House of Commons
Friday 1 February 2008
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.
I beg to move, That the House do sit in private.
Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (motions to sit in private):—
Orders of the Day
Special Educational Needs (Information) Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I place on the record my gratitude to everyone who has helped to support the Bill in its early stages. I am tremendously privileged to be able do something for pupils, parents, charities and policy makers concerned about special educational needs. I especially thank my researcher, Jonathan Tanner, who has worked flat-out for weeks to get this speech prepared and to build up all the evidence and statistics that we need to be able to talk about the subject. I particularly wanted to get that on the record; sometimes our staff do not get thanked enough.
I should state at this point that I will often refer to special educational needs as SEN as it is less of a mouthful for all involved. I am grateful for the breadth of support from colleagues on both sides of the House. More than 100 colleagues from six parties have already signed early-day motion 619 in support of my Bill. I am grateful for the support of charitable organisations across the education sector and individuals across the country who have taken time to write to their MPs to encourage them to support it and to be here today. I hope that the effort of all concerned will be rewarded this morning.
I will talk about the Bill in more detail later, but its broad aim is to introduce an obligation on the Secretary of State to collect and publish information that will help to improve outcomes for children with a range of SEN. I note from the history books that successful private Members’ Bills come in all shapes and sizes. If my Bill is successful, it will sit alongside some specialist issues legislated for under this mechanism, such as hypnotism and even ponies. It will also sit alongside issues that ignite much more substantive moral debate such as abortion rights, or that bring about national change such as the law to enforce the wearing of seat belts.
As hon. Members will be aware, special educational needs come in all shapes and sizes. Thankfully, we have seen significant movement away from a society in which consideration of SEN was on the periphery of the policy agenda, but there is always more to be done. I will talk about why I chose this policy area, what the Bill will do and how it can help over time to make a difference to SEN provision.
I am sure that everyone involved or interested in SEN provision in schools and other learning institutions has their own story to tell of how their interest or involvement came about. My story will be similar to that of hundreds of thousands of parents who have to fight their way through the system to win the best possible support for their children.
The first time that there was anything to be concerned about with my son Joseph was when he was about 18 months old and a doctor pointed out at a routine appointment that he was not talking. I was not worried initially. I said, “It will happen eventually. He will talk when he wants to.” When he was two and a half, he still was not talking, so the intervention kicked in and the speech therapy started. He said “Mam” for the first time when he was three.
By the time Joseph started school, we thought that all we had to worry about was whether the teachers and his friends would be able to understand his still noticeably delayed speech. However, it was not long before we realised that there were other problems. He was as bright as a button but was not able to get to grips with reading as his friends could. The teachers did all they could. Over the years, he has had some amazing teachers and learning support assistants, who have worked hard to help and support him.
Joseph was not diagnosed as dyslexic and statemented until he was in year 5, aged 10. He had been at school for almost six years, struggling day, in day out, his self-esteem getting lower and lower, when it had been obvious within the first few months of reception class, when he was only four years old, that something was wrong. It was a relief when the diagnosis came and we were reassured that he was very bright—in the top 10 per cent. for some of the tests—but that he was severely dyslexic. This news would ignite a passion in any parent, and I think that anyone who has kept an eye on my work since I entered the House will know that sometimes my personal experiences are what drive me to seek changes through politics, and I am sure that the same is true of other Members. While I watched my son grow up and try to get to grips with his dyslexia, I became even more determined to try to do something to help others in the same situation.
My children were born in Gateshead, and my son was given speech and language therapy from the age of two and a half. When he was seven, we moved to London and that support stopped. My family has since returned to Gateshead, where the local authority is considering providing further speech and language support, as it is thought he will still benefit from it. He is now 14, and he has lost out on seven years of potential speech therapy because of where we lived, so I have seen first-hand how provision can vary across the country.
I have had conversations with people from a range of charities who agree that there is a problem not only with patchy SEN provision, but with obtaining good- quality information that would help them to further their cause. Several Members have also echoed those concerns. In order to try to establish for myself what support was available to dyslexic pupils nationally, I tabled a series of parliamentary questions. I received the same uninformative and disappointing answer to more than one of them: that the information is not collected centrally.
The charity TreeHouse has recently published a report on parliamentary questions about autism over the past 10 years. It established that more than 60 per cent. of questions about autism went unanswered, and there would be similar findings for other SENs. That represents a weakness in the Government’s evidence base. TreeHouse concludes:
“We would therefore recommend that the Government commits to a review of the data currently collected on SEN, and in particular considers the need to drill down further to enable access to information about type of SEN which will assist in an understanding of the type of needs there are and help local authorities to plan to meet these needs on a needs driven basis.”
I could not agree with TreeHouse more. In order to improve outcomes, it is imperative that Members can secure proper answers to questions on SEN issues, and I will strive to ensure that Ministers address that, using the provisions in my Bill.
Over the last few months, I have consulted a broad range of organisations. I have also been through reams of recent reports and recommendations from both Government and Committees—notably the excellent Select Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). There are many areas where provision could be improved, a series of specific points which need addressing and a plethora of priorities to be chosen from. However, a private Member’s Bill does not offer us a panacea. I would have liked to propose legislation to ensure that all new teachers are trained to recognise a range of SEN and to provide a degree of specialist support. Dyslexia charities are campaigning hard for that.
Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that there is a particular need for that in postgraduate certificate of education courses? I benefited from that and it stood me in very good stead in 12 years in the classroom, but there are limitations to how some postgraduate courses address the issues we are dealing with today.
I hope we will discuss that issue further in Committee and that Ministers will take it on board. It can be dealt with under guidelines; many Members are pushing for that.
It would also have been desirable to secure a new commitment to having subject-specific SEN specialists in every school who could implement a school-wide strategy for supporting pupils with specific SENs, but I am told that that needs only Government guidelines, not primary legislation. I am happy that the Government appear to be looking in that direction and I hope that the publication of further information will push them one step closer to delivering this level of support in schools for all our children.
What would my Bill provide? The powers laid out in it are twofold. First, it would give the Secretary of State further powers to collect information that he considers will help to improve outcomes for children with SEN, and it explicitly states that that information must be published annually. Secondly, the Bill outlines exactly what outcomes must be monitored. Those outcomes are broadly in line with the Government’s Every Child Matters agenda, and reflect not only educational attainment but emotional well-being, contribution to society and economic well-being. That is a positive step that has not been taken before.
Discussion of what information will be published has been a feature of the debate on issues related to the Bill. After all, there is a whole host of data sets and statistics that account for SEN children in our schools. We have the numbers, we have the ages, we have the ethnicity and we have the types of need for some SEN pupils, but that gives us only a snapshot. Real life happens in real time. By encouraging further analysis of existing data and annual publication of new information, we can build up a moving image that reflects changes in provision for and progress of SEN pupils. We can raise expectations for children with SEN, and therefore raise achievement levels, only by monitoring outcomes. It will be a step in the right direction to record whether children with SEN are happy, safe, enjoying school, achieving personal targets, making a positive contribution to society and, where possible, going on to achieve independent economic well-being. We can then highlight the valuable contribution that children with SEN can go on to make. Dyslexic children, for example, have dynamic and diverse brains, which can achieve tremendous results—we need only think of Winston Churchill, John Lennon or Richard Branson. We can also highlight areas for improvement, and encourage the Government to deliver those improvements.
Wherever possible, we should not increase the burden on our teachers, and I assure Members that that would be a vital consideration in deciding which additional information to collect. We do not want to place an additional restrictive administrative burden on teachers. It seems sensible to use the Ofsted review of SEN in 2009-10 to inform the Government of what new information will be useful in achieving the requirements of the Bill. It might be that some of the information already collected is not fit for purpose and could be replaced by different information. Such tweaks could ensure we do not pin teachers down under piles of paperwork, but obtain information from them that will help to support them in the vital work they do.
The Government’s response of October 2006 to the Education and Skills Committee review of SEN states that all student teachers must
“know how to identify children with SEN and where to seek advice on less common types of SEN”,
and that they must also be able to
“differentiate their teaching to meet the needs of all children, including those with SEN”.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have a unique opportunity this Monday, when they publish their response to our most recent inquiry into SEN, to be positive about what she seeks: knowledge of SEN provision across the country, so that parents know what the level is wherever they live?
Yes, that is a sensible suggestion from my hon. Friend, who is Chairman of the new Children, Schools and Families Committee.
Of which my hon. Friend is a member.
Indeed I am, and I enjoy every moment.
At the moment, more than 24,000 pupils have “other” registered as their primary special educational need. There are more than 500,000 children at school action level whose needs are not categorised, and we can only guess how many children’s needs go unrecognised. We need to ensure that all their needs are recognised and met. We will not be able to do so until teachers are better trained in recognising SEN.
I commend my hon. Friend for her desire to ensure that all teachers have training in recognising SEN. It is particularly important that secondary school teachers have that. In the past, they did not, especially those who did one-year postgraduate courses. That means that when many children enter secondary school they fall through the net if they have not already been identified as having SEN. Will my hon. Friend call for one-year courses, too, to include special needs training?
Yes. That is another very good idea, which we should explore further in Committee.
The Government recognise the needs, to which I referred, in chapter 3 of 2004’s “Removing Barriers to Achievement” report. There is a specific commitment to working with the Teacher Training Agency to improve awareness among teachers of the signs of SEN. The Education (Special Educational Needs) (Information) (England) Regulations 1999—Members may recognise the title—amends the Education Act 1996, just as my Bill would, so we have been here before. The regulations state that schools must provide information on how resources are allocated to and among pupils with SEN, and on how their needs are identified and kept under review, yet parliamentary questions on this issue still go unanswered.
There are further commitments in the “Removing Barriers to Achievement” report that I hope my Bill will bring into sharp focus. For example, is enough being done to develop training? I of course welcome the recent announcement of £18 million of funding to support teachers who want to specialise in SEN, but it would be desirable for money to be found to train all teachers to spot the most common forms of SEN. The report also talks of a new “cadre” of teachers who will become change champions for SEN in schools. Through the framework set out in my Bill, we can predict and provide progress on this laudable objective.
It is my firm belief that the Government are well aware of the major challenges facing schools in delivering SEN provision and are working hard towards meeting these challenges. Indeed, when I first held discussions with colleagues on what could be done to improve available information on outcomes for SEN pupils, it quickly became clear that the Government are on the same page as many campaigners. However, I want this Bill to push things forward. That is why I call on Ministers to extend the current categorisation of SEN under the pupil-level annual school census down to school action level. That would change the status quo whereby only statemented children and children at school action-plus level have their type of SEN recorded.
The latest available figures show that of the 19.2 per cent. of children identified as having SEN, 2.9 per cent. are statemented and 16.4 per cent. are at school action-plus or school action level. Of this 16.4 per cent. of children who have a recognised SEN but no statement, about two thirds are at school action level. Therefore, for almost half of all children identified as having SEN, there is no indicator of what type of SEN they have. For as long as this situation persists, it will be difficult to see the full scale of SEN in our education system. By extending the recording of the type of SEN to school action level, we will place an onus on teachers to identify and consider more carefully the type of need a child has, rather than just acknowledging that the need exists. That would be a bonus to both the work force and pupils. Extending categorisation would provide a clearer picture across the board—for parents, campaigners and the Government.
I welcome the piloting of a census of the education work force. If extended, that would initiate a system that would enable us to monitor effectively the huge range of skills available to children across the country within our education work force. It should also enable accurate recording of the skills possessed by special educational needs co-ordinators. Ensuring that all SENCOs are teachers and that newly appointed SENCOs hold a valid qualification is another step towards improving outcomes that has already been taken, and which should be welcomed. It reflects the promises given in “Removing Barriers to Achievement” and, should my Bill be passed, I hope that consideration will be given to how the work force census can reinforce the delivery and monitoring of support for and eventual outcomes for children with SEN.
I mentioned at the start of my speech that several organisations are very supportive of the Bill, and it would be helpful to draw on some of their comments. The Special Educational Consortium, which represents some 100 member organisations from the charitable and voluntary sector, says that this issue
“is so important, as we can only improve expectations by improving data on children’s progress.”
In its report on SEN, Ofsted made it clear that low expectations are a significant factor in the underachievement of children with SEN. It states:
“Currently there is insufficient information available to adequately identify the scale of SEN within our schools and monitor the effectiveness of the support SEN pupils receive.”
My Bill seeks directly to address this issue, and I hope that those points have helped to reinforce its objectives in the minds of all Members here today.
The statistics show that children with SEN are eight times more likely to be expelled from school, and that young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are twice as likely to have no qualifications if they have SEN. That is a terrible waste of talent, so let us ensure that we can keep an eye on these statistics, and, hopefully, watch them improve.
Should we not include in such statistics, as the Select Committee strongly recommended, information on the number of educational psychologists we train, the ability to access them and whether such access is uniform across the country?
That information is very important, as my hon. Friend rightly says, and it certainly could be monitored within the work force census being piloted.
The Royal National Institute for Deaf People also tells us that many deaf and hard-of-hearing children are not performing as well as they could, but that it has been very hard to obtain the information it needs to tackle areas where there is poor support and underperformance. The Bill would make a crucial difference in ensuring that deaf and hard-of-hearing children’s needs are properly identified, and would encourage more teachers to identify hearing loss in the classroom.
The success of this Bill will not be measured overnight. Monitoring outcomes alone will not make the difference that we need to see. If effective and public monitoring of outcomes can be a catalyst for change and enable us to see outcomes continue to improve, it is then—and only then—that this Bill will be deemed a success. Information will help to pinpoint the patchwork quilt of SEN, but it is action that will make the difference. Putting in place a statutory requirement on this Secretary of State and those who follow in his footsteps to pay special consideration to improving outcomes will trigger that action.
Currently, there is significant regional variation in SEN provision; different local authorities take different approaches. By improving information on the results of these approaches, we can identify and then hopefully roll out best practice across the country. Different local authorities face different challenges, depending on the varied social backgrounds of the local population. I recognise that policy must always be informed and adapted to meet these challenges, but I still believe that this Bill will help to mark out a clear path for progress.
Although the statementing process is the subject of much debate, the variation in the number of children statemented per local authority is not huge—only a few percentage points, in fact. The lowest figure is for Nottingham, at 1.1 per cent., and the highest is for Torbay, at 4.2 per cent., based on figures for where such children attended school. It is important to take into account the fact that the figures may be affected by the number of pupils who are outside mainstream schools, but the fact remains that at a local level, there is a marked variation in recorded incidence of SEN of more than 13 per cent.—from as low as 13.5 per cent. in one local authority, to 27 per cent. in another. There is no doubt that local authority staff are working tremendously hard to meet the identified needs of children; their professionalism and commitment cannot be questioned. This Bill will ensure that they are not working in the dark, with no easy way of identifying what works best.
It is noticeable that the Government’s response to the recent Select Committee report on assessment of and funding for SEN states clearly that the Government intend to equip schools with the data needed to assess whether children with SEN are making good progress. I hope that this commitment can be extended to local authorities. This may appear to put local authorities into competition with each other, but that need not be the case. Pointing fingers will not solve problems, but a helping hand will.
I have, with the good grace of Members here today, been allowed to lay out both the Bill’s immediate effect and my hopes for its implementation. The Government should be commended for delivering consistent progress on special educational needs over the last 10 years. Funding has increased, and SEN issues have penetrated further into mainstream thinking on education policy. I am confident that the trailblazers being run across the country to establish the benefits of specialist support for dyslexic pupils will show the capacity of such an approach both to deliver improved educational outcomes and to save financial resources.
Today, we can come closer to ensuring that special consideration for those with special educational needs is enshrined in statute. These children have identified needs, and I want to help to ensure that we meet them. In January last year, 19.2 per cent. of children in schools had special educational needs—that is 1.6 million children. A strong sector is willing to support these children and their families as they jump through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to secure extra support. I want them to have access to the information that will help to provide that support and that will enable them to campaign for change.
All our children should be able to use the talents they have to reach their full potential and build themselves a brighter future. This Bill will be a step towards that, and I commend it to the House.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on obtaining a high position in the ballot and, more importantly, on her choice of issue—it touches so many people’s lives and hearts. I share her passion for wanting to improve the outcomes for children with special needs and the processes involved for parents, carers and children, by which those improved outcomes might be achieved.
The hon. Lady described her experience as a parent. She was fortunate in managing to obtain speech therapy for her son at such an early age, and she highlighted how provision varies across the country. We will all have been approached by parents and carers in our constituencies who desperately want to achieve the best possible education for their children. I am in touch with a parent autism support group based in Poole, and I have listened to the many concerns of individual parents; a frequent cry is, “Why is it a continual battle?” TreeHouse recently organised an event in my constituency to enhance communication between Poole borough council and this group. A lack of belief and confidence in the local authority emerged from the discussion, and more information might help the situation.
The two Select Committee reports on the matter, which were published in 2005-06 and 2006-07, have made an important contribution to the debate on special educational needs. Many of us feel that whatever role we had to play in the educational system, we had neglected this area over many years. Important issues were highlighted in both the reports in terms of parents’ confidence and the information available to them. I endorse the recent report’s recommendation that publishing provision maps for each area would at least help to inform choice.
Our Government speak a lot about choice for parents and pupils. Parents often feel that they have no choice in the area of special educational needs. It is difficult for parents to make informed choices. When I was Poole borough council’s chairman of education, I was delighted that we had a funded position in the parent partnership services to offer parents what was supposed to be independent advice. Sadly, parents do not have confidence in the independence of that advice—I find that increasingly in my work as an MP. I can only feel that information would help. We need more information at individual level. We need to know what is available and how it is used. I agree that we need to review the data held at individual, school, local and national level.
Ofsted’s latest annual report, which is important at school level, said:
“Where pupils with learning difficulties or disabilities made good or outstanding progress…Effective planning ensured that resources and support were targeted to meet pupils’ particular needs so that their skills and confidence developed at a good pace.”
Teaching assistants were seen as important. Conversely, the report said that where there was gross underachievement in pupils with learning difficulties
“the tasks set were too hard or they were not demanding enough to extend pupils’ skills and understanding.”
In other words, we need the good use of data within the classroom and the school context, and that must be matched up with teacher training, which, as has been said, is important. We must extend that to the training of classroom assistants, who have an incredibly important role to play.
Does the hon. Lady agree that not only the initial teacher training process, but the continuous professional development is essential? Some of the teachers who are in place need such training. Appropriate training modules are available and they are not as expensive as some Ministers fear.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because I agree that that is the case. The Government have committed—I believe in response to the first of the Select Committee’s reports—to provide more continuous professional development. I would like some hard information on that. Is it really happening? Is the supply cover being provided in schools to release teachers to receive that training? That training is essential not only because of the postgraduate certificate of education, but because we also have school-centred initial teacher training—SCITT—and even “Teach first”, where the very talented graduates go straight into the classroom. I would not think that they would be experts across the whole SEN sphere, so such training is vital.
As the Special Educational Consortium, reinforced by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, says, having more information has the potential to improve our understanding of what works, to provide a better basis for the sharing of good practice, to improve our understanding of training and professional needs and to provide a more secure basis for the development of national policy. The Ofsted report of 2004 found that under-expectation was a significant factor in the underachievement of children with SEN and that too little is known about the attainment of pupils with SEN. We know that the RNID is flagging up the incredible statistic that only 32.9 per cent. of deaf children across the board achieve five GCSEs at grades A to C, whereas the average for all children is 57.1 per cent. We need to know more about that underperformance.
I received an interesting representation from a teacher, and as we are all acknowledging that teachers are so important, I should like to go through it. The teacher stated:
“As a teacher with over 20 years’ experience in special education, I know how current legislation inadvertently hinders the development of inclusive provision for all learners. There is currently insufficient information available on the extent of diversity of learners in schools; this means that there is not enough information on pupils identified as having special educational needs and, as a result, provision cannot be effectively planned or monitored. Current statistics available do not even sufficiently record the number of pupils said to have special educational needs…This will have a direct bearing on strategic planning for effective provision”.
The statistics will also obviously inform how the range of teacher training that we have mentioned needs to take place and the development of best practice.
It is pretty obvious that good information is needed to underpin strategy at local and national level. We need to address the individual school, local authority and national levels. The Ofsted report of 2004 said that only a quarter of local education authorities had strong strategic management of SEN and the majority had weak evaluation systems. It is a long time to wait for 2009 and the next big Ofsted report. It is therefore important that this Bill is being introduced today, so that we can start digging in to some of these important issues.
I wonder if I may put to the hon. Lady something that only the other day illustrated to me the failure to understand the significance of the issues with which we are dealing. A well-meaning, but relatively ill-informed councillor, in a part of the country that I will not identify, said to me that he thought that I was, in taking an interest in speech, language and communication needs, championing a noble cause. However, he said, he thought that I should understand that it was already a huge challenge for local education authorities to preserve front-line services, and that provision for SEN had to be considered in that context. Oh, how sad it is when someone is so ignorant.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and he sums up the feeling in the House that not enough attention has been given to special educational needs. Inevitably, there has been a focus on raising standards and achieving the five A-C grades. If a school is making a decision on how to allocate its resources, it can be target driven and may not direct them to where the need is greatest.
Collecting information on school action is especially important. Much funding for special educational needs is delegated to schools, and parents do not have confidence that that money is necessarily spent on special educational needs or the needs of their offspring. Clearer information would help schools to demonstrate that they are indeed allocating funds to the area for which they are designated. We all have a part to play in moving forward the debate on special educational needs, and that is why it is so important that we have excellent champions of the issue on both sides of the House to raise its profile.
The Bill contains two basic proposals that would place a duty on the Secretary of State to collect and publish information on children with special educational needs. Both relate to England. Both duties are focused on information that could help to improve the wellbeing of children with SEN, and such information would have to be published each year. It is important that the information should go beyond educational achievement, and the reference to the five outcomes from Every Child Matters—stay safe, be healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and achieve economic well-being—is very important.
There are so many issues facing children with special educational needs and their families. The bullying and exclusion rates are well documented, so we know that we must address the whole child, not just the educational results. As the hon. Lady said, TreeHouse has just completed research into parliamentary answers on autism over the past 10 years. It was not surprising that the Government were unable to, or have chosen not to, answer many of those questions, because—TreeHouse found—no estimate is made of the information requested or it is not collected; there are no plans to collect the information requested or it is not possible to provide it; records are not kept; data are not readily available; no information is available on the question; or the information requested is not held centrally. That sums up the huge gaps in our knowledge.
It is important that the Bill addresses all types of special needs. I am very interested in the causes of dyslexia and autism, but those are perhaps high-profile special educational needs that, as amateurs, we know a fair bit about, and there are many different types of special needs. The more we learn, the more we find that particular types need a particular approach in the classroom.
I have received a representation from the Joint Epilepsy Council, and epilepsy is a condition that we have not discussed much in our debates on special educational needs. The JEC points out that children and young people with epilepsy routinely experience potential health, learning, behavioural and emotional needs as a direct or indirect result of their epilepsy. One has only to visit a special educational needs school to become aware of that. The JEC believes that the Bill could help children with epilepsy. If the Government were to collect more data on the population of children and young people with epilepsy, it could improve outcomes and education for those with the condition. It is important, therefore, that we ensure that we are covering the widest possible range of special educational needs.
We all know that many schools deliberately exclude children with special educational needs. Many parents support those schools. They may believe passionately that SEN is an important educational challenge, but they may also support schools that do not want SEN children in their midst. It is a real problem that schools today can still exclude poor children, children with special educational needs and looked-after children—and get away with it.
I am in danger of taking part in debates on several issues this morning as I care about so many of them. The hon. Gentleman’s point is right, and parents can have justifiable concerns if behaviour in the classroom makes the situation difficult for all pupils. The answer is not exclusion, but proper provision and support for the children with special educational needs. Exclusion is the quick-fix option.
The hon. Lady has misunderstood my point. The intake of so many schools in the independent sector, or of grammar schools and even faith schools, manages by some mechanism to include almost no SEN children.
That is true. There are great variations in intake and that is then reflected in the results of the schools. We now have admissions policies, in which children with special educational needs should be given fairly high priority, and I hope that the Government will take that into account when ensuring that the admissions policies are followed.
I recently tabled a written question to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families that asked
“how many children aged (a) 1 year, (b) 2 years, (c) 3 years, (d) 4 years and (e) 5 years were identified as having a special educational need in each year since 2001, broken down by local authority.”
The answer read:
“The information requested can only be provided at disproportionate cost.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2008; Vol. 471, c. 176W.]
I have two concerns about that. The first is the mention of disproportionate cost, because it is claimed that this Bill will not require any extra resources. We should be wary of that claim, because it might have cost implications. I would not want us to pass a Bill and raise expectations if resources were not available to match them. But my greatest concern was that I was trying to obtain information on early years, on the basis that early identification, matched with appropriate support or treatment, is crucial.
It is really important for us to know how many children have been identified at age three or age four and all the way through, because we could then track how effective we are at making early identification. We could track how good our early years provision is and the training of early years workers, which is just as important as the other training that has been mentioned. Some special educational needs will be identified only when the child is slightly older, but there are nevertheless a number of conditions, some of which the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) is involved with, that would benefit from specialist early intervention.
We should see any costs in the SEN sector as an investment. If we identified special needs at an early age and intervened appropriately, there would be large savings over years in money spent in the school system, and perhaps even in the prison system.
It is important that we see the measure as a way of raising expectations, by improving information about children’s progress and helping to establish the right infrastructure. We must be wary, however, of raising false expectations. Will data collection bring utopia? I am not at all sure that on its own it could possibly do so. Implementation and teacher training across all courses is all-important.
The special educational needs co-ordinator is important. One of the recommendations of the earlier Select Committee report was that the SENCO should be a member of the senior management team. That is absolutely vital. There can be no working SEN leadership in schools unless the SENCO has status in the school. That person will of course be selected for their leadership qualities. We need a whole-school approach.
Educational psychologists have been mentioned briefly. I have spoken about them quite a lot in Parliament. From my contacts I understand that there is still uncertainty about who will fund training for educational psychologists and how it will be funded. The Government have responded to the concerns that arose from the change in qualifications for educational psychologists and in the training process, but we face the prospect of at least a year when there will be few new educational psychologists coming through the system. There is a sense of insecurity; people have told me that they do not want to go in for that career because they are not sure how their training will be financed. That is serious.
We need to address much more than just data. We must make sure that we are not simply collecting data for data’s sake. We do not want bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake. We do not want league tables to emerge from the process, but evidence-driven policy sounds like a pretty good idea, if we can use the evidence at individual school, local and national level to improve outcomes for all our children with special educational needs.
I give the Bill my support, but I look forward to the Committee, because there is a lot of detail to be teased out to make sure that we have information that is monitored and used so that it leads to better outcomes.
I am pleased to speak in support of the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on securing a high place in the ballot and on developing her Bill and introducing it as she did this morning. Considerable work has gone into the measure and I welcome the provisions and the timeliness of their introduction. I know how passionate my hon. Friend is on the subject of special educational needs—her passion was reflected in her speech, which was heartfelt and compelling.
My hon. Friend said that special educational needs come in all shapes and sizes. I want to focus on deaf pupils and to consider how existing SEN provision affects them. First, however, following my hon. Friend’s speech and interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), I pay tribute to St. George’s Roman Catholic high school in my constituency—a mainstream school that excels in provision for pupils with SEN. About 15 per cent. of the pupils have some level of special educational need and it was the first school in Salford to be involved in the dyslexia- friendly schools initiative. The measures outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West can but help to improve St. George’s—to develop and better the school’s already impressive performance. As we have already heard, it is important that schools such as St. George’s are willing to tackle SEN and not take the easier path of concentrating on pupils with no extra needs.
I am sure all Members agree that SEN is a complex issue. The range in type and extent of special need is wide; different needs require different provision, which is why I want to focus on the needs of pupils who are deaf. There are about 35,000 deaf children in the UK; 90 per cent. are born to hearing parents who have no experience of deafness or knowledge of how to communicate with a deaf child. Until the new-born hearing screening programme was rolled out in 2006, diagnosis in the early years was poor, which meant that deaf children often missed out on crucial opportunities to develop their language and communication skills. The National Deaf Children’s Society says that an undiagnosed deaf child aged three will know only about 25 words, compared with 700 words for a hearing child of the same age.
Lack of information and support after diagnosis has been a problem. If hearing parents with deaf children lack adequate support they will be prevented from making informed choices about how to support their child and communicate with them effectively. The combination of those factors means that deaf children are generally a long way behind their hearing peers when they start school, even if they have similar cognitive abilities, which leads to a big gap in educational achievement.
Fortunately for deaf children in my constituency, the Thomasson Memorial school for the deaf in Bolton, which is a regional resource, is available to them. Every year, a number of my young constituents attend the school, where one of the teachers is another of my constituents—Mrs. Eileen Hosie. I have visited the school, which is in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly). The school is making an excellent contribution to the provision of education for deaf pupils in Salford and throughout the north-west. Many areas do not have such resources, however, which compounds the attainment gap for deaf pupils.
In March 2007, when the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) was a Minister in the Department for Education and Skills, he stated in a Westminster Hall debate that only 32.9 per cent. of deaf children in England achieved five or more A to C grades at GCSE, compared with the then national average of 57 per cent. That is an attainment gap of 24 percentage points. Given that deafness is not a learning disability there is no reason why deaf children should achieve less than their hearing peers of similar cognitive ability. That gap is not acceptable to me.
Those statistics demonstrate the importance of the Bill, because they were the only statistics my office could find on the educational attainment of deaf children. If we do not know that the gaps exist, how can we take appropriate action to close them? I welcome the duty to collect and publish information about children with SEN that the Bill would place on the Secretary of State. It is important for a variety of reasons.
At present, there is little incentive for local authorities to make the provision needed to reduce the attainment gap between deaf and hearing children. By collecting and monitoring information on provision and on outcomes for deaf pupils we could do many more things. We would know about the attainment gap and understand it, so we could start to see where targeted action is needed in schools. We could identify high-performing areas across the country and find good practice that could be shared with other areas. We could assess which interventions were effective in raising the achievement of deaf children. We could improve our understanding of the training required by teachers so that they can communicate effectively with deaf or hard of hearing children. We could give the parents of deaf children more informed choices and enable the public to hold local authorities to account for their performance in the education of deaf children.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West said, the Bill will make a crucial difference in ensuring that the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing children, as well as the needs of those with other special educational needs, start to be properly identified and addressed. Importantly, the Bill will complement the recent progress that has been made by the Government in improving the life chances of deaf children.
The report “Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families”, which was published in May 2007, set out the vision that every disabled child should have the chance to fulfil their potential. Such a vision requires the collection of information for which my hon. Friend is calling. Of course, it was announced in the children’s plan that £18 million would be used to provide better data for schools about the progress of pupils with SEN. That is key.
Furthermore, the roll-out of the new-born hearing screening programme, which I mentioned earlier, will result in the majority of deaf children being identified by the age of six months. That should remove a key barrier to the development of deaf children. There is no reason in principle why the attainment gap for deaf children should not now start to close provided that there is sufficient political commitment supported by a programme of targeted interventions. That is where my hon. Friend’s Bill comes in.
My hon. Friend acknowledged that the Bill does not offer a universal solution. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the National Deaf Children’s Society have both said that rather than effecting change, the collection and analysis of information on SEN will facilitate change. The data will provide these and other organisations with the leverage to campaign for improved policies and to build progress on progress.
My hon. Friend has shone a spotlight on unnecessary underachievement, and I commend her for it. I support her Bill because its measures will help to ensure that every child has an equal chance of success. We cannot continue with a 24 percentage point. attainment gap between deaf children and hearing pupils, and the massive waste of potential that goes with it. My hon. Friend’s Bill will be an important step towards closing that gap, and I hope that we will support its Second Reading today.
As a dyslexic and the father of two dyslexic children, and as secretary of the all-party group on dyslexia and specific learning difficulties, I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on introducing this Bill. She spoke with passion and a real-life understanding of the issues, and she shared her personal experience of SEN with the House. I hope that others will join me in expressing our thanks to her for promoting the Bill. I hope that it will have the success that it deserves.
The charity Dyslexia Action has emphasised the explicit link between unidentified dyslexia and poor literacy, long-term failure at school and limited employment opportunities. That outlook might sound hugely pessimistic, yet it highlights how crucial it is to provide children who have special educational needs with an education system that helps them to reach their full potential. Dyslexia is only one of many specific learning difficulties suffered by millions across the country. As the hon. Lady pointed out, 1.6 million children have SEN. Of those children, 2.9 per cent. are statemented and 16.4 per cent. are not. That illustrates why provision for children with SEN should be a priority for any Government.
Any parent who has experienced the diagnosis of their child with a specific learning difficulty, whether it is moderate or severe, will know how distressing that can be, yet they will also take comfort from the fact that with the right education and support a child with SEN can lead a fulfilling and accomplished life. The Government have made efforts to increase the integration of children with SEN into mainstream schools. The argument is that inclusion will be beneficial to those with learning difficulties. As a consequence, in the past decade about 93 special schools have closed down.
Mixing the education of children with learning difficulties with that of pupils who are, broadly speaking, in the average and above average range can produce positive results. However, for children with severe learning difficulties, the classroom can be an isolating and demanding environment if appropriate inclusion strategies are not followed. Does the Minister accept that it is vital that local education authorities, schools and parents have the relevant data, so that they may see the successes, the failures and where there has been progress? All in all, we need a clear and coherent picture across the board.
As we have heard, LEAs are not required to publish their data on SENs in a standardised format so that they can be brought together to be analysed and compared with the data of other LEAs in order to allow bad practice—and, most importantly, good practice—to be identified. On top of that, the categories into which children with SEN are placed are too broad to be truly effective in allowing us to understand the complex needs of pupils with different learning difficulties. The information that does exist falls under one great umbrella that does not take into account the very specific support and provisions that individual learning difficulties require. For example, a child with autism has a set of needs different from those of a child with dyslexia. Does the Minister accept that there is a common belief among many SEN specialists and charities that the system does not sufficiently take that into account?
Discussions with colleagues in Norfolk have shown that there is certainly agreement that the gathering of SEN information in a way that promotes clarity and transparency would be most effective as a planning tool. I am pleased to announce to the House that Norfolk county council, entirely of its own accord, has already started to collate such data for that reason. I commend the council for doing so.
Initial teacher training is another important issue to bear in mind. Although the Bill does not cover teacher training, does the Minister agree that it is crucial that we should have a joined-up approach to dealing with SEN? We need to have the right information on SEN, but teachers also need the necessary skills to support and guide children with learning difficulties. That is all the more important in light of the Government’s determination to continue their policy of inclusion. What are the Government doing to expand the SEN aspect of initial teacher training? Does the training take into account the different needs of a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and of a child with severe dyslexia, for example?
Children with learning difficulties have a right to an education that considers fully their specific requirements. They should be able to have a fulfilled life because of the education that they receive, and that right should be equal to the rights of more able pupils. I strongly urge the House to support the Bill so that we can achieve that.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on introducing the Bill. I am proud to support her Bill, which is a model of its kind. May I say how disappointed I am that the Press Gallery is not bursting at the seams? We in this House are criticised, rightly, when things go wrong. On days when we consider private Members’ Bills, many hon. Members promote Bills such as this one, which gain support across the House. They do noble things, yet the press are not present to listen. I understand that notable members of the Press Gallery have children with special needs, and it is a shame that the Bill will not reach the wider audience that it deserves. However, I am sure that we will do our best as individuals to ensure that it receives wide approbation in our constituencies.
My hon. Friend has worked tremendously hard to gain Government and Opposition support for her Bill. She has had many meetings, which she has enjoyed, to negotiate with Ministers and others. I shall use that model for my private Member’s Bill once the Government finally decide which Minister is responsible for it—after all, it was published only two months ago.
I have been involved in special educational needs since I was a volunteer assistant at a special school at the tender age of 16. It was as a result of that experience that I became interested in a career in education. As we used groundbreaking drama techniques and trust exercises with the young people, I also became interested in pursuing an educational drama career, which was quite unusual for someone from my school. It was tremendously inspiring and I remember that time well, even though it was many years ago. Since then, special educational needs training and teaching have come on in leaps and bounds, but we have still not done enough. People are still teaching in schools where the necessary information on the children that they are teaching is not gathered, and that teaching is not as good as it could be if we had the right information and could properly target in-house teacher training courses.
I share the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm for the Bill. We have talked a lot about the confidence of parents and children—it is at the core of the Bill—but teacher and staff confidence is an issue as well. I recollect what a challenge it is for a teacher who has had no professional development or initial teacher training whatever in the challenges of autism to be summoned to the head teacher’s office and told that a severely autistic child will join their class the next week. Does she agree that the issue relates to teacher and staff confidence as well as parents and children?
Absolutely. The Government are to be commended for increasing the number of teaching assistants working alongside teachers. If I had had a teaching assistant to work alongside me when I was teaching in middle and secondary schools, my teaching practice would have been so much better. It would have enabled me not just to cope but to teach all the children in my class to their full ability. Secondary school teachers in particular need the kind of help that the hon. Gentleman recommends, because they often miss out. The teacher training that they get is very much subject-based, not child-based. That is a generalisation—it is not so everywhere—but it is, unfortunately, true for many teachers.
Does the hon. Lady share the concern of the organisation Xtraordinary People, which found in a recent survey of 1,000 parents of children with special educational needs that 70 per cent. of those children were not receiving learning support from a teaching assistant with training in dyslexia or any other special educational need?
I have not seen that survey, so I shall just make some general comments. I shall come to definitions in a moment; it is important that we unpick what we mean by dyslexia and special educational needs. I agree that teachers and teaching assistants should have training in those issues, and we need to look closely at whether dyslexia and other special educational needs are recognised in local authorities and teacher training institutions. That is why the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West is so important. Until we have the relevant information, we cannot come to definitions or concentrate on the gaps in initial and continuing teacher training provision.
Information is needed about all aspects of special educational needs. When we discuss the issue in this House, hon. Members, myself included, often use “special educational needs” as a blanket term to cover all sorts of disabilities, and sometimes even abilities, but it refers to many disparate conditions. It includes children with physical disabilities who may be academically able and those with severe or moderate learning difficulties who may be physically able. It is important that we start to consider better categories for use when we talk about the issue, as well as for use by local education authorities and in teaching.
Although there is considerable overlap between the group of pupils with special educational needs and the group of disabled pupils, there are also children with a special educational need who are not disabled and vice versa. I understand that the universities of Bath and Bristol are conducting research, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, on how pupils with special needs can be identified. I hope that the research will inform future policy. I agree with the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) on the broadness of definitions of dyslexia. We need to make sure that we in the House know what we are talking about, but we should also tackle the educational establishment, parts of which still deny that the conditions that we are talking about exist. I was a member of that establishment for 18 years, and I was taken in by that argument at times. It is sometimes parroted by people in that establishment, but that is not thoughtful enough. We need to make sure that everybody is on board and accepts the definitions that the Government will, I hope, bring forward.
The current system does not identify separate learning difficulties; instead it chooses only to class them as either moderate or severe. Without accurate information of the kind that would be provided under my hon. Friend’s Bill, it is impossible to get a firm grip on the scale of the issue. Lumping two groups of pupils together, or any groups of pupils together, is simplistic, and it does the children a disservice. It means that we fall back on emotional arguments about educational provision, rather than looking at what is best for each child within the constraints of the system.
We cannot pretend that there will never be any constraints. Sometimes hon. Members make an impassioned argument for a particular type of provision, but it would result in so much funding being put into one area that there would be a disproportionate knock-on effect on educational funding for other children. We must be realistic. Throughout my involvement in education there has been debate about how much money, and how big a proportion of the education budget, should be spent on special needs. It is right that the debate should continue.
Despite the large real-terms increases in special needs funding in the past 10 years, there will never be enough to satisfy every single parent’s wishes for their children, whatever the colour of the Government. We must be realistic about that. Some special needs places are extremely expensive. One case that I dealt with involved an outside placement costing £96,000 a year. The local authority had to balance the needs of that one child and the child’s family with the needs of all other special needs children in our town, including those in mainstream schools—a difficult task.
I agree strongly with what my hon. Friend says. Does she agree that if a child has particularly large expenses, those expenses should be centrally funded, because there might be a disproportionate number of such needs in one authority and none in another?
I find that an intriguing way forward, particularly as I represent a small unitary authority—as does my hon. Friend, I believe. I would certainly give full consideration to that view, and hope to have discussions with him after the debate.
I want to refer to Baroness Warnock, for whom I have great admiration, although she represents another party. In my teacher training, I spent some time considering her 1978 report, which stated that 20 per cent. of children had special needs. She included children in mainstream schools in that figure. I listened with interest when my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West said that there were 1.6 million children with special needs in this country. Baroness Warnock promoted inclusion, but she has since issued a pamphlet refuting it. It was always the case that some children with special needs were in mainstream schools and others were in special schools. The problem was not solely about where education took place; it was also about its quality. In 1978, some children with special needs were in special schools but not receiving appropriate education that stretched them, and others were in units in ordinary secondary schools and also did not receive the appropriate education. We in the House have to be brave enough to say that we need to look at the needs of the child, rather than the needs of the institution. I do not advocate closing special schools for the sake of closing special schools. I advocate doing what is right for the child.
I want to convey a small point of information. Baroness Warnock is a Cross Bencher, not a representative of “another party”. I am pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes Baroness Warnock’s publication of her new views on special educational needs.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his correction and apologise to Baroness Warnock—I must have inferred from her comments that she was a member of another party.
The Warnock report rightly challenged many assumptions, especially prejudice about the potential of children with special needs. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) identified very well the gap in attainment for children with hearing difficulties and deaf children. It is 24 percentage points. at GCSE level, which is incredible. I suspect that it is the same for other disabilities such as blindness, and it is shaming that we have not examined the matter adequately in the House. My hon. Friend is right to focus on that.
Thirty years after the Warnock report, we still need to challenge assumptions. Many of the children whom we are considering need and deserve a properly resourced place in a mainstream school. Many deaf children would be better off being stretched educationally in a mainstream school, but with properly trained secondary school teachers, as other hon. Members have said. They do not need a return to the prejudice and second-rate provision of the 1970s that Warnock identified. The system that I advocate is based on the needs of the child, not the assumption that mainstream provision is always wrong and special needs schools are always right. It clearly depends on collecting and analysing the correct data—that is why the Bill is crucial. It seems like a small point, but it is a huge matter. We should be able to base our actions on the right information.
The education of all children in my constituency concerns me greatly, and I believe that the measure will be the gateway to improvements that are necessary to continue the trend of improvement that we have experienced in the past 10 years. It is important that special educational needs policy be allowed to develop and that best practice be allowed to flow from that. The Bill will be the oxygen to invigorate the process.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, I am frustrated when I submit a parliamentary question and receive the response, “This information is not collected centrally.” It is disappointing to hon. Members and our constituents. I look forward to tabling questions in future and receiving full and correct information from the Department.
The case for collecting information on the specialist support for children with dyslexia is even more compelling. My hon. Friend and I belong to the all-party group on dyslexia and specific learning difficulties. We know the despair of some of the parents and professionals involved. They are often condemned as fanciful in their belief that dyslexia exists and they are frustrated and angry about that. However, those campaigners need access to the facts. That will enable us all to assess where local authorities are best meeting the identified needs of the children and end the current postcode lottery of provision.
My local authority has a good record on dyslexia, despite being small. However, the information for parents is not there because it is not collected centrally. Some of my local parents are frustrated because when they compare the provision for their child with that in other local authorities, they feel that the provision for their child is not adequate. It is impossible, as a Member of Parliament, to say whether that is true, because we are not collecting the data. Sometimes, parents feel guilty and blame themselves for not fighting hard enough for their child, and we cannot tell them whether that is correct. Again, we fall back on emotion rather than on what is right for the child.
The Bill strengthens the Secretary of State’s power to collect information and will assist in improving outcomes for children with special educational needs. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley, I am pleased that the National Deaf Children’s Society is supporting the Bill. Dyslexia Action also supports the measure. That is important to me and to my hon. Friends.
A big question for parents, teachers, schools and organisations such as Dyslexia Action is the lack of specific information about what is happening to special education in schools. The Bill demands transparency for that complex provision, which is often frustratingly patchy—good in some places, bad in others. I am pleased that Ofsted will examine SEN provision in its review in 2009. We hope that schools and local authorities will be more accountable for detailing the specific provision that is on offer. I hope that the Bill will be law by 2009 so that it will inform the Ofsted report.
It is a great pleasure and privilege to follow the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove), with whom I have jousted constructively in several such debates over a significant period. I am well aware of her background and great interest in the matters that we are considering.
It is also a pleasure for me to be one of the first to congratulate warmly and sincerely the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) not only on her admirable and heartfelt speech this morning, but on all the work, planning and forethought that led up to this important occasion. I was pleased yesterday evening to join her and several colleagues, as well as representatives of interest groups, to mark the Bill, the occasion of today’s debate and the great sense of optimism that her work has produced.
I declare an interest again as the parent of a child with significant special educational needs. My elder son Oliver, who is four, has notable speech and language difficulties and was diagnosed last summer on the autistic spectrum. He is a pupil in central London, where he receives fantastic help in a language unit in what I would describe as a language-rich mainstream school, which is driven by the tremendous commitment, vision and inspiration of the head teacher and his senior staff.
No parent would ever say, “I’m not worried about my child.” We are all concerned about our children. However, I confess that my wife and I feel that we are very fortunate that we managed to identify the existence of difficulties at an early stage, to access help, to secure a placement and to start the process whereby our child is assisted and becomes—this is important—a much happier little boy than he was for a while, or otherwise would be.
My concern is therefore not specifically for my child but for the vast number of children, some of whom I have, of course, like other hon. Members, encountered in my constituency, who simply do not receive the help that they palpably need. With the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho), I work in the all-party group on speech and language difficulties, which I have the privilege of chairing. Some hon. Members will know that the Government asked me to lead a review of services for children with speech, language and communication difficulties, aged from 0 to 19, with a view to publishing an interim report in March and a final report in July, suggesting how best we can take forward provision. I was happy to agree to undertake that task, because we are considering a set of issues that need not be a matter of great party political combat, and about which there is considerable potential for common ground between public-spirited people of all political persuasions and none.
I welcome the Bill because there is a knowledge gap—an information deficit. Too little is known by too many, and that has been the case for too long. That is unacceptable. If the position were to continue, it would represent an abdication of our public responsibility. That is why the fact that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West has identified the problem and proposed a way forward is so welcome.
What do we know? We know quite a lot, and I should like to highlight at this stage that we all know, talk about and celebrate the priority that should be attached to early intervention.
Let us take the field in which I have a particular interest: speech, language and communication needs. A considerable body of evidence shows that early intervention can be hugely effective. Something like 10 per cent. of school-age children suffer from speech, language and communication difficulties. The evidence is clear that, if we identify and help a child with a speech delay or speech impairment before he or she reaches the age of five or five and a half, the problem will be overcome or very substantially reduce and the child will be able to access the national curriculum, opportunities and courses, and fulfil his or her potential.
The corollary is that the absence of early intervention is massively damaging. What are the consequences of the failure to identify, and prescribe and provide for, children with speech, language and communication needs? The answer is fairly harrowing: emotional and psychological difficulties; behavioural problems; lower educational attainment; poorer qualifications; weaker employment prospects; persistent communication handicaps; challenges to mental health; and, in the worst-case scenarios—the evidence is on the record to demonstrate this—a descent into criminality. People who do not get help and suffer from untreated communication disorders are more likely to commit crime, commit it again and end up incarcerated. [Interruption.] I am sure that the point is of great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who is sitting on the Front Bench and is, I think, motivated to intervene.
He was not; he was simply chuntering from a sedentary position. However, I am sure that he takes a close interest in these matters, which are of enormous importance to this country. I would like to think that every Member in the Chamber now is here because he or she is interested in listening to and perhaps making a contribution to the debate, rather than engaging in some other activity.
Let me say what I think is incredibly important. When we talk about information, we do not mean information in a vacuum and for its own sake, but information as the route to knowledge and the mechanism and catalyst for change. Let us take parents; there is a great deal to be said for providing information to them. I am thinking of information given through suitably trained health visitors, general practitioners and teachers, or through children’s centres, local education authorities and individual schools.
I have heard a particular gripe many a time and oft: that parents in my constituency have not been able to request a particular service or a place at a given facility for the simple reason that they cannot ask for something of whose existence they are unaware. I know of an outstanding pre-school specialist facility in my constituency—the Puzzle pre-school, which caters for children on the autistic spectrum. It is run by Alex Stanyer, a woman of almost unbounded talent and commitment. She has told me, so many times that I cannot count them, that even though the local education authority is aware of the existence and record of her provision—it is a voluntary sector provider—it does not tell parents that it exists. That is one example of how we can apply existing duties better. Perhaps the Government need to consider a change in the regulatory environment or the means or frequency of information publication to make parents aware of what can be made available to them as they try to negotiate the Kafkaesque process of securing access to equitable provision.
There is also the question of training, to which I animadverted a moment ago and to which several Members have already referred. I am thinking of the training of the whole children’s work force—not only of speech and language therapists, who work in the field that preoccupies me, or of teachers or head teachers. I also mean the training of learning support assistants and all who are in contact with children. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned different elements of training. It seems to me that there are two elements to the training offer: first, the question of its availability, and then the question of the release of professionals to access it. We all agree that far more needs to be done on special educational needs training—most certainly in respect of initial training, but also in respect of continuing professional development, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) observed earlier. We have to understand that special educational needs training is not an isolated fact, but a continuous process. It has to go on throughout the career of the professional if it is to be of appropriate benefit.
I am horrified that in the modules for initial teacher training the time devoted to special educational needs is lamentably inadequate. Trainees get something like half a day’s induction, which is intended broadly to cover all elements of special educational needs. The hon. Member for South Swindon was right to say that we must not be unrealistic. We cannot expect training modules to inform potential teachers in detail, with great opportunity for practical examples, about every single condition. That is not realistic. I know that there is always great pressure on the teacher training timetable, but far more needs to be done if trainees going into the profession are to be broadly well informed about the range of problems, strategies, devices and sources of support that they can access in the interests of children.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Continuing professional development is key, because of the range of different needs. If a teacher or professional working with children comes across a special educational need with which they are not familiar, they need to be able to access training on that specific need to look after and support the child.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I would like to emphasise this point about the courses. The Government are very conscious of the need to build on their existing work and provide such funding as they can afford to increase training opportunities for people in particular disciplines. That is right, but there are always two sides to the equation. It is one thing for the Government to say, “Here are the resources; more needs to be done in this field, as there is not sufficient training,” but it is another to deal with the situation locally. Potentially, a wide range of courses is available, but we have to think about other things, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole did in her contribution. Is the local authority aware of the importance and potential value of the training? Is there a strategic lead in the local authority? Has the issue’s importance been adequately impressed on the local authority?
We then go down to the school level; the school might not know about the training or recognise its value. Alternatively, the school might say, “It would be good for us to be able to access that training for that member of staff, but we are very hard-pressed and cannot release them as there will be a shortage.” So then there has to be back-up cover, which does, to some extent, cost.
I say to the Minister in the most positive and constructive spirit that, in my view—I do not know whether my colleagues agree with me—this is an area of public policy in which a purely permissive regime is not adequate. It is not good enough simply to say, “This is what is available and we’ll leave it to the individual area to decide whether to pick up on it,” because that means that the child—it is with the child that we have to be concerned—is dependent on whether there is a far-sighted local bureaucrat, head teacher or class teacher. What I am concerned to establish is that there must be, to some degree, an element of prescription. We sometimes need to say, “This is sound public policy; this is what is required, and this is what must be delivered.”
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech with which I strongly agree. He talked about far-sighted local officers. Some officers, indeed probably many, are prejudiced in these matters and refuse to take special educational needs seriously because they do not believe that there is really a problem. Frequently they blame poor teaching or poor parenting, when in fact there is something specific to the child, for which proper support is needed.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That rather underlines the point that there have to be certain safeguards, guarantees and minimum standards.
If I may, I will move on from the subject of training to focus briefly on services. This is not the occasion for a detailed debate about the precise composition of services, but I simply make the point that it is well recognised in the field of special needs that in broad terms there can be said to be categories of provision to reflect categories of need. Some services are, and should be, universally available; others are of targeted application; and others still are specialist in character. Some people with modest difficulties or delays in particular respects can benefit, adequately and more so, from what we call low-dosage, high-volume intervention within the mainstream school and the undifferentiated mainstream class within the mainstream school. Some of those services can even be delivered—if not initially, certainly after a while, and with the benefit of the training that I described—on what we call the consultative model; that is to say that one does not necessarily have to have a specialist present delivering the service, which would be highly expensive use of resources. Some children require something rather more than low-dosage, high-volume assistance—they need targeted help, possibly on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, possibly less, possibly more, and they may be in groups or seen individually. Then there are categories of children and young people who require a specialist service.
I say to the Government that there is a real challenge that, in the review of speech, language and communication needs, my colleagues and I are trying to address, to ensure that we can develop conceptually and then roll out practically a commissioning framework that will allow for joint commissioning between education and health services, and sometimes between education, health and social services, of the provision that is required to cater specifically and adequately to the needs of children and young people who have what we call low-incidence and high-need conditions, and quite severe needs.
We spoke earlier about categories of need. The hon. Member for South Swindon, together with other colleagues, was quick to emphasise that we are not talking about a homogenous category in relation to special educational needs, and she was right to make and underline that very valid point. Let me add to it by saying that there is not only a variation between people with mild delay or moderate difficulty and people with severe difficulty, but a distinction between people who have one problem and people who have several. Some special educational needs children have an identifiable condition that might even be severe but which is easily comprehensible and susceptible to help of a simple and identifiable character. Other children do not have one-dimensional difficulties—they have what we call severe and complex needs that are not one-dimensional but multi-faceted in nature, and they will probably be enduring needs which will require assistance over a very long period.
Over the past few months, I have come across the significance of this issue when visiting institutions around the country. I have visited schools, pre-schools, primary schools, secondary schools and post-16 provision in London, Sussex, Kent, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Manchester, Salford, Plymouth—I am going to Essex next Monday and Norwich on Wednesday—and a host of other places. I have found that there are some admirable services—this relates to the point so powerfully made by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins)—that cater for only a relatively small number of children or young people and which are hugely stretched financially, but the disappearance of which would be a catastrophe for the individuals concerned and for the country as a whole.
Let me give a couple of examples. The Nuffield speech and language unit in Ealing faces a threat to its survival, as does the Michael Palin centre for stammering children, which is the most outstanding centre that one could have the privilege of visiting. There are the ACE—aids to communication in education—centres, which cater to the needs of children and young people with cerebral palsy who require communication aids in order to express their concerns and offer their opinions so as to ensure that their interests are reflected. We can be sure of two things that will happen if those facilities disappear: first, once they have gone they will not come back; and secondly, if they go, we dissipate the expertise and lose the experience, and we no longer have available the teams that can provide training, offer outreach, upskill the work force and provide the specialist assessment and diagnosis that are so often required.
In that sense—this is a completely non-partisan point—I feel that we should not overdo the rhetoric about localism. Localism has its place: in the form of local differentiation because of the characteristics of the area, local discretion, or encouraging local service entrepreneurs to do more, to do it slightly differently or to innovate, it is a healthy phenomenon. However, localism must not become a religion that poisons the well of public provision or causes policy makers nationally deliberately or inadvertently to abdicate responsibility and simply say, “Oh, these are not matters with which it is proper for us to interfere—we are mere Ministers, humble specimens who do not claim expert knowledge. It is a matter purely for the local authority or the primary care trust to determine the configuration of services.” That would be a great mistake. [Interruption.] I am not accusing the Under-Secretary. One sometimes has to say, “This is an outstanding service. It is not a business. It would not survive if it were a matter of commerce, it will probably only ever be required by a minority of children, but it is hugely valuable, it must be maintained, and it needs, if anything, to have its facilities extended—and if that means that it has to be funded centrally by Government, be it a Labour Government or a Conservative Government, so be it.”
Again, I agree most strongly with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There is perhaps a compromise between localism and national provision, with consortiums of local authorities within a region ensuring that these specialist facilities can be provided on a larger scale but will not be too far distant from the children’s families. If local authorities could be instructed by central Government to provide these facilities between them, we could have regional provision rather than national provision.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. What is needed is the opportunity for group purchasing. It may well be that it can be done on a regional or national basis, but it is probably not going to be done in the sort of cases to which I referred purely on an individual authority—still less an individual school or parent—basis. Something much more robust needs to be in place.
I emphasise that the process of helping children and young people in this field is ongoing. Most of the focus has rightly been on children and in particular, to some extent, on young children—perhaps very young children. The Government are right to make a priority of helping a great deal at the early stages, because the evidence supports that. My impression so far is that although there are still significant gaps in provision, and plenty of weaknesses to which we will, I think, be able to point to in our forthcoming reports progress is being made at the pre-school and early primary level.
By contrast, I think it is true to say—we need more information on this as a lever for parents and campaigners to get better services—that precious little is going on in the field of speech, language and communication at secondary level. Far more needs to be done on that. It is not a failure of one Government. It is not a party political matter. It is, frankly, an historic under-recognition, under-investment and under-provision, which has taken place over decades. A great deal will have to be done if those children who have not had the early intervention are not to be isolated, failing, unhappy, stranded children in the secondary sector or beyond.
I referred in passing to the situation post-16. In the worst instances, people can end up committing offences. Somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent. of the 12,000 young people in our young offenders institutions have speech, language and communication difficulties on a scale and of an intensity that prevents them from accessing education or training courses. Yes, we should do more to help those people and not abandon them—I have thoughts on that subject—but even if the Government do not feel that they can put more money into that sector, although I hope that they will, one thing that they could say is, “Wait a minute. Some of the money we are spending on these education and training courses is probably not best spent in that way,” because some of the young offenders attending those courses are attending on what I call a purely tick-box basis, as they are either obliged or encouraged to do so. I have seen them. They are sitting in on the courses, but they do not understand what is taking place. They are not benefiting from the courses, which are not causing them to realise their potential. At least some of that resource could perhaps be devoted to speech and language therapy from which they would derive a recognisable benefit.
Does the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that as well as speech and language difficulties, some young offenders and, indeed, prisoners also have severe and sometimes complex literacy needs? They are often dyslexic but have not been diagnosed.
Indeed. In fact, the statistics on that front are seriously alarming. It is not just expressive speech and receptive language that are the problem; those people can also suffer a much wider set of difficulties.
Hon. Members have referred to the phenomenon of children suffering from autism. We know that children on the autistic spectrum vary greatly, but they all tend to suffer from what is commonly known in the trade as the triad of impairments—lack of social imagination, social interaction and social communication. It is important that we train staff so that we do not continue to experience the problem whereby innocently enough, but very damagingly, professionals in the education sector mistake a disabled child for a disobedient child. When we talk about people on the autistic spectrum being more likely to be excluded from school, let us be clear: that is what is taking place in so many cases. The professionals do not understand that the child is not in any sense a conventionally badly behaved child.
The understanding even of autism, which is a relatively high-profile condition, is too limited. We have to try to stimulate awareness. I was with my young son in a park in central London only a week or two ago. My son has phobias about a number of things, as children often do, and perhaps autistic children do in particular. He is anxious about hand dryers. I have always explained that they cannot do him any harm and are not dangerous, but he hates the sound that they make. When we went to take him to the loo, I said to the park-keeper, who quite properly, has to turn the key and open the loo, “Would it be okay if my son went into the disabled loo?” because I happened to know that it had no hand dryer whereas in the ordinary loo there was one. She looked completely uncomprehendingly at me and at him—I make no personal gibe at her; I am simply making a wider point—and I repeated the question. She said, “But he’s not disabled.” Again, I put it to colleagues that there is an issue of understanding. People often think that to be disabled, someone has to sit in a wheelchair, lack a limb or have a demonstrable and immediately apparent impairment, such as blindness, but children with problems on the autistic spectrum or with speech, language and communication impairments—there is often a close link between the two—can, in some cases, be disabled.
We need a great public debate on special educational needs as a whole. Jim Callaghan initiated such a debate on educational standards in the late 1970s, and it was of enormous benefit to the country in kick-starting issues on the consideration of provision, the adequacy of standards and the need to develop provision further. I would like to have a great public debate on special educational needs in this country, to increase awareness of the issues and to make them very much more important in decision makers’ minds. The challenge is to bring the issues from the back of the minds of Ministers, commentators, policy makers and decision makers to the front of their minds.
I conclude simply by saying that over a period, special needs parents have become more demanding, more insistent and more determined to secure better provision. There will be cost implications, but it is right that we seize the challenge to improve provision in this field and ensure that the issues are regarded as part of front-line services and core provision. Special educational needs must not be relegated to a back room or a subordinate filing tray as though they were of secondary importance. I think it was Winston Churchill who said that one can often judge the quality of a civilisation by the way in which the Government of a country treat their prisoners. That view was right and far-sighted, as so often with that great man, for its time. If that is true in relation to the treatment of prisoners— and it is—it is true also of the way in which we treat, cater to and care for children with special educational needs.
Whatever else the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West achieves in the course of her parliamentary career, which may include ministerial office of high distinction—I do not know—I wish her well on her journey. However, I do not think that she will do anything more just, more noble or potentially more appreciated than what she is doing now.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who made an interesting and moving speech.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on her success in getting the Bill to this stage. It is the first big hurdle. Should this and further hurdles in Committee be cleared, as we hope they will be, and the Bill become law, she will be able to reflect in the years to come that she made a great difference to the lives and aspirations of children with special needs and their families. I know that my hon. Friend and her researcher Jonathan have worked extremely hard to get to this point. Having been elected in the same cohort, and now both appointed to the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, I can testify that she never misses an opportunity to lobby on these issues, but that she always does so with a beaming smile and much grace, be we friend or political foe. It is only right to share with the Minister and hon. Members the fact that in her early career she was a majorette—not only does she have nifty footwork but what she cannot do with a baton is nobody’s business. The Minister should be aware of that and help her to achieve her goals. I can think of no more committed Member than my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West to guide the Bill through the House, and I pay tribute to her outstanding dedication and boundless enthusiasm on this as on all other subjects.
I know that many Members wish to speak, so I will keep my contribution short and sweet, just like the Bill. Although the measure is small—it has just two clauses—its effects will be enormous. At the national level, the new information that is gathered can be used to influence policy and long term-planning, as well as to help us to monitor their effects. Last week, the Select Committee heard evidence from various statisticians and educationists, who all agreed that additional data, particularly data sets on SEN and a number of other categories, would be hugely useful, especially in assessing the progress of pupils and the relative success of different types of school systems, which is a subject of great debate at the moment.
In addition, the Bill will assist with teacher training, planning and delivery, as has been said. The Training and Development Agency for Schools—I shall call it the TDA, as we are reducing our words—has recently published its SEN training strategy, most of which is to be applauded. However, as has been said, it is lacking in the area of postgraduate teacher training. A former postgraduate teacher myself, I well remember the inadequate training I received for SEN teaching—albeit that we had a whole three Wednesday afternoons, so perhaps we were quite advanced in Birmingham at the time. But the training merely paid lip service to SEN.
My first position was in inner-city Birmingham. I taught a class of 38 nine-year-olds, so hon. Members can imagine the disparate needs and abilities in the classroom. That was perhaps my greatest challenge—surviving the first year was character-building—and on many evenings I went home completely distraught, as I felt I had not been able to do my job properly as a result of inadequate training. There was also a lack of training in the job, but that has since changed significantly. Of my cohort of postgrad teachers, we lost nearly half in the first two years, which was heartbreaking.
Although there have been improvements since then, the issue still requires lots of attention. Information that will be gleaned as a result of the Bill’s introduction will help to encourage wider training in this area, or at least make it easier to make the point to the agency. The profile of children’s disability is changing. Many children are born pre-term, giving rise to complex SEN problems that we have not previously encountered. The profession does not always have adequate teaching and learning strategies to hand to provide effective education for those pupils, let alone register their attainment. I am particularly concerned about pupils with foetal alcohol syndrome, which is estimated to affect between one and three of every 1,000 live births. That means that 28 babies are born each week in the UK with FAS. That is a conservative estimate, because the syndrome is not always recognised, and there is a lack of diagnostic expertise. Some 7,500 babies a year are born with FAS.
I applaud my hon. Friend for raising the issue of foetal alcohol syndrome, which is something in which I have considerable interest. She mentioned the number of babies born with FAS, but there is evidence, too, of a wide spectrum of problems. The total number of children damaged by alcohol in the womb may be higher than that for all the other birth defects put together.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know about the cases that are diagnosed: children born with FAS constitute the largest group of children with non-inherited disabilities, and their number is growing in the UK. At least with the Bill in place, we will be better able to plan, train and develop, and ultimately improve the outcomes for those children.
The Bill will be useful, too, at the regional and local authority level. My local authority, Dudley council, faces a £3 million overspend on children’s services. The leader of the council and the portfolio holder both attribute that to the growing number of children with special needs who require special assistance and education, often out of the borough. Many of those cases are at crisis point, which would be mostly avoidable with decent planning, based on the information that the Bill will bring to our attention. Knowledge of the numbers of children affected, as well as of the types of SEN, will assist such authorities in better planning so that there is less crisis management.
At the school level, experts across the sector agree that there is insufficient information available to determine the scale of SEN in our schools or to monitor the effectiveness of the support that SEN pupils receive. The Bill is the first step in equipping schools with the data they need to assess the progress of children with SEN and the effectiveness of individual schools’ support and strategy. At national, local and school level, improved information has a part to play in improving outcomes for children with SEN. As the Royal National Institute for Deaf People states in its briefing, the Bill has the potential to improve our understanding of what works; raise expectations; provide a better base to evaluate projects and progress; provide a secure basis for sharing good practice; improve our understanding of training and development needs; and provide a more secure basis for future national policy.
Raising expectations is key for all children, but for children with SEN it is vital if we really do desire better outcomes. We can improve expectations only by improving our data and information on the children’s progress. That is the cornerstone of improving the outcomes for children with SEN so I, too, commend the Bill to the House.
I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on introducing the Bill, and on her powerful contribution, which was informed by her personal experience, as has been the case with the speeches made by a number of hon. Members.
I speak for my party on issues relating to disabled people, but the Opposition will be ably represented today by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), and we will hear from her later. There is general unanimity in the House in support of the Bill, which makes me wonder why the Minister did not find an opportunity to slip the proposals into one of the other Bills going through the House. I hope, however, that in his winding-up speech, he will lend the Government’s support to the hon. Lady’s Bill, which will see it into, and through, Committee, and back into the House.
I suspect that we all have a considerable amount of constituency experience of these issues. In the Forest of Dean, I know from my visits to primary and secondary schools that they all have a significant number of children with special educational needs, and cater for them in mainstream provision. We also have a very good special school, Heart of the Forest community special school, which deals with children with more complex needs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) pointed out, some children need extra and more intensive provision, and the range of provision at that special school is very welcome.
My hon. Friend also referred to the potential clash between localism and central direction or prescription. I am in favour of plenty of local direction and local provision, but, as my hon. Friend said, many organisations in this field want a set of national minimum standards entitling everyone to a certain level of provision and the opportunity to improve what is provided locally.
Information is a powerful tool for ensuring that local decision making leads to better provision. The more parents of children with special educational needs know about what is available in other areas, the more they are able to put pressure on the democratically elected representatives in their local authorities to improve services, by asking, “If this service exists in that area, why doesn’t it exist here?” That is one of the important things that the Bill will do. Information is not the outcome that we seek, but it is the route to better outcomes for children. We shall not be happy if the Bill is passed and all that results is a lot of statistics and information, while nothing happens in the classroom and there is no improvement in provision. Information is a tool to drive up provision.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned the cost implications. The Government should establish what information is and is not already collected and useful, and devise a more integrated strategy for collecting it across the country so that it is available to Ministers and local authorities, and also—just as important—to parents and members of the public.
Several Members have mentioned the importance of training, not just for teachers but for everyone involved. I will not labour the point, because I raised it in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, but continuing education is key. Talking to parents about their children’s needs reveals that those needs can be incredibly diverse. Staff in a small primary school may not perceive every special educational need, because it is not possible to train people to do that at the outset. They must of course be aware of the existence of such needs, but if a child arrives at the school with a particular need, there must be enough flexibility for them to have speedy access to training so that they can support the child from day one.
Other Members have mentioned TreeHouse. A few weeks ago, I visited TreeHouse school to see some of its excellent work. I have also read TreeHouse’s research on parliamentary questions about autism. As several Members have observed, the trend in the number of questions shows—in this and many other areas—that there has been increasing interest in the subject over time, but there are a good many “missing answers”. I am sure that the answers that have been given are genuine, but when I read, “The data have not been collected”, “No estimates have been made”, “The information is not held centrally” or “The information is not available”, I cannot help feeling as though I am reading volume one of “The Ministerial Guide to How Not to Answer Questions”, paraphrased beautifully by TreeHouse.
As TreeHouse points out, the questions are being tabled not just to the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families but, increasingly, to a range of Departments. It is important to ensure that understanding of special educational needs exists across government and the public services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said, that does not apply only to education. If we do not do a good job in this area, there may be implications for the Ministry of Justice in relation to prisons and the criminal justice system.
Some of us have been lobbied about underachievement among deaf pupils, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley). I have discussed the subject with the RNID, which is pushing for an improvement in information as a catalyst for improvement in services and educational outcomes for children with hearing impairments.
I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said in his powerful speech—informed by his personal experience and that of his son Oliver— about the importance of early diagnosis and intervention. When I visited TreeHouse, I was given a report on the economic consequences of autism, funded by the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities. I was struck by the fact that the lifetime cost of providing for someone with high-functioning autism is estimated at £2.9 million, not including the cost of informal care provided by families. For someone who also has a learning disability, the lifetime cost could be as high as £4.7 million. It would be interesting if the Government were to make a proper financial assessment. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham talked about the effectiveness of early diagnosis and early intervention. Investment up front will pay for itself financially over time but, more importantly, as he said, it will have a human impact on both the child and their family.
What my hon. Friend has said about the work of TreeHouse is right. I visited TreeHouse and it provides an outstanding service. In making the point that he has just made about spending to save and avoiding long-term costs, does he agree, go slightly further and acknowledge that, making a priority of special educational needs provision, is not a question of being compassionate or altruistic? It is a question of doing what is right both for the realisation of the individual potential of the child and for the maximisation of the benefit of their potential contribution to the success of our work force and our country.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There are two ways of looking at this. There is the human side—making sure that we enable people to reach their own potential and maximise their own capability—but there is a sensible reason for society to do that. A significant number of people want to be in the work force and to contribute, but they are unable to do so because of the lack of opportunities that they had early on, and the fact that those opportunities continue not to be available. It is not just in their interests but in all our interests to ensure that we give them those opportunities. If the Bill can be a catalyst to produce the information, to drive forward the debate and thereby to improve the services available, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West can rest content that, as my hon. Friend said, whatever else she may achieve in her career in Parliament, this achievement at a relatively early stage will mark her out as having done something significant.
I am pleased to be able to support the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on introducing it and on her great wisdom in coming so far up the ballot list. I also pay tribute to her enthusiasm and ongoing commitment to improving educational outcomes for children generally and for children with special educational needs in particular.
I, too, have a personal interest in the matter, although it is not perhaps quite as direct as my hon. Friend's. My sister has been a special educational needs teacher for about 25 years and, like my hon. Friend, she never misses an opportunity to champion the needs of her pupils and to tell me what the Government must do to improve matters further.
I was a member of the Education and Skills Committee when it carried out a major review of special needs education in 2006. The first sentence of the summary of the report states:
“One of the key issues in making provision for children with special educational needs is ensuring that parents have confidence that professionals are genuinely seeking to provide appropriate support for their children”.
To achieve that confidence, of course, parents need to have better information about the educational outcomes achieved by their children and how that relates specifically to the support available to them. Providing that information is exactly what my hon. Friend’s Bill seeks to do. A strong theme of the report is that there is not enough information in the public domain to enable comparisons of provision and support and how they impact on SEN children to be made across local authorities and nationally.
The Committee carried out detailed visits to a number of schools throughout the country. We saw examples of best practice in a wide range of authorities as diverse as Essex and Darlington. Darlington had the only education village that we visited. A number of professionals in the field suggested to us that that was a model of best practice and that it signalled the way forward for SEN education. I agree, and I pay tribute to two people and two schools in my constituency—Joan Sjøvoll of Framwellgate school and Julie Connolly of Trinity school—for putting forward a proposal for Durham city to have an education village that is not only science focused, but has a special school integrated into the plan. If Treasury Ministers are listening, I would like them to fund that proposal. Before concluding that that is the best way forward for special needs education, however, we need to know that the strategies adopted by the village are reflected in improving educational outcomes for the children involved.
I am sure that what is taking place in Durham is effective for the youngsters and parents who live there, but will the hon. Lady also say something about the needs of those in rural areas with SEN? There should be appropriate levels of assistance for the youngsters and their parents who live in rural areas, but that is sometimes forgotten.
I agree. Part of my constituency covers a rural community, and I hope that the needs of the young people who live there will be incorporated into the education village through better transport.
The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is important and we hear a lot about it from parents in rural constituencies, but may I put a slightly different point to the hon. Lady? We often talk about people going to access services, but we have to accept that some families who might be afflicted by a vast range of problems will not go to help, and therefore help must go to them. I have encountered many such families in recent months. That underlines the importance of effective outreach provision.
I accept that point. There are examples in my constituency of children’s centres reaching out through their outreach work to such people. May I also in passing pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his undoubted expertise in this area, which the House and the country at large benefit from?
In their detailed response to the Select Committee report, the Government acknowledged that it highlighted the need for better use of data on children’s progress by schools. It was also stated that parents needed to be able to access good information, as well as good support. The Committee also suggested that it is necessary to improve accountability, so that parents can assess their children’s progress and the outcomes they achieve. There was also an acknowledgement that Ofsted has urged more effective use of data in setting appropriate and suitably challenging expectations for children with SEN and in tracking their progress. I hope that the Bill will contribute to that.
Better use of data is at the heart of school improvement and should also be a key part of the evaluation of services. The Government acknowledged that in their response to the Select Committee report. They said that they needed to improve accountability regarding the outcomes that children achieve, as well as improving provision for children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, and with autism. Members have mentioned today the need for services to be more focused on the latter category.
The Government said that the Department for Education and Skills, as it then was, would need to take forward the inclusion development programme from 2006-07 onward, and that it would hopefully transform the understanding of SEN and disability in schools and significantly improve earlier identification and intervention. They mentioned the need to do this specifically in the areas of speech, language and communication needs; dyslexia; autistic spectrum disorders; behavioural, emotional and social difficulties; and moderate learning difficulties. However, I contend that it will not be possible to measure whether the Government have taken these steps forward unless more information is available and is put into the public domain to enable a proper assessment of the strategies.
We know that we need better use of data to track progress and to evaluate services correctly, but we must ask ourselves why we are doing this. It is not about putting information into the public domain for the sake of the information itself, but about knowing which approaches work best for specific difficulties. Parents want to have a better understanding of the needs of their children with special educational needs, what is being done to meet them and how effective those approaches are. This Bill will assist us in securing not only more help for parents and better and targeted support for young people, but, most importantly, for SEN pupils themselves.
The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) was entirely correct in saying that early intervention is the key to securing better outcomes for all children with difficulties, but particularly for those with special educational needs. When I started teaching in a university more than 20 years ago, nobody mentioned dyslexia or, indeed, any learning difficulties. There were no diagnostic tests or special measures in place to support students with reading difficulties in particular. It is a measure of how our discussion of this issue has moved forward over the years and how our services have improved that such measures are now fairly standard in universities and colleges throughout the country. However, it is a failure of our system that someone can get to university or college before having dyslexia diagnosed; it will have impacted negatively on their life chances along the way. I therefore really want to push the Government for early intervention and proper measures to show us how the life chances of children with special educational needs can be improved.
I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on promoting this excellent Bill. I was particularly delighted when she invited me to sponsor it, which I am very pleased to have done.
Special educational needs is an issue that has always required more serious attention, but only recently have I had serious problems with my own local authority regarding such matters. My hon. Friend’s Bill will make a significant advance, and I hope that the Minister will take it forward, that the Government will help it on to the statute book, and that they will move on from there and make better SEN provision for all our children.
My interest in, and concern about, SEN goes back a long way. I am certain that I went to school before anyone else in the Chamber. I started primary education in 1946. [Hon. Members: “Never!”] Hon. Members flatter me, but that is the truth. I went through school not being chastised, but I remember lots of my school chums being frequently chastised in a fairly brutal way—rulers were used on the back of knuckles; that was commonplace in those days, but I am glad to say that it now illegal. Looking back, it is clear that several of my friends had special educational needs—behavioural problems, dyslexia and learning difficulties—for which they were being punished. Later in life, I read the Victorian satirical novel “Erehwon” by Samuel Butler. He portrays a world in which the fortunate are rewarded and the unfortunate are punished, and that is precisely what happened in my primary school. Some hon. Members may say that I have difficulties, but I did not have behavioural difficulties and I did quite well at school—I only started to misbehave when I came to this Chamber, as the Whips will confirm. There is no question but that what happened at my school was cruel. There was no recognition of what were obviously special educational needs.
I move on to the iniquities of the 11-plus. I was fortunate enough to pass it, but several of my friends, who were very bright, actually failed it. Later in life they did very well, and they discovered that they had failed it simply because they were dyslexic and could not spell. My closest friend is a highly intelligent man—he is a lecturer in social sciences and a fine man in every way—but he is dyslexic. Believe it or not, he used to win the English prize when he was at school, despite his dyslexia. He used to write an essay in his own dyslexic language and then spend hours going through it word by word with a dictionary to ensure that he spelt everything correctly. Sometimes he could not spell a word even then, because he could not work out what the second letter was—one needs to be able to do that when one is looking at a dictionary. He struggled but he got through.
The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) alluded to his own dyslexia and the fact that his sons are dyslexic. There used to be an assumption that we were all born with equal abilities and that what happened after that was purely environmental: if one’s child could not spell it was somehow to do with parenting, teaching and so on. We now know that there are inherited characteristics in some of these matters. There is certainly strong evidence to show that a degree of inheritance is not uncommonly involved in dyslexia; as the hon. Gentleman says, his sons are dyslexic too. These factors are starting to be recognised, but there are still those in local education authorities who do not recognise that some disabilities need to be treated individually, sensitively and properly.
Even today, special educational needs are still prone to a range of presumptions and prejudices that we must set to one side. I taught A-levels in St. Albans—as one can imagine, not too many people doing A-levels there have special educational needs—but my wife was a primary school teacher in a much more deprived area. She was a special needs co-ordinator in her school before she retired. She used to identify children as having problems early on, and she would tell the local authority that certain children needed to be statemented. She was not making prejudicial decisions to exclude children—she saw that they needed support and that they needed statementing. The LEA would take months, if not years, to do the job because it meant extra cost and because some people did not really believe in special educational needs.
Let me discuss one experience that my wife had. I can speak safely about this now because it took place in her previous education authority, before it became a unitary authority—we were in Bedfordshire. The special needs adviser from the county came down one day to look at a particular child. He said to my wife, “Well, Mrs. Hopkins, it is quite simple. You have to give him one-to-one teaching.” She said, “I have a class of 34 children, how can I do that? I can’t do one-to-one because there is no resource.” This was before the increase in classroom support.
Many of us believe that local authorities are in an unacceptably powerful position as the bodies that assess, decide on, pay for and—for the most part, through in-house services—provide the services that SEN children are designated to receive. Given that the Children, Schools and Families Committee—then the Education and Skills Committee—produced a compelling report in summer 2006 that, among other things, recommended a separation between the assessment of need and the funding of provision, and that we await the Government’s reply to a follow-up, even more detailed report, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is something to be said for that separation, so that the in built conflict of interest is removed?
In an earlier intervention, I suggested that funding for children with serious special needs should be provided centrally, so that expense would not influence the decision of the local authority officers.
To finish my anecdote, the special needs adviser for the county visited the school to speak to my wife. My wife had said that she could not provide one-to-one teaching, much as she would love to do so, with a class full of kids, so the adviser said to her, “Oh well, Mrs. Hopkins, I’ll have a word with him and try to do a bit with him myself.” Half an hour later, he came back and said, “Mrs. Hopkins, I can do nothing with him.” That was the special needs adviser from the county authority. My wife asked whether the child needed statementing, and a year later he was statemented and went to a special school. The resistance of the education authority on the grounds of cost, and sometimes prejudice, was clearly evident.
In my early days as a Member of Parliament, I had a tense relationship with the senior education officers in the new unitary authority. Fortunately, they have now moved on so I can speak a little more freely about them. We had a difference of view. Schools in privileged areas want to exclude all children with difficulties because they like nice, bright, university-bound children to teach, and do not want to worry about the rest. On the other hand, some people, for the best of motives, want blanket inclusion, although that may not be the right course. I had three cases in which the authority refused point blank to contemplate giving a place in a special school to children with serious behavioural problems who clearly needed that place. It took a long time, involving the media, before the authority relented. I know that some of those children are now doing very well in special school provision.
I supported the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), who has a strong view about the need for special school provision, and I spoke in her debate a year or so ago on the issue. We have campaigned together on it. I do not suggest that all children need to be excluded, but neither do I suggest that all children can be left in mainstream schools without proper support. Children have a range of needs, and the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made that point very powerfully. One has to look carefully at the specific needs of every child. Some of them are simple, and some are complex, but all relate to that particular child. Provision needs to be made for those specific difficulties, sometimes through special schools.
The hon. Gentleman is making a characteristically powerful speech. What really worries me and, I suspect, many hon. Members is that access to what is required for a child is dependent on ability to pay. My sense is that if parents are educated, articulate, not completely broke, willing to joust with authority and capable of writing a letter, they will in the end probably get what their child needs. The people who trouble my conscience are those who are possibly afflicted by all sorts of problems, not necessarily educated, may not have the willpower, have other issues weighing them down, do not know where to go and cannot get help. They may not go to SENDIST—the special educational needs and disability tribunal—and if they do, they are up against a resourced local authority that can crush them. That is not on, is it?
The hon. Gentleman makes the point powerfully. I have had precisely the experience he describes. I meet parents who are not used to dealing with the highly educated chief education officer and the clever correspondence they receive. They are not letter writers so eventually they come to see me, as their MP, and I fight their corner because MPs have the resources and abilities to do so. Even then, however, there are difficulties because sometimes there is an almost ideological commitment to inclusion. Anybody who is against inclusion is regarded as an enemy—as I was when pursuing some cases, although I made my point and won in the end. I believe that some children need special provision that is not found in a mainstream school.
Another proposal, which has been piloted in my constituency and which I strongly support, is to set up inclusion units in schools, especially in secondary schools. When there are serious behaviour problems in the classroom youngsters can go to the inclusion unit where they are given one-to-one tuition for two or three days until they have settled down and can return to mainstream classes. The system works brilliantly, but the problem is that such units are not available in every school and some of them have time-limited funding. Accepting that such units are necessary in many of our schools would be a tremendous advantage not only to youngsters with special needs but also to the teachers and the other pupils in the class who suffer from the stress and disruption sometimes caused by children with special needs.
We need to look at inclusion not just in education but throughout the rest of the child’s life. One of the things that struck me powerfully about the SEN provision at some of the special schools in my constituency was that although it may have been separate it ensured that the child was better able to be included for the rest of their life, because they had been given the skills to succeed.
Indeed. I agree. In fact, there is so much agreement this morning that there is almost no need to make some points. However, I hope that I have made some points that other Members have not made and that will be useful in promoting the Bill.
We have to acknowledge the need for some special schools that are finely tuned to specific needs. We need inclusion units when children who are rightly in mainstream schools have behavioural problems and may need additional help. We also need the resources to back up that provision. I ask my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench to support the Bill and to make sure that resources will be forthcoming so that every child, whatever their needs, is properly catered for in a civilised society.
I join all the other Members in the House today in congratulating the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on presenting her private Member’s Bill. It has spurred on an incredibly constructive and useful debate, which will, I am sure, be the start of many more.
The hon. Lady spoke with passion and conviction. She painted a vivid picture of the reality of the problems faced by the parents of children with special educational needs and highlighted the importance of all those children reaching their potential. I congratulate her on her courage in bringing her personal experience into the debate. The support she has received from both sides of the House is—as she said to me in a quick note yesterday—because so many of us share similar experiences of special educational need, either through our constituency work or through our families.
In my Basingstoke constituency, I know of the incredible work of parents, support groups and teachers. They work tirelessly for the support that their children require if they have particular special educational needs. The hon. Lady made the important point that her Bill should not be an additional burden on schools; we should rationalise the data that are collected and focus on what will create a real difference in helping children with special educational needs to do better in the classroom. The hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) picked up on that point when she said that we cannot continue to let children fall through the net.
A number of hon. Members spoke about the scale of the problem that we face. The hon. Member for South Swindon talked about the problem of interpreting that scale given the diversity of special educational needs and—these are my words, not hers—the unsophisticated way in which they are assessed by what she called the establishment. I take it that she meant the teaching establishment.
We know from the briefing notes that we have received that the issue is not marginal. The problem is experienced by one in five of the total school population. There are clearly concerns about under-reporting, and the Bill will help with them in some way. As the Government’s SEN strategy said in 2004:
“Every teacher should expect to teach children with SEN – and we must ensure that they are equipped with the skills to do so”.
Today’s debate would suggest that we have a way to go. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge in his response that there is still room for improvement.
We have also heard from hon. Members about the human cost of undiagnosed or incorrectly supported special educational needs. The hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) highlighted the significant attainment gap experienced by deaf children and how unacceptable that is given the nature of that special educational need. I was concerned to hear that the gap between deaf children and those with no special educational needs was 24 percentage points. Other hon. Members talked about the economic costs of undiagnosed special educational needs. The Minister will leave the debate with a clear message that hon. Members from across the House feel that the situation cannot persist.
The Bill is simple and straightforward. It plans to collect and publish information about outcomes for pupils with special needs and to place a spotlight on the quality and efficiency of special educational needs support that is delivered in schools and by local authorities. The type of data is key. An avalanche of data is available, but it is clearly not providing what is needed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) speakes on disability for the official Opposition, and so he speaks with a great deal of knowledge. He talked about the importance of information in driving up local standards. That was a good point, which we will need to consider when we look at the detail of the Bill in Committee. If we are trying to assist children and get the right support in classrooms, we need to ensure that those children are correctly supported in a way that will allow parents to understand what is available in schools and how they can get the best support for their children at a local level.
The Opposition will support the Bill, because it will help parents to make better choices for their children. Importantly, it will highlight the gap between what we talk about in Parliament and local authorities and the reality of what is delivered on the ground, which we all know about as constituency MPs. We need to use the data that are collected to ensure that resources are focused where they matter—in the classroom.
Unsurprisingly, the Bill has received a high level of support from many organisations. They have praised the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West for her campaigning work and for promoting the Bill. Dyslexia Action said:
“The Bill promises useful information that will help determine the state of affairs re SEN and give parents the clarity and evidence to help them secure support for their children”.
The hon. Lady has also received support from the Joint Epilepsy Council, the RNID, the National Children’s Bureau, Xtraordinary People—a group that campaigns for dyslexic children—TreeHouse and many other groups. She is to be congratulated on the tremendous work that she has put into galvanising bodies to provide that amount of support.
To focus the Minister in his response, I should like to quote from the briefing that TreeHouse sent to Members before this debate:
“It is hard to imagine how the government can have a strategic approach to autism, or other special educational needs, without holding SEN-specific statistics. TreeHouse therefore fully supports the SEN (Information) Bill and recommends that the government commits to a review of the data currently collected on SEN.”
It is surprising that those basic data are not in place, particularly as the Government have made many announcements over the past decade on special educational needs. Indeed, in the past 10 years, five out of six Secretaries of State for education have made significant announcements on special educational needs.
They are fine words indeed, but Members who have taken note of those announcements might be forgiven—I hope that the Minister will forgive me—for feeling that listening to and rereading those announcements is a little like “Groundhog Day”. In 1997, in the Government’s Green Paper “Excellence for all children”, the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), pointed out the importance of early identification and said that by 2002 there would be a clear structure for teachers’ professional development in special educational needs.
The Labour party’s 2001 manifesto also mentioned, quite rightly, the importance of identifying children’s special educational needs earlier. In November 2001, the special educational needs code of practice was presented by the then right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, now Baroness Morris of Yardley. The code of practice again pointed out the importance of teacher training to meet SEN children’s specific learning needs.
By February 2004, in “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) again said that all teachers needed to have skills, confidence and access to specialist advice where necessary in order to help children with special educational needs reach their potential, and that data and training needed to be improved.
In October 2006, the national programme for professional development under the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) reiterated the need for continuing professional development and mandatory training for special educational needs co-ordinators. Last but by no means least, in December last year the present Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families reiterated in “The Children’s Plan” the importance of specialist training, better data and, this time, consultation on regulations regarding the training of SENCOs.
My hon. Friend offers a formidable list of public commitments not yet fully honoured. I put it to her that the forces of inertia are always powerful. To translate aspiration into reality, constant and remorseless upward pressure is needed; perhaps we are starting to get some. Does she accept that one other problem of the system is simply that not enough is known about the outcomes that will flow from particular policies? There is too much preoccupation with making a commitment and putting in the funding, and not enough consideration of what realisable difference has been made.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has made my next point for me. The Minister will take my comments in the constructive spirit in which they are meant, but it is not a question of making pronouncements on the issue; it is about putting the procedures and processes in place to ensure that those important ideals are carried through into the classroom, and to secure the outcomes that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West seeks—data and positive reassurances that the policies are a success on the ground.
The Bill is a clear and straightforward document. It states that it wishes to secure
“in particular, the provision of special needs information which would, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, be likely to assist the Secretary of State or other persons in improving the well-being of children in England with special educational needs.”
However, the type of data is key. An avalanche of data has already been collected but, as has been said, it does not help or inform us as much as we need. Several critical pieces of information that directly affect outcomes for pupils with special needs, could be collected and published, and would place a spotlight on exactly what the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West wants: better delivery for children in the classroom. I hope that the Under-Secretary will comment on that in his response.
I want to consider three matters, which I hope we can consider in Committee. The first was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), who gave me a note to say that he has unfortunately had to leave the debate early because of a pressing constituency engagement to visit two schools, which have recently been awarded specialist school status. He sends his apologies for not being here. However, he mentioned the importance of giving teachers the skills to support children with special educational needs and of taking into account children’s very different learning needs. I therefore suggest to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West that we should ascertain whether there are ways of including in the Bill a provision for detailing the availability by school of data on teachers, classroom assistants or SENCOs who are trained to identify special educational needs early or, indeed, to teach children with special educational needs.
In 1997, the Green Paper “Excellence for all children” clearly stated that there should be a structure for teachers’ professional development in SEN. In 2004, the Government stated:
“Every teacher should expect to teach children with SEN and we must ensure that they are equipped with the skills to do that effectively”—
little wonder, given that one in five children have special educational needs. Yet when, in my research for the debate, I approached the Library, which is an oracle for information that the Government have made available, it could not find any official statistics on the number of trainee or qualified teachers who had received SEN training at any point in their career. However, there is a huge paper trail of teachers’ feelings about being ill equipped to meet the wide range of special educational needs that they face in the classroom.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) does excellent work in the Select Committee that he chairs. The then Select Committee on Education and Skills considered training in July 2006. Its report stated:
“Based on evidence that demonstrates the level of need and demand from the teachers for training on SEN, SEN training should become a core, compulsory part of initial teacher training for all teachers. The Government should restart negotiations with TDA on these grounds and…SEN training”
“part of initial teacher training, induction and continual professional development.”
The report continued:
“We recommend that the Government fully implements its own strategic approach to training outlined in the SEN strategy putting into practice the ‘triangle of needs’ in order to achieve the proposed three tiers of specialism”.
It also stated that little progress had been made since 2004. Ofsted reiterated that point in July 2006. It commented on the importance of providing extra resources, emphasising that those resources need to be specialist teachers.
The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) spoke with personal experience of the problems faced by teachers as a result of inadequate training and of the problems in getting SEN training as part of continuous professional development. She mentioned the resulting attrition rate among her teacher colleagues; a significant proportion of the people with whom she trained were lost. She said that the situation may have changed in respect of training and continuous professional development. However, although the Government have made very little assessment of that, just over a year ago the NUT undertook a comprehensive piece of research that suggests that what the hon. Lady hopes for is not going on in the classroom.
The report dealt with teachers from a range of schools throughout the country, the vast majority of whom—86 per cent.—had not undertaken specific professional development on severe learning difficulties. More than two thirds of teachers identified a lack of professional development as the greatest barrier to dealing with that group. Some 76 per cent. of the teachers had not undertaken specific professional development on even moderate learning difficulties in the previous 12 months, and about 70 per cent. identified that as a significant problem. Only a quarter of the teachers in the report had undertaken specific professional development on behavioural, emotional and social difficulties in the previous 12 months.
The situation is perhaps what hon. Members fear in some of the more specific areas: only a third of the teachers felt confident about teaching children with dyslexia and only 28 per cent. felt so about teaching children with visual impairment. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will be concerned to hear that only 6 per cent. of teachers said that they had undertaken specific professional development on teaching children with sensory impairment. The list goes on. As the report is not currently available on the NUT website—for technical reasons, I believe—I will make copies of it available to hon. Members if they want them.
My hon. Friend has once again offered a powerful illustration of some of the endemic difficulties from which we suffer. The YouGov survey for the Communication Trust showed that 73 per cent. of teachers did not feel that they had received anything like adequate help for catering for children with speech, language and communication needs, and the NUT survey showed that only a third of respondents felt able to cater for the needs of such children. They are both revealing.
In the circumstances, it is not surprising that in its recent report, Ofsted said that communication standards were lower than expected. In addition to more training, perhaps we should grant Ofsted an ongoing role of assessment, as that might act as a discipline to lever up standards.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, which could apply whether Ofsted or another organisation was involved. The situation certainly needs to be closely monitored. Although at the moment the Government have good intentions on these issues, when it comes to the practical realities in the classrooms of our constituents’ children, those intentions are not being carried through. That causes enormous concern for all involved.
I reiterate my earlier point about the work done by Xtraordinary People, which campaigns tirelessly on behalf of dyslexic children. In the absence of further Government statistics, it did its own research in November 2007 among 1,000 parents. Three quarters of them said that their children were receiving support from people who were not trained in dealing with dyslexia or specific learning difficulties. Kate Griggs, the founder of the organisation, sums up the situation that many of my constituents, and perhaps those of other hon. Members, feel they face. She says:
“I can’t understand why the teaching methods that have been used to support dyslexics for decades are still not a compulsory part of our teachers’ training”.
In the current requirements, there is no compulsory requirement for SEN training that I can find articulated in any of the documentation for trainees or for qualified teachers; there is only a need to demonstrate an ability to make effective personalised learning provision for those with special educational needs. Does the Minister feel that that does as much as possible to ensure that this group of children are really and truly reaching their potential, because many feel that they may not be? The Training and Development Agency for Schools has developed two new modules with the Institute of Education at the University of London, but for initial teacher training only, despite the fact that the bulk—about 80 per cent.—of new teachers now come through the postgraduate certificate of education route, and it is not even compulsory. Little wonder that the problems of early identification and effective teaching in schools are at the level that they are today.
I pay immense tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham for the work that he does for the House and for communities throughout the country in the field of special educational needs. In his characteristic style and with his characteristic eloquence, he made many points, but I particularly want to pick up on the importance of early identification and of identifying special needs before the age of five. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) also picked up on the importance of training for people who work in the early education sector. The Minister needs to give us some thoughts on how the Government are progressing on that issue, given the consequences of failure to achieve early identification, which were graphically pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. As the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West said, perhaps consideration could be given to the inclusion of new work force census data in a format that parents can understand.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham also talked about the importance of far-sighted local authorities. Some local authorities have a well-developed training programme for teachers to fill the gap that may exist in teacher training. Continuous professional development is a vital element of any professional training programme, but it can do little to help newly qualified teachers and those who are still on their training placements, to return to the experience of the hon. Member for Stourbridge. I applaud the excellent work done by the children’s services department at Hampshire county council, which is my own local authority. It has a comprehensive set of continuous professional development courses available to teachers in the Hampshire area, including a learning support assistant course that is accredited by the British Dyslexia Association, with 30 hours taught and school-based assignments. There is also a Hampshire certificate in dyslexia for teachers and special educational needs co-ordinators, with 27 hours taught and school-based assignments. I am sure that many other local authorities have similar supportive schemes for their staff, but there are no data on how many take that approach. Perhaps the Bill could help to establish how widespread this sort of good practice is and, indeed, how to spread it, or help to identify where the postcode lottery exists.
There are another couple of vital pieces of information that we may want to consider in Committee, such as information for parents to assess whether the delivery of SEN in their school or local authority ensures that children are making the progress that they should. That was brought up by Ofsted in its report of July 2006. We have discussed a wide variety of special educational needs. It is understandably difficult always to set objectives for children that will ensure that they achieve their true potential, but perhaps the Minister could say something about how things are faring with RAISE—reporting and analysis for improvement through school self-evaluation—online. In the Government’s response to the Ofsted report, they said that RAISE online could give schools the opportunity to monitor better the progress made by students with special educational needs. Perhaps the Minister will say how widespread the use of that system is and whether it is delivering the monitoring and evaluation of pupil progress that was suggested.
I raise the third candidate for data collection on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who is an assiduous champion of the importance of synthetic phonics for all children. My three children learned to read with the help of synthetic phonics and I know how crucial the system is. Importantly, the March 2005 report by the Select Committee on Education and Skills concluded that the use of synthetic phonics could have a significant impact on improving the ability of children who are at risk of reading difficulties to make good progress.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. I know that she will not be disappointed to hear that in the Education and Skills Public Bill Committee yesterday morning, which I had the privilege of chairing, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton did indeed dilate for an appreciable period on the subject of synthetic phonics under amendment No. 1 to clause 1, because I allowed him what I thought was an appropriate latitude.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I, too, have been privy to some of the sermons by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton on the subject. I remain a great supporter of synthetic phonics as a tried and tested methodology for teaching all children to read, although it has a particular application for children with special educational needs. Again, despite the clear findings in the Select Committee report, no data are available on how many teachers can teach using synthetics.
Does the hon. Lady agree that in addition to the problem of teachers not being trained to teach synthetic phonics, there is a problem of prejudice in the education establishment, which has existed for a long time? Just as there are those who have a problem with blanket inclusion, there are those who do not accept the need for synthetic phonics and other more formalised methods of teaching.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I know that he speaks with a great deal of experience on these matters. I certainly get the impression that synthetic phonics is not always given the support that the firm research results suggest that it should have.
Let me reassure hon. Members. There is not necessarily a prejudice against synthetic phonics. Those of us who have worked with children of all abilities know that we cannot rely on just one system. Synthetic phonics should be a tool in the toolbox. Going for just one system could be as damaging as sticking to another tried and tested route. It is about having a varied toolbox.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point, and I have heard that argument made in particular by people with a teaching background. I accept that that may be the case, but the available data overwhelmingly suggest that a great many children of them,—the Select Committee report suggests the vast majority— including those with particular needs would benefit from having synthetic phonics as a basis on which to learn how to read. I appreciate that she has far more practical experience than I do in this subject, and she makes a good point that no one methodology can be the only solution. We always need to have a number of ways of dealing with any problem.
No debate on SEN would be complete without reference to the role of statementing. The hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West spoke movingly about the impact of delayed statementing, and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole talked about parents’ worries about the independence of assessments of their children’s special educational needs. She spoke about local authorities’ role as a poacher turned gamekeeper in this complex area. Perhaps the Bill should monitor the time taken to put a statement in place, as that would put a little more pressure on reform of this important area. The biggest catalyst for change in SEN would be a complete reform of the statementing system—a point made by the Education and Skills Committee in July 2006. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, the Chairman of that Committee, is not in the Chamber, but I hope that he does not mind my recalling some of the comments that he made at the time. The Committee called for a “completely fresh” approach to SEN, and the Chairman felt strongly that
“the Government’s failure to even consider changing the current statementing process is a real missed opportunity”,
despite the fact that there was
“clear evidence that the process is not working”.
The Government argued that there was no better alternative, but the Opposition do not believe that that is the case. In July 2005, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) established the commission on special educational needs under the chairmanship of Sir Robert Balchin. Its findings were announced in November 2005, and highlighted serious concerns about the processes and consequences of statementing, which were echoed by the Select Committee. The report recommended that statements be replaced by a special needs profile, which should be drawn up by an independent, accredited profile assessor. It said that funding should come from a national funding agency, removing the unnecessarily adversarial appeals system and the apparent conflict of interest for local authorities, which are required to act as both assessors and budget providers. Perhaps the Minister would comment in his response on what consideration has been given to the work of that important commission and the reform of statementing, which is vital to achieve the aim of his hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West of delivering genuine improvement, especially as that approach has received support from his hon. Friends including, tangentially, the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and the hon. Member for Huddersfield, who raised the matter in his Select Committee.
In conclusion, may I reiterate my congratulations to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West? She said that she wanted the Bill to push things forward for children with special educational needs. We share that aim, and look forward to working with her in Committee to make sure that this is the Bill that she believes it should be.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) asked me on several occasions to respond to the debate, but it would a gross impertinence for a Government spokesperson to respond to a debate on a private Member’s Bill. That honour lies with my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), who introduced the Bill, but I will do my best to cover many of the points made in the debate. No doubt, there will be an opportunity in Committee for the detail of those matters to be discussed further.
May I add my congratulations to those offered by everyone who has spoken—and possibly Members who have not spoken—to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West on introducing the Bill? She has done a huge amount to champion the cause of children with special educational needs, and my Department supports the sentiments that she expressed when introducing the Bill. She gave a moving and personal account of her interest in, and commitment to, the subject, and spoke about the story of her son Joseph and the way in which that has informed her approach. The warmth and passion that she brings to the subject is no doubt responsible for the unanimous response to her Bill across the House.
We have had a wide-ranging and interesting debate. It is not my job to respond to it, but it is my job to set out the Government’s position, and I will attempt to refer to the contributions from hon. Members.
Hon. Members brought a huge amount of expertise to the debate. Several of them suggested that this was the House at its best, although ironically at its least observed by the fourth estate—but that is something over which we have little or no control.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), like others, was unhappy with the quality of some parliamentary answers. That is not a new problem. As the hon. Lady will know, a former leader of her party, or a previous incarnation of it, David Lloyd George, is said to have got lost in north Wales and stopped to ask a local farmer for directions. When he asked, “Where am I?” he was told, “You’re in your car.” Lloyd George described that as an example of the civil servant’s dream answer to a parliamentary question: it was short, it was accurate, and it told him absolutely nothing that he did not already know.
I give the hon. Lady an undertaking to look carefully at any parliamentary questions tabled on these subjects, and to make every effort to establish whether information is actually unavailable because of disproportionate cost or because it is not collected centrally. I hope that the Bill will make answers of that kind rarer in future through its commitment to the collection of better data which would be available centrally and, perhaps, not at disproportionate cost.
We have considered the Education and Skills Committee’s 2007 report; the Committee’s Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), was present earlier. The Government’s response will be published on Monday. It would be wrong for me to pre-empt that, but we share the concern expressed by a number of Members about parental confidence in SEN provision, and our response will address some of the points that they raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) spoke passionately as always, in this instance about deaf children. She mentioned the wonderful work done by her constituent Eileen Hosie, who teaches deaf pupils. We share the concern expressed by the RNID and the NDCS about the attainment of deaf children, and the Department is working closely with those organisations to try to understand the issues and establish how data can be used to focus on improving provision.
The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) —who wrote me a note explaining that he had to leave early because of a constituency engagement—spoke of his personal experience, and of the need for relevant data and teacher training. I shall say more about that later.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) rightly drew attention to the lack of a media presence in the Chamber. She also made a plea for her own Bill to be taken up by a Minister. I can only say that I am sure her plea has been heard, although may I add—through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—“Not me, guv”?
My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of teaching assistants. The Training and Development Agency for Schools has been piloting specialist initial teacher training modules on SEN which we want to extend to all graduate teacher training courses. We have asked the agency to look into how we can apply it to the one-year PGCE course that my hon. Friend mentioned. She also raised the question of identifying children with disabilities. The Department has commissioned research on how schools can do that, and we shall probably be able to publish it in the next few months.
I think of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) as my honourable friend, because we go back a few years in this place and have had various jousts, as he always puts it. We also worked together on issues that feature in the Bill when we were both on the Back Benches. May I say, as a humble specimen, as he referred to me in his speech, that he spoke with his customary fluency on an issue about which he has a great deal of knowledge? On this occasion, he also included powerful, personal experience in his remarks. I thank him for the work that he is doing in his review, not just on behalf of the Government and the House but on behalf of the country. Clearly, he raised many detailed and important points, which I am sure we will explore much further as the Bill progresses, and when his interim review is published in March and his full review later in the summer. He called for a greater public debate on the subject, echoing the call by Jim Callaghan in the 1970s. That was a significant and important remark. He described one approach as a “low-dosage, high-volume intervention”. That probably categorises his contributions in the House—they are often low dosage but always high volume, and always effective, I should add.
We recognise the challenge of implementing the inclusion development programme at a local level in authorities and schools. That is why we are making that a priority for the national strategy’s new regional hubs of good practice. Those will bring together all authorities in a region to share practice on how best to increase the uptake of the training.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) reminded us of the old days, teaching 38 children in a primary school class. It was a timely reminder that perhaps things have improved to some degree in teaching. Those were the days when there were no teaching assistants in the classroom. It was important to remind us that that was one of the reasons why so many of her colleagues perhaps burned out at an early stage of their teaching careers, back in those bad old days.
The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) spoke, importantly, about the need for cross-government working. That is something that our new Department is keen to develop and is developing with the Ministry of Justice and other Departments, including the Department of Health, which is important in respect of the subject that we are discussing today.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) talked about the education village in her constituency and about the importance of good data and early intervention. That is why we are going to have children’s centres for every community by 2010, and why we are promoting the roll-out of the excellent early support programme in all local authorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) spoke about his educational experiences in school and the rap of the ruler on the knuckles. That was how I was taught to remember poetry when I was in primary school. I can still recite some at will. I will not bore the House with it now—on another occasion perhaps. I think that I developed my lifelong love of poetry from being rapped over the knuckles, but I do not recommend it as an approach these days. He is right to point out how attitudes have changed over the years. The fact that we have cross-party consensus here today about the importance of the Bill is testament to the way in which attitudes have changed from those bad old days, when my hon. Friend and his friends were in school experiencing that kind of treatment.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke spoke of the tremendous commitment of Secretaries of State to this subject. She went on to make many suggestions, which are matters best picked up in Committee.
I should now turn to the Bill and to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West in the time that we have available. The proposal that children with special educational needs should be specifically taken into account as the Secretary of State exercises his powers in relation to gathering data is sensible. It is our Department's highest priority that all barriers to education should be removed for all children, whether those barriers arise from physical, financial or family circumstances. It is even more imperative for those who are already at a disadvantage against their peers: the 570,000 children living with a disability, the 2.8 million children living in poverty, and the 1.6 million children with special educational needs.
We have come a long way—hon. Members acknowledged this—from the days of crumbling buildings and failing schools that we inherited 10 years ago. In 1997, it was not only school buildings that were dilapidated; so, too, was the infrastructure of children’s services as a whole. The Every Child Matters agenda has led to a transformation in how professionals work together to meet children’s individual needs better. Information has been at the heart of that process, which is why the Bill is so timely and welcome.
The children’s plan, which we published last month, will build on those foundations to help us to achieve our ambition to make this country the best place in the world for children to grow up. Any effective organisation must evaluate its performance just to remain effective, let alone to improve. Every child has unique talents and strengths—and weaknesses—and some need more support than others. What works for one child might not be appropriate for another. The variety and complexity of special needs has been pointed out in this debate—for example, by the hon. Member for Buckingham—and children often do not present with one simple, solvable problem.
Professionals need good quality information so they can share what works, put right what does not work and ensure that each child receives the right type of support. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West will know, my Department already gathers data on children with SEN from a number of sources, including the school census and the SEN2 survey. Those data are published annually and provide useful information from individual pupil to local authority level. I am committed to looking at anything that will help children further—over and above what we are already doing—and formalising the Secretary of State’s consideration of children with SEN when gathering data is a sensible suggestion. For that reason, I am happy to tell the House that the Government will support the Bill.
The Government have already taken steps to improve the quality and use of data we collect on children with SEN. We have incorporated new indicators into the national indicator set for local government to measure the gap between children with SEN and their peers. We have incorporated into the national curriculum attainment scales for children with SEN who are falling below national curriculum level 1, and from summer 2008 schools will be required to provide information, at the end of each key stage, on teacher assessments for those pupils still falling below level 1. We have also committed to research how parents of children with SEN feel about the way their school and local authority assesses and provides for their child’s needs, to see what further improvements we can make to the system. Those commitments are already in place.
As children and young people can often encounter traffic jams, as it were, and lethargy as they go from one institution to another in the course of their education, does the Minister agree that one useful focus for the Bill as it passes into Committee would be to consider the question of information at the transition points in a child’s career—transition from pre-school to primary, from primary to secondary and from secondary to post-16?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Those transition points are key to the development of children, and that is often where things can go wrong. That would be a useful area to explore further in Committee.
We have already put significant investment into personalised learning, and given schools more capacity to try out new teaching strategies and to offer more small group and one-to-one help where appropriate. We are backing that with further investment, which was announced in the children’s plan: £1.2 billion over the next three years to support personalisation, including support for children with SEN; and an additional £18 million over the next three years to be targeted at children with SEN, some of which will be spent on better data to measure their progress.
That investment will support a pilot scheme to provide children with dyslexia with reading recovery support or one-to-one tuition with a specialist dyslexia teacher. It will also support better teacher training—that has been mentioned a great deal in the debate—both when teachers join the profession and in their continuing development. Helping teachers to identify children with SEN and then give them the additional support they need is essential if we are to raise outcomes for these children.
I recall that the Dyslexia Association has a kitemark that schools and local authorities can aspire to. Are the Government looking at a form of kitemarking to spread good practice between local authorities and schools, perhaps across the whole range of special educational needs?
The hon. Lady makes a very valuable suggestion; I shall certainly look at it after today’s debate.
Last October, we launched the inclusion development programme, which will offer professional development in key areas of SEN such as communication difficulties and dyslexia. We are also working with a number of partner organisations, including the British Dyslexia Association, on “No to Failure”—a pilot project for schools in three local authorities that will help to identify pupils with dyslexia and provide individual specialist tuition. The project is also evaluating the impact of providing specialist dyslexia training for teachers, looking at what could work nationally, and raising awareness of dyslexia as a learning difficulty. We are providing up to £900,000 in funding over three years to support that project.
In addition, as I said earlier, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families have asked the hon. Member for Buckingham to review provision for pupils with speech, language and communication needs. As the hon. Gentleman told us, he will be publishing his interim report shortly, and a final report in the summer.
Although there will be much further debate in Committee, I want to close by responding directly on a few of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West in her opening speech. On extending data collection to school action level, currently there is no external moderation of information at this level because external bodies become involved only at school action-plus level and above. For that reason, we are concerned that the data may not be of the highest quality, but I noted the point that my hon. Friend made and I will consider with colleagues whether such information would be useful to us. I hope she will take that undertaking in the spirit in which it is intended.
My hon. Friend also raised the issue of collecting data on the qualifications of special educational needs co-ordinators. At the request of my Department, the Training and Development Agency for Schools is looking into the development of nationally accredited training arrangements for new appointees to the SENCO role. That work entails extensive consultation and is at a very early stage, but I will keep her updated on it.
My hon. Friend also asked why medical problems are not identified as a special educational need. Medical problems such as asthma obviously do not necessarily entail a special educational need under the definition of the 1996 Act. However, where a medical problem does cause a special educational need, it may be categorised as another difficulty or disability. We are looking separately at how we can collect information on the number of children with a disability, as distinct from a special educational need, and that can include a limiting long-term illness. We have commissioned research on the identification of pupils with disabilities, and is due a report soon.
My hon. Friend asked why dyslexia is not listed as a category in the SEN framework. As she knows, my Department has asked Ofsted to review progress on the Government’s 10-year strategy for SEN “Removing Barriers to Achievement” by 2009-10, which is its mid-point. The Government will consider in the light of that review whether changes need to be made to the present framework. We would not want to pre-empt the outcome of that review.
The Government are absolutely committed to raising the chances of success for children with special educational needs, and to removing the barriers that are halting their progress. It is our duty to go that extra mile for those who, for whatever reason, start out further behind on the road to attainment and success. We will positively support anything to achieve that, which is why I wish my hon. Friend every success with her Bill.
With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I simply want to thank everybody for coming along today. It has been a really good, good-natured debate with some fantastic, very informative contributions. I am sure that the House has moved forward the whole debate. I thank everybody for their support, and I look forward to continuing our discussion in Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Public Bill Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of (bills not subject to a programme order).
Health And Safety (Offences) Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Before I describe the contents of this short Bill, I wish to thank various individuals and organisations who have helped me in reaching this point of its Second Reading. Above all, I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who kindly agreed to introduce the Bill on 5 December on my behalf as I was abroad. He, together with my researcher, Joe Moll, whom I also thank for his hard work, deftly chose today’s slot for the Bill’s Second Reading. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), for her support and her officials at the Department for their help in the preparation of the Bill and the explanatory notes. In particular, I thank Phil White, himself a former health and safety inspector.
I am grateful for the help and advice that I have received from Giles Denham and his colleagues at the Health and Safety Executive. I am also grateful to Jim Kennedy of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, whose headquarters is in the Clapham part of my constituency, and to Richard Woodward of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers. Both those organisations are supporting the Bill.
I should also like to pay tribute to my several precursors with this Bill, the most recent of whom is my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David). I tread in their footsteps. Let us hope that this time there is a better result. Finally, in that precise connection, I should like to thank the Opposition’s Work and Pensions Front-Bench team for its sympathetic response to the Bill so far. I trust that I am not tempting fate excessively in making that observation—I detect the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) in his place, so we shall know very shortly.
The Bill’s purpose is set out in its long title:
“To revise the mode of trial and maximum penalties applicable to certain offences relating to health and safety.”
The Bill is in three clauses and three schedules, the most important of which is schedule 1, which will become new schedule 3A to the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. I shall describe the contents of the schedule in greater detail shortly. Clause 1 brings in schedule 1, which replaces the penalty provisions of subsections (1A) to (4) of section 33 of the 1974 Act. It also sets out the mode of trial and maximum penalties for the health and safety offences listed in subsection (1)(a) to (o) of section 33 of the 1974 Act and for offences under the existing statutory provisions where no other penalty is specified.
Clause 2 brings in schedules 2 and 3, which deal with “Consequential amendments” and “Repeals” respectively. Clause 2(2) confers power on the Secretary of State to make amendments to existing regulations as a consequence of the changes introduced by the Bill. It will enable the Secretary of State to introduce the necessary changes to regulations. Those will be made by statutory instrument subject to the negative resolution procedure.
Clause 3 sets out the short title, commencement and extent of the Bill. The commencement date will be three months after Royal Assent. As health and safety legislation is a reserved matter, the Bill will apply to Scotland as well as to England and Wales. As the explanatory and other notes indicate, the Bill has no significant implications for public expenditure or public sector manpower, it creates no new regulatory requirements, and no new compliance costs arise for those obeying the law. However, the Bill does engage with the European convention on human rights, and I shall say as brief a word as possible about that in due course.
As I promised, I shall now describe the changes set out in schedule 1, which deals with the mode of trial and maximum penalties under the 1974 Act. The schedule is in tabular form and lists the new proposed penalties at each level of court hearing: the proposed penalties on summary conviction, that is to say after a hearing in the magistrates court; and the proposed penalties on indictment, that is to say after a conviction in the Crown court. Schedule 1 sets out three changes to the present arrangements. First, it raises the maximum fine that may be imposed in the lower courts to £20,000 for most health and safety offences. The higher court fine remains unlimited.
At present, following the Offshore Safety Act 1992, the lower courts are able to fine up to a maximum of £20,000 for breaches of general duties to safeguard people’s health and safety under sections 2 to 6 of the Act. However, the current maximum penalty for specific breaches of health and safety regulations is a £5,000 fine, but such breaches may be just as serious as breaches of general duties. Specific breaches include, for example, breaches of fundamental requirements to do a risk assessment; the breach of asbestos regulations; and the breach of industry-specific requirements, such as construction, design and management regulations. It is for that reason that the Bill would extend the £20,000 lower court maximum to offences that, typically, have created risk directly or indirectly, or actual injury, damage to health or death. It is also why the £20,000 maximum is extended to offences that undermine the ability of enforcers to regulate health and safety, to prevent harm or to investigate what may be serious health and safety offences.
Let me emphasise that there is a proportionality in the approach to new penalties set out here, in that the £20,000 maximum is not sought for all offences. Specifically, it is not sought for offences by individuals where the maximum of level 5 on the standard scale would usually be quite enough for lower court cases.
The second change to present arrangements set out in schedule 1 would be to make imprisonment an option for most health and safety offences in both the lower and the higher courts. At present, imprisonment is an option only in certain cases. In the lower courts, it is an option only for failure to comply with an improvement or prohibition notice, or with a court remedy order, and for offshore offences. In the higher courts, it is an option only for failure to comply with licensing requirements or explosives provisions, or disclosures in breach of the Act. Those are all serious offences. However, the Bill will extend the option of a custodial sentence to a greater range of offences, and that responds in part to the fact that judges have remarked in several cases over the years on the lack of imprisonment as an option, and said that they would have jailed the offender had they been able to do so. It is my expectation that imprisonment will continue to occur only in the most serious of cases and that there will be only a minimal increase in the number of offenders going to prison under this new legislation.
The third change to present arrangements that would be introduced by schedule 1 would make two offences triable only in the lower courts either-way offences, like most health and safety offences, so that they would be triable in either the lower or the higher courts. Those offences are, first, under section 20 of the Act, contravening any requirement imposed by an inspector—for example, to give information for an investigation or to leave premises undisturbed after an incident—and secondly, preventing another person from appearing before an inspector or from answering his or her questions. Under the Bill, those offences could in future attract the tougher penalties available in the higher courts.
It is evident that the Bill deals only with the issues of the penalties for health and safety offences and where they may be tried, but it is important to recognise that the courts and their sanctions constitute only one small part of the full spectrum of health and safety activity in this country. That we need health and safety legislation in place is beyond question. Last year, employees in Britain suffered nearly 250 work-related deaths, nearly 30,000 major injuries and well over 100,000 lesser injuries that kept them off work. Of course, it is not only employees whom the legislation seeks to protect, but members of the public who suffer death or injury at workplaces. In 2006-07, more than 120 members of the general public were killed and nearly 17,500 reported injuries in workplaces.
Most health and safety activity, however—like the law itself—is preventive in nature. Most health and safety provision is carried out by businesses in compliance with the law because they believe it is the right thing to do. By far the greater part of the work of health and safety agencies, the HSE itself and local environmental health officers is preventive in nature. The point is illustrated by Professor Macrory in his report “Regulatory Justice” when he gives the HSE statistics for 2004-05: 59,865 inspections carried out, 8,445 statutory notices issued but only 712 prosecutions initiated. Those figures are par for the course, although the figure for prosecutions in that example may have been somewhat lower than the annual average. In other words, prosecution—the subject of the Bill—is reserved for only the most serious offences, where criminal proceedings are most clearly in the public interest.
Why do we need the increased penalties set out in the Bill? There are three main reasons: tougher, more commensurate punishment, more effective deterrence, and greater efficiency in the dispensation of justice. On tougher punishment, there is a well-established view that the fines under health and safety legislation are too low. That is certainly the view of the HSE and the Government. As long ago as 1998, the Court of Appeal judged that the health and safety fines being imposed were too low. In the consultation leading up to the Government’s publication of the strategy statement “Revitalising health and safety” in June 2005, the overwhelming view of consultees was that the general level of penalties imposed by the courts was inadequate; only 7 per cent. considered that the then, and still existing, framework for penalties was satisfactory.
In 2005, Philip Hampton, in his report on regulation and enforcement for the Treasury, noted that the existing maximum fine of £5,000 was “an insignificant sum” for most businesses. The point was reiterated in 2006 by Professor Macrory in his report, “Regulatory Justice” subtitled “Making Sanctions Effective”.
On the option of imprisonment, there is a history going back to the mid-1990s of judges expressing discontent at being unable to impose jail sentences for health and safety offences. Indeed, on 8 January my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) cited just such a case in his Adjournment debate on carbon monoxide detectors. He noted that in 2006 a judge in the Nottingham Crown court complained of being able only to fine a man whose negligent work on a gas boiler had led to two deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning.
In practice, of course, because health and safety failures typically result from a chain of decisions rather than from one person’s action, it is likely to remain the case that the prosecution of individuals for health and safety offences will be infrequent. Nevertheless, I believe the courts are right to call for the availability of the penalty of imprisonment for the worst offences. In passing, I point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is not my intention that the new powers of imprisonment—if we obtain them—should become grounds for resisting the case for mandatory safety duties on directors. That case, which as my hon. Friend knows is promoted by UCATT, is an entirely separate argument.
The second reason for higher penalties is more effective deterrence: but to deter irresponsible behaviour and encourage compliance with the law, penalties need to be high enough to eliminate the gain from breaking the law. In his report, Philip Hampton puts the general principle:
“Illegal operators have incentives to undercut honest businesses, partly because penalties are low absolutely, but more worryingly because penalties imposed often do not reflect the commercial advantage a business has gained from non-compliance.”
Hampton had no doubt about the inadequacy of the penalties under the 1974 Act:
“In 2003-04, the Health and Safety Executive prosecuted 1,756 cases, with an average fine on conviction of £4,036 in magistrates’ courts, and £33,036 in Crown Courts. The deterrent effect of such fines is likely to be low. For any company other than the smallest, a £5,000 fine is likely to be an insignificant sum.”
That is why recommendation 6 of the Hampton review was that maximum fines in the magistrates courts should be increased and recommendation 7 was that fine levels should take account of the economic benefit gained. The Bill will implement those recommendations.
The third reason for the higher penalties in the Bill is the need for greater efficiency in the court system. There seems to be no doubt that at present the lower courts will often refer more serious cases, which they are otherwise quite competent to hear and judge, to the higher courts because they feel that they do not have adequate sentencing powers. Consequently, cases are delayed, court time is wasted and the more valuable time of the higher courts is used up unnecessarily. By extending the £20,000 maximum fine to the lower courts and making imprisonment an option, the effect of the Bill will be that more cases will be resolved in the lower courts. Justice will be faster, less costly and more efficient.
I now turn—somewhat reluctantly, as a non-lawyer—to the Bill’s engagement with the European convention on human rights. The convention point at issue is article 6, paragraph 2, which concerns the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, and its relationship with section 40 of the 1974 Act, which has the effect of reversing the burden of proof on to the defendant when the offence is subject to the statutory qualification “so far as is reasonably practicable”.
The question is whether the Bill increases the likelihood of a successful ECHR challenge by introducing the option of imprisonment for an offence to which the reverse burden of proof applies. The answer is twofold. First, it appears that such a provision can be compatible with article 6, paragraph 2 if it is justified on the basis that it is reasonable and proportionate and does no more than is absolutely necessary to accomplish the aims of the statute. Secondly, it appears that the Court of Appeal has recently concluded, on the basis of several compelling factors, that so far as “reasonable practicability” offences are concerned, section 40 of the 1974 Act represents a fair balance between the rights of the individual to a fair trial and the protection of life and limb from dangerous work practices. For those reasons, I am assured that the Bill’s provisions are not incompatible with the convention. The argument is set out at greater length in the explanatory notes, and I hope that this explanation will be to the satisfaction of the House.
Let me draw my speech to a close. The 1974 Act is a remarkably durable and successful piece of legislation. In its 33 years, it has experienced minor amendment from time to time—this Bill is one such amendment. The Act has been added to by hundreds of regulations, but its substance—the structures, duties and offences and the approach to safety in the workplace that it established—has remained intact and has stood the test of time. The standards of culture that it enshrines have been sustained by the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, two bodies of high national and international repute, and by the highly respected role played by environmental health officers at a local level.
The 1974 Act’s record speaks for itself. Between 1974 and 2007, the number of fatal injuries to employees fell by 73 per cent. The number of reported non-fatal injuries fell by 70 per cent. If we look behind changing employment patterns during that period, we see the same picture. Between 1974 and 2007, the rate of fatal injuries per 100,000 employees fell by a huge 76 per cent. Britain had the lowest rate of fatal injuries in the European Union in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available. The EU average was 2.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers; the figure in the UK was 1.1.
However, that still equates to about 250 workplace deaths a year and many more injuries. There can be no complacency; hence the need for the Bill. It will allow us to punish the criminally negligent who put life and limb in danger, deter those who attempt to cut costs by breaking health and safety law, and render justice faster and more efficient—and it will do so without introducing any new regulatory requirements or new compliance costs in any sector. I commend the Bill to the House.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), particularly on the clarity of his explanation. He may have appreciated the fact that I was listening attentively, as I am not exactly an expert in the field; I was here for the previous debate.
The right hon. Gentleman made two important points. First, we are often concerned about over-regulation, but when we look at what can happen in the workplace when insufficient attention is given to safety, we realise how important it is to employers, employees and their families. The impact of a big incident can spread throughout a community.
Secondly, on deterrence, I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman’s Bill covers the issue that I am about to raise, but I shall do so briefly, as he might be able to consider it. I have been asking questions recently about how many incidents have taken place involving children under 16. The number has doubled over the past few years. One could say that it is not a large number, but the fact that children are involved gives it some significance. In one well-documented accident, a young man lost his hand in a mincing machine in a butcher’s shop. I have met him, and I must say that Sam has made a remarkable recovery from that terrible occurrence.
We are not debating child employment legislation today, but an awareness of child employment legislation—for example, the fact that work permits are needed—should be brought to light. We know that children are working without work permits or risk assessments because of out-of-date regulations. From the survey work that I have done with several local authorities, I have found that some issue very few work permits. I am deeply concerned that there is a lack of awareness about children in employment. I feel that proportionate measures, fines and publicity where appropriate would raise awareness of the issue generally as well as in relation to children, and of the need to understand what the law is.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on his clear and logical introduction of the Bill. He set out the reasons why he thinks it necessary; I agree with them, and I have a couple of other reasons why I think that it is appropriate and should be put on the statute book. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for her comments. She mentioned in particular the issue of child injuries at work. I agree that we need to consider it carefully, and I shall make a few comments on it in the course of my remarks.
As we are holding a Second Reading debate on a health and safety matter, I will, with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, go a little wider than the Bill, because we do not often have opportunities to debate health and safety in the House. That is a pity because they are extremely important.
The health and safety profession currently has a severe problem. Doubtless many people who are watching the debate are concerned that we are looking to put a Bill on the statute book that would increase health and safety offences, because health and safety has had a bad press in recent years. Let me read two letters to a national newspaper in October last year. The first states:
“Sir—If we are to believe the Health and Safety Executive, we live in the most dangerous environment in the world. Hanging flower baskets are a danger, Santa Claus in his sleigh collecting money for charity is another risky venture to be avoided, and a children’s swing that has given more than 100 years of pleasure with not one child injured must be removed.
Whether we like it or not, living does involve existing with a certain amount of danger. To try to create an environment where there is no risk of an accident is virtually impossible.
If the Health and Safety Executive continues on its present path, what sort of a society will be around in 50 years’ time?”
Another letter from the same day states:
“I sympathise with”
“whose local jumble sale has been discontinued for health and safety reasons.
This year, the annual panto by an amateur dramatic society at a church hall in Welling, Kent, marking the beginning of Christmas for many, has been cancelled because of health and safety issues. The cost of meeting the health and safety requirements far exceeded the expected income and so the panto, already in rehearsal, has been cancelled.
There will be no contribution to church funds and the future of an excellent amateur society is, after more than 30 years, in doubt.
This is only the latest in a long and tragic list of interferences to all our lives by the insidious evil that cloaks itself in ‘health and safety’. I have begun to understand how it must have felt to live in a communist state.”
Even Tom Mullarkey, the chief executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said on 12 November:
“We do not believe in extremist health and safety ideas which would keep children wrapped in cotton wool.
Our argument is that a skinned knee or a twisted ankle in a challenging and exciting play environment is not just acceptable, it is a positive necessity.”
The Institution for Occupational Safety and Health, an excellent organisation and the professional standards body for health and safety professionals in public and private practice, spoke of its concern for the public
“whose understanding of the real importance of health and safety is constantly tainted by negative media stories about crazy decisions made in the name of health and safety.”
I mention those concerns because, as the right hon. Member for Streatham said, the reality of serious injuries and death in the workplace is very different. In 2006-07, the provisional figure that I had was 241 staff killed in work-related accidents. The right hon. Gentleman cited 250, so perhaps it has increased. That is an 11 per cent. increase on the previous year. The figure that especially shocked me from our debate in Westminster Hall on the construction industry was that in the six years to 31 March 2004 there were 504 deaths from construction accidents—only 18 fewer than the number of regular service personnel killed through accidental or violent causes. Who would have thought that being a builder was nearly as dangerous as being a soldier?
In 2006-07, there were 28,267 work-related major injuries. Those figures are unacceptably high and some individual incidents are frankly scandalous. Seventeen-year-old Daniel Dennis was killed by falling through a skylight. He had been given no training, he had no harness and the skylight around which he was working was not even fenced off. It is really important that the Health and Safety Executive should counter the many false allegations laid at the door of health and safety; it does not always do so. In a national newspaper last year, an ex-service parade at Droitwich was reported to have been cancelled for health and safety reasons. I rang the Health and Safety Executive to find out whether that was the case. It was not, but I did not see any media rebuttal. Tom Mullarkey said that he came across—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I have allowed him a little latitude, but I sense that he is bursting the bounds of the long title of the Bill. As he knows, the Bill is about the mode of trial and maximum penalties applicable to certain offences. He can argue about what should be in the Bill and how it might be extended, but we cannot have a too general debate about health and safety.
I accept your guidance absolutely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was coming to the end of that section of my speech; I assure you that the rest of my remarks will relate directly to the Bill. However, it is important to set the context within which we are having this debate; the matters that I have mentioned touch on the substance of the Bill as well.
The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which the Bill would amend, was brought in by the Conservative party. The fines that the Bill would amend were set in 1991 and 1992, so on grounds of inflation alone there would be a good case for amending them. As the right hon. Member for Streatham said, the Bill would also allow imprisonment in certain cases—that, of course, would give a permissive, not a prescriptive, power—and allow cases to be heard in the lower or higher courts in certain circumstances.
Everything in the Bill was first called for in 1999. Why has such a Bill not been introduced in Government time since then? I am aware that much important legislation has got on to the statute book through the private Member’s Bill route, but given the importance of the matters that we are debating, I would be interested to know the Minister’s answer to my question. There are concerns about front-line construction inspectors in particular. In a letter that the Minister wrote to me after the Westminster Hall debate last year, she pointed out that there had been a decline in full-time-equivalent construction inspectors from 133 to 125 since the previous year.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, judges are calling for tougher penalties. Paul Regan, a cowboy gas fitter, put customers at risk from deadly carbon monoxide fumes. The judge said:
“The family were put at risk of death by poisoning or explosion”,
and declared that he would not allow the man within 150 miles of his own house. He also said that the man
“should go to prison for 18 months”.
Another case involved two students who were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. When the landlord was sentenced, the judge said:
“These offences do not carry imprisonment. If they did I wouldn’t want you, nor the public, to be under any delusions that I would sentence you to prison and I would send you to prison for a substantial period of time.”
In another case, two workmen were badly burned by an underground methane gas explosion; the judge said that given how serious the matter was, he was surprised that fines were the only penalty available to him. In yet another case, the directors of a firm were convicted of seven charges of illegal child employment, and the judge said:
“These matters are so serious that I should consider imprisonment. But Parliament has given no such power to the courts to pass such a sentence.”
Frankly, I do not think that our constituents would want us to deny powers that judges are calling for in our courts, on this or any other matter.
As the right hon. Member for Streatham said, the Bill would place no additional requirements on employers or businesses, but should have a strong deterrent effect. He is right to say that there is a moral obligation on all of us to take all reasonable steps to ensure that workplace accidents and fatalities are reduced to as few as possible. I would also argue, however, that the Bill would go some way towards reducing some of the burdensome enforcement policy that employers sometimes complain about.
The right hon. Gentleman quoted from the Macrory report. Its full title is “Regulatory Justice: Making Sanctions Effective”, and it was published in November 2006. In it, Professor Macrory said:
“Without credible and meaningful sanctions, regulators are forced to pursue a more burdensome and bureaucratic enforcement policy.”
He went on to state:
“Effective sanctioning is an important signal in achieving deterrence. If criminal prosecutions sent out a strong signal of deterrence, then regulators would be able to impose less onerous burdens on legitimate business by conducting fewer inspections.”
So there is even an argument that the Bill is pro- business efficiency.
Another argument, which I do not remember the right hon. Gentleman using, is that there should be a level playing field for all business. The Macrory report says that
“currently legitimate businesses see their unscrupulous competitors cut corners, and gain competitive advantage, without facing serious financial or other consequences.”
Sadly, a small minority of rogue employers are coming to the conclusion that it is cheaper to pay the fines than to keep their staff safe, as the vast majority of businesses do. Could the Minister clarify what provision there will be for the regular uprating of the fines that would be adjusted by the right hon. Gentleman’s Bill? That is a reasonable question, given that those figures have not been changed since 1991 and 1992. The Bill does not make it clear whether it would be by annual regulation-making power or any other means.
The official Opposition support the Bill, which is a necessary and important measure in ensuring that all our fellow citizens have the best possible chance of getting up in the morning, going to work and coming back without in any way being injured or even, God forbid, suffering a fatality.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill). I am pleased that he has decided to introduce and take forward the measures in this Bill. I am delighted that he recognised the efforts of some of his predecessors, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), who was the most recent Member to try to deal with these issues. I also thank my right hon. Friend for his comments about the support that he has received from the Department for Work and Pensions and health and safety officials. I congratulate him on his comprehensive and detailed exposition of the terms and implications of his Bill, which was exemplary—although I would not have expected anything less from him. I am glad that his talents and skills, which were well recognised in his previous role, have now been exposed to us all in his new, or resumed, role as a Back Bencher.
I welcome the support of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for the Bill. Most of what he said was valuable. However, it was a pity that he tried to drag across the old myth about health and safety, sometimes expressed in the newspapers, that things are always the fault of the Health and Safety Executive. He almost perpetuated some of the myths that he identified in the letters to which he referred. I want to make it clear that the HSE is not against children getting skint knees—that might be a Scottish expression, Mr. Deputy Speaker; it means grazed. We are not against poppies having pins in them either. Last October and November, it was suggested that one of the big charities had changed the style of its poppies because health and safety people said that it could not put pins in the back of them. That was palpably untrue. The charity did not identify that problem and the HSE knew nothing about the story.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Remembrance day parades. The chairman of the Health and Safety Commission wrote to all chief executives of local authorities about the need for a sensible approach to health and safety. He was not imposing new burdens or saying that the authorities had to do things a certain way. For many years, the HSC and HSE have said that there needs to be a sensible and measured approach to health and safety. They know full well that we cannot remove every risk from everyday life. We can, however, be sensitive to the fact that by taking some action, we can reduce the risks to the general public.
The hon. Gentleman asked why the HSE was not more robust in dealing with media stories. I am sure he knows, as a politician of some skill, that it is not always possible to get the rebuttal in because it spoils the story.
Of course I accept what the Minister says about rebuttals not always being printed. However, the HSE has an important role in countering false allegations and misplaced stories in the media. Whether we like it or not, such stories are printed in newspapers and our constituents pick them up and read them. The rebuttal role is important. I urge her to ensure that the HSE takes that role seriously.
I assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that the HSE takes that role seriously, but unfortunately it has no control over what is printed in the media, what editorial judgment is exercised by those who print the stories in deciding what is a good story and whether a rebuttal from the HSE would undermine the “fun” of criticising it. In some respects, it has become a bit of a national pastime to ridicule the HSE, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham identified, the work done over many years has made Britain’s industrial and general activities safer than they are in many other countries. However, I appreciate that I may be tempting fate a little, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by going on too long about that aspect of the debate.
The Bill’s proposals are consistent with the Government’s health and safety strategy and the wider considerations of regulatory sanctions in the Hampton and Macrory reports. We are satisfied that the HSE and local authorities are doing all that they can to bring successful health and safety prosecutions. Indeed, in 2006-07, the success rate for prosecutions was 74.3 per cent., reflecting the effectiveness of the HSE’s investigation and decision-making process.
I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) to the debate, but it is not for me to comment on the issues that she raised. However, I will ensure that they are drawn to the attention of those who can respond on the problem of children working in dangerous conditions—a matter that is covered by the HSE—without suitable permits.
The HSE prosecutes when it is proportionate to do so, when failures to comply with the law are serious and when serious risks are not prevented. That is in line with Health and Safety Commission policy and the enforcement principle supported by the Government. The proportionate approach is evident in the fact that all HSE activities, including inspection and investigation, in 2006-07 resulted in the executive issuing 8,071 enforcement notices and prosecuting 1,141 offences. The response to most breaches is advice and information, given in the spirit of working with companies, individuals and organisations.
Cases that are brought to court represent the most serious breaches of health and safety legislation, in which people are unacceptably exposed to the risk of serious harm. Although the prosecution success rates are high, the lower courts, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham highlighted, are prevented in serious health and safety cases from imposing adequate, realistic penalties. Consequently, as he said, cases are delayed and court time is wasted, as the lower courts refer to the higher courts cases that they are otherwise competent to hear but for which they believe they lack adequate sentencing powers. That is the crux of the problem tackled by the Bill.
In addition, there are serious breaches for which it is not possible to impose a custodial sentence, even in the higher courts, except in limited circumstances. My right hon. Friend generously raised the work of our hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) on the issue of carbon monoxide poisoning, and mentioned his Adjournment debate. I was privileged to reply to that debate and, both as a constituency MP and on a personal level, I have experience of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and the work of unregistered gas installers, which can eventually lead to illness or death. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire also raised the matter. He mentioned the Paul Regan case, which encapsulates the need for my right hon. Friend’s important Bill. The judge in that case said that he would not allow Mr. Regan within 150 miles of his house and that although he should go to prison, the rogue gas fitter could be fined.
The Bill will make imprisonment an option for the judiciary and the courts for a wider range of serious breaches of health and safety legislation. It will also help to address the mounting concern at the anti-deterrent effect of what many people regard as derisory penalties handed down by the courts—another point made both by my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham and by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. As long ago as 1998, the Court of Appeal found that the general level of fines in health and safety cases was too low, and gave examples of aggravating and mitigating factors that might be relevant when a court decided on a sentence.
Let me explain why the Bill has been introduced on five occasions—on one occasion in a slightly different form—and why the Government did not appear to find time for it. As I hope Members recognise, there are different ways in which legislation can be processed. I do not think we should underestimate the importance of the private Member’s opportunity. I can tell the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire that we have been trying to get the Bill through the House on Fridays since 2000. I am surprised that Back Benchers with experience of some of these matters should complain that we have not attempted to give the Bill priority when we have tried to get it through on five occasions during five parliamentary Sessions. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the Bill, but I do not think the complaint about the Government stands up to scrutiny. We have supported my right hon. Friend and those who have presented the Bill previously, and have said in the House more than once that we want to get it on to the statute book. For a number of reasons, some of which are a mystery to me, that has not happened so far. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that today is the day on which we are all on the road to Damascus, and I congratulate him on allowing that to happen. I venture to suggest that when we debated the subject in Westminster Hall he was somewhat embarrassed about the fact that the Bill had not been passed for various reasons, although not through any fault of Her Majesty’s Government, or, indeed, the Back Benchers who had promoted it.
The Health and Safety Executive has always been clear about the need to improve the levels of fines. There is a disparity between fines imposed for other regulatory breaches and those imposed for health and safety offences. In 2007, British Airways was fined £121.5 million for illegally fixing fuel charges on passengers. The postal regulator fined Royal Mail nearly £12 million for service standard failures, and in 2005 the Financial Services Authority fined Shell £17 million for serious misconduct amounting to market abuse. The biggest ever United Kingdom fine for a health and safety offence was the £15 million that Transco was fined following the Larkhall explosion which killed a family of four in 1999.
I agree with my right hon. Friend and others that for social and economic reasons it is important for breaches of financial and competition regulations to be punished heavily, but it is also right for corporate health and safety crimes to attract more serious sanctions such as increased fines and, in the most serious cases, imprisonment. It is vital for the House to send a message to those who seek to flout the health and safety regulations and put at risk the safety of employees and other individuals through either their desire for profit or their incompetence.
I asked the Minister a question that I do not think she has answered yet. How are we to amend the fines? Must we wait nine years for another private Member’s Bill, can we do it annually or will it be done by regulation?
Obviously this is a matter for primary legislation, but future increases will be considered in the context of general issues relating to fines for criminal offences. As far as I am aware, there is an ongoing review of those issues.
I again thank my right hon. Friend. I hope and suspect that the Bill on this occasion is going to get the fair wind that it deserved in 2000, and 2001 and on all the other dates. I welcome the Bill and commend it to the House.
With the leave of the House, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for her generous remarks and support. I am grateful, too, to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for her support. She raised a specific question about the relationship between child employment and the risk of injury. The provisions of the Bill bear on that. Indeed in one well-known judgment the judge complained about the lack of imprisonment as an option in a dreadful case involving the employment of children found to be exposed to asbestos.
I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), especially in the light of the history rehearsed by my hon. Friend the Minister. He spoke powerfully and graphically about the continuing high level of death and injury in the workplace, and of the continuing need for health and safety legislation. It was not a point that I dwelt on, but the hon. Gentleman was right to link deterrence and regulation. The Hampton thesis is that effective deterrence makes for lighter inspection and enforcement. Indeed, his report is entitled “Reducing administrative burdens.”
Without further ado, I look forward to further exchanges in Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Public Bill Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order).
Forces Widows’ Pensions (Equality of Treatment) Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am grateful for the opportunity to bring the Bill to the Floor of the House. I am representing my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates). I am grateful to the Minister for his time, and I know that I can always expect a fair hearing from him.
I will give a bit of background first, but I will be extremely brief. Improvements to the armed forces pension scheme in 1973 led to an increase in the provision for service widows. As with all improvements to public sector pension schemes, the change was not retrospective. In this case, that meant that an anomaly was created whereby widows whose husbands served before 31 March 1973 receive only one third of their late husband's pension, whereas the widows of servicemen who served on or after 31 March 1973 receive one half of their husband's pension.
Those who served in the forces on or after 31 March 1973 contributed to the higher rate of widows' pensions through the deductions from their salaries. Although those who were serving at the time could "buy in" their pre-1973 service, so as to ensure that their wife was eligible for a half-rate pension on their death, those who retired before the change could not do so.
In 2002, the European Court of Human Rights ruled out various challenges to the armed forces pension scheme in respect of widows. It rejected the argument that the changes in 1973 had treated service personnel unfairly. Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire wishes to introduce the following provisions.
The Bill does not provide an increase from one third to one half of the relevant forces widows' pensions, because to do so would breach the ban on private Members’ Bills spending public money. Instead, the Bill provides for the Government, through regulation within 12 months of the Bill becoming law, to provide pensions to the spouses or civil partners of servicemen or servicewomen who retired before 31 March 1973 and between 31 March 1973 and 6 April 2005 on an equal basis. That means that the Government can either increase the pensions of those currently receiving a one-third pension, or reduce the pensions of those receiving one half. Clearly, the latter is a non-starter.
It is difficult to be exact about the cost of that. The cost of raising pensions to one half does not seem to be available from the Ministry of Defence. It has said that it does not know how many widows are in this position. In evidence to the Select Committee on Defence in 2002, the MOD estimated the cost of making the 1973 change retrospective at between £25 million and £30 million a year. The cost of course is falling all the time as, sadly, widows die. The Ministry of Defence figure is a gross cost; part of the expense would presumably be recouped through higher tax receipts.
I fully understand the arguments against my right hon. Friend’s Bill, but every Member represents widows who are caught in this anomalous position; we have all had mail, pressure or surgery cases involving such widows. I personally know many widows—not so much from my generation, but certainly from my father’s generation—who are now in this pensions trap.
This is a right and sensible alteration to make, and the Government would be wise to listen to my right hon. Friend’s proposal. I hope that they will see reason, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s arguments.
I just wish to place on the record the Liberal Democrats’ support for the Bill, and to note that three of my party colleagues are among its sponsors.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on his clear and lucid account of the Bill’s provisions. We understand what it seeks to achieve. Equality of treatment is a matter of fairness, which we support. He mentioned cost and said that it was not an option to reduce pensions currently in payment, and I think we would all accept that we must not do that.
The key question for the Government is how much this measure would cost. On 6 November last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) tabled a written parliamentary question. In the reply, it was stated that the Government Actuary had confirmed £50 million as the cost of the measure, and it was also stated that if the measure were applied across all public sector pension schemes the total cost could be between £300 million and £500 million. Will the Minister respond specifically on that point, so we know exactly how much it might be?
Will the Minister also say something about the war widow’s special allowance? I have tried to find out about that, although not with any great success. Does the special allowance increase the value of the pensions of the widows who receive it to the half-pension level that pre-1973 retirees would have enjoyed? I would also like to know how many widows whose servicemen husbands retired before 31 March 1973 are not receiving that allowance. Those are all facts that we need to know in order to be able to take the Bill forward.
The official Opposition are sympathetic to the sentiments behind the Bill, as expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark. We back the policy of equal treatment or fairness; that should run through everything we do in this House. However, there are significant questions that we need the Minister to answer before we can proceed.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) on obtaining the time for this debate, and the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on coming to the Chamber to speak in support of the Bill. I also pay tribute to his distinguished service in the armed forces. I know that he takes a great deal of interest in the welfare not only of the armed forces but of their families and, sadly, widows as well—of which, of course, we have had a number in recent years, in addition to those from earlier conflicts.
I pay tribute to Mrs. Jenny Green of the War Widows Association, who will be known to many Members of this House. She has done sterling work on behalf of war widows, and will be stepping down some time this year. She has taken a great interest in war widows’ issues and has been a forceful character in pursuing them.
Let me first give a general picture, so that a number of points are on the record. I hope that the House will bear with me. The Government of course value greatly the work and commitment of the individuals who have served in our armed forces over the years; in that regard, we need only look at the outstanding and courageous work that our people are doing in Iraq today. Of course, these individuals have received all the benefits that were considered appropriate at the time, and that were part of their terms and conditions of service when they served. It is a long-standing principle that, where changes are made to the benefits of public service pension schemes, they are implemented from a current date for future service only and are not made retrospective.
There are of course a number of legacy issues, including those relating to widows’ and widowers’ benefits, that have arisen as a result of Government economic policies and improvements that were made in the past—mostly in the late 1970s—to the armed forces pension scheme 75, known as AFPS 75, that did not cover those who served before the changes were made. It is in this context that I want to address the three key legacy issues relating to the Bill.
On pensions for life, following a change of policy in 2000, widows and widowers whose spouses died for reasons associated with service life have been able to retain their pensions on remarriage or cohabitation. However, the change was extended only to those individuals who had not already remarried or cohabited; it was not made retrospective. The change made in 2000 was exceptional and for a very special group of war widows; it was not extended to widows or widowers whose spouses had died for reasons unrelated to service. The one-off cost of buying back the liability to restore the attributable pensions of those who remarried before the change would be about £40 million. The future cost of providing pensions for life for non-attributable widows and widowers would be £14 million a year, with retrospective costs of £460 million for the armed forces scheme, and of some £3 billion if applied to the rest of the public sector.
On post-retirement marriages, the Social Security Act 1975 required occupational pension schemes to introduce pensions for widows who married their husbands after they had retired from the service. Provision was made in AFPS 75 to comply with the Act, but only widows whose husbands gave service after April 1978 benefited, and only service after that date was used when calculating the level of pension. For widowers, the change was not introduced until April 1989, and then only for service from that date. The one-off cost of extending the entitlement to all current and deferred AFPS pensioners is estimated at £50 million; the cost across all public service schemes would of course be much greater.
On the one-third rate and half-rate changes, until 1973 the widow of a retired serviceman was entitled to a pension equal to one third of that of her late husband. As a result of the Social Security Act 1973, this was increased to one half from April 1973, but only for service from that date. An opportunity was given to serving personnel to make direct contributions in order to buy in former service at the half rate. It would cost up to £30 million a year to change all pre-1973 armed forces widows’ pensions to half rate, and the cost across all public service schemes would of course be much greater. I should add that, having given the option for members of the armed forces serving on or after 31 March 1973 to buy in their previous service if they wished, it would be unfair to extend the half-rate pension to widows whose husbands had not contributed financially towards the improvement.
Naturally, many issues associated with widows’ pensions and forces pensions in general revolve around the retrospection policy that Governments have continuously stuck to over the years. The Government are of course very aware of the strength of the feeling among ex-service personnel and dependants who have not benefited from improvements to pension provision. However, legal principles dictate that members’ entitlements are generally calculated according to pension rules in force at the date of their retirement. It is a policy principle of public service pensions, upheld by successive Governments, that improvements to pension schemes are not made retrospective.
I ask the hon. Member for Newark to take into account the fact that the AFPS 75 legacy issues do not affect only the armed forces, but are common to all public service schemes. Where legacy issues are common across public sector schemes, a retrospective change implemented for the armed forces would certainly result in pressure from others for similar treatment. To concede retrospection to one group would place great pressure on other public sector—
It being half-past Two o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.
Debate to be resumed on Friday 22 February.
Housing (South Derbyshire)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Siobhain McDonagh.]
May I first set out some historical background to this subject? House building in South Derbyshire between 1991 and 2007 averaged 590 units a year. Over the shorter period of the 10 years since 1997, the average has been 665 units a year, which represents a significant acceleration. According to the Office for National Statistics, South Derbyshire was the joint fourth fastest growing district in England between 2001 and 2006.
Between 1991 and 2007, the village of Hilton has grown from being a relatively small place to being the size of a small town as a result of the addition of some 1,500 homes. Large developments at Midway, Church Gresley, Woodville, and between Swadlincote and Woodville, have substantially merged the various communities focused on Swadlincote into one continuous built mass. The decommissioning of three hospitals in the areas, those at Aston Hall, the Pastures, just outside Derby, and Bretby, just outside Swadlincote, has provided the basis for significant, and, in two cases, rather isolated developments. There have also been significant developments on the edge of Derby, sprawling across what were previously open fields toward what may start to be seen as the next natural boundary of the city, the new A50.
Such rapid growth has placed strains on local infrastructure. Although the new A50 was completed during this period, temporarily taking some strain from the former A50 north of Swadlincote, there have been no other significant road schemes. Population growth has sharply increased congestion on roads around Swadlincote and has increased pressure on the A514 linking Swadlincote to Derby, causing particular problems at Swarkestone, where the ancient monument causeway, which is the main road—the A514—has suffered accordingly. The area has no significant rail systems; it has two minor and seldom used halts at Willington and Hatton. Bus services have no dedicated road facilities and are relatively expensive compared with major urban services. In some areas, such as the large Pastures estate just outside Derby, there are no services at all, making the residents of a brand-new housing estate entirely car dependent.
With the arrival of new residents, pressure on public services has also increased. GPs in the area have larger than normal lists and have struggled to cope at times. Despite major building programmes producing numerous extra classrooms, schools have also been stretched, particularly when families arrive after the next year's allocations have been made. Although employment has grown in the area, it remains true that much development has had no substantial associated employment growth, thus producing dormitory lifestyles.
Much of South Derbyshire forms part of the national forest. Since the early 1990s, tree cover in the area has nearly trebled to around 17 per cent. of the landscape. I shall return to the compatibility of projected future growth with completion of the target of 30 per cent. tree cover in the future. Nevertheless, we have coped—just about—and homes sell in South Derbyshire. It remains an attractive place to live, with generally good schools, low crime and a pleasant environment.
Let me turn to the future. The county structure plan, which runs to 2011, is being superseded by the emerging regional spatial strategy for the east midlands, which covers the period up to 2026. The strategy has been examined by an expert panel and modifications are expected within the next few weeks, and part of the point of this debate is that those modifications will be considered by the Secretary of State. The RSS proposes a continuation of the district’s growth, at much the same pace as in the past 15 years. It would mean the completion of 605 units per year through the next 18 years to 2026. It is worth recalling that a large proportion of the 1991 to 2007 growth has been either on brownfield sites—such as the Hilton military depot—or sites that could have been brownfield, including former coal mining areas and especially a large site that was threatened with opencast mining. The more desirable alternative was to build houses. We also have some old hospital sites that have formed the basis for further new development.
Such substantial sites are not so obviously available now. There are two largely disused power station sites, although power generation is planned in the future at Drakelow. At Willington, previous examination—in the aborted South Derbyshire local plan—highlighted a variety of problems that obstruct potential development. At the other site, Drakelow, any development would require major infrastructure investment. Both at least have some rail connections.
Proposals for much of the rest of the growth would inevitably involve loss of green fields, particularly around the southern edge of Derby. I cannot see how the district could meet its target of accommodating 60 per cent. of this huge growth on brownfield sites. To illustrate the problem, there is currently concluding a conjoined public inquiry—caused by the failure of the local plan—into proposals for more than 4,500 houses on four sites around the southern edge of Derby, but within South Derbyshire. Only one of those, for 950 to 1,000 homes, is on a largely brownfield site at Willington power station. There remains little brownfield land with any potential for development around Swadlincote, which is the other proposed major focus for new house building. Indeed, parts of the edges of Swadlincote have only recently been afforested and added to the national forest tree cover.
Concentrating most of the growth around Derby and Swadlincote will at least ensure that access to public transport and local employment will be possible. But that is likely to threaten the separate existence of villages such as Findern, just outside Derby, and Hartshorne, Castle Gresley, Stanton and Linton around Swadlincote. So the RSS growth presents substantial challenges. It will certainly not be accommodated on brownfield sites. Without significant investment to utilise what are currently freight rail lines, there will be no use of rail systems and the likelihood is of continuing strong reliance on cars. It will threaten the achievement of tree cover targets for the national forest. Based on past experience, public services will be severely stretched as councils receive the recognition of population growth only after it happens.
There are more problems still. South Derbyshire abuts the west midlands. Burton-upon-Trent, the neighbouring town, has been identified as a growth point for the west midlands, and it has been suggested that South Derbyshire should accommodate a part of Burton’s growth. The expert panel reviewing the east midlands regional spatial strategy responded to that suggestion by indicating the potential for
“a major expansion of the corridor”—
which encompasses Coalville, Ashby de la Zouch, both in North-West Leicestershire, and Swadlincote in South Derbyshire—which would
“bring together the present separate towns as a principal urban area in its own right”.
The panel suggests that its startling proposal be considered as part of a mini-review outside the RSS exercise, although it notes that the review will hardly be mini in its impact.
Finally, we have the eco-town initiative. In principle, we all welcome such ideas. However, the proposed eco-town has been dropped into the area between Burton and Swadlincote, which is currently unspoiled farmland. The plan actually fails to include the one major brownfield site in the area—Drakelow power station. The site is close to the edge of Burton, thus suggesting more a suburban sprawl than a new town. It would, in effect, sweep away small forest communities such as Cauldwell and Rosliston, uproot a large section of the national forest and replace a fitting network of minor roads serving small communities with a large link road between the A38 and the A444—hardly an argument for sustainable transport from those who support the eco-town proposal. The 5,700 homes proposed would be additional to the regional spatial strategy proposals, and additional to any growth required to meet Burton’s growth point needs.
Frankly, if all the proposals were to proceed the area would be entirely unrecognisable in 18 years’ time. To give the House a picture, taking 1991 as a base point and 2026 as an end point, we would see 75 per cent. growth in the population of South Derbyshire over that period, even based on the RSS proposals alone. If we included the additional major proposals, the figure would be substantially more.
Swadlincote would become part of a much larger urban unit stretching as far as Coalville. It would be joined to Burton by the eco-town—as it has been branded—and by Drakelow’s redevelopment as a housing community. Derby would sprawl southwards to the A50. The RSS gives little indication of significant infrastructure investment beyond the possible opening to passengers of the Leicester to Burton freight line, known as the national forest line or the Ivanhoe line depending on how long one has been arguing for the particular proposal.
Growth at that pace and scale will place immense strain on public services, the planning system and community cohesion. What should we do?
The location of hugely disproportionate growth in one district is unacceptable, particularly when added to relentless and partially undigested growth in the immediate past; we have still not fully accommodated the people who have moved into our area over the past five to 10 years. The RSS proposals alone will be impossible to accommodate without heavy use of green space. We should instead aim to hold to the 60 per cent. brownfield target and build our volume projections from what is available to meet that goal.
Our past experience shows that growth even on a scale that I could accept places high stress on public services and planning functions. Areas such as ours deserve some resource ahead of population data catch-up, delivered through additional planning expertise, capital funding towards public services and infrastructure and marketing support to draw in private sector investment in jobs and services in synchronisation with population growth. Any additional development falling within South Derbyshire to meet Burton’s growth needs should be subtracted from the district’s planned housing growth.
The eco-town proposal is unacceptable. It does not utilise brown fields, it is unlikely to form a distinct community and it is potentially ill-served by sustainable transport systems. It should be rejected. I await the Minister’s response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing the debate. South Derbyshire, as he said, is the fastest-growing district for new development in the county. He is well aware of the pressure to build new housing to accommodate the needs of those who want to have a home. He has also emphasised that with that chance to have a home come other considerations and pressures on local services.
South Derbyshire has already shown that it is ready to meet those challenges. As a member of the three cities and three counties growth point, which is one of the Government’s long-term partnerships for growth with local authorities, South Derbyshire has delivered on average more than 580 new homes a year since 1991. More than 1,000 people are waiting for social housing in the district, and they understand the need to perform even better against the regional allocation. The district council is to be commended for its commitment to contribute more than 600 homes a year to meet the housing needs of the Derby area, and we are supporting that commitment with revenue and capital funding.
I know that my hon. Friend will appreciate that we need to do even more nationally to meet the rising demand for homes. Clearly, there are nationwide affordability pressures. All regions are experiencing major increases in the number of households, not only because people are living longer but because of the fact that there are more single-person households than ever before. By 2016, the Government want to see 240,000 new homes built every year to keep up with demand.
We are inviting local authorities to come forward with further growth point proposals and we are also encouraging expressions of interest for new eco-towns from the public and private sector. We have had an enormous response on both fronts, with more than 30 expressions of interest for growth points and more than 50 for eco-towns. I shall explain a little more about the process in a moment, as I hope not only that that will reassure my hon. Friend but that the record will be taken up and read by other hon. Members who have raised concerns about the process.
First, I want to say something about the pace of growth. Of course, any proposal has to be subject to further assessment and ultimately to assessment though the planning system. As my hon. Friend has said, we must ensure that growth is taken forward sustainably and that the phasing and delivery of housing is accompanied by appropriate investment in infrastructure and the avoidance of unnecessary pressure on transport and the surrounding areas. We are committed to helping authorities to deliver when extra resources are needed.
Eco-towns are a different approach to providing homes as they involve designing a wholly new development with the highest standards of sustainability built in from the start. Such schemes offer a tremendous opportunity to revolutionise the way we plan and deliver our towns, as well as radically changing for the better the way that people travel, work and live. They will be exemplar communities that other towns and developments can draw from.
The eco-towns prospectus was published alongside the housing Green Paper. Eco-towns must be designed to meet the highest standards of sustainability, including low and zero-carbon technologies and good public transport. They must lead the way in design, facilities and services, and above all in community involvement. Only schemes with the potential to meet those criteria will be considered by Government to have the potential to be new eco-towns.
Is the Minister suggesting that an important consideration in determining whether an eco-town should be accepted is general community acceptance in the area in which it is proposed, as well as some demonstration of sustainable transport systems that might support it?
That is the case. I shall elaborate a little more on the opportunities for people to have their say in the process.
The eco-town as a whole—not just the homes—must be able to reach zero carbon through energy provision and use, the sensitive design of the town, and innovative methods of encouraging low-carbon living. Sustainable transport is essential to the new eco-towns. They must clearly demonstrate how they will encourage a reduction in people’s reliance on their cars and a shift towards other more sustainable transport options. We are looking for high-quality offers on accessible public transport and promotion of cycling and walking, and we expect transport plans to be drawn up for each scheme outlining how those can be achieved both within towns and, importantly, in their links to surrounding towns and villages.
In the prospectus, we have highlighted many good examples from Europe and some exciting smaller-scale developments in the UK. We have asked the Town and Country Planning Association, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Prince’s Foundation and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment to bring their considerable expertise to bear on the eco-towns. We are looking across Government at the potential impact of the proposals on the road and rail networks and the environment, and we are assessing how they will deliver on plans to link to other centres and to employment in the most sustainable way.
The locations of growth points and eco-towns are highly important to us in coming to a view on sustainability, which is why we are considering the proposals across Government. We are assessing in particular whether there are issues of potential flood risk or scarcity of natural resources, and considering effects on the natural environment—the green spaces that we all have the right to enjoy and the protected landscapes or species in them. We are also looking for innovative proposals to enhance biodiversity and improve the natural environment by integrating green spaces into new eco-towns. Once we have completed an initial assessment of the applications received, we expect to publish the shortlisted proposals for eco-towns in February for full public consultation. Clearly, while the assessment is under way, I cannot comment on any particular scheme, but I will comment on the process that will apply in all cases, as I know that there is concern about it.
We are carrying out an initial assessment of the sites for eco-towns that involves the relevant Departments—including the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and their agencies. The purpose of the assessment is to find out whether there are any concerns about locations that are so significant that the Government could not support them as sites for eventual eco-towns. We will take into account issues such as accessibility to public transport, impact on the road network, landscape constraints, special protection, and flood risk. During this early stage, the Government are also taking soundings from regional partners in the assemblies and regional development agencies, as well as seeking the important views of local authorities affected by the sites. All local authorities have been informed that their views on the schemes are actively sought.
That is not the end of the story. As I said, we are making an initial assessment of the potential of all bids with the purpose of excluding sites with too many show-stoppers for development to take place. Immediately following that assessment, we will publish a shorter list for public consultation, and we will take every opportunity to engage with local authorities and the public during that time to ensure that their views are heard. After the period of public consultation, we will make final decisions on the areas with the most potential to become the eco-towns of the future. They will be the sites that the Government want to help develop through direct funding to local authorities using the growth areas money, so that studies and further assessments requested by the agencies can be done and local authorities are resourced to work on the schemes.
I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is no truth in the claim that the Government are deciding the locations of the 10 eco-towns behind closed doors without reference to the views of the public or the local authorities in the areas where expressions of interest have been submitted. Importantly, I also confirm what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said in the House about eco-towns: they are indeed a matter for local authorities under the town and country planning system. Any eco-town site regarded favourably by the Government must be subject to testing through the planning system, including an appraisal of its sustainability, in order to proceed. We will work with local authorities in the areas where the Government would like to see eco-towns built. In most cases, the scheme will be supported by an up-to-date local development plan. We know that in some cases local authorities are including new settlements in their issues and options consultations.
In some circumstances, an authority without an up-to-date plan but with a housing shortage may want to proceed with development. In such cases, the local authority will still need to make a decision on a planning application, and will have to be satisfied that all options for the development’s location have been tested. Eco-towns will need full planning applications; section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 requires that applications be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Some areas will also want to consider reviews of the development plan or mini reviews of the regional spatial strategy.
We have previously mentioned the use of new towns powers to deliver and maintain an eco-town, and we remain open to the possibility that, in the specific circumstances of a scheme and its location, it may be appropriate to establish a new town development corporation. In every case, there would still need to be a planning application, or a master plan for each eco-town, which would have the benefit of full public consultation and robust testing of the proposal. Whatever the case, the views of councils and the public are integral to the debate about the ultimate location of sites, and the planning system is the right place to have the debate.
I hope that those observations have demonstrated to my hon. Friend and others the Government’s commitment to getting the processes right.
The Minister mentioned the mini review process. As I said in my speech, there is a proposal in the expert panel review of the regional spatial strategy to conduct a mini review on accommodating Burton’s growth-point growth in South Derbyshire. What sort of mechanism does she envisage for dealing with such dramatic proposals?
As the regional spatial strategy has not been formally adopted, it is difficult to say whether a mini review would happen. The Government are still considering the full regional spatial strategy, but I am happy to ascertain whether there is any further information that I can provide to my hon. Friend. Clearly, I am limited in what I can say.
We want to make it clear that we are no less committed to the goal of delivering significant new homes in new growth locations, and to ensuring that that new housing does not harm the environment. Indeed, it can be imaginative in design, landscape and the use it makes of natural assets. I also fully recognise that infrastructure is an important partner to new homes so that they and the places in which they exist are successful.
We want sustainable homes in well-designed and attractive towns, and I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that many people who are waiting to buy an affordable home or rent a house want that as well.
Will my right hon. Friend expand on the importance of brownfield sites for new developments? She heard the reference in my speech to the potential difficulties to meeting the 60 per cent. use of brownfield growth targets. I drew attention to the fact that the eco-town proposal is not for a brownfield site. How critical is the use of brownfield for new housing development?
Of course, brownfield sites are critical for new housing development. We are trying to do as much as we can to take advantage of the opportunities that brownfield sites provide. We are also considering across Government what public land is surplus to requirements and can be used.
We are not simply considering numbers or bricks and mortar but real people who want homes. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with me that access to affordable housing is no longer a priority only in London and the south-east. There are many other areas of the country, including my hon. Friend’s and mine, that need to offer that opportunity. It is part of our social justice agenda to ensure that those most in need have a chance to have a home, which many of us enjoy.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o’clock.