children. Every parent should have a great interest in that, but not every parent does. Not every parent has the capacity to understand the great need for education for their children and how to get the best possible education for their children with special needs.

There are other parents, who have a real concern, yet they come up against walls, barriers and obstacles, which in the past they were not able to get over. We must ensure that we give the best possible advice and help to parents at what is a critical time, because many of the children whom we are talking about are losing years of their lives educationally that they will never be able to get back. It is vital that parents get the best advice at the right time and that therefore the child gets the best possible education, because that sets the stage not only for their educational attainment, but for their job prospects and everything else. It is vital that parents get help at the appropriate time. If that is what the Minister is setting her mind to, that will be of great help.

The Government also propose to ensure that assessment and plans run from birth to the age of 25. If I may, I will relate some of the experiences that I have had. In Northern Ireland, when children in special schools turn 18, they go outside the education system. They may have a mental capacity of seven, but they have a birth certificate that says that they are 18, and they leave their special school and go outside the education system. I am passionately angry about that, because what other child stops their educational attainment and advancement at seven years of age? No other child is allowed to stop at seven. Because the person has a birth certificate and a body that say that they are 18, they are moved aside. They have very special educational needs, but those needs are not being met after a particular age. That is a disgrace and an indictment of any society that allows it. I have in the past begged Ministers to intervene in this matter; I believe that they must tackle the issue. I trust that we will get answers on that.

Many parents are frustrated when it comes to getting statements for their children. Many do not have a sufficient understanding of what they need to do to get their child statemented and they come up against an education system that fights against that. There is a constant battle and, to be honest, many parents give up. The only person who loses is the child. We are talking about children and young people who need our help. That is where we as politicians come in. We set the guidelines.

Mr Mark Williams: Coming from one of the devolved nations as well, I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are lessons to learn from those of us in Wales. I am glad that the Minister is to have a meeting with my colleagues in Autism Cymru to talk about some of the issues; we have managed to fix up a meeting. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the corrosive effect on young people. There has been a lot of talk in this debate about the rights of parents, and I absolutely concur with that, but we are also talking about the rights of children. That is why early diagnosis and follow-through

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are so important. We are stacking up huge problems for children from key stage 1 right the way through the education system and into young adulthood, as the hon. Gentleman said, if we do not address these issues at the earliest opportunity.

Dr McCrea: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I wholeheartedly agree with what he said. May I draw attention to this issue? We have talked about parents battling, but why should parents alone have to battle on this issue? Many do not even know how to battle, and parents should not have to know how to battle. We are putting the responsibility on the parent, and if the parent does not battle, the child loses out.

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent contribution. I was one of those parents who battled through the system, as I will say in my contribution. Does he agree that more should be done to help to support parents? Often, parents feel that they are the only ones who have ever been through this experience. There is no signposting; it is almost as though the provision that is available is a big secret. Should local authorities provide more information to parents on what is available and how to find their way through the system?

Dr McCrea: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I wholeheartedly agree. Many parents are in a panic because they do not know at all how to surmount the barriers that are put in their way. They want to do the best for their children—I am speaking about those who want to do the best for their children—and want to battle for their children. Parents have come to me in tears. They say, “I’m fighting for my child, because I will not always be here. Therefore, I want to give my child the best opportunity.” Parents have come to me who are broken mentally because they have tried their best, but it seems that obstacles and barriers are always placed in their way. That is not what our society should be doing. We should be signposting the way. When we come to a barrier, there must be a way over it, if we are to have the best education for our children, and especially those with special needs.

In conclusion, I once again thank the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan for bringing this important issue before us. I am delighted that the Government have identified some of the issues and have proposed measures, but the proof of the pie will be in the eating.

10.20 am

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing this important and timely debate. He is a passionate and assiduous advocate for his constituents, and especially for children and young people with special educational needs, and his contribution this morning further underlined that. He showed his expertise and wide knowledge, and I am confident that he will go on to make a name for himself on this issue; indeed, he probably already has this morning. I also pay tribute to other hon. Members for their excellent contributions and interventions. I welcome the fact that we have had some new faces and some new voices on this issue.

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As hon. Members will know, I have responsibility for this issue as shadow Children’s Minister, but I also have a personal interest in improving provision for children and young people with special educational needs, because my son is one of those people. He displayed delayed speech development and did not utter his first word until he was three. Then, learning to read just did not happen. Despite the fact that he was obviously very bright and able, and despite my constant appeals to his teachers to help him, he was 10 years old before one amazing teacher, who understood SEN because she happened to have a son with SEN herself, eventually helped. My son was diagnosed as severely dyslexic, although highly intelligent, and he was eventually statemented.

My son missed out on six years of learning because none of his teachers spotted that he was dyslexic until he was nine, when the statementing process began. I did not spot that he was dyslexic, because I had never had a dyslexic child or come across anybody with dyslexia. Even though I was constantly asking what was wrong with my son, it was not until I met the teacher I mentioned and explored the problem with her that he was diagnosed by an educational psychologist.

My son is now thriving, having done well in his GCSEs. He got more than five grade Cs and above, but he would not have got the English baccalaureate, because dyslexics do not do foreign languages, as Members may know. At the moment, he is at college, studying a course he loves, with aspirations of going to university and taking up a career in digital games design. That shows the difference that good provision can make, but I cannot say that we got there without a fight, and hon. Members have already discussed the battles parents face. For too many children and their parents, fighting the system becomes a daily struggle.

Having had those experiences—good and bad—of the current system, I was as pleased as anyone when Ministers announced that they would review it with the intention of removing at least some of that struggle. Having finally seen the Green Paper earlier this month, I am pleased to say that I can, in principle, agree with a lot of the proposals it contains. Many of them have already been discussed, and the expansion of Achievement for All, improved teacher training and a simplified and more holistic assessment process will be positive steps, as long as the new education, health and care plans have the same legal rights as statements with regard to health and social care and not just education. I also broadly support the introduction of personal budgets, provided that there is adequate local commissioning to ensure that there is a choice of services for parents and children and specialised support to help them make their choices. In addition, those who do not want to make a choice, but want it made for them, should not be forced to make one.

Unfortunately, while the Green Paper was being consulted on and drafted, the Government’s policies across the board started to alter the landscape for SEN provision. There are now real concerns right across the sector—I have had been told about them in the numerous briefings I have received, as I am sure other Members have—that the positive proposals to come out of the Green Paper may not work in practice. For example, the Government want schools and the NHS to work more closely together

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at a local level, yet Ministers are forcing through legislation that will make that much more difficult.

The Government also want children’s centres to be hubs where parents can access specialist help and support for their toddlers, yet they have cut and destabilised the fund that pays for those centres. As we have heard, research by the Daycare Trust estimates that up to 250 centres will close in the coming year, with a far greater number looking to reduce opening hours or services.

In addition, the Government highlight the importance of skilled specialists such as educational psychologists and speech and language therapists, yet councils up and down the country are being forced to lose those professionals right now because of the large, top-heavy funding cuts forced on them by the Minister’s colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Unfortunately, the Green Paper does not address those realities, which will make it much harder to implement any of the positive proposals in it.

Last week, the Minister told me across the Dispatch Box that she acknowledges that councils have tough decisions to make, and we all know why that is. She said, however, that she hopes the Green Paper will improve provision across the board. I always thought that the point of being a Minister and making policy was to take decisions and make things happen, not just to hope that they do. In this case, unfortunately, I fear that the Government are intent on leaving things to chance and that a system already criticised for being a postcode lottery could become even more of one.

There are real concerns that the Government are ending the assumption of inclusion in favour of an assumption of segregation. Parents should have a choice of school based on which will be best for their child, but what choice will there be if mainstream schools are stripped of the resources to provide for varying levels of need to fund the establishment of academies and free schools?

Given that secondary schools are to be ranked according to the narrow and prescriptive requirements of the English baccalaureate—as I said, no dyslexic child will be able to achieve it, because of the foreign language element—and that the contextual value added measure will be dropped, there is a perverse incentive for head teachers to turn away or put off pupils they know will be more difficult to teach. The admissions and exclusions reforms in the Education Bill, which is currently in Committee, will make it much easier for head teachers to do that. Cuts to legal aid will leave parents struggling even to appeal such decisions.

We know that children on school action and school action plus are already 20 times more likely to be excluded than those with a statement. We know that because having that status means that the needs and progress of such children are recorded. If the support they currently receive is reduced, they will be even more vulnerable to exclusion. I therefore share many parents’ fears that the abolition of that system of recognition could mean many children with real barriers to learning finding that they are no longer able to access specialist support, with the result that they fall further behind in school or are excluded. Effectively, they will be swept under the carpet in terms of the monitoring provided for in the Special Educational Needs (Information)

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Act 2008. As Members may be aware, I introduced that legislation as a private Member’s Bill so that we could better monitor the progress of all children with SEN. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan tried to introduce a similar Measure in the Welsh Assembly, and I was disappointed to learn that he was not successful in that endeavour.

There may well be over-identification in some instances, but it is clear that there is a lot of under-identification in others, as we have heard. We have only to consider the fact that at least 60%, and sometimes up to 80%, of young offenders are identified as having undiagnosed speech, language and communication difficulties to realise that lots of kids going through the system need help but are not being identified at all. More worryingly, they are more likely to have self-fulfilling labels slapped on them and to be told that they are naughty or lazy.

A greater focus on early identification is bound to throw up a much bigger case load, so how can the Government talk about making arbitrary cuts to the numbers of pupils receiving help? As for those pupils who would benefit from better-trained teachers and programmes such as Achievement for All, how would the Minister ensure that sufficient training and programmes are in place in every school, before sweeping away school action status?

From the feedback I have had from the sector, I could go into minute detail on many points, but I will save that for another day, because I am sure that hon. Members want to hear from the Minister. We actually have more time than usual and I want to ensure she has her full allocation.

I think we can all agree that every child deserves all the support they need to access the curriculum and develop into a capable and well-rounded adult, whether that means complex care packages, adapted teaching or an hour a week with a specialist dyslexia tutor. Whatever comes out of the consultation on the Green Paper, a promise that every child gets the support they need must be central to it.

10.30 am

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady; I think it is the first time I have been able to do so. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing the debate. I am grateful to have this opportunity so soon after we published the Green Paper. It is useful to learn what hon. Members think and hear the feedback from their constituencies. The hon. Gentleman said he hoped there would be other opportunities; I do, too. As hon. Members are able to go into their constituencies and use the consultation to talk to their local groups, they will have the opportunity to bring that feedback to the House, so that we can discuss it.

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in the subject. He also mentioned his wife; that is a real power partnership. We are grateful for the expertise he and other hon. Members brought to a good-quality debate—Members including the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who spoke of her experience of battling to get support for her child.

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As hon. Members will be aware, the core of the reform that we are trying to bring to the system is quite radical, and it will take time to bed down and to get it right. Unfortunately, I am not able to promise that overnight we will be able to transform the experience radically for every family who has a disabled child or one with special educational needs. In some of the things that we are doing, it will take time to change attitudes and mindsets. That is why we are taking the approach of using pilots—so that we can begin to roll them out and learn from the experience.

Core to the reform is the change to a nought-to-25 system that is more continuous. I want the system to be more focused on outcomes, rather than focusing just on inputs. A lot of the tension arises partly because people get hung up on the question, “How many hours?”, rather than thinking about where we want the child and family to be in 12 months’ time. We should have that type of conversation from the outset. We should look at the child and family and ask: what are the realistic goals? Where do we want to be next year? What are the realistic goals, long term? We should then put in place the right kind of support to get children and families into that position for the long term.

Alun Cairns: I recognise the focus on outcomes, but does the Minister also recognise that parents can only guarantee the inputs to deliver the outcomes through a statement of special educational needs? Of course, it will be called something different and will have a slightly different form if the Green Paper becomes a White Paper. As I tried to highlight, if a therapist is sick or on maternity leave, provision is rarely replaced during that period. We will not achieve the outcomes unless there is a guarantee of the inputs.

Sarah Teather: I will come to the specifics of the statementing process. The hon. Gentleman’s contribution on that was helpful. It is about getting the detail right and ensuring that the system works.

I have mentioned that I want a nought-to-25 process, and that it should be more outcomes-focused. It also needs to be a joint assessment process. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) said that the current system was too costly, often because people go through it several times—something that the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan also mentioned. It is very frustrating for families if they have to go through multiple assessments, telling the same story over and over again to professionals. That wastes their time and the professionals’ time. When I have listened to families speaking about their experience, I have been struck by how traumatic it is; they relive the grief they experienced when they first had the diagnosis of the disability or special educational need. Every time they tell the story, they are effectively reliving that initial trauma. When that is combined with the frustration of feeling that nobody is listening to them, it is incredibly stressful for families.

We have to streamline the assessment process, so that families go through fewer hoops, we come up with one plan into which everybody is tied, and people know who is responsible for paying for what, rather than there being an endless fight over where that responsibility sits in different sections of the statement. That picks up the point on which the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan

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ended his contribution. At the moment, unfortunately, one needs to be highly articulate and, too often, financially able, in order to get the best out of the system. That is simply not good enough. We have to make the system simpler and more straightforward, so that every family can get what their child deserves: the best possible support and care.

As a number of hon. Members have said, the current system is cumbersome, costly and inconsistent. The first thing we have tried to do is take some of the adversarial nature out of the process. Again, I cannot promise that we will never have tension between families and services providing for their child; that is not realistic. However, there is a lot we can do to reduce that, so that it does not come immediately, and so that we change the nature of the conversation from the outset.

We want to begin with the idea of a local offer, so that when someone first encounters the local authority or health service, they are not told: “Prove that you need help.” Local services should be coming to parents and saying, “This is what we normally provide; now let’s have the discussion about how we tailor that, and what we need to do for you in your situation.” That should change the relationship from the beginning. That again was a point made by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan. The attempt to get people to talk at the end of the process can be unsuccessful if trust broke down right at the beginning. That was highlighted for us by the Council for Disabled Children, which spoke passionately about the need for a local offer. In areas where that has been developed, it has changed the relationship from the beginning. That has been much more fruitful; even if parents decide to go all the way through the special educational needs and disability tribunal, the nature of the conversation can be much better from the beginning.

Mainstream schools need to be clearer with families about what they would normally provide for children with a range of learning difficulties, disabilities or additional needs. At the moment, there is great inconsistency. It can be difficult for parents to work out whether their child’s needs are greater than those normally provided for in a school—the legal definition of special educational needs. As a consequence, local authorities complain that the tribunal will often make inconsistent decisions about whether a statement is required. It is not in anyone’s interest for all that to be so cloak-and-dagger. Much more can be clearer from the beginning.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan said that a lot of the detail did not work. He mentioned the tension between outcomes and incomes-focused criteria. I recognise his point, but if we begin with outcomes, it changes the nature of the discussion. We sometimes hear that families will cling to a statement that may not be suitable for their child’s needs, as those needs have changed. That is not in the interests of the family. If we can focus more on the outcomes and the support that we need to provide for a family as we move to an agreed set of goals, families are less likely to cling to unsuitable provision, and more likely to be willing to accept changes that might be right for their child. Focusing on outcomes rather than inputs requires a huge change of mindset. As I said earlier, of all the things that we are trying to do, that will probably take the longest to bed down.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall said that going around the loop repeatedly is often expensive. If we do not get children the support that

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they need early enough, that is also expensive; a greater, more serious intervention might be needed later. Many of the families that we spoke to, and the voluntary organisations that we worked with when drawing up the Green Paper, told us that parents use the expensive independent school not always for the education that it provides, but often because it has therapists on tap, particularly speech and language therapists. As a result of the frustration of not being able to get speech and language therapy through other means, some parents will push all the way through the tribunal for the expensive independent provision—but that, of course, comes out of the local authority’s budget, and not the health service budget. In the end, there is no incentive for local services to work together, or to provide a plan that should be paid for jointly. There would be significantly less cost to the public purse in the long term if we could get it right from the beginning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan spoke about delays in the system. It is clearly ridiculous for small children to have to wait six months for the necessary support, because they are at a critical period in their development. Anything that we can do to speed up that process is important. I hope that the joint process, the single assessment process, will remove some of the delays. Many delays are the result of local authorities having to co-ordinate the expertise of various professionals; that is particularly so with professional input on health.

One of our first priorities, even before we get to the joint process, is the statementing process; we want people to contribute sooner, more quickly, more rapidly and more efficiently. It is not good for families to have to wait. The nub of what we are doing is reducing delay in the short term. As for the longer term, I hope that the pilots will show that having one process speeds things up. That is a key objective in getting people to work together.

Alun Cairns: The Minister rightly focuses on the cut proposed in the Green Paper from 26 weeks to 20 weeks. I referred in my speech to a delay in a tribunal taking place; it took from 10 August last year until mid-January for the case to come to the tribunal. That was far longer than it took to get the published statement. We should not forget that a case could be taken to tribunal twice—once regarding the statutory assessment, and once regarding the statement. What consideration has the Minister given to that? It would be a significant step forward if that wait was curtailed to a reasonable length.

Sarah Teather: The hon. Gentleman need not panic; I wrote everything down. I may not be able to cover every point that he raised as I cannot scribble that quickly, but he raises the very point that I wanted to deal with next.

I turn first, however, to what the hon. Gentleman said about mediation; he asked whether it would introduce extra delay. That is absolutely not the intention. When we roll it out, we want to make it clear to local authorities that the addition of mediation should not delay the process of going to the tribunal. The quality of conversation ought to be better from the outset, so I hope that the process will be more successful.

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The other key point to make about mediation is that it needs to be high-quality. If people are simply going through the motions, it will add extra frustration for everyone concerned. In the Green Paper, we point to some examples of good practice, particularly in the west midlands. Independent mediation there has made a real difference to the solutions that parents are being given, and people have not had to go through the tribunal process. Parents were happier because they had much better conversations with local providers.

I turn to tribunal delays. I was concerned to hear of the example given by the hon. Gentleman. The tribunal in England aims to hear cases within 22 weeks of the appeal being registered. We regularly meet the tribunal at an official level and raise the matter with it, but we will raise the specific point that the hon. Gentleman makes. It would help to know whether the case was in England or Wales.

Alun Cairns: It was in England.

Sarah Teather: That is helpful. We will raise that case with the tribunal. Personal budgets were alluded to by a number of Members, particularly the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). I hope that they will cut some of the frustration for families. They are a choice, not an obligation; families will not be obliged to take up personal budgets. We realise that not every family will want to do so, but some will believe that they would be better able to make choices about how family life was run if they had the freedom to decide how to care for their child. That needs to be trialled. Some small-scale pilots have been run for disabled children in recent years with some elements of the health budget, and we will build on that.

In the Green Paper, we are consulting on what should be included in the scheme. One suggestion is that we include school transport, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Harlow. I hope that will give families more freedom to decide which school their children could attend. The obvious thing to include in personal budgets is key equipment such as speech and language aids, which were mentioned earlier, and wheelchairs. I have experience of this as a constituency MP, and I know from being involved with the Green Paper that delays in the provision of wheelchairs are unfortunately extremely common. Indeed, the wait can sometimes be so long that children have grown out of the wheelchair by the time it arrives. That is utterly ridiculous. It is a waste of public money, and the impact on the child can be considerable. Indeed, one child in my constituency was not able to attend school while waiting for a new wheelchair because the old one was the wrong size and was giving him sores. That is not good enough.

Another obvious candidate for a personal budget is therapy, particularly speech and language therapy. That raises the subject of adequate provision, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Harlow. I have no doubt that the joint strategic needs assessment process needs to be better at picking up needs, from the ground upwards. The Green Paper commits the Department of Health to ensuring that the needs assessment is done in a way that responds to the needs of families with disabled children in the area. I hope that that deals with the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.

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Dan Rogerson: That point is crucial, and it could represent a huge step forward. We are obviously focusing on younger people, and my experience as a constituency MP is that direct payment with personal budgeting has worked for social care; there is often an element of health care as well, but at the moment that cannot be provided through primary care trusts with a direct payment model. That is incredibly frustrating, and it is a barrier to getting a package that works for families. I have had that experience with families who are caring for older people, and I believe that lessons can be learned right the way across.

Sarah Teather: Absolutely. We intend rolling that out as a legal entitlement, and that will bite on local services. Local authorities are going to have to budget, rather than agreeing to put something in a plan and then dodging the responsibility for paying for it. If parents are legally entitled to request provision—local services will not know which parents will request it—local services will have to budget for that. We expect that services will be provided on the ground, but we need to test the system with pilots to ensure that there is a bite on all services. We want to ensure that all families get the services that they have been promised, and do not find themselves in the same position as before, where something would be written in section 3 or 5 of a statement but not be provided by local health services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) has spoken on a number of occasions about the frustration of teachers. He said that it is not only parents who are frustrated; teachers often feel inadequately prepared to work with children with a range of additional specialist needs. However, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West told us that one inspirational teacher made the difference for her child. That is the point. We hear many fantastic examples of professionals who lead practice, but even one professional who believes in a child and who takes responsibility can make such a difference. They can be teachers or other professionals with whom the family come into contact. That kind of practice needs to be much more common, which is why we propose improving initial teacher training. We will use both special and mainstream schools for teaching purposes to ensure that professionals learn from the good practice of others. We will also focus on continuing professional development, using both online specialist material, some of which was launched last week, and scholarship funds to ensure that teachers and teaching assistants have access to funds to gain a greater specialism.

The point about teaching assistants is new; we have a new way of thinking about their role. As many families know, teaching assistants often have more experience than the classroom teacher of working with children with additional needs. By giving them an opportunity to develop their career, we may well bring to the teaching profession many more individuals who have a real background, interest and focus on this subject.

Let me touch on the issue of choice, to which the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall referred. The point about trying to reverse the bias is exactly about choice. If there is currently a bias in one direction or another, that is not about choice. The focus of our Green Paper is on improving choice for families,

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so that they can make decisions about what is best for their child. Too often, however, it ends up being Hobson’s choice, because they feel that the mainstream school does not have the capability to support their child. That is why we want a focus on teacher training and the Achievement for All pilot.

I want to focus on Achievement for All and to pick up the point about over-diagnosis raised by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea). Achievement for All is a pilot programme that ran in 10 local authorities and 450 schools. Schools and parents found that it substantially increased the attainment of children in schools. That was true in special schools, in which children might have highly complex needs and a statement, and in mainstream schools, in which children might be on school action or school action plus. The improvement in attainment stemmed from the quality of the interaction between the school and parents, and between teachers and the child.

Under the pilot, there is a greater focus on setting goals, on monitoring the attainment of those goals and on sharing information with families and making sure that they are involved in their child’s attainment. Head teachers said that when they used the programme it changed their mindset; it was about not money, but attitude. That attitude affected not just the children with whom teachers were working on the SEN register, but all the children in the school who had additional needs.

Some Members implied that we were arbitrarily taking children off the SEN register. Though the powers of Government are great, they are not great enough to mandate the press to report what we say accurately. Unfortunately, the press like to write about numbers. They multiplied our figures and came up with a large number that may or may not be our target. I was very clear with them at the press briefing, as I have been clear with them since, that the Government do not have a target for the number of children they want off the SEN register. What we want is schools to work with children to ensure they fulfil their potential.

When Achievement for All was rolled out in some schools, it was found that the increase in attainment was so great that children no longer needed to be on the SEN register. Surely that should be welcomed by everybody. This is not about arbitrarily reducing numbers.

Mrs Hodgson: I am listening with great interest to the Minister. She has clarified many of the points that have been raised. The media may have come to their conclusions because they felt that the figure of 21% of children being diagnosed with SEN was too high. I definitely read that in the media.

Sarah Teather: Unfortunately, I am not in control of what the media write. Ofsted said that too many children are diagnosed with special educational needs; it said the number could be as high as one in four. Let me repeat that we are not setting a target for the number of children we want off the SEN register.

We have changed the school action and school action plus criteria because schools said that they were bureaucratic and not very helpful. At the start of this debate, there was an exchange about whether there is a financial incentive for schools to use school action and school action plus. There is no financial incentive, because in

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most cases the funds are already delegated to schools. We have got rid of contextual value added, which Ofsted said was an incentive, in terms of league tables. The issue is much more complex. Teachers will sometimes label children as having SEN because they think that that is the right thing to do; we should not always assume malicious motives. Teachers believe that the right thing to do is to label a child as having SEN, whereas what they probably need to do is work closely with that child, raise their attainment, and work out what the barriers are that are preventing them from moving forward.

It is important to identify need at an early stage. This morning, Dame Clare Tickell launched her report on the review of the early years foundation stage. It will take us some time to go through the detail of her recommendations, but one of the things that she has picked up—this was also picked up in our Green Paper and by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) in his review a few months ago—was whether we could make better use of the two-and-a-half-year-old check and link it with the early years foundation stage, so that we pick up need at an early age. That is particularly important for speech and language issues. Dame Clare has recommended that the new foundation building blocks of the EYFS be focused particularly on communication needs, personal, emotional and social development, and physical development. I hope that the suggestion will help improve the system for professionals working in early years.

Robert Halfon: I realise that there is very little time left. Will the Minister comment on my remarks about the blue badge issue?

Sarah Teather: I was concerned to hear the hon. Gentleman’s point about the particular difficulties that families with autism face. Families with a disabled child

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face complicated and diverse barriers to living a normal life, and that is an issue that should not be addressed by the Department for Education alone. I will take up his point with the Department for Communities and Local Government.

In the last couple of minutes that I have left, let me pick up on as many points as I can. The Department of Health is considering the future training and development of speech and language therapists as part of its wider consultation on the work force.

Exclusions were referred to by a number of hon. Members. The proposals laid out in the Education Bill and in the schools White Paper will substantially improve the situation for vulnerable young people because it will make schools responsible for what happens to them after they leave that school. The other proposal that we have put in our Green Paper is that if a child’s behaviour is not responding to normal behavioural management techniques, or if they are being repeatedly excluded on a short-term basis, schools should, as a matter of course, do some kind of multi-agency assessment, which could be done through the common assessment framework. They should use their local multi-agency assessment process as a system for questioning why a child’s behaviour is out of control. I hope that will reduce the number of children who end up being excluded. More importantly, we need to ensure that we put in place the right kind of support for a child, whether it is helping with a situation in their family, or with a mental health problem.

I thought that I would have loads of time to cover all the points, but that is clearly not the case. There is a long consultation period now of four months, and a long period of implementation. I am grateful to hon. Members for their points and I will ensure that they are fed into our formal consultation process. I encourage hon. Members to engage with their local parents’ forums and groups to ensure that, when we respond to the consultation, we really take into account what families and children want. It is important that we get this right because the care of those children really matters.

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11 am

Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Brady.

I will start this debate with a quote:

“This place isn’t nice enough for me. I want somewhere posher, with a swimming pool if possible.”

Those are not the words of someone complaining about the gym facilities at the House of Commons. They are the words of one of London’s most prolific squatters about his latest free home in Hampstead, as reported in the Evening Standard last week. We are all covering his council tax contributions, his electricity bills and his gas bills, and we are all paying for the police to investigate each time a new break-in is reported.

As my hon. Friend the Minister stated in a recent letter to me, squatting is

“the unauthorised occupation of property belonging to another person and amounts to trespass on land”.

Some forms of trespass are criminal, such as those that take place on licensed aerodromes and railways, but I am focusing today on all the other forms of squatting. They relate to offices, flats and houses; to empty and occupied buildings, and to private and public property. These forms of squatting are unlawful but not criminal.

Squatting is a huge problem in Hove and Portslade and I have been campaigning on the issue since I was elected to Parliament. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister and our right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government have made joint announcements on the issue. I am also grateful to the organisations, such as Landlord Action, that have helped me to raise awareness of this issue around the country.

The Ministers’ announcements will be widely welcomed by those who have been adversely affected by squatters. I will make the case today that time is of the essence. The problem is getting worse, not better. However, there are two sides to this story and getting to the crux of the matter is not just about cracking down on trespassers themselves.

I wish to dispel the myth, once and for all, that squatters and homeless people are one and the same. My constituency has both wealth and deprivation. It is a Mecca for every character imaginable, which makes it such a wonderfully diverse place to live in. Homelessness is an issue locally, but we have a fantastic support network of local charities, including Emmaus, Brighton Housing Trust, Off The Fence and the YMCA, which look after a great number of vulnerable people. It is our duty to look after such people and I fully support the excellent work being carried out in this area.

Tackling homelessness is also a high priority for Brighton and Hove city council. The council is working hard to reduce the number of empty properties in the city and last year alone 168 long-term empty properties were brought back into use. In 1997, 200 council-owned properties were long-term empty but that figure is now down to just 28.

However, putting considerable resources into removing squatters and paying for the damage that they inevitably cause places a strain on council services. In the past 18 months, there have been 10 instances of squatting in

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council-owned properties in Brighton and Hove, which has cost local people more than £30,000 in legal bills alone. The repair bill for one particular property was £40,000, which again had to be picked up by the residents of Brighton and Hove. Squatters are damaging buildings that are in the process of refurbishment, which only exacerbates the housing shortage.

In my experience, squatters do not fit the profile of the kind of vulnerable people that we should be looking out for. I am generalising of course, but for the purpose of this discussion I want to make the point that serial squatters know the law. They submit freedom of information requests to councils to find out where there are empty buildings; they are “web-savvy” and highly resourceful; they run rings around the law, and what these professional squatters lack in respect for other people’s property they make up for in guile and tenacity. They are organised and frequently menacing.

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the Shelter website, which I was quite horrified to read? As he knows, my constituency has a persistent problem of squatters. But Shelter has a guide to squatting, about how to keep on the right side of the law, on its website. Does he agree that it is reprehensible to encourage people in this illegal activity?

Mike Weatherley: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I very much agree with him. I will go on to make some specific points about “The Squatters Handbook” shortly.

I said that squatters know the law well but the absolute opposite is true when it comes to the public in general, who would be shocked if they knew just how powerless they are to take on squatters. Many members of the public do not find that out until it is too late. Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it an offence to use violence, or threats of violence, to gain access to premises when

“there is someone present on those premises…who is opposed to the entry”.

That section is what is usually referred to as squatters’ rights, but I do not believe that it exists to assist squatting. It is in place to prevent unscrupulous landlords from using violence or intimidation to evict legitimate tenants. Squatters, therefore, have such rights only by accident.

A local resident asked me a question in my local paper, The Argus:

“If squatting is a practice that is socially unacceptable, how is leaving a property empty for more than a year any more acceptable?”

My answer is simple—it is not acceptable at all. I have contacted my local council on a number of occasions about the issue of empty buildings belonging to exploitative developers. We should be careful, though, not to embrace squatting on the principle that “our enemy’s enemy is a friend”. We must get tough on bad landlords—and soon—but buildings can be temporarily empty for all sorts of reasons and many of those reasons are entirely acceptable.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): One reason why a house remains empty is the death of the occupier. Such a house can very often lie dormant for months, sometimes years, while the family and the executors sort out probate, and it can be very worrying and distressing if squatters move in during that time.

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Mike Weatherley: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Squatting can be very distressing for those who are affected by it.

Let us take the case of 40 Wilbury Villas in Hove. As I have said, Brighton and Hove city council is carrying out a huge refurbishment project on a number of properties. Those properties are public assets, which should be in use and let to those who have been deemed to be most in need of them. No. 40 Wilbury Villas is one such property and work on it was planned. However, when a particularly vigilant neighbour spotted the locks being changed, he knew that something was up. Straight away, a notice appeared on the door listing the rights of squatters. It was downhill from then on, as an endless stream of professional squatters turned up for their share of the spoils.

It is interesting that the notice on the door was selective about the laws that it mentioned. Many of the crimes that go hand in hand with squatting were conveniently left off that notice. There was nothing on the subject of breaking and entering; nothing on breach of the peace; nothing on the misuse of drugs; nothing on criminal damage; nothing on antisocial behaviour; nothing on non-payment of council tax; nothing on arson; nothing on robbery; nothing on unauthorised works to listed buildings; nothing on using utilities without contacting the suppliers, and there was certainly nothing on fly-tipping.

I have discussed the issue of squatting with Sussex police, and its powers are limited. There are not always witnesses in cases of squatting, so arrest is often difficult. Protected intended occupiers and displaced residential occupiers have some protection, but not enough. Incidentally, members of the same group of squatters that took over 40 Wilbury Villas then took over another property nearby, Park House. Once again, a historic building was damaged and as a result refurbishment of the property will now be more expensive.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is there any way that the local authority could cut off the services to a property occupied by squatters and not reinstate those services? I understand that, such is their knowledge of the law, squatters are able to phone up and have the services reconnected. Is there not a position within the law whereby the services can be cut off right away because a payment has to be made?

Mike Weatherley: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. However, I believe that local authorities cannot cut off services. If the squatters contact the electricity suppliers legally and use the electricity legally, the police are powerless to go and arrest them. There might be some other points about non-payment that could lead to services being disconnected, but I do not believe that services can be disconnected on other grounds. However, I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that point.

Mr Brady, please forgive me when I say that I was sceptical when I read that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government had jointly released the guide, “Advice on dealing with squatters in your home”. The guide is actually very good and to the point, and I recommend it to anybody who owns a property that has been invaded by squatters, or to anybody who is a neighbour of a

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property with squatters. Squatters themselves will not need to read it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) mentioned earlier, they have their own guide, “The Squatters Handbook”. Like the notice on the door at 40 Wilbury Villas, that handbook is sadly very selective, both when it comes to rights in the law and in its morality.

As I alluded to earlier, I have little sympathy for landlords who use loopholes in the planning system to run down buildings or for landlords who simply do not care that their properties are in a poor state. Compared to other countries, however, the UK has very few empty buildings. In Spain and Italy, more than 20% of the sorts of properties that we are discussing today were empty in 2009; in Germany, the figure was 8.2% and in France 6.1%. The current UK figure is between 3% and 4%. Among comparable countries, only the Netherlands and Sweden had lower figures, at 2.2% and 1.7% respectively. We can do better, of course, but the problem is not one of empty buildings. Business rates, council tax enforcement and compulsory purchase are all deterrents to leaving properties empty, but there is some scope for improving the system.

My recent early-day motion 1545 calling for squatting to be criminalised has attracted cross-party support. Members of the public are getting tired of hearing that squatters are getting so much for free when they themselves are struggling to get by. They are also fed up with the antisocial behaviour of, and general mess caused by, squatters. High-profile campaigns run by The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard are certainly helping to highlight what is really going on.

The extent of the problem was highlighted in a parliamentary question that I recently asked to determine which Departments had been affected by squatting. A number of Departments have fallen foul of squatters, including the Ministry of Justice, one of whose buildings was occupied by squatters twice in one year, with interim possession orders being sought to remove the squatters on each occasion. If the Ministry of Justice has problems, what chance have the rest of us got?

Fortunately, we do not need to look far for a solution. In Scotland, this form of trespass is already a criminal offence. I am aware that the Government have the matter under review, but I am concerned that the proposals will not go far enough. I welcome the announcement that squatting is likely to be criminalised, but the devil will be in the detail. Properties can be destroyed very quickly, and it should be possible to remove squatters instantly, as any delay results in further damage and destruction. There should be tough penalties and a criminal record.

I will end, as I began, with a worrying quote from our friend in Hampstead who wants a free swimming pool:

“Law changes will never stop us. The Government can say all they want but squatting will still go on…There is nothing they can do.”

I hope that he is wrong.

11.11 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) on securing this debate on a very serious issue. Like him, I have become increasingly concerned about the distress and misery

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that squatters can cause to commercial property owners and home owners alike. In his excellent contribution, he identified the costs not only to individuals but to wider society, including the costs associated with enforcement by the police, and with all the public agencies that have to clean up after squatting incidents, either through the legal process or literally, when properties have been invaded. There should, therefore, be no doubt about the seriousness with which the issue is taken and the perniciousness of the crime.

I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s compliments about the guidance issued by the Minister for Housing and Local Government and me. My hon. Friend came to it with a proper degree of scepticism about whether it would be of any use. I am extremely grateful that, having examined it, he has referred to its utility. That is only the first stage of the process, so let me take Members through the further action that we are contemplating.

My hon. Friend has not been alone in raising the matter, both directly with me in questions and publicly, with this debate. He is joined by our hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) who came to see me before Christmas to discuss the damage that squatters caused to commercial buildings supervised by one of her constituents. The extent of the damage and the cost to her constituents are appalling. She was accompanied by Steve Cross, head of security for a development company, who made it clear that squatters were costing his company many thousands of pounds because of the direct damage to the buildings, the problems caused to neighbours with loud parties, litter and rubbish, and the amount of time it takes to sort things out—sometimes six to 12 weeks for a court order to be granted and then finally enforced. We all know that the legal process is tricky, particularly for someone coming to it for the first time, and it is almost inevitably expensive, with court costs to be borne as well.

Since Christmas, we have seen a succession of newspaper reports about squatters occupying high-value residential properties in London, and there have been reports on the consequences of squatting in local papers all around the country, including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hove has said, in his constituency. The situation is not confined to the capital, and I suspect that the picture is similar in other large towns, but we do not have a precise idea of how many squatters there are nationwide. We do know, however, that 360 applications for interim possession orders were made in the civil courts last year. An interim possession order is an accelerated process, specifically designed for evicting squatters. It provides an indicator of how many households are blighted by squatting each year, but that figure is probably only the tip of the iceberg.

It is because we are aware of the misery that squatters can cause that we intend to strengthen the law, and consider how to strengthen its enforcement. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me, however, because we are yet to complete the cross-departmental process of analysing our own Ministry of Justice internal suggestions before publishing a formal consultation. We are going through the internal agreement processes. Nevertheless, I would like to leave him with a clear steer on our approach.

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Jim Shannon: Is there a role for the UK Border Agency here, alongside the police? I am not saying that this is always the case, but I am aware that in some cases squatters might be in the country illegally.

Mr Blunt: I certainly hope that if there were any reliable evidence that the people involved were in the country illegally, the UKBA would be engaged in initiating appropriate proceedings to remove them from the United Kingdom. I had not considered that angle in preparing my remarks for the debate, but the obvious answer is yes, one would expect the appropriate authorities—in this case the UKBA—to be properly engaged in exercising their responsibilities, in the same way as they would be in any other circumstance.

We will want to examine the existing squatting laws to see whether they can be appropriately strengthened because, having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove, the issues that were raised at Justice questions yesterday, and the conduct of the whole public debate, it is pretty clear to me where the public are on this issue and I am confident that measures to strengthen the law would have significant support.

Mike Weatherley: Is the Minister considering full criminalisation of squatting as part of those measures? In my constituency and elsewhere, there are serial squatters who just move from one property to another when they are evicted. In one instance in my constituency, they kicked a hole in the wall and moved next door. The police are powerless to have any damages or continuing action taken out against the squatters. Without the criminal process, they are just moved on and then do it again.

Mr Blunt: That is, of course, one of the things that we are considering, and it has been pointed out that in Scotland squatting is a criminal offence. That offence, however, is extremely widely drawn and for that reason the tariff of punishment is extremely low. It is at the very bottom of the scale—a level 1 offence—with a fine not exceeding £200.

Mike Freer: Perhaps I could help the Minister on that point. I understand that squatting is a criminal offence under the Trespass (Scotland) Act 1865, which states that the maximum penalty is a fine or 21 days’ imprisonment. That is a slightly firmer penalty than in the information the Minister has, and I urge the Government to adopt it.

Mr Blunt: That might have been the position in 1865, but I am afraid that the Criminal Justice Act 1982 restricted punishment to a fine not exceeding level 1, which is currently £200.

Mike Weatherley: It is important to establish that penalties in Scotland are too lenient. The fine is indeed £200 for an offence. The penalty for non-payment of that fine is 21 days.

Mr Blunt: I am grateful for that clarification.

Squatting is almost inevitably accompanied by a series of criminal offences, such as criminal damage or breaking into the property in the first place. The improper use of utilities was discussed. Using someone else’s electricity is theft, subject to a maximum sentence of seven years. The unlawful abstraction of electricity is also a criminal offence, with a maximum sentence of five years. There are numerous avenues.

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To lay out the picture in the time that I have left, the main criminal law provisions on squatting are set out in sections 6 and 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. I will deal with section 6 first, as it has given rise to the popular notion of squatters’ rights. Section 6 of the 1977 Act states that it is an offence for a person to use violence to enter a property where someone inside is opposed to their entry. The offence was designed to stop unscrupulous landlords from using violence to evict legitimate tenants, but its existence has led some squatters to display so-called section 6 notices on the door of properties notifying the property owner that it would be an offence for him to break back in.

The offence does not apply to displaced residential occupiers who break back into their own homes, but it prevents commercial property owners from breaking back into their commercial premises when someone inside objects. One option that we have been considering, therefore, is whether section 6 could be amended to give non-residential property owners the same rights as displaced residential occupiers to break back into their property. We think that that would effectively render section 6 notices meaningless. After my discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, I am strongly attracted to that option.

Section 7 of the Act includes an offence that is committed where a squatter refuses to leave a home when required to do so by a displaced residential occupier or a protected intending occupier of the property. Under the current law, the squatter has a defence if they can prove either that they did not believe that the person requiring them to leave was, or was acting on behalf of, a displaced residential occupier or a protected intending occupier, or that the premises were not used mainly for residential purposes and that they were not on any part of the premises used wholly or mainly for residential purposes.

Another option that we are considering is whether that offence could be strengthened to protect other types of property owner, so that owners of non-residential property would have the same protection as displaced residential occupiers. At present it is an offence, for example, for a squatter to refuse to leave somebody’s home, but it is not an offence for them to refuse to leave a person’s place of work. I appreciate that the actions of squatters may cause serious financial hardship in either scenario and am considering whether the law should apply equally to both.

We are examining internally the potential consequences of the available options to ensure that they do not overlap with other areas, such as landlord and tenant matters. The public consultation will give us another opportunity to ensure that our proposals work as we would all wish. The necessity of ensuring that we get it right and of engaging in a proper consultation process means that we will not be able to move as swiftly as I suspect my hon. Friend the Member for Hove would like. We must also identify the appropriate legislative vehicle if legislation is required. No doubt we will hope for right hon. and hon. Friends’ assistance in getting any required legislative changes on to the statute book as soon as is practicable, but that is all for the future and depends on our conclusions.

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Each option that I have described could have an impact on the criminal justice system. For example, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service might incur additional costs if asked to enforce new offences. The criminal courts might have to process a greater number of cases, although the impact might be partially offset by a reduction in civil claims. Depending on the penalty imposed for any new offence, there might also be an impact on the prison population. In the current economic climate, we must ensure that such impacts are carefully assessed and shown to be affordable. As I have said, a consultation would assist us in that process. We should be in a position to announce our plans in more detail soon.

Regardless of whatever changes we make to the law in future, we must work closely with enforcement authorities to ensure that existing offences are enforced as effectively as possible. In addition to the offences under the 1977 Act that I mentioned, the police can arrest squatters for offences such as criminal damage, burglary, theft or the unauthorised use of utilities if there is sufficient evidence of guilt. The offences all bear a maximum sentence of imprisonment. The offence of criminal damage has a maximum sentence of three months in less serious cases, rising to 10 years in the most serious cases. Burglary carries a maximum sentence of 14 years for dwellings and 10 years for other properties. For theft, the maximum sentence is seven years, and for the offence of abstracting electricity, the maximum sentence is five years’ imprisonment.

There is another offence that applies to squatters. It is an offence for a squatter to fail to leave a property within 24 hours of being served with an interim possession order and to return to the property as a trespasser within one year of the order. Interim possession orders were introduced in 1995 to make the process of gaining possession of one’s property easier and quicker. They are civil orders, but as I said, they are backed up by a criminal sanction with a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment. My officials are in discussions with the police to ascertain whether there are specific difficulties in enforcing those offences and how any potential barriers might be overcome.

We must also ensure that property owners have the information that they need to get squatters out of their properties as quickly and painlessly as possible. That is why we have published new guidance on the Directgov website outlining the circumstances in which squatters should be reported to the police. As my hon. Friend will have seen, the guidance also includes advice on how to apply for a possession order in the civil courts, a process that is alien to many people until they are confronted by the appalling situation of finding their property improperly occupied by squatters.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this issue to our attention. This debate is only the latest emanation of concern about it. I have written to many hon. Members from all parties who have raised it with me in correspondence, a series of oral and written parliamentary questions have been asked and hon. Members have sought meetings with me about it, so I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate and to make it clear that the Justice Secretary and I are determined to tackle the issue and to bring relief to the victims of this particularly distressing and pernicious crime.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended.

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NHS (Public Satisfaction)

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

2.30 pm

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I would like to thank the Speaker’s Office for selecting the subject of public satisfaction with the NHS for debate. I will focus on three pieces of research, and on the Government’s attempts to prevent information getting into the public domain, to prevent scrutiny of policy and to cut funding for future sources of information, all while failing to inform Parliament. The three surveys are “Public Perceptions of the NHS and Social Care” by Ipsos MORI from March 2010, the general lifestyle survey by the Office for National Statistics, and the British social attitudes survey by the National Centre for Social Research.

The first survey, “Public Perceptions of the NHS and Social Care” by Ipsos MORI, has been carried out every six months since 2000. It recently emerged that the latest results, from last year, were being withheld from the public domain. Ministers were accused of burying good news because the information clearly shows increasing levels of public satisfaction. On 22 March 2011, the Secretary of State was questioned about that by the Select Committee on Health, and particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). The Secretary of State’s defence was that as previous surveys had not been released, he would not release the information from March 2010. The reality is that the previous data were only ever released following questions by the Opposition. From March 2007, the then Opposition stopped asking for the information, and we can only assume that that was because the level of public satisfaction was increasing, and it did not exactly serve their purpose to draw that information into the public domain.

Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I want to emphasise what my hon. Friend says. I can recount a conversation I had with a local general practitioner, who told me that in the 1980s, a constituent of mine in need of a hip replacement came to see him. He could not get her a place anywhere within the health service. My constituency is deprived, and it was impossible for her or her family to get treatment privately, so she had to suffer in silence. That would not happen nowadays. My GP, who represents my constituents, told me that that has not happened to him since the early 1990s. Is that not the evidence we need to show that the health service has improved significantly in recent years?

John Cryer: I agree with my hon. Friend. I have had exactly the same experience. We were both elected in 1997, and when I became an MP, I regularly had people come to see me with orthopaedic problems who had been waiting for operations for two to two and a half years. Some of them were in serious pain and unable to work. In the past few years, the complaints I have been hearing are that people have not had an operation for four or six months. It is a completely different world.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): May I put the hon. Gentleman out of his misery before we start the debate on a false premise? He is absolutely right: the previous Government did not publish

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the 2008, 2009 and 2010 surveys, to which he refers. It may be of interest to him to know that the 2010 report was published following a written answer by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) in December 2010, and placed in the Library.

John Cryer: If the Minister will calm down a bit, I will come to that. After the Secretary of State appeared before the Health Committee, it emerged that data until 2010 had been placed in the Library, and the results until December 2009 are on the Ipsos MORI website. I was granted this debate on 24 March and the data were released the following day, Friday 25 March, on the Department of Health website. Previously, the data had not been on the Department’s website. It might be a coincidence, but it struck me that that was a fairly good time to bury good news: it was the day before 500,000 people tramped through central London on the TUC march in opposition to the cuts. The fact that the data were not initially released is unsurprising, given that polling showed a 72% satisfaction rating. Ipsos MORI concluded in the report:

“This level of satisfaction has now been recorded for over a year…suggesting that there has been a…positive shift in the public’s perceptions of the NHS. Pride in the NHS also continues to climb and is at its highest recorded level”.

Pride in the NHS is at its highest ever recorded level—an interesting statistic. We might hear a comment from the Minister about that.

Mr Love: The report has some very good news about public attitudes to the NHS. Why would Government, who are in control of the NHS, not want to publish such a report?

John Cryer: I will leave that to the Minister to answer, because I have not finished my comments about the suppression of statistics.

My story does not end with the original survey on public perceptions of the NHS. The second of the three surveys is the general lifestyle survey, carried out every year by the ONS on behalf of Government Departments, but that has had its funding withdrawn by the NHS information centre, for reasons best known to the Government. However, Sir Michael Scholar, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has warned that the decision may break the Government’s rules on consultation. I should point out that the general lifestyle survey provides statistics on public health and does not involve NHS satisfaction rates. It produces figures, information and statistics for testing Government policy and holding Governments to account; it is important that the information be available for holding Ministers to account. If the decision to withhold funding for the general lifestyle survey stands, the information will not be available to us in future.

The Department of Health also intends to withdraw funding for health and NHS satisfaction questions in the British social attitudes survey. The survey will be familiar to many Members. It is carried out annually by the NCSR, which is a pretty respected body, both nationally and internationally. The withdrawal of funding was not announced to the House of Commons, but was

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leaked over the weekend to Health Policy Insight, which published an interesting editorial that condemned the decision to withdraw funding in fairly colourful language.

The British social attitudes survey charts how NHS satisfaction started at 55% in 1983, which was the year the first survey was published. That plummeted to 35% by the time the Conservative Government left office in 1997. The latest satisfaction rate is 64%, which, according to John Appleby from the King’s Fund, is the highest level of satisfaction since the survey began in 1983, and part of a continuous upward trend since 2002. He said:

“The NHS must have been doing something right to earn this extra satisfaction”.

There is also an interesting quote from the director of the Nuffield Trust, Jennifer Dixon:

“I suspect that public satisfaction will decline because the pressurised financial climate will result in staff unrest, cuts, and the spectre of rationing but also because of the relaxation of some of the process targets that the public hold dear, such as waiting times.”

She continued:

“To overload reform on top of that is the problem and to do both at the same time is very risky.”

I emphasise “very risky”.

The reason for killing off such research is fairly clear. The aim is to obscure the results of Government policies so that they cannot be exposed to the proper scrutiny that we all want, and to prevent comparisons with the records of previous Governments—Labour and Tory. If the information is not available, the records of previous Governments cannot be compared with the record of this Government.

There are a number of questions that I should like the Minister to answer. Will the “Public Perceptions of the NHS and Social Care” survey by Ipsos MORI continue to be funded and to be reported on? If it is not to be continued, will the research be replaced? The research is very detailed and heavyweight. I can provide it to the Minister, although I assume he already has it. I do not intend to imply that Ministers intend to cut funding for that research, but because of other decisions, we start to wonder whether that might be the conclusion.

The Government have decided, apparently without telling Parliament, to axe funding for two other crucial pieces of independent research: the British social attitudes survey, which I mentioned, and the general lifestyle survey, conducted by the ONS, which I also mentioned. Ministers have sneaked out the information that funding is to be cut in a fairly underhand way. Many Labour Members suspect that it is being done so that we cannot draw comparisons with previous Governments. The information will not be available to allow us to say, “Government policies were working but funding has been cut, which is having an effect on public perceptions and services.”

Public perception is crucial. My impression and that of piles of research is that public perceptions are improving and are at an all-time high, but that does not satisfy Ministers, who are engaging in the biggest reorganisation of the NHS since Nye Bevan created it in 1947. If information is in the public domain showing that the public are very happy with the NHS, particularly acute

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and GP treatments, it does not serve the purposes of a Government who are committed to the wholesale reorganisation of one of the most beloved institutions of British society. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

Several hon. Members rose

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Five Members wish to speak and we have about 50 minutes for debate; they can do the calculations for themselves.

2.43 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) makes his own points in his own way. Both my parents started to work for the NHS on the day it came into being: my father as a doctor and my mother as a nurse. Throughout the 60-plus years of its existence there has been enormous pride in the NHS, among those who work in it and among the community as a whole.

The interesting notion advanced by the Opposition is that because people are generally satisfied with their doctors, all is well with the NHS. Of course people are overwhelmingly happy with their GPs. By and large, we have freedom of choice over our GP, and if we are not happy with services we change our GP. It is of concern that a recent survey of NHS users found that one in five failed to get a prompt GP appointment when they asked for it, but that notwithstanding it is not surprising that nine out of 10 patients are satisfied with their GP surgeries. That is not the point. The point is that we have an ageing and more complex population who will rightly make increasing demands on the NHS. Unsurprisingly, most people have greatest contact with the NHS in the last years of their lives.

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I do not want to put the hon. Gentleman off his stride, but is he not slightly missing the point made by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), which was not simply that people are satisfied with the NHS but that they are progressively more satisfied, which is a more surprising finding, is it not?

Tony Baldry: I have not missed the point at all. The point being made by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead is that nine out of 10 people are satisfied with their GPs, so somehow all is well with the NHS and nothing need change. If my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) had read the report of the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by the former Labour Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), he would know that it concludes that although the previous Government increased the amount of money going into the NHS that did not lead to greater outputs. The report makes sobering reading, and I am concerned that more parliamentary colleagues have not read it and that it has not received the attention in the House that it deserves.

John Cryer: The point effectively made by the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) is that satisfaction rates are not remaining level but climbing markedly. The British social attitudes survey shows that in 1983 satisfaction stood at 55% and plummeted to 35% in 1997. It is now up to 64%. According to Ipsos MORI,

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90% of outpatients, 88% of inpatients and 81% of accident and emergency patients are satisfied—the highest levels ever recorded.

Tony Baldry: The hon. Gentleman, again, makes his own point in his own way. He says, and I understand him, that members of the public are satisfied with the NHS so nothing need change. I am not sure whether he has read the unanimous PAC report that was published only weeks ago, but I remind Members that it says:

“The level of hospital activity has not kept pace with the increased resources as hospitals focused on meeting national targets, but not on improving productivity, and productivity has actually fallen over the last decade…Though the increased money going into the NHS has helped to reduce waiting times, improve facilities, and deliver higher quality care, the Department promised at the same time to improve productivity. It failed and, in future, the Department needs to have a more explicit focus on improving hospital productivity if it is to deliver its ambitious savings targets without healthcare services suffering.”

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is notoriously difficult to measure productivity in crude terms—activity, outcomes and so on—and that the quality of the output, which perhaps reflects the greater investment of resources, is not included in the survey?

Tony Baldry: I am sorry to hear the apologia of Opposition Members, who are confronted with concerns about what is happening in the NHS. I commend to the hon. Gentleman the National Audit Office report published on 17 December 2010, “Management of NHS hospital productivity”. The NAO has no difficulty in measuring NHS productivity, and neither does the PAC. Before Opposition Members jump up, they should remember that the Labour party left the NHS with a huge, unpaid overdraft of £60 billion. It is a staggering fact that of the £65 billion of hospital building works carried out in the 13 years of the Labour Government, only £5 billion was paid for. Despite a number of very generous private finance initiative projects, the NHS still has an overdraft and must pay for £60 billion of hospital building works. The previous Government, while they may have put more money into the NHS, saw no improvement in outcomes and have left the NHS with a substantial overdraft.

As the Chair of the Health Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell), has observed, even if, as intended, the Government manage to ensure that spending on the NHS is ring-fenced and runs ahead of inflation, the NHS, in the next few years, has to become substantially more efficient in how it uses its assets, and treats and looks after patients—hence the need for reforms. Let us be clear. The reforms are about cutting bureaucracy and improving patient care and have been proposed by the coalition Government to improve the NHS and to ensure that we maintain public satisfaction and support for the NHS. We need to ensure that the Health and Social Care Bill, which is going through Parliament, delivers those reforms in the best possible way.

I have no doubt that Ministers will give proper attention to the report next week of the Health Committee and that, in due course, the Government will have regard to any constructive suggestions from the other place to ensure that the Bill is as clear and effective as possible.

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In any health system, however, difficult decisions have to be made about how one best utilises finite resources. However much money as a country we commit to the NHS, that money will be finite. Choices will have to be made about how that money is best spent: at one end of the spectrum, about whether and in what circumstances people get treated for varicose veins; and at the other end of the spectrum about when, and how often, major and significant, complex and expensive invasive surgery takes place. It seems to me that it makes extremely good sense for those decisions to be made in a collegiate manner, on behalf of their patients, by GPs. It seems to me to make very good sense to allow GPs, individually and collegiately, to make value judgments about the quality of services being provided by individual hospital providers for their patients.

As the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead made clear when introducing this debate, patients trust their GPs and I see no reason why we should not, collectively, trust GPs to commission the best available services in the NHS. Critics of the reforms have sought to present them as something that they are not. However, as the Prime Minister has made clear on a number of occasions:

“we have ruled out price competition in the NHS.”

He went gone on to make it clear that

“we must avoid cherry-picking by the private sector in the NHS.”—[Official Report, 16 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 292.]

John Cryer: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tony Baldry: I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I would just make the observation that I suspect that quite a number of his colleagues wish to contribute to the debate, and that every time I allow an intervention it probably reduces the time that they have.

John Cryer: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, both for giving way and for his valuable advice that I will hold dear to my heart.

May I just point out that, although the exposure to EU competition laws—he is referring indirectly to that—is not in the Bill, primary care trusts are officially regarded as state enterprises? As state enterprises, they are not exposed to EU competition law. The new consortia that will replace them, because they are not state enterprises, will be exposed to EU competition law, and will therefore expose the NHS, generally, to EU competition law. Does he support that?

Tony Baldry: Again, that is a slightly bizarre argument from the hon. Gentleman. There has been much talk about competition in the NHS, which is surprising as the Labour party appeared to be in favour of competition in its own election manifesto. The coalition Government have made it clear that the only competition that will exist in the NHS is competition on quality, not price. The Secretary of State could not have made that clearer in the House when he said:

“At the point when a patient exercises choice or a GP undertakes a referral, the price of providers will be the same. By extension, competition must be on the basis of quality.”—[Official Report, 16 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 387.]

To deal with another misrepresentation, EU competition law already exists and the health reform proposals do nothing to change that. They do not, in any way, extend competition law. The Bill makes it absolutely clear that

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any competition can only be on quality, not on price. In any event, I find it strange that the Labour party and others suddenly seem to be coming forward to express concerns about the private sector in the NHS, when it was the previous Labour Government who, for example, in Banbury set up a privately run, privately managed, privately owned independent treatment centre and a privately managed, privately owned independent Darzi GP centre. The previous Labour Government, bizarrely, gave the private sector—because their contracting was so poor—some £250 million for operations that were never carried out. However, given that they have left the NHS with an overdraft of £60 billion, I suppose that they would consider £250 million thrown away on operations that were never actually carried out as, possibly by their standards, small change.

We have to realise, with an ageing population, more extensive treatments and new drugs becoming available, that we have to tackle bureaucracy in the NHS. We need to reform the NHS to make sure that it is as efficient and as effective as possible. We are ensuring that patients have choice—choice based on quality and from whom they receive care. There is simply no issue on this, in that the Labour Party said in its manifesto at the general election, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead has read it:

“Patients requiring elective care will have the right, in law, to choose from any provider who meets NHS standards of quality”.

We have made it absolutely clear, under the coalition Government, that the NHS will remain free at the point of need, paid for from general taxation, and be based entirely on need, not on the ability to pay. Those are fundamental principles of the NHS. They have been fundamental principles of the NHS ever since it came into being, and the coalition parties are, I am sure, determined not to undermine, in any way, any of the rights in the NHS constitution. Indeed, the coalition Government are seeking to protect the NHS, throughout the duration of the Parliament, by increasing NHS funding by £10.7 billion. A substantial number of GP groups, all over England, have volunteered as pathfinders to demonstrate how GP commissioning can work. GPs throughout Oxfordshire are coming together to form a suitable GP consortium.

Let me tell the House what is being said by those in my constituency who are involved in the GP consortium. Local GP Dr Judith Wright, who is co-ordinating the north Oxfordshire GPs, has said:

“Andrew Lansley’s proposals will give power to local GPs to decide how that budget should be spent to meet local health needs. Priorities will be decided by doctors through a process informed by patients, local authorities, public health and secondary care”.

Dr Wright went on to observe:

“I believe that GPs are best placed to be able to meet this challenge. Collectively they know the health needs of their local population. They can act as a catalyst for change. They will have a role in deciding the destination of local services and the route to get there.”

Andrew McHugh, who is the practice manager at Horsefair surgery in Banbury, observed:

“The health budget is a finite resource. Andrew Lansley’s proposals will give power to local GPs to decide how that budget is spent in order to meet local health needs. Priorities will be

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decided by doctors through a process informed by democratically accountable public and patient involvement. We need to be looking for innovative ways of spending the health budget wisely.”

In a recent issue of Prospect magazine, Ali Parsa pointed out that, as a nation:

“We used to spend 3 per cent of our GDP on healthcare in the 1980s…6 per cent in the 1990s, 9 per cent now and on our way to 12 per cent.”

In the current financial climate, that is unsustainable. Business as usual is not an option. We need to review what treatments are provided to ensure they are clinically effective and cost-effective—in other words, evidence-based practice. I think that Dr Judith Wright and Andrew McHugh’s comments are extremely balanced and sensible.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I just came from a meeting of the British Medical Association about two hours ago. Its members asked me very clearly to pass this message on to the party on the Government Benches: will they please stop using the fact that GPs are becoming involved to suggest that they support the moves? They see becoming involved in terms of having no alternative—they say that it is being forced on them and that they are becoming engaged in the interests of their patients, not because they believe in what is being done.

Tony Baldry: May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman and to others that they actually start listening to what is being said? They might start by noting what was said in their own election manifesto. They might start listening to what the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State are saying on the Floor of the House of Commons, and the hon. Gentleman might as well do them the courtesy of just listening to what GPs in my constituency are saying on the record. It is clear that he is not listening. If he wishes to have a dialogue of the unlistening, that is a matter for him. The changes that the NHS needs are straightforward: less waste, more involvement, power to GPs and front-line doctors, nurses and other health professionals, and putting patients first. There is not really an intellectual divide on this matter. Indeed, the shadow Secretary of State earlier observed:

“The general aims of reform are sound—greater role for clinicians in commissioning care, more involvement of patients, less bureaucracy and greater priority on improving health outcomes”.

I could not have put it better. As for less bureaucracy, ever since the coalition Government came to office, one of the things they have cut in the NHS is bureaucracy. That has resulted in 2,000 fewer managers since the general election, but, interestingly, 2,500 more doctors.

I have every confidence in the Secretary of State for Health. He and his ministerial team, while we were in opposition, took considerable efforts to visit Banbury on a number of occasions to understand the challenges being faced by the Horton general hospital and to meet with GPs. As he observed to local GPs before the general election, GP commissioning will enable those GPs in north Oxfordshire, south Northamptonshire and south Warwickshire who wish to send their patients to the Horton hospital to do so, confident that the money will follow the patient.

Again, I do not think it surprising that the shadow Secretary of State should have observed:

“No one in the House of Commons knows more about the NHS than Andrew Lansley—except perhaps Stephen Dorrell. But Andrew Lansley spent six years in Opposition as shadow health secretary. No one has visited more of the NHS. No one has

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talked to more people...in the NHS…these plans are consistent, coherent and comprehensive. I would expect nothing less from Andrew Lansley.”

If Opposition Members are not willing to listen to me, perhaps they would be willing to listen to the shadow Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State, when in opposition, visited my constituency at least three times, and I believe I am correct in saying that every member of the Government ministerial team in the Commons visited my constituency at least once, to understand the challenges and needs of hospitals such as the Horton. The Royal College of General Practitioners said that it believes that there should be more clinical commissioning. Even the British Medical Association has confirmed that it believes that GP-led commissioning is the right way forward. Indeed, the only opponents to the proposals appear to be the Labour party and the trade unions, but, given what the Labour party did when it was in office, and what it stated in its manifesto and even more recently, one can only conclude that, now that it is in opposition, it seeks to jump on every passing bandwagon, feels obliged to say whatever will keep the trade unions happy and seeks to block every sensible reform.

The views of the trade unions on all of this are as depressing as they are, perhaps, predictable, and in the category of trade union I also place the BMA. It is right to recall that the BMA opposed GP fundholding, longer opening hours for GP surgeries, which clearly would have been for the benefit of patients, and foundation hospitals. In fact, I cannot think of a single NHS reform over the years which it has not opposed, or a single one on which it has been in the vanguard.

No one pretends that health care systems around the world are facing anything other than enormous challenges. That is no less so in the UK. We need to be sure that patients and taxpayers get the best value possible for every pound spent in the NHS. We need the best possible outcomes in the NHS, whether for stroke victims, heart attack victims or those who have long-term medical conditions. The reforms are about building on the strengths of the NHS, improving it and making it better able to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. That is how we will ensure that people will rightly continue to be supportive of, and satisfied and happy with, the NHS, which we all want to be the best possible health service in the world.

3.3 pm

Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) on introducing a debate on such an important subject, and on the balanced way in which he opened it. I should declare that I am the co-chair with Lord Rix of the all-party group on learning disability. It is on that subject that I wish to speak in the five or six minutes that I hope to take.

I would like to make it clear that although I shall make several criticisms of aspects of the national health service, I stand second to no one in my regard for it or, as a GMB member, in my respect for those who work for the NHS, including the trade unions. They are helping to create their big society—a meaningful society—and making the NHS something of which we are all very proud.