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6.28 pm

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Most of us who have a long-term interest in special educational needs will look back to the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and realise that that was a time of great change. Children who would otherwise be relegated to their home were suddenly brought out by the Warnock report and offered an opportunity that they had not had before. The Warnock report was a great turning point and brought about important changes. Subsequently, there was a period of settling down. Since the inception of the present Government, there has been a great surge of provision for people with disability and for people with learning difficulties, and no more so than in education for children.

Reference was made earlier to statements being used rather like a weapon by parents. The Bill is not a weapon, but a tool whereby authorities will take forward an agenda and offer parents, families and communities provision for children, irrespective of their ability. Many of us were left with a deep anxiety that, during the 1990s, children with learning difficulties had to accept provision that was substantially poorer than that for other children.

The Bill is one of a series of steps towards redressing that imbalance. I think that a lot more needs to be done. The Bill allows children with learning difficulties to enter mainstream schools, but many of us will want to know that the quality of provision in those schools is as good for such children as it is for those without their needs. There is currently a great disparity. I look forward to the day when there is equal provision, when teachers receive appropriate training that can be measured and which parents understand and appreciate, and when there is greater inclusion, which is what the Bill provides.

6.31 pm

Dr. Harris: I, too, welcome the prospect of a successful Third Reading. The Secretary of State was right to say that the Bill was unlikely to have received much attention from the media and little general comment outside the House, but people whose lives are touched by the issues with which it deals will know that those issues are debated relatively rarely. In that respect, the Bill has been a good vehicle for debating many matters that are related to special educational needs provision. That was not least the case in the House of Lords, whose numbers meant that useful concessions were extracted from the Government on reviewing how some of the provisions would be put into practice. Fruitful negotiations were also pursued in the other place about the wording of the code of practice on special educational needs.

The Standing Committee was an enjoyable one on which to serve. The tone of the debate was made possible by the contributions of Ministers, Back Benchers and the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who is a model of courtesy and erudition--a word that I used when I did not understand some of his classical allusions.

A number of recurrent themes have arisen during debate on the Bill. They include the important point that was made earlier by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), who is no longer in his place. In a Third Reading-style contribution, he said that the Bill might be

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seen to lead to integration in the mainstream sector at a pace that was too quick to be tolerated by the people who were hostile to it. He spoke about a school with a relatively large number of children who have special educational needs. One has to be careful before basing policy on attempts to meet--"appease" is too strong a word--the concerns of those who might be hostile to it. We do not have to look far back in history to find analogies with racial integration and to see that Governments and legislators sometimes have to lead public opinion when the evidence shows that what is being done is right.

There are questions about the effective education of other children when those with severe disabilities or challenging behaviour are brought into a mainstream setting, but the enormous contribution of inclusivity to the social development of all children has far too often been lost in some of our debates. Of course, Front Benchers of all parties have raised that issue, but many Back Benchers, especially in the Conservative party, have stressed the problems rather than the opportunities that are created by integration.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made an important point about resources. She knows that the Liberal Democrats share her concern about the need for adequate resources. I say to Ministers that it will be important to ensure that the adequacy of resources is not judged by input and the recitation of figures, which can be seen as more or less impressive, depending on the analysis. They should try instead to judge the need for resources and then see whether it can be matched. Any shortfall in a cash-limited system should be acknowledged. Research into resource needs, outside a feverish pre-election setting in which we all debate tax and spend, will be useful.

The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) eloquently drew attention to the threat to special schools. I believe that it is important to provide enough special school places locally to meet need. That does not mean that every existing school, some with buildings that are perhaps unsatisfactory, will survive. Some special schools will close while others are built. Sufficient places are the main requirement. When we consider hospitals, the number of beds is more important than the number of buildings. We must be wedded to the concept of provision, not buildings.

The number of places has remained more or less the same in the past 10 years. That will also be the case after the Bill is enacted. Advances in medical science mean that more severely disabled children, who previously would not have survived, are included in the education system. Stable numbers therefore probably mean greater integration. However, integration is generally inadequate.

The Bill and the attendant resources will not be a panacea. It is important to acknowledge that local authorities that are not only cash strapped but capped will find it difficult to statement quickly and make adequate provision for special support. The reviews and research are therefore especially important. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) made the point that special schools--and mainstream schools that specialise in SEN provision--can be centres of research. We can learn from their experience.

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I am grateful for the important clarification that resources will not be a barrier to integrating children or placing them in SEN settings, with the caveat that such provision must be efficient. Again, it will be important to monitor and collect data from tribunals to ascertain the way in which the measure is bedding down.

I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) on part 2. The Bill will be of great benefit and will be broadly welcomed. I welcome the constructive contributions by Members of all parties.

6.37 pm

Mr. Levitt: I shall make one of the briefest contributions to the debate. I want to take the opportunity to reassure the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) that, in Committee, I made many of the points that he raised about the education of deaf children. I reminded the Committee that the Government took action two years ago to save a school that educates deaf children in a sign language environment and was threatened with closure. The replies that Ministers gave in Committee satisfied me, and I speak as a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People.

It has been a privilege to contribute to all stages of the Bill. I should like to thank the Government in the manner that some of my deaf friends would wish, in sign language. I am signing, "Thank you for the Special Needs and Disability Bill." Let us see how Hansard reports that!

6.38 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I cannot follow that, so I shall speak in the normal way, if that is acceptable.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), I feel a little uneasy about the Bill, as I have said previously. My unease is based partly on one or two words in the measure--and, indeed, on some matters that are not included--and partly on the Bill's tone. The assumptions in it are worrying.

The Bill depends heavily on statementing. This morning, I received a letter from the worried parent of a child with special needs that said that statementing was all very well, but that its effectiveness depended on the amount of detail in specifying the requirements of each child. Of course, that is extremely important. It would be very easy for statements to be prepared for children that would give them the opportunity to go to special schools. However, if those statements were not properly prepared, the child would end up at the wrong school. That is an aspect of the Bill about which I am very concerned.

The tone of the Bill, and the motivation for it, also worry me. Having sat through the Second Reading debate, and been privileged to serve on the Standing Committee, I have been concerned about a number of its aspects. There has almost been an assumption that all children are clamouring and absolutely desperate to be included in mainstream schools. There is no doubt that some are. Many children are already included in mainstream schools and there is no doubt that there have been some, in the past, who should have gone to mainstream schools but did not.

There is, however, another side to that argument. An awful lot of children are desperately frightened of being sent to mainstream schools, and they will not be particularly reassured by the Bill. We have heard many

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sad examples, particularly in Committee, of children being excluded from mainstream schools and suffering as a result. We also heard of children with special needs going to mainstream schools and benefiting from it. Hon. Members have given very real examples, but there are also examples illustrating the other side of the argument, in which children have been sent to mainstream schools that have palpably failed them. I was surprised but pleased to hear the Secretary of State give an example of a child who was sent to a mainstream school but, at that point in his education, it was not right for him.

We can all quote examples such as that, but they are not all one-sided. Many people who have been to see me and other hon. Members are desperately frightened of being sent to a mainstream school because they and their parents know that they need to go to a special school.

On Second Reading, I rather unkindly, but probably accurately, described parts of the Bill as a triumph of theory over reality. I regret having had to say that, and I would not have said it, had not my experiences in Gloucestershire taught me that it is the case. It is no use Ministers saying that the Bill, and previous statements on it, are not a green light for the wholesale closure of special schools, because that is what is happening in Gloucestershire. There is a systematic closure of special schools. [Interruption.] Labour Members are speaking from sedentary positions. If they want to come to Gloucestershire to see what is going on, I would be delighted to pick them up at the station and take them to the schools, to show them the feeling there.


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