Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Hayes: The hon. Lady makes a valid point. There are two problems: some LEAs are inefficient when it comes to statementing, and some are resistant to issuing statements at all. An analysis of the number of children statemented by LEAs, and of the time that that process takes, shows that the performance of LEAs is enormously variable across the country. There is no consistency in the approach of LEAs to the matter of statementing, which is very much left to local choice and judgment. In some cases, that judgment is not all that it might be. Again, I make no party-political point when I say that, as the LEAs to which I refer are run by all parties.

The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice has tested the matter with lawyers. It has taken legal advice that suggests that the new code will be unlawful. Its barrister has said that the code will be challenged on the grounds that it is reducing the requirement for quantification and provision. That will reduce the protection for children and encourage vague statements, and so achieve exactly what the Department for Education and Skills says it is trying not to achieve.

The Department for Education and Skills has told the public that it does not want to weaken the position of special needs children. Ministers in this and the other place have told us repeatedly that their intention in bringing more children into mainstream education is not to dilute the quality of education that they receive but simply to alter the place where it is provided. The code however, with its lack of specification and quantification, would damage the provision for special needs children.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Does my hon. Friend agree that there are already many examples of cases where provision is not specified sufficiently clearly? If the new code exacerbates the situation, pupils with special educational needs will lose out even more.

Mr. Hayes: As has been said, performance is patchy throughout the country. I want to strengthen the position of those who require special education and their carers, not weaken it. That was my position long before I came to the House when I was a member of a local education authority and was heavily involved in such matters. It has been my position outside of my responsibilities on the Conservative Front Bench, as co-chairman of the all-party group on disablement, and it is my position in the role that I am performing now.

10 Jul 2001 : Column 754

I said that I did not think that this matter was party political. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) and agreed with every word he said in his brief intervention. I have also listened carefully to other Labour Members who have intervened from the Back Benches. Their comments clearly reflect the widespread concern about the matter. That causes us some difficulty, as we do not want to frustrate the good intentions behind the code and the legislation. There is much in the code and in the legislation that it attempts to put into practice with which we agree. On the other hand, we would be failing in our duty to the children concerned and their carers if we did not point out that we have these fundamental concerns.

Another example of where the Government have gone wrong is that the original consultation version of the code contained a section that talked of children's best interests being fulfilled by giving LEAs a


In other words, the draft code was particular about the responsibilities of LEAs, whereas those responsibilities have been made woollier, weaker and more vague as a result of the amendments to and the omissions from the original draft. That is surprising in the light of the consultation exercise. The people consulted did not take a collective decision that LEAs should be given less clear instructions, nor did the organisations consulted suggest that. If anything, it was suggested that they should be given clearer instructions—more specificity and more obligations to provide their services equitably.

While I do not want to delay the House tonight, there is profound concern on both sides of the Chamber about the weakness of the code. In good faith and in the spirit in which this matter has been conducted thus far, during the debate on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill and in the Standing Committee that dealt with it, I must warn the Minister that unless he comes up with firm answers to some of the queries raised from those on the Conservative Front Bench and other parts of the House before the matter is debated in the other place, I suspect that my hon. Friends there and many others will want to consider the code critically and may not be able to bring themselves to support it.

9.49 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I shall be brief as there is only an hour and a half for the debate and many Members want to speak. I hope that the Minister for School Standards will have the chance to reply to the debate and that he will seriously address many of the concerns expressed on both sides of the House.

People in my constituency have expressed concern that the draft code of practice was only published on 22 June, and we are already debating it. I suspect that if our debate had been delayed, more Members would have wanted to contribute. Indeed, more organisations might also have expressed concern.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) referred to local education authorities, whose role is extremely important. The Minister might reflect on the trends in education policy that have often served to

10 Jul 2001 : Column 755

reduce and undermine the role of LEAs in favour of direct funding to schools. LEAs are crucial. They are the only line to ensure that children with special needs—with disabilities and all that goes with them—receive what they require. If that is left to individual schools, without an LEA to enforce national policy, it will not happen.

In an earlier intervention I mentioned dyslexia, a condition experienced by many people. During the previous Parliament, I tabled several questions about what happens to people whose dyslexia is not identified and who do not receive the obvious special help that is necessary. A disproportionately large number of such people do not achieve in education. They may end up in prison or have many problems, simply because a basic need was not identified at an early stage when help could have been given. People with dyslexia can achieve just as much as anyone else and, in many cases, much more. It is a question of identification.

If there is a financial system that militates against the school identifying the problem because it costs the school money and there is an endless rigmarole of delay before the LEA responds to a request from the school, we are clearly failing to give children what they need. Will the Minister reflect on that point in his reply?

There are many parents in my constituency for whom English is not their first language. Indeed, many of them barely understand any English at all. Their children often have special needs. The children of refugees are often extremely traumatised and suffer from stress. If there are no translation facilities so that those parents can understand what is going on, many of the children lose out. I realise that this point is not necessarily part of this debate, but I hope that the Minister will be aware that because of the effects of housing policies, some asylum-seeking children have to move house, hostel or bed-and-breakfast accommodation so often and change schools so often that they drop out of the education system altogether. They have no opportunity for full-time education.

Will the Minister address the transitional arrangements for school students with special needs of any sort after the age of 14? The draft code does not seem to include a specific requirement for either local education authorities or individual schools to follow up such pupils, who might end up by dropping out of the system altogether. Will the Minister deal with that point?

Will the Minister also comment on fixed time limits for requests for statementing? Unless such limits are laid down for local education authorities to reply both to parents and schools on statementing needs, the lack of resources or the unwillingness of LEAs to identify such needs means that they will not be met. I hope that specific timetables will be included in any changes to the code.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings noted that LEAs would be allowed to quantify as necessary. We cannot allow such latitude. If we do so, the resources will not be made available and as a result children with definite special needs will lose out. Everyone is aware that the standards of treatment of special educational needs differ greatly between local authorities.

I understand what people are trying to do with the code of practice; they are trying to introduce some uniformity across the country. Obviously, I welcome that approach, but I have been advised by many of those involved,

10 Jul 2001 : Column 756

and I am afraid that the draft code of practice contains too many loopholes. I hope that the Minister will address those points in his reply and that he will promise us that there will be an opportunity for a greater tightening up of such matters than has been demonstrated hitherto.

9.55 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): This is an important issue, and I regret that we are spending an hour and a half on it late at night, given that many hon. Members would have liked a full debate. That is important.

I have been involved with this issue since the enactment of the Education Act 1981. It is interesting that 250,000 pupils in England and Wales now have statements. That is a huge number of young people. It is also interesting that local authorities and schools spend £1.3 billion on supporting special needs, so this is a big issue and it is rather sad to rush the code of practice through when there are so many uncertainties. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that, as well as on the debate, before the code of practice goes to the House of Lords on Thursday.

There are obvious concerns, and hon. Members have commented on the closure of special schools. The reality is that, in the past 20 years, special schools have not closed in the numbers that people think. There are still roughly 100,000 youngsters in special schools—the same figure as 100 years ago. The great success of the education system since 1981 is that many more youngsters who would have gone into special schools have, in fact, been educated with their peers. That is important.

The hon. Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) raised an important issue, which the Government have tried to address in the code of practice. A great fault is that, since 1981, if a school has recognised that a statement is needed but a parent has not agreed, for whatever reason, it has been impossible for the school to go ahead with the provision, so the child has missed out. I have worked in communities with children from 26 nationalities, and it has sometimes been very difficult to persuade parents that their children have had special needs because they have thought it a stigma to be avoided. The perverse fact is that middle class parents are now knocking on school doors saying that their sons and daughters need statements because they recognise that the system involves additional resources.

We welcome a great deal of what the code of practice involves. We particularly welcome the involvement of parents and students. We also welcome the increased amount of information that will be available. In particular, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) has said, there is an opportunity to resolve conflicts under the regulations, to which the Minister did not refer, but which is very important. Conflicts need to be resolved before they go before the tribunal. I am also pleased that the role of SEN co-ordinators is recognised in the code. Far too often, SENCOs have to do their job, with all the bureaucracy that that involves, in no time at all. Many of them also have full teaching timetables. I hope that the Minister will go further than simply providing advice about time by ensuring that time is actually allocated.


Next Section

IndexHome Page