Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): After 11 or 12 minutes, the hon. Lady is now making some interesting points. Does she agree that despite the importance of early identification of autism, especially mild autism, both it and conditions such as dyspraxia and dyslexia are all difficult to treat? Most children are individually different within the definition of those conditions. Trying to find educational solutions is incredibly difficult. To blame the Government or even the previous Government for that is not fair.

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. The subject is extremely complex. Simple answers cannot be given to simple questions. The questions are complex, the answers are complex, and the hon. Gentleman is right. Every child who is in need of special help in his or her education needs it for a different reason. Each one is an individual, which makes it extremely difficult to deal with the problem.

21 May 2002 : Column 219

I partly agree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis): I am not blaming the Government—I am warning them about what must be done. I am not blaming the Government for what has not been done so far; I am warning the Government that if they do not take heed of what we now know and take action now for improvement, the problem will get considerably worse. As I said, special educational needs are not a matter for party political banter. The hon. Gentleman makes a genuine point and I agree with his comments. I am sure that the Minister will proceed in the same genuine way.

The problem is real, but one of the issues is that we do not know its extent. Again, I am not blaming anyone for that. Medical science is producing new ideas and evidence all the time, but we do not know the extent of the problem. A few weeks ago, I asked Ministers what percentage of children with statements of special educational needs were categorised as autistic last year compared with 10 years ago. The Minister answered that the information was not available. I accept that this Government were not in power 10 years ago, although they were in power last year, but it seems that nobody anywhere has collected the statistics even to let us know the extent of the problem.

The statistics should be available. Whatever has happened in the past, I hope that Ministers will pledge today to continue to carry out further research. That is the pledge that I am seeking. Perhaps some of the enormous sums that are currently spent on sending out to teachers, head teachers and local authorities circulars and glossy colour brochures on a huge variety of subjects would be better spent on finding out more about the causes of the problems faced by some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): My hon. Friend makes a very telling and interesting point. She and other hon. Members throughout the House will know that a very clear identification of need is critical in the statementing process if the education that is provided by special schools or in the mainstream is to be pertinent and relevant to the child's needs. If she is telling the House that this Government, perhaps like the previous one, do not know how many autistic children there are despite the statementing process, she is also leading us to suspect that they may not know how many children have various other types of special needs. That is very worrying information and the Minister must address it when he responds.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is right. That is exactly what I am telling the House. Nobody knows the extent of the problem; all that we know is that it is increasing. I respect the Minister's attitude on this matter. I hope that he will pledge to find out more and put Government resources into this important research.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. It is important to point out that in the Warnock report of 1979 and the Education Act 1981—a good measure that was introduced by the Conservative Government—the emphasis of statementing was to categorise children on the basis not of their condition, but of their educational need. The principle was to try to de-stigmatise children

21 May 2002 : Column 220

with special needs, and it is important that we maintain it. Once we go back to identifying a condition and applying resources only in relation to that condition, we will fail to take on the essence of what the Warnock report said and the principle to which successive Governments, including the previous one, have steadfastly adhered.

Mrs. Laing: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. As I said earlier, and as I will always say, we must treat children with special needs as individuals and not statistics. We must not simply consider them in terms of name of the disease from which they suffer, but treat them as individuals.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) made a very good point about children's individual characteristics and needs, but my hon. Friend is making a point about diagnosis of those needs. That is her point, and it explains the need for research to allow such needs to be diagnosed. I do not think that there is much distance between her and the hon. Gentleman.

Mrs. Laing: My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We are trying in this debate to emphasise how much more must be done from now on. I am interested not in repercussions, but in what has to happen from now on.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make some progress. I shall give way to him later.

I suspect that the Government had no idea of the extent of the liability that they were imposing on local authorities by introducing their policy of inclusion. I forgive them for that, because the information was simply not available. None the less, although inclusion may have sounded like a fine policy when it fitted the general Labour jargon, it does not work in practice. While the Government have been relying on integration in mainstream schools for the vast majority of children with special educational needs, sadly, they have closed 167 special schools in the past five years. That seems a horrific loss of expertise and resources.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): My hon. Friend mentioned the number of special schools that have been closed. Is she aware that in Gloucestershire, the Lib-Lab pact that runs the county council has a programme to close every single special school in the county? It is closing five schools because of the Government's policies.

Mrs. Laing: That is a disgrace. There are children who need the schools to which my hon. Friend refers and whose futures will be utterly blighted because they cannot go to them. I cannot imagine why the Government want to close those schools and put other special schools under threat of closure, creating enormous doubt in the minds of parents whose children are already taught there.

21 May 2002 : Column 221

David Taylor rose

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) rose

Mrs. Laing: I must give way to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) before the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), but I must then make some progress.

David Taylor: The hon. Lady complains, perhaps rightly, about the paucity of the special needs statistics that might help in the development of appropriate policies. She also said that parents were best placed to know about their children's needs. Is she interested in a statistic from the National Autistic Society, which suggests that more than 75 per cent. of parents are either satisfied or very satisfied with the provision made for their children? Is that not an important base on which to build?

Mrs. Laing: Yes, that is very important, but to me it means that 25 per cent. of parents are not satisfied. They are the ones about whom I am most concerned in this debate.

In talking about the policy of inclusion, I accept that in some cases involving mild autism or Asperger's syndrome, it is good for children to attend a mainstream school. Inclusion is right in many cases because it is good for social integration and allows a child to play with children of his or her own age. It is absolutely right in some cases, but not in all of them. The almost total reliance on integration has simply not been backed up with the necessary resources.

Mr. McCabe: I happen to agree with the hon. Lady, as I believe that we should keep open particular special schools, although we would be well advised to close others. Indeed, we have done some young people a service in closing some schools. Before making the charge that schools have been improperly closed—and in addition to asking for statistics about diagnosis—do we not need to know how schools that are engaged in the inclusion programme spend the special targeted resources provided in the delegated budgets? We need to know which local education authorities are spending that money appropriately and which are not. Should we not be collecting that statistic?

Mrs. Laing: Yes, we should. Even if the Minister will not listen to my requests for that information—I accept that he may do so—I hope that he will listen to the hon. Gentleman. Resources are often earmarked for special needs by the education authority, given to the school and then spent on something else. We know that that happens; I know of instances in which it has occurred and so does the hon. Gentleman, and there must be hundreds more examples throughout the country. That is another problem and another area where the Government simply do not have the necessary information. Now I must make some progress.

The almost total reliance on integration has not been backed up by the necessary resources, so the issuing of a statement of special educational needs, although it theoretically confers on a child the right to a certain amount of time, expertise, therapy and care, is not implemented in practice. That is why people become

21 May 2002 : Column 222

cynical about politicians, and it is not surprising. No doubt Ministers see the statistics about the number of statements and the amount of money that is supposedly earmarked for their implementation. That may look good on paper, but sadly it does not work in practice.

We spend hours in Parliament having theoretical discussions about statements of special educational needs. I hardly have one constituency surgery where there is not at least one parent, often more than one, who is almost in tears of frustration from fighting the local authority to have the terms of a statement turned into action—or, indeed, to have a statement issued in the first place; for many children it takes far too long to start the ball rolling. Parents have their expectations raised by the rhetoric of the Government, then have their hopes dashed by the reality of provision that is just not there.

When one is looking after a special needs child, life is already difficult enough. The uncertainty that arises out of current policy and its piecemeal implementation makes it very much worse. What frightens me most is that the parents whom I usually see are able and articulate. They have managed to come to see their Member of Parliament, and have folders full of papers, reports, assessments and so on, many of which they have had to pay for themselves, yet even they cannot get the help that their children need. So what happens to the children of parents who are not articulate, do not know how to insist, and are so tired from looking after a disabled child that they do not have the energy to fight?

I do not know what the Minister for Lifelong Learning is sneering at. This is not a matter for sneering. I am describing—[Interruption.] It is not patronising. I am describing what I see in my own constituency. I am describing real people, and the hon. Lady is sneering at them. I have their names written down here, but I will not embarrass them by using them. The hon. Lady is sneering in a disgusting way—it is totally intolerable. [Hon. Members: "Apologise!"] She should indeed apologise. I am sure that the Minister for School Standards, who is sitting next to her, will not take that attitude.

For real people looking after children with real needs, it is a tragic situation. Getting help for one's child should not be an adversarial contest. If the Government are saying that every child has a certain right, they must set up a system whereby that right can be enforced. It does not happen like that in the real world. Parents should not have to fight year after year to get the education that their children need, deserve and, apparently, have a right to.

The fact is that the resources are not there to fulfil all the obligations to the increasing number of children who need special help. I do not suggest for a moment that the solution is simply to throw more money at the problem—we know that it is not. There are not enough specialist teachers, speech therapists, special schools, classroom support assistants or training opportunities for mainstream teachers. There is insufficient infrastructure to help all the children and their families who need help. It is not even clear to most parents where they should begin to look for assistance. Some aspects are dealt by the health authority, some by the social services department and some by the education department, and much time and energy are wasted in convening meetings of all three authorities before a decision that will actually help a child can be reached. The inequality of provision throughout the country is almost incredible. I know of one instance where two little boys who go to the same mainstream school

21 May 2002 : Column 223

each require about the same amount of speech therapy each week, but one gets three times more than the other because they live in different health authority areas.

What no one wants to hear from the Minister tonight is a complacent list of apparent achievements. That would be an insult to the thousands of families who are currently waiting for help. In the real world, special needs provision is in chaos. This is not a matter for party political banter, and it is very disappointing—

Next Section

IndexHome Page