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Special Educational Needs

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.14 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I beg to move,

Special educational needs are not a glamorous subject; I get that feeling as the Chamber empties at their mention, which is sad. They are not a glamorous subject, but they are important. This is not an occasion for witty party political banter; it is too serious for that and, I am sure that the Minister for School Standards would agree, too sad—[Interruption.] I see that he is repeating what I said with disdain, so I shall say it again; it is too serious and too sad. The problem is the thousands of quiet, private little tragedies unfolding all over the country. I believe that the Minister genuinely wants to do his best for the many children who need special help in their education, but unfortunately he is constrained by his Government's dogmatic approach.

We all care about children with disabilities. I was tremendously annoyed whenever the word "care" was used today to hear Government Members laughing—as if Opposition Members are here for any reason other than that we care about vulnerable people in our society. That is certainly why I am here.

Children in Need, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Mencap, the National Autistic Society and many other charities do wonderful work and are brilliantly supported by millions of people throughout the country who care about the disadvantaged in our society. There is no doubt that individual teachers and learning support assistants who work in special schools or look after special needs children in mainstream schools do a remarkable job. I have recently seen many of them in action; their patience and perseverance are astounding. I could not do their job. It is no exaggeration to say that the achievements in the schools and special schools that I have visited sometimes bring a tear to the eye; those people have a difficult job and an uphill struggle, and many of them are trying hard to achieve so much. Much more, however, could be done if the Government put aside their rigid, dogmatic approach and faced the reality of the enormous challenge before them.

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The Opposition have chosen to debate this subject because it is often at the bottom of the list. One goes through the topical issues in education—exams, exclusions, expenses and so on—and at the end one says, "Oh yes, what about special needs?"

Phil Hope (Corby): You might say that.

Mrs. Laing: I am saying exactly the opposite; it has often been said, and one cannot help but feel that it has been said by the Government for many years. Local authorities, too, often say, "Oh, but what about special educational needs?"

Phil Hope: The hon. Lady criticises the Government for not doing anything about special educational needs. Naturally, she is aware that funding for special educational needs has increased dramatically under the Government. We published the first comprehensive White Paper on support for special educational needs and are implementing the key principles of inclusion and partnership. To describe that as not delivering is to misrepresent the situation.

Mrs. Laing: No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong; I did not say that that was not delivering. The last Conservative Government did a lot on special educational needs, but not enough; more still needs to be done. The hon. Gentleman talks about not delivering; I have not got to that yet, but he has correctly guessed that I am going to say that the Government are not delivering. Producing papers and having ideas are not the same as delivering, but I shall come to that later.

We want to give more prominence to the problem of providing a good education for children with special needs, because no one is more vulnerable or in need of help than a child who cannot communicate and wants to do what the other children are doing, but cannot understand—nor can his parents or teachers—why he cannot. That is what I mean by the thousands of private little tragedies unfolding throughout the country. We all know that they are taking place, but how can we try to alleviate them?

The number and proportion of special needs children is increasing all the time. We accept, and Ministers will no doubt say, that that may be partly because of better diagnosis, but it cannot be entirely a product of diagnosis. The statistics, particularly those produced recently by the Medical Research Council and by the National Autistic Society, warn us beyond doubt that educating children with special needs is not just a problem, but a growing problem. I hope that the Minister will accept that.

Knowing that the problem is growing, we are negligent if we do not heed that warning, or rather—I said that the debate was not an opportunity for party political banter—we are not negligent: Ministers are negligent if they fail to take the necessary action, having received the warning. I fear that that is what will happen.

The Secretary of State's amendment to our motion states that we should applaud

Will the Government never learn that vision does not mean the same as action? Having a vision is fine, as the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope) said, and it is sometimes necessary, but publishing bits of paper does not mean that anything has been achieved.

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I feel sorry for Ministers, who have it drummed into them all the time that it is what they say that matters, not what they do. But if they are led by a Prime Minister who believes that saying something three times is tantamount to having achieved it—"education, education education"—[Interruption.] The Minister for Lifelong Learning is muttering away, as usual. Is she too repeating it three times? It is time the Government recognised that merely issuing words and documents is not enough. It does not actually produce results. Let us look at the facts.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Has my hon. Friend discovered, as I often do in constituency cases, that caring parents who have a child who needs special assistance often have a good understanding of the child's problem and a clear view of which local education institution would be best at handling it, but that the council often blocks the parents' preferred choice? Often they are told that there is not sufficient Government money coming through for that purpose. Does my hon. Friend think that parental choice should be better respected, and would she want the Government to make sure that that was possible? In my view, caring parents are often the best judges of what is needed.

Mrs. Laing: Unsurprisingly, my right hon. Friend is correct. In my constituency alone, I have seen so many tragic cases of parents who have spent months, and sometimes years, looking for the right educational establishment for their child, because they know their child's needs, only to find that the funding is not available or that, for some other bureaucratic reason—such as the fact that the establishment in question might be over the county boundary or in another region, or that the transport costs cannot be met—the child cannot get the best education available to him or her.

There is no doubt that this happens. If I have seen that many, many times in my constituency, I assume that the problem is multiplied by at least 650 times around the country, and those are only the cases known to us as Members of Parliament. There must be many more.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): How does the hon. Lady square her remarks with the fact that under the Conservative Government, funding per pupil fell in real terms from 1992 to 1997, whereas under the present Government, funding per pupil has increased by £200 per child? Surely that means that children now have a better chance of receiving the proper education for their special educational needs than they had in 1997?

Mrs. Laing: No—all it means is that the hon. Lady is bandying statistics. What we are talking about is people. [Interruption.] I do not see what is funny about that. It does not matter what the last Conservative Government did, and it does not really matter what the Government said they would do two or three years ago. What matters is that out there, in the real world, there are thousands and thousands of children who need more help than they are getting. If all the hon. Lady can see is some figures that she got from her Whips Office, that is very sad indeed.

I shall examine the facts, starting with the increasing problem of autism. Last week was autism awareness week. I pay tribute to the National Autistic Society, which has done so much, not just last week but throughout this

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year—this is autism awareness year, as I am sure hon. Members know—to bring the problems of autism into public focus.

There is no doubt that, for whatever reason, the incidence of children with autism spectrum disorders is increasing. I think the Minister for School Standards will agree with me on that point. I shall be interested to hear his comments. No matter how one looks at it, the problem is increasing. It is noticeable that the rate of autism occurring in primary schools is more than three times that in secondary schools, which is an unusual statistic, unless it means that autism is increasing exponentially, which it probably is not. That leads us to further questions, and they are difficult questions. I do not claim to have the answers, but we must consider the questions.

It is possible that there may be many more pupils in secondary schools who have an autism spectrum disorder but who have not been diagnosed, and who have therefore spent their time in education failing to achieve, failing to communicate and being classed simply as disruptive. I wonder how many of the truanting pupils about whom we argued in the earlier debate this evening are, in fact, pupils with special needs which have not been diagnosed. Should not pupil referral units have specialist expertise in special needs and, indeed, in autism spectrum disorders? That is a genuine question. I think they should, but they do not. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's comments on that.

There is, however, no doubt that all the experts and even the Government recognise the importance of early diagnosis and early intervention, because children with unsolved problems grow up to be adults with unsolved problems. That is much more difficult to deal with. The cost to society—I do not mean in financial terms—in so many ways is so very much greater if someone who could be contributing to his or her community is, instead, excluded from it, and is therefore tragically seen as a burden, rather than as the asset which he or she could have been if the right help had been there at the right time, with early diagnosis and early intervention.

Despite some good recent work by the Medical Research Council, which I accept was commissioned by the Government—not by the Minister's Department, but by the Department of Health—we still do not know the extent of the problem or the rate at which it is likely to increase.

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