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8.59 pm

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): I do not usually take part in Opposition day debates, because they tend to be choreographed rituals. First, the Opposition spokesman has to describe all the problems of the world as though they started on 2 May 1997 and everything went downhill from then. Then the Government Front-Bench spokesman has to respond by saying that we are actually making steady progress towards some nirvana, and so it goes on.

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The beginning of the contribution made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) did nothing to lift my depression. Although she said that she did not want to turn the debate into a party political football, she did everything she could to make it so during the first 10 minutes of her speech when she spoke in party political language. However, her contribution improved thereafter and she raised some serious questions that I hope we can air presently.

The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) also raised serious concerns and made some important points. However, the Opposition seem to have overlooked at least some of the Government's achievements. They should recognise our achievements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope) said, the Government have increased spending on education for children with special needs by 20 per cent. in real terms. That is not nothing—it should at least be acknowledged.

The Opposition seem completely to have forgotten what has been achieved by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. It has put parents' preferences first in the legal framework for decisions about a child. Those provisions might not yet be working effectively and that is a legitimate subject for debate, but parents now have the legal right to insist on a mainstream place for their child if they want it. That is in addition to their previous and continuing legal right to insist on a special school place.

Greater inclusion in mainstream education means that local education authorities must constantly review special school provision in their area. I can understand why the Conservative survey found that 25 per cent. of special schools felt threatened. How many of those schools were in Conservative authorities? Conveniently, that information was not included in the Conservative motion.

We all have a responsibility to monitor the provision available in different education authority areas and to make decisions accordingly. It is sad that special schools feel threatened. Many of them—including those in my constituency—are doing a fabulous job, and it would be a tragedy if we lost them. It is up to us, as Members of Parliament, to make that case to our local education authorities; we must make sure that they realise the importance of the work of those schools.

Mr. Gale: The hon. Gentleman speaks with some pride of the 2001 Act; but I and some others had some quarrel with it. The Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate, in my constituency, also takes children from his constituency. Is he proud of the fact that, under the Act, the Royal School, which is not a state school, and other members of the national association for special schools, suffer discrimination? Should not they, too, be given the state help that they deserve?

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman raises points that are not covered by the Act. The Act gives parents the legal right to insist on a mainstream school place and puts a duty on schools to provide access for disabled people and people with special needs. It discriminates against special schools only in the sense that they no longer have a captive market of children to attend them. In any case, a good local authority will make sure that it works with special schools to preserve their provision.

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The Government are doing exactly that. A school in my constituency, but run by Wandsworth education authority, has just received £3 million for rebuilding work to provide for the needs of its pupils. My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench are doing good work and we should acknowledge it.

I have exchanged the ritual abuse with Members on the Opposition Benches. I have fawned appropriately on my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench, so I hope that now I can turn to the constructive part of my contribution and talk about the issues raised by the motions. I want especially to talk about autism because, as Members know, I am chairman of the all-party autism group.

There has been discussion today of consensus on autism. The all-party group has 150 members from both Houses and all parties, and I am willing to bet that there is consensus among them on the need for provision for autistic people. There is probably some consensus on the progress that this Government have made, and probably consensus too on where there is still more work to do. It is important that we strive for consensus. I am sure that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench recognise where they are failing and where they need to do more. We need to give them credit for what they have done already.

So, in a spirit of constructive criticism, and knowing how interested the Government are in standard assessment tests, I have decided to mark my autism scorecard against their performance. I am pretty sure that there will be consensus among members of the all-party group on the provision that I describe, although there may be differences of opinion on how well the Government are doing.

The first thing that I would require of the Government is to improve planning for autistic people and special educational needs. The basis of planning is of course good data—knowing how many people for whom services are to be provided. The report published last week by the National Autistic Society said that one in 86 people has been identified by teachers as somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I point out for accuracy—this has not been mentioned in the debate so far—that the society also acknowledged that only one in 152 people has been formally diagnosed and that its own estimate remains at one in 110, and that the Medical Research Council's estimate of the number of autistic people under the age of eight is one in 166.

What can we deduce from those data? We should first acknowledge that we should not get too hung up on data. The level of variation shows how uncertain we are of our figures. One of the things that I first did when I became interested in autism was to ask in a parliamentary question how many people have autism. The Government answered that they did not know. When I challenged a Minister on that later that day and said that it was terrible, I was told that things were worse than I had feared, as the Government did not know that they did not know until I had asked the question. The Government should be given credit for acknowledging the fact that they did not know, and for trying to work out how many people have autism spectrum disorders. Having said that, we still do not have accurate figures.

The report of the all-party group, "The Rising Challenge", identified that 87 per cent. of local education authorities believe that the number of such people is

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increasing—whether that is through better diagnosis or whether it is a real increase is debatable. So, we should acknowledge that we need to plan for greater provision. I give the Government five out of 10 for recognising that they need better data, but only one out of 10 on top of that for progress so far. That totals six out of 10 for data collection and planning.

Secondly, we need to recognise the variability of needs. Autism spectrum disorders range from people who are high-functioning, who can probably do well with the right help in a mainstream school, to those who have very serious disorders, who could not possibly survive in a mainstream school. There are many special schools and many specialist support units in mainstream schools, so we have the range of provision, but not sufficient quantity of it.

I shall cite an example from Kent, although I do not do so because Kent is any worse than anywhere else. There are 32 specialist unit places for autistic children in mainstream secondary schools in Kent—two units of 16 places—and we have 12,000 autistic people in the county. I am not by any means saying that they all have the same needs and that it would be appropriate to send them all to such units, but those figures show the imbalance between provision and need. So, on the range of schools and support provided, and efforts to boost numbers, we can give the Government seven out of 10.

As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) mentioned, we need to assess children at an early age, as that helps us to gather data and provide individuals with intensive support. The Government have recognised the need to identify autistic people at an early age, for which we can give them 10 out of 10, as they are the first Government to do so. The Department of Health has supported a national initiative on autism screening and assessment, and a working party is trying to establish best practice in identifying autism. We can therefore give the Government five out of 10 for supporting that initiative, and they will gain the remaining five marks if and when they roll it out across the country.

We need an autism-aware teacher in every school. I have told the House before of a case often cited by the National Autistic Society. A little girl was disruptive in class during literacy hour, when she had to sit in a circle with her schoolmates. An autism-aware teacher realised that she was disruptive because she was not sitting in the same place every time. A coloured carpet tile was provided, and the little girl knows that that is where she sits during literacy hour. The problem was solved with a nice, cheap solution because there was an autism-aware teacher in that school. The Government have provided £82 million for improved teacher training, which is an excellent step forward, but is not enough; we give them five out of 10.

Earlier, I spoke about the primacy of parental concerns in legislation. We ought to acknowledge that and give the Government 10 out of 10 for recognising it.

Intensive therapy was mentioned by the Liberal Democrat spokesman. It is important that we recognise the need to provide such therapy, but there is a lot of dispute about whether that should be done through education or health provision. Many parents have to fight, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, to get intensive therapy. In my early days as an MP, I championed the cause of a family who wanted the Lovaas

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technique for their child; we could not convince the local education authority, and the family had to provide it at their own expense. The child has prospered and will soon be back in a mainstream school at the cost, however, of the parents becoming bankrupt and the break-up of their marriage. Not providing that need when required involves an emotional cost, so the Government score three out of 10 for that.

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