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Mr. Laurence Robertson: I think that the hon. Gentleman has the issue upside down. People who have children with special educational needs are concerned that their children will not receive an appropriate education. Can he also tell us why the Liberal Democrats in Gloucestershire have driven through a closure programme since publication of the Government's Green Paper?

Mr. Willis: I cannot speak for my colleagues in Gloucestershire or elsewhere; they must speak for themselves. Clearly, they are elected locally to act in the best interests of youngsters in Gloucestershire, and I have no doubt that they have done so to the very best of their abilities.

Mr. Robertson: They have done their best to close schools.

Mr. Willis: As the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said, the record of the previous Conservative

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Government shows that as many special schools closed between 1992 to 1997 as between 1997 and now. I am not in a position to know whether it was right or wrong to close those schools. The reality is that schools close as the education system moves on. I have often been involved in school closures.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): The Secretary of State did not relate the number of school closures to demand. The truth is that over the 15-year period detailed by the Secretary of State, the number of statements has risen dramatically and our understanding, identification and analysis of special needs have moved on apace. To quote numbers irrespective, and out of the context, of changing demand is disingenuous and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will dissociate himself from it.

Mr. Willis: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point. He surprises me, as he has not done his homework. He has looked at one side of the argument. He is right that the number of statements has increased dramatically, but the number of students who are in special schools has remained fairly constant, at about 98,000 to 100,000 for each of the past 10 years. To answer the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), that means that in some places special schools will close and in others they will open. That is the nature of an evolving education system. We must not simply create an education system in aspic. However, I will return to the subject of special schools; no doubt the hon. Gentleman will be delighted with what I have to say.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): Just because the number of children with statements has risen does not necessarily mean that the desire for places in special schools has risen. There is a recognition that many children in mainstream education need records of need, in Scotland, or statements, in England and Wales.

Mr. Willis: I am pleased to echo the hon. Lady's comments.

The one thing that I thought was missing from the speech of the hon. Member for Maidenhead was how special needs and the provisions of disability legislation would be delivered in free-for-all schools. How is that to be achieved? We have had two U-turns within eight days on the free schools policy, but there has been a dramatic U-turn today also. Suddenly, special needs responsibility is no longer to be completely devolved to schools, but will be held by the successor body.

Mr. Boswell: I hope that we can now close this silly argument. Right from the first day the free schools policy was enunciated, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and I have made it clear that the assessment and statementing process will remain a local authority function. There is nothing new. It is merely a reiteration of something that we decided more than 18 months ago.

Mr. Willis: That is yet another revelation; something that many hon. Members will have heard for the first time. The £540 extra that every school is to get for every student includes all the funding for special needs, transport and every other administrative cost. The Conservatives cannot say on the one hand that they will

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give that to schools and, on the other, that they will keep the most expensive functions centrally. Where is the money to come from? Perhaps the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) will explain later. Some 24,500 separate schools--each with its own independent admissions policy--would mean that special educational needs and disabilities provision would be put back at least 10, if not 20, years. That is too horrendous to contemplate.

Mr. Levitt: Does the hon. Gentleman find it odd that the Conservatives want to give these powers to local authorities, having abolished the need for such local authority powers in legislation they passed when in government?

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman tempts me to go further. I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would wish me to get back to the Bill.

My noble Friend Baroness Sharp was castigated on Third Reading in the House of Lords for changing her mind in respect of supporting the amendment on the interests of the child that was proposed to clause 1. I defend her, because she bothered to listen to all the organisations that wanted the amendment dropped, and responded accordingly. She was right not to allow an amendment in the House of Lords that would have ping-ponged here and back again and would have had exactly the effect that the hon. Member for Maidenhead and her hon. Friends want--to delay the Bill and to prevent it being enacted before the general election. That is shameful, and I am delighted that my noble Friend was tough enough to stand up to the bullies in the other place.

Mr. Hayes: I have enormous admiration for the hon. Gentleman's understanding of and commitment to these subjects, but he is again being slightly disingenuous. The Conservative party did not choose when to propose the Bill. The Conservative party will not choose when to hold the general election. Frankly, to suggest that the squeezing of the Bill into its narrow timetable is somehow the responsibility of the official Opposition is a distortion of the facts.

Mr. Willis: That intervention was not worthy of the hon. Gentleman. He knows that my hon. Friends and I met the Secretary of State nearly 18 months ago to give our support to the Bill and to ensure that it reached the statute book. We were committed to ensuring that we tabled amendments and debated the principal issues, but we wanted to see the Bill on the statute book.

During the Third Reading debate in the House of Lords, we were able to extract from the Government an important change to the original clause 12, which would have driven a coach and horses through attempts to make sure that young people were able to get mainstream education. That clause contained a number of caveats--concerning, for instance, the need to maintain academic, musical, sporting and other standards, and the financial resources available to the responsible body--all of which would have undermined exactly what the Government, my party and, I hope, the official Opposition are trying to do with the Bill.

My association with special needs education goes back a long way. I have spent almost the whole of my life in schools where there have been significant populations of

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disadvantaged youngsters and children with special needs. Working in Chapeltown in the late 1960s convinced me that unless we could educate the whole community together--wherever they came from and whatever their needs or disabilities--frankly, we would breed dysfunctional communities. It is a point of principle to me and my colleagues that inclusive education goes to the heart of the education system.

As head of two schools in Middlesbrough and Leeds, I found it interesting to see the development take place. When I see the posturing of certain hon. Members, I think of those young people who have been denied access to mainstream education simply because of the local authority area in which they lived: the post code lottery. That cannot be right and, hopefully, the Bill--and in particular the comments of the Secretary of State earlier--will have made that clear.

Current legislation may have been well intended, but the caveats in section 2 of the 1981 Act--repeated by section 316 of the 1996 Act--allowed LEAs and schools to refuse entry to children on the grounds of the efficient use of resources. That was not right. Ricky Corner, a youngster severely disabled by thalidomide, was in my school in Middlesbrough 20 years ago. He would not have been allowed to sit on the science bench, using his mouth and toes to do his science experiments, in a great number of schools; but thanks to an enlightened local authority--Cleveland--and the dedicated staff whom I worked with, he could at ours. That was 20 years ago.

Carrie, a girl with Down's syndrome--she caused a lot of work for me--and severe behavioural difficulties would not have been allowed to enter most schools in Leeds when I was there in the 1980s, but thanks to the support of the local authority and dedicated staff, she could enter ours.

Mark was totally blind and came from one of the most deprived estates in Leeds. With his inspirational teacher at the school for the blind, he fought to be allowed to enter mainstream education. He would not now be a lawyer in one of London's main firms had it not been for inclusive education and the results that it achieved. I rejected that young man because my school had four blocks, each of which had stairs. I did not think that Mark would be able to cope, but other people persuaded us that he would cope, and that he should be allowed to cope. That made a huge difference.

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