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Commons Chamber

Volume 475: debated on Friday 16 May 2008

House of Commons

Friday 16 May 2008

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The First 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):—

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, Madam Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided.

Orders of the Day

Special Educational Needs (Information) Bill

Not amended in the Public Bill Committee, to be considered.

New Clause 1

Information on school provision

‘(1) Section 332A of the Education Act 1996 (c. 56) is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (1) insert—

“(1A) Information provided under subsection (1) shall include information on all types of school provision available in any local education authority area which the authority determines is relevant to them.”

(3) At the end of subsection (3) insert “which shall include the annual publication of information provided under subsection (1).”’.—[Annette Brooke.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 9, at end insert—

‘(1A) For the purpose of subsection (1) the information shall include (but not be limited to)—

(a) the amount of special educational needs training received by teaching staff and classroom assistants as part of their initial training,

(b) the amount of special educational needs training received by teaching staff and classroom assistants as part of professional development training.’.

No. 1, page 1, line 22, leave out from ‘and’ to ‘assist’ in line 1 on page 2 and insert ‘a report on how this may’.

In Committee, I indicated that I wanted to return to the issue of information provided to parents by local authorities. In Committee, the Minister pointed to an existing duty on local authorities to provide information on their arrangements for special educational needs, including information on planning and reviewing special needs provision in their areas. He noted in relation to parent partnership services that the Department had issued exemplary guidance setting out minimum good practice and best practice for the provision of information, and he referred to the new duties under the Childcare Act 2006.

I remain greatly concerned that although parents can access impartial information in theory, that is not necessarily the case across the whole country. Some research has come my way since the Bill was in Committee that underlines my feelings and the experience of my constituents. A survey by CentreForum of one third of all local authorities in England and Wales found that only 5 per cent. are meeting their legal duty to provide information about special educational needs provision.

In 2001, the Government introduced a legal requirement on councils to publish information on their websites describing local special educational needs policies—obviously, the provision of information is vital for helping parents to negotiate a complex system. It has been suggested that local authorities are manifestly failing to provide the information required by law. Overall, just 5 per cent. of local authorities provided all the information that they are supposed to publish, while only 27 per cent. gave information about the funding available to support children in the school action and school action plus categories.

The finding in the report that only 39 per cent. of authorities explain how they monitor the allocation and effectiveness of special educational needs spending and resource deployment is especially concerning. Lucy Wilkins, the report’s author, has said that the last time local authorities were surveyed in 2003, only 5 per cent. were publishing all the information that they are required to publish. Five years later, still only 5 per cent. are in full compliance with the law.

That underlines the difficulties faced by parents in trying to access support for children with learning difficulties. From our constituency experience, we know how parents feel when they are not confident that they have information on all the options available to their children, and they have great difficulty in making and accessing the best choice. The report highlights the concerns that, while we are very happy with the general principles of the Bill, previous legislation required information to be published, but, according to that recent study, that information is not being provided. After all, parents, not politicians, are best placed to decide where and how their child should be educated, but how can parents access choice if they are not given the information that they need? I feel that it is important to introduce tough regulations, possibly in the Bill, to make it clear that information must be provided to parents.

Personally, I am strongly in favour of the recommendation made by the Children, Schools and Families Committee in its first report in 2006 on special educational needs. It recommended local maps of provision. I understand that local authorities that already adopt a mapping approach report a marked improvement in practice and in parental confidence levels. For example, a senior officer at Wiltshire county council said that the detailing of the precise provision that parents can expect, depending on their child’s needs, has helped make the system fairer and improved the quality of provision. Other local authorities report that the particular practice of mapping not only where the provision is but its exact details is very helpful and builds on the work of the pupil-parent partnerships.

Following our Committee report, I should make it clear that when I pointed out that there were issues with pupil-parent partnerships, I was not criticising a particular one. However, there is a perception among the parents whom I meet here in the House of Commons and in my constituency, which has two children’s services authorities, that pupil-parent partnerships are not independent. That is another issue that the Government need to consider.

Overall, despite the legislation, there is a real information gap. One of the most important points is that parents of children with special educational needs should be empowered. However, they cannot be empowered unless they have the necessary information in front of them. I would like to be reconsidered the new clause, which we tabled in Committee because I feel that there should be a lot more discussion and response and that the Department should be working to ensure that local authorities meet their existing commitments before we move towards more vague promises about more information.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and I tabled amendment No. 1, after listening carefully to the discussion in Committee. The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) tabled an amendment requiring an annual report. I felt that there was a lot of merit in that proposal, although perhaps it was too precise in requiring an annual debate. I thought about the issue and suggest that subsection (1) of new section 332D, which is entitled “Publication of information”, should read, “The Secretary of State must in each calendar year publish, or arrange to be published, special needs information that has been obtained under this Act and a report on how this may assist the Secretary of State or other persons in improving the well-being of children in England with special educational needs.”

In other words, the report should be widely available and should not contain only select information, which would mean that we did not know why the Secretary of State had decided that children’s well-being would be improved. The amendment would provide some back-up for what is published. A debate following such a move would give clear indications for future policy and the improvement of future provision. If the amendment is not agreed, I fear that we will just have a mass of information without an underlying set of purposes and without more detail than just “improving the well-being” of the child. It is easy to justify any amount of information in general terms, as important as that is. My amendment would give something much more specific and make sure that the focus was continually on improving the outcomes for children with special educational needs.

The hon. Lady said that she was not making any particular criticisms, but I remind her that in Committee she said:

“I was chairman of education at Poole borough council when the parent support partnership was introduced, and I was excited that we had the money and authority to employ such a person…Eleven years on, I am very sad that constituent after constituent tells me that they have no confidence that the advice is independent. I am aware that the system is not working.”––[Official Report, Special Educational Needs (Information) Public Bill Committee, 12 March 2008; c. 32.]

Was she referring specifically to Poole at that point?

I thank the Minister for his intervention. He may be aware that my constituency has a number of councils—every type of council—within it. As I said earlier, it has two children’s services authorities so I could not put my hand on my heart and say from which authority I have had the most such representations. However, I should like to confirm that I am saying that there is a perception that the partnerships are not independent. As long as parents do not have confidence, there will be the issue of their seeking advice.

I also tell the Minister, and my local authorities, that when the parent of a child with special educational needs comes to my surgery, the first thing that I say to them is, “Have you been to the pupil-parent partnership?” As I said, I was so excited when they were set up, and that was always my first question. Perhaps that is why I have had the responses. However, I ask the question not to elicit a response of no confidence but to make sure that the parents are accessing every piece of information available locally.

I take this opportunity to make it absolutely clear that I am not undermining the specific work of pupil-parent partnerships, which are incredibly important. However, there is an issue about parents not having confidence. A lot of what we are talking about today, and have talked about in previous debates on the Bill, is to do with building up parents’ confidence.

I understand that the Government have commissioned Brian Lamb to consider ways of building up parental confidence. I feel that we are all like-minded on the issue, and I am happy to point out that what I hear from constituents and others is that they are not convinced that the partnerships are independent. One therefore needs to consider how to improve the situation. To backtrack on to my new clause, I should say that I want to enforce the motivation behind new clause 1—that is, genuinely to make available as much objective information as possible, to say what is there and to provide a full audit of what is available in a particular area.

I end my comments on amendment No. 1 by saying that I had a great deal of sympathy with the idea of having an annual report that drew things together. I recall suggesting that if we had such a report, the Children, Schools and Families Committee could consider it as part of its remit, for example. The Minister was most encouraging and said that he would consider that idea. In due course, I hope to hear what consideration he has given to that point.

Finally, I turn to amendment No. 2, which requires information on teacher training to be supplied. I want to emphasise how much I support the principle of checking exactly what progress we are making on teacher training for special educational needs.

That, of course, means a whole school approach. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and I tabled an amendment in Committee and felt that we had had a good discussion on the issue, so I thought that on Report we would probably just go through the details. This is a core issue—it is all about the quality of the teaching in the school setting.

We are aware that, very belatedly, action is being taken to put more special educational needs content into the four-year undergraduate courses for teacher training, but 80 per cent. of teachers still come through on a post-graduate certificate course. I am not sure whether that involves special educational needs training. There is also a course with training that takes place within schools—school-centred initial teacher training, or SCIIT—as well as Teach First. Teachers come through via many different routes. Although it is welcome that at long last there are movements to work with the Training and Development Agency for Schools, it is a question of timing. The Government have moved to a policy of inclusion, rapidly at times, from 1997 onwards, but here we are in 2008 talking about the deficiency in teacher training. That must be tackled as soon as possible.

The NUT study, “Costs of Inclusion”, suggests that fewer than 14 per cent. of teachers are confident that they can recognise dyslexia and shows that teachers lack confidence across the board. It found that only 18 per cent. of teachers were confident in teaching children with severe learning difficulties, and the vast majority—86 per cent.—had not received specific professional development in that respect. A majority— 55 per cent.—felt confident in teaching children with moderate learning difficulties, but 76 per cent. had not received special professional development in the past 12 months. So it goes on. Much remains to be done on teacher training, as well as on postgraduate qualifications and on continuous professional development.

A few weeks ago, a written statement on dyslexia announced the set up of some pilot schemes. That is welcome, but I agree with Xtraordinary People—we need action now. While it sounds like a good idea to have pilots, are we not just pushing the solutions into the future? There is a lot of evidence to show that when there is a specialist dyslexia teacher in a school, the outcomes are very good. Xtraordinary People tells me that the vast majority of independent schools have that provision. The Government aspire to equality across the spectrum of education provision, so, given the importance of such specialist teaching, should we not be moving faster than piloting?

I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, but does she welcome the fact that when the Secretary of State came to the all-party parliamentary group on dyslexia on 6 May he announced that Sir Jim Rose would be looking into teaching children with dyslexia in the way described, and that it is right to proceed on the basis of evidence with any policy in which resources will eventually be invested nationally?

I thank the Minister for his intervention. I hope that I said that the statement was welcome; I attended the all-party group and listened to the Secretary of State. Indeed, it is step by step, but I can understand that people who have children with dyslexia are beginning to get impatient, and it is up to us, as the people discussing this Bill, to convey that impatience to the Government.

Back in 2004, in the policy document, “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, which was launched by the then Secretary of State, the Government said that they were already conducting ongoing research into effective teaching practices to support children with special educational needs, yet some four years on we still do not have any information to enable the Government to roll out such schemes nationally. Is that part of the reason for the hon. Lady’s continuing concern?

I thank the hon. Lady—she is right. When I say that parents and others are impatient, I am suggesting that they have every reason to be so, and that the feeling is that we should surely just get on and invest the money.

There are many special educational needs. Much attention is focused on dyslexia, which is important because it has been identified that perhaps one in five pupils are dyslexic. Children with dyslexia are underperforming greatly in all the key stage tests, which has wider implications for their potential and what might happen to them in wider society.

Reports in this morning’s newspapers suggest that failure to deal with dyslexia has cost the economy about £1.8 billion, so there are economic factors too.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. The report by Xtraordinary People points out that there are hard costs to society from this underperformance. Many young people in prison have dyslexia. That does not mean that all dyslexic children go on to offend, but there is clearly some connection. In all sorts of social ways, children, and then young people, are missing out and causing, in one way or another, extra burdens on society. When we see the costs imposed on society by failing to address the issue early enough, we realise that the amount of money that needs to be spent on teacher training and employing specialist teachers is very small in relation to those wider costs.

The hon. Lady is making a telling point. Is she aware that the very successful Dore programme that was being conducted in Stafford prison was discontinued at the behest of the Government? I cannot understand why that happened—can she?

Order. I hoped that the hon. Gentleman’s remarks were going to relate to new clause 1. Perhaps the hon. Lady will bear that in mind.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Interventions are important at all levels, but the purpose of the Bill is to intervene at a very early stage so as to prevent subsequent costs. I have mentioned the impact on society, but most important is the impact on the individual who is, in one way and another, unable to fulfil their potential. Training is of vital importance.

We have received a great deal of information about deaf children and their sad underperformance, which was quite an eye-opener and something that all MPs have become aware of thanks to the National Deaf Children’s Society. The 25 per cent. gap in performance as regards children gaining five A to C-grade GCSEs is alarming and again highlights the need for specialist teaching. When I recently spoke about sign language and interpreting, it was drawn to my attention that sometimes the assistants who are with deaf pupils only have NVQ level 2 in sign language, whereas the interpreting side of signing is particularly important in the classroom. We need to look at training needs right across the spectrum of special educational needs and of all those who contribute to those pupils in the school setting. We know that we are letting down a lot of children and young people, and training is a key means of addressing that failing.

I have been speaking to new clause 1, but I have taken the opportunity to comment on a number of important matters, and if some of my points were accepted, I feel that the Bill would be the stronger and better for it.

I shall speak briefly. I listened with interest to the intelligent remarks of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). Like her, I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on dyslexia and heard the Secretary of State’s address at the meeting.

The hon. Lady made the point that the notion of special needs goes far wider than dyslexia, and there are a variety of other special needs that many of us would accept are not being properly addressed in our school and educational systems. Dyslexia is more typical, however, and I am afraid to say that there are a number of people, including teachers, who still do not accept that dyslexia exists. I am absolutely convinced that there is a strong genetic component involved, and we heard that on Second Reading from hon. Members who are dyslexic themselves and have dyslexic children. We have some way to go to convince some teachers that dyslexia really exists. There may even be something of a genetic pool in Britain because it seems that we suffer more from dyslexia than other countries. It might be a factor that affects Britain in particular.

The hon. Lady talked about parents and I am one of those Members—I am sure that there are others—who have had struggles with their local authority over provision for children with special needs. Parents are sometimes at their wits’ end trying to get such special needs provision. Knowing what is available, as the hon. Lady said, is at least a start, but many parents do not know about it. They may be unaware of what their child’s problem is; they may know that they have a problem, but are not sure what it is.

Another issue to consider is the range of special needs and their severity. Some conditions are mild and some are more extreme, and that is particularly so in respect of behavioural and learning difficulties. Physical disabilities are more obvious, and there is often reasonable provision for physical disabilities of one sort or another. Some behavioural problems may be genetic, and some may be environmental. We hear almost by the week of chemical factors in food that affect children, for example, so other factors are involved.

Ensuring that parents are aware of what is available is important, and in my constituency, the local authority have made provision available in schools. Some have special units for behavioural problems, and there are some remaining special schools, although there was a fashion, which I hope is coming to an end, for closing special schools and forcing children into mainstream schools, which, in my view, were not necessarily appropriate for those children. The teachers and parents certainly think that, but the local authority sometimes has a view—a dogma, almost—that inclusion at all costs is the best approach.

There are local special schools, and there are also, for smaller numbers of young people and children with more rare difficulties, residential schools, which may serve a much wider area. I have suggested, among other things, that public provision made by a group of local authorities in a region might be the way forward. Making information available is absolutely crucial to take pressure off parents, so that they do not get to the point where they are so desperate that they go to see their Member of Parliament. A battle may then ensue, which sometimes becomes public, to get the provision that they need. Providing information is crucial so that parents at least know what they can ask for from the local authority, and so that the authority cannot sidle away from its responsibilities.

My wife was an infants school teacher—she is now retired—and was the special needs co-ordinator in that school, and other relatives of mine and many of my friends have been teachers. Their minds are focused on the problems of children with special needs in their classes, not just because they are concerned about the children, but because they are concerned about the other children in the class and about the difficulties of teaching children with behavioural problems. We are moving in the right direction now, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us more, but we recognise that we need to make better and more specialist provision available for children with special educational needs.

I very much welcome the Bill and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on introducing it. I have been an enthusiastic supporter of her in that process because I have seen so much of the difficulties in question at first hand and the sort of unhappiness they can cause to children, parents and the communities in which they live. It is also economically sensible to address such matters because behavioural difficulties can lead to all sorts of social behaviour that is costly to society.

Would my hon. Friend agree that although there is always pressure to bring in provisions such as new clause in the name of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), there is also a need for us all to take responsibility in using existing regulations and legislation? All of us should ensure that we report non-compliance by local authorities in publishing information that they are already required to publish, as mentioned by the hon. Lady in her remarks. If the Secretary of State is informed, he does have powers to intervene.

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. In the past, getting any information out of my local authority was difficult because senior officers were not sympathetic to the idea of this sort of provision for those with special educational needs. There was a difference of view that caused tension between me and a senior officer, who has now retired, but that is another story and we have moved on.

I wanted to support what the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, and be sympathetic, but I will listen to the responses of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West and the Minister with interest. We are all essentially on the same side and moving in the right direction, but I want to ensure that we keep up the momentum. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the new clause and amendments, but I await the advice from my hon. Friend the Minister.

This is an important group of amendments, but amendment No. 1 in the name of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) is the most important because it would remove from clause 1 the idea that subjective discretion should be left to the Secretary of State, and introduce an objective test instead. If considering the publication of information, we want information to be published that might assist people in the improvement of the well-being of children in England and Wales with special educational needs. It is not necessary for the Secretary of State to be satisfied that that is so; we want the information to be published on an objective basis without it being subject to the Secretary of State’s veto, which it would be under the Bill as drafted.

One of the problems that we encounter so often with private Members’ Bills is that the Government will allow them to proceed only if they have the power to control the outcome. In this modest Bill, the Government even retain the power to decide when it should be brought forward for commencement, instead of allowing that to happen automatically. Amendment No. 1 is important, and I shall use a constituency case to illustrate why I think that it is important. The Priory Church of England primary school in Christchurch has been using the Dore programme to which I referred earlier. The Dore programme is a well-established programme for assisting people with dyslexia, dyspraxia and other similar conditions. It has been made famous by the experience of that great Welsh rugby player—some call him a Welsh rugby legend—Scott Quinnell.

I know that my hon. Friend is an active supporter of the Welsh rugby team, and he will remember Scott Quinnell’s activities. Perhaps the Minister’s attention could be drawn to the Dore programme, although I am sure that he is already familiar with it.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that someone such as Scott Quinnell has been able to come out in public, very bravely, and talk about his problems with dyslexia shows that at least we have moved on from the bad old days when there was almost complete denial that it was a real condition and a real problem?

I do agree, and I would go further. Not only does Scott Quinnell talk about his problems and, indeed, the problems experienced by his two children—that is what really got him going on the Dore programme—but the programme has proved successful for him and his children. Indeed, it has worked not just for the Quinnell family, but for perhaps 20,000 other people in the United Kingdom over the past few years.

The Dore website contains more information about dyspraxia, dyslexia and autism than could be obtained from a local authority, so the information is available, but when the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) asked, at the beginning of 2004, if the Home Secretary would

“make a statement on the results of the DORE achievement centres and dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit treatment programme at Balsall Common School; and what plans he has to extend the programme to other schools”,

the then Minister for Children, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), replied:

“The dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention disorder treatment… is one of a number of commercially available programmes designed to support children with specific learning difficulties. It is for parents, individual schools and local education authorities to decide whether a given technique has something to offer an individual child in the light of his or her particular needs. The Department has no plans to extend the programme to other schools but officials are meeting with representatives… to receive an update.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 503W.]

That meeting took place, but the only thing that has happened since is that the Dore programme has been withdrawn from Stafford prison.

Is it possible that one reason for the lack of publicity about the programme—of which I was completely ignorant until my hon. Friend showed me a piece of paper explaining it—is that the Government know that it is costly, and that they can save money if people do not know about it? The sad thing is that many people who could benefit from such programmes cannot gain access to them.

My hon. Friend is right. The problem is not a lack of information, but the fact that parents are being starved of the information that is available, and are therefore not in a position to put pressure on education authorities to fund schemes such as Dore.

A number of pupils have benefited from the Dore programme at the Priory school, Christchurch. It is funded by their parents, because the school could not obtain any help from the local authority. The results have been so amazing that the parents are now using their voluntarily raised funds to support the programme for other pupils whose parents cannot afford it. However, Dorset local education authority—with which, along with Poole borough council, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole has to deal—does not wish to support the programme, although it is of great significance and is transforming not only the lives of the pupils who benefit from it directly but the lives of other pupils in the same class, because pupils suffering from dyslexia often hold up the progress of others. The programme is therefore of great benefit to the school.

Given the proven success of the Dore programme, it might be imagined that the Government would want to provide information about it, but they seem reluctant to do so. If the Secretary of State does not want to provide information about it, as the Bill stands he will not have to, but if amendment No. 1 was passed and it was thought that such programmes might benefit children with special educational needs, the details would have to be published. It is possible that all that is indeed far too expensive for the Government to fund.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, as part of his investigation of dyslexia, Jim Rose will examine all the evidence to which he has referred, relating to the various ways of teaching children with dyslexia? That will include the Dore programme, and Jim Rose will make recommendations based on his review.

I am glad that that is going to happen, but I fear that it is an unnecessarily prolix way of dealing with the matter. The information about the Dore programme is already available, and, ahead of the initiative that the Minister has mentioned, the Welsh Assembly has been holding a detailed inquiry into the whole issue. In evidence given to the Assembly on 7 November last year, Professor David Reynolds gave a short presentation in which he put the whole issue in context. He said:

“The problem, historically, with dyslexia and other learning problems has frankly been one of huge unmet need and an absence of proven scientifically-based treatments. More recently, the problem has been intensified by the arrival of a new treatment promising outcomes, and the controversy surrounding that treatment, which has shown that the area continues to have problems in agreeing.”

Certain things are clear, however. Dyslexia is prevalent among some 10 per cent. of the population. Later in his evidence, Professor Reynolds said that it would be prohibitively expensive if all, or a high proportion of, dyslexia sufferers took advantage of the Dore programme. That may be so, but on the other hand local authorities are having to teach English and a foreign language to scores of new pupils who have come to this country as a result of the Government’s immigration policies, and we have not had the opportunity—

Order. I have allowed some digression, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing the need for information to be made available to parents.

Exactly, Madam Deputy Speaker, and that is what I am trying to concentrate on. At present the Government are suppressing information about the Dore programme, which is of proven benefit to a large number of sufferers.

In the light of my earlier intervention, how can the hon. Gentleman say that the Government are suppressing information of any kind about the Dore programme? I have just informed him that Jim Rose will be examining the evidence independently, and publishing a report including evidence relating to the efficacy of the programme.

I am basically relying on the answer to the parliamentary question to which I referred. I accept that the Minister did not answer that question—one of his predecessors, who remains in the Government, did so—but the Dorset local education authority’s impression is that the Government do not wish to know about the Dore programme. I would have expected the Department to be inquiring into the effectiveness of the programme of its own volition. The Government have set up this inquiry and, as always happens, it is a way of trying to cover their tracks.

The Minister has not addressed why he thinks it should be left to the absolute discretion of the Secretary of State to decide what information is made available, rather than making the matter an objective test, so that any information that may be helpful could be made available. If that had been the case up to now, we would not have been waiting since 2000, when the Dore programme was first introduced, for the Government to say, “Well, there may be something of benefit in it.” My concern is that an enormous amount of information is available for parents who seek it out on the internet or through their own contact. Unless this proposal is endorsed by the Government, the situation will not improve.

Everything that we are discussing in respect of the Bill and the amendments is already within the Government’s discretion. The distressing thing is that a Bill needs to be introduced by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson). She chose the subject well, on the basis of her own background family experience of the inadequate provision for special educational needs, but there is nothing in the Bill that the Government could not get on with straight away. That is what I find slightly depressing. They have taken some initiative by setting up an inquiry, but we know that it will take a long time to reach a conclusion.

My hon. Friend might be interested to know a little more of the detail of the inquiry by Sir Jim Rose that the Government have announced. My hon. Friend might share my concern that, yet again, the Government are just looking to evaluate the impact of specialist training for specialist teachers who might be dealing with dyslexic children. I echo his comment that the information is available. So, why do we need yet another review and report into evaluating the impact of this training?

My hon. Friend is an expert in this field and she has made a valuable contribution to this debate during the course of the proceedings on this Bill. She draws my attention to the lacuna in the Minister’s argument, and I look forward to hearing her speech, so that that can be spelled out in a bit more detail. The terms of reference to which she refers will not cover the Dore programme, because it is conducted by specially trained experts and cannot be carried out by ordinary teachers, however talented they might be. I look forward to hearing how the Minister thinks that an evaluation of the Dore programme’s effectiveness will fall within the inquiry’s terms of reference.

I take it from the hon. Gentleman’s remark that his understanding of his Front-Bench team’s position is that the Dore programme should be universalised without awaiting the outcome of Sir Jim Rose’s review. Is that the hon. Gentleman’s understanding of his Front-Bench team’s position?

The best thing to do would be to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) on that matter. In a couple of interventions, she has not yet been able to expand on her argument. I can imagine that the Minister will be saying next, “This is Conservative party policy. It will cost x billions of pounds, so it is an unaffordable spending pledge.”

That was not the point I was going to make. I was going to ask whether the hon. Gentleman is urging his own Front-Bench team to pledge to universalise the Dore programme and make it Conservative policy to do so without awaiting the outcome of Sir Jim Rose’s investigation. That is what the hon. Gentleman is asking me to do; is he urging his Front-Bench team to support that position?

I certainly hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke sees the merit in the Dore programme and wishes to encourage local authorities to—

Order. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s remark about the programme that he is discussing; he has certainly spoken about it at some length. New clause 1 and the amendments do not just relate to one particular programme. Perhaps he would like to continue in that vein.

I accept that I am citing but one example of available information. May I explain what has happened under the programme so far? It is reckoned that 86 per cent. of those who have undertaken the programme have had their difficulty in reading out loud—

Order. I think that I have already made it clear to the hon. Gentleman that we have heard a considerable amount about the merits of this programme. New clause 1 talks about information in general, and the other amendments refer to the training of specialist teachers. Perhaps he could now widen his remarks.

Of course I will widen my remarks. I shall begin by discussing the symptoms, which we know exist, of dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder and so on. Given that we know what the symptoms are, why do the Government not publish information about those symptoms, so that teachers, parents and others can identify possible symptoms at an early stage and we can intervene at the earliest stage of a child’s education? Almost everybody who looks into this subject says that if we reach the children early, we are able to improve their lot much more than would be the case if we did not identify the problem until much later. Indeed, I think that was the point that the Bill’s promoter, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, made in her opening remarks on Second Reading.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the tennis academy in Roehampton. People there say that in order to produce the best tennis players, we need to identify the potential among tennis players at the ages of four, five and six. I saw children of those ages there. If we are identifying potential tennis stars at those ages, surely we should look at children of those ages to see whether they are, or are likely to, suffer from these various symptoms. The Government are not producing information on that, and they are certainly not training teachers to identify those characteristics, which may well be symptoms of dyslexia, dyspraxia or the other related conditions to which I have referred.

Teachers and parents know at a pretty early stage whether children are reversing their letters, words and numbers, whether they are having difficulty copying from a blackboard, whether they are writing very slowly, whether their written work is hard to read, whether they are having difficulty structuring ideas on to paper or writing in a straight line, whether they are writing the minimum amount necessary or whether their use of grammar is incorrect. Those writing characteristics become apparent at a pretty early stage.

A moment ago the hon. Gentleman said that the Government are not training teachers in any of these measures. Is he aware of the inclusion development programme that was launched last October to help to boost the confidence of teachers and other staff in several SEN areas? The opening round of that programme is focused on training in relation to communication difficulties experienced by children, including dyslexia. It is just not true to say that there is no training in this area.

I am not saying that there is no training, but there is insufficient training. If there was more training, and it was more effective, the conditions would be discovered much earlier in children’s education, but they are often not picked up until much later. One of the reasons for that is that LEAs think that every child with SEN costs money, so they delay applying that label to children for as long as possible.

Why do not all teachers have access to the checklists that I have mentioned so that children can be identified when they first start primary school? If they were evaluated against a checklist covering speech, learning, reading, writing, attention, co-ordination, organisational abilities and ability to follow a daily routine, any issues could be identified earlier. I suspect that that is what the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West has in mind. We need much more openness about this issue, so that we can make the necessary investment and ensure that we do not have 18 and 19-year-olds going to university undiagnosed. I read in the report that at Bangor university, some 400 to 500 students have been identified as suffering from dyslexia, and the professor who drew that fact to the attention of the Welsh Assembly said that many of those cases should have been identified long before that stage.

My hon. Friend may be right to question the level of training that the Government are giving to teachers. While the Minister rightly pointed out in his intervention the inclusion development programme—a £2 million project launched in October last year—some people are concerned that it may not be delivering in the classroom and will just provide another set of materials. The programme may not do what my hon. Friend wants to see, which is to deliver training in the classroom, where it matters for children, teachers and parents.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case and I look forward to hearing her contribution to this debate shortly. We have now had 11 years of the gap between the rhetoric and the reality from this Government. I suspect that my hon. Friend has highlighted another example. When the Government come under enormous pressure we get platitudes from Ministers, and when we look at the detail we find that they do not add up to a row of beans. This is far too serious an issue for party politics. One of the great things about the Bill is that it has all-party support. There cannot be a single Member of Parliament who does not have, or know someone with, a child with special educational needs, and who therefore does not want to ensure that we make maximum progress in this area of policy.

As the leader of my party said yesterday, we are the fifth most successful economy in the world, so why cannot we help those children with the symptoms of dyslexia at the earliest possible stage? I shall not make the point about alternative expenditure, because you have already told me not to make comparisons, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it is an issue of priorities. Do the Government regard this issue as a top priority or of secondary importance? The Opposition and—I am sure—the promoter of the Bill regard this issue as a top priority, and that is why we want some action now. We do not want a Bill weakened by making every aspect of it subject to a Minister’s discretion. The game is to ensure that there is no justiciability. The Government want to keep this issue for Ministers to decide and they do not want to allow any opportunity for the courts to intervene.

I am ashamed to say that this is my first contribution to the debate on this Bill. I have mentioned a school in my constituency that has made a lot of progress on this issue, with the support of active governors. However, my constituency also has the Shieling school, which deals with children with very severe intellectual handicaps, and the Portfield school, which is a residential school—

Order. I repeat that perhaps the hon. Gentleman could relate his remarks to the new clause. Interesting as it is to hear of the schools in his constituency, we are not on Second Reading.

I appreciate that, Madam Deputy Speaker, and your admonition will enable my constituents to know that I am not picking on only one school.

In my 16 years as a Member of Parliament, many parents have come to see me about their children, who have certain problems; the parents do not know where to turn. They need the specialist advice that the information that the new clause would require would give them. Some of the more proactive parents are able to go on the internet, but there are others who do not know where to turn. I hope that the Bill will require several organisations to ensure that parents get the information they need to help their children.

Absolutely. New clause 1 defines the information to be provided as including

“information on all types of school provision available in any local education authority area”.

That does not mean just provision by the local education authority directly, but any other provision available in the area. The Shieling school is an example of such provision in Dorset, but people who are thinking about sending their children there are steered clear of it by the LEA, which conspires—I use the word advisedly—to ensure that the minimum number of pupils from Dorset attend that school, even though it is a beacon of excellence. The LEA, however, thinks that the costs are too high, and that is unsatisfactory, if not outrageous. If new clause 1 were included in the Bill, LEAs would have to make all the information available, whereas at the moment it is difficult for parents—

I agree that full information about all provision should be made available. The hon. Gentleman mentions provision within a local education authority area. I have talked about special schools for smaller minorities of children with special needs that cover a much wider area. Information about such provision should be provided by the local education authority, so that parents have a full range of choice.

I agree. In some cases, the best provision might be in a neighbouring local authority area, or even several hundred miles or more away if specialist residential provision is required. I have not gone into that because new clause 1 talks specifically about

“all types of school provision…in any local education authority area which the authority determines is relevant”.

I imagine that new clause 1 is meant to keep it within that local education authority area. Pupils at the school I have mentioned are funded by education authorities from a wide area.

I should not be tempted to intervene, but the purpose of the new clause is to make it easy for parents to access information from neighbouring authorities. That is particularly relevant to Dorset, where we have three education authorities. It would then be easy for parents in Bournemouth, Poole or Dorset to get the same information. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s concern.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that explanation. I would include Hampshire as well, because much of my constituency is contiguous to that county boundary, and facilities are available inside Hampshire.

That information should be made easily available to parents, as it is important that they know where to look for it. Does my hon. Friend agree that certain pilot schemes, or even well-established schemes, operated by education authorities could be transferred, as best practice schemes, to education authorities that operate schemes that are not very good, or authorities that, woefully, have no schemes to help people with special needs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the moment, there is an element of forum shopping. Parents who are in the know, and who can afford to move, choose the education authority that they think will be best for their children because of the provision that it might make available. I have first-hand examples of that. For all those reasons, the new clause and amendments are important. I hope that the Minister, who is temporarily absent from his post, is absent getting extra fuel and briefing in order to respond positively to the debate.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the new clause and amendments, including amendments Nos. 2 and 3, which are tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends. Before I speak to the amendments, I must congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on her skilful trafficking of the Bill through the House. To people outside, it might look like a simple Bill that should not take much time or effort to get through our procedures, but I know from my discussions with her that she and her researcher have spent a great deal of time and effort on it. I congratulate her and her staff on the excellent job that she has been doing. I hope that today’s debate helps to clarify the two main provisions in the Bill, which are about securing information about children with special educational needs to help to ensure that they are well supported and active and achieve their real potential, and about ensuring that the information is published.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who has particular knowledge of how these issues work practically, on the ground, in local authority areas. His contribution to the debate has really demonstrated that. He highlighted the lack of training for teachers in the classroom, and I shall build on those points when I speak to amendment No. 2. His comment about rhetoric versus reality, in relation to the Government, was well made. All too often, we hear a lot of announcements when we discuss special educational needs, but when we talk to our constituents, we find that practical changes in our classrooms can be more limited.

The hon. Lady has raised rhetoric and reality, and makes a political point on this issue. That is fair, as we are here to debate special educational needs, but we are seeking cross-party consensus. If she believes that we should keep rhetoric and reality together, why does she support getting rid of independent appeals when pupils are excluded, given that we know that would impact overwhelmingly on pupils with special educational needs?

Order. That is out of order, because we are discussing a particular new clause and set of amendments.

Thank you for clarifying that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am keen to discuss the Bill, because it will give practical help to people in my constituency and in every constituency throughout the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch spoke in support of amendment No. 1, on which I shall briefly comment. The bulk of my comments will be on amendment No. 2 and training. On amendment No. 1, my hon. Friend discussed the importance of making data available and I commend the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for tabling the amendment, which builds on an amendment that I tabled in Committee. The collection of data is not an end in itself; it has to be made available in a form that parents will be able to use. Some of the amendments that we debated in Committee were thought to be too complex, so I commend the hon. Lady for bringing simplicity with her amendment, which tries, in a much simpler way, to get relevant information published in a way that would be useful to parents. I hope that the amendment will therefore be more acceptable to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, and that she might consider it, perhaps to be included at a later stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said that the Government cannot be allowed to control information, and I agree that it often feels that way. As I said in an earlier intervention, the Government said, in their 2004 document, that they were looking at effective teaching approaches for special educational needs, but four years on we are still getting announcements of pilots to identify ways of more adequately supporting children with dyslexia. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, a host of organisations have done work and obtained information in that area, and we should perhaps pay more heed to them.

Let me address amendment No. 2, which has become an important issue that needs to be clarified within the Bill. I am pleased that my amendment has been selected for debate, and I am sure that there is no need to remind the House of the evidence on teacher training that we discussed in Committee. Hon. Members will know of specific examples in their constituencies of good support for children with special educational needs. In Basingstoke, I am fortunate to have a number of specialist schools, including Limington House, Dove House and Maple Ridge, which do a splendid job in supporting many children and their families who have particular special needs. I should not forget the Loddon school, which specialises in dealing with autism. We are also fortunate to have a specialist unit for hearing-impaired children at Park View junior and infant school, as well as Aldworth science college. I am therefore well placed, in my constituency, to help to support constituents who have children with those particular needs.

However, that is not the general situation. We have heard throughout this debate that there are particular concerns about the level of expertise and professional development available to teachers in meeting the needs of SEN children. I am sure that there is no need to remind the House how teachers are left to cope, with little specialist knowledge on how to support such children. The situation certainly has not been helped by the closure of 158 special schools in recent years. That and the Government’s approach to inclusion have significantly changed the challenges faced by children, but that has not been reflected in the training that teachers receive. It is little wonder that we see such a high number of teachers deciding to leave the profession within a short period after qualifying.

SEN includes a wide range of learning disabilities—physical, sensory, developmental, and invisible disabilities such as autism and dyslexia. Some of these children will have high IQs and others lower levels, and some will have multiple disabilities. Yet we are leaving our professional teaching staff feeling ill-equipped to cope with this issue. One in five children are now included on the SEN register, so this is not a peripheral issue but a mainstream one that teachers are dealing with daily, and which has grown significantly in the past decade.

At a recent surgery, I was reminded by a teacher who has worked with children with autism in my constituency that it is still impossible to get SEN training at undergraduate level. We should consider the idea of having a specialism in SEN at that level. Interestingly, her school said that that situation was putting a particular burden on special schools, which had to take on graduates and train them from scratch in the needs of children with particularly acute SEN. Research by the National Union of Teachers suggests that training for teachers simply has not kept pace with what is going on in the classroom: just 16 per cent. of teachers have specific SEN qualifications. The work done by the NUT helps to enlighten us all regarding the gap between what is said by the Government and in this place, and what is actually delivered for teachers in the classroom.

I want to draw the House’s attention to the NUT report issued in 2006. A primary assistant head who took part in the related research referred to the demoralising of teachers

“because of an apparent almost total lack of training in teaching of”

SEN children

“in a mainstream class, and a lack of support to adequately do this in the classroom…The disruption of astronomically large numbers of children’s education through the presence of such children because of the lack of the same two elements mentioned above”

concerning training in SEN. That highlights the fact that, although the Government may have some good intentions in their desire to help and support teachers, the reality on the ground is that such help may not be filtering through in the way that the Minister would like to suggest.

In Committee, I listened closely to what the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West and the Minister had to say about their concerns in highlighting the need to publish information on teacher training levels. The amendment that I have tabled today is much simpler than the one we tabled then, which was something of a probing amendment. I hope that the hon. Lady can indicate a level of support for it today. It might be useful to recap the concerns expressed by the Minister in Committee about the amendment tabled there. He was worried that those involved might view it as a “burden”. Indeed, in response to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, he felt that it would be a “burden” on those providing the training. The response to the amendment that I tabled on this issue was that it would be a “burden placed on schools”. My concern was that there should be more room to consider the burden placed by the current situation on children, their parents and teachers, hence my tabling a further amendment for consideration on Report.

The Minister has outlined the great number of initiatives that the Government have put in place in the past decade to address the problem of teacher training. The objective of my amendment is to ensure that such initiatives are really making a difference on the ground in our classrooms. The list of initiatives is far too long to go through—in fact, I may well have gone through it on Second Reading. I am sure that the Minister will remind us of one of the promises that he made in Committee: that he was just about to make an announcement that would help us all. That announcement—on the Rose review, which was to look at teacher training in particular—was very welcome.

The recommendation concerning dyslexia is very specific. As I said earlier, I am somewhat concerned that we are going through yet another piloting process on how to deal with dyslexia. There is a lot of evidence and information used by schools today that the Minister could look at to edify himself in this area. However, it is welcome that there is some acknowledgment that room remains for improvement. That said, this is still simply more looking and piloting, and perhaps not enough action. I want to press the idea of amending the Bill, so that we can examine on the ground in a practical way how the many measures for training teachers are progressing, and whether they are yielding results in the classroom.

The Government have looked at teacher training in this area, as the Minister said in an intervention, but as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, the focus has been on the three-year undergraduate course. As the Minister will be aware, only some one in five teachers come through that route; 80 per cent. will take a one-year postgraduate course, and there are still no proposals in place to support teachers in the SEN area. We need to move forward on this issue. The Minister has clearly taken on board some of the comments that have been made, but we need to monitor the situation more closely to ensure real action on the ground.

The Minister referred in Committee to the work done for the census, which he felt might in some way help us to get the information we require. He will doubtless have had a chance to read the note that the NUT issued in advance of this debate. It made it clear that the census will be able to help in only a very small way in identifying the professional development needs of teachers. The inclusion of more specific information on teacher training would be a particularly welcome addition. The NUT certainly feels that such an amendment would strengthen the approach that the Government are taking to ensure that they take into account the views of teachers and support staff on training needs. I hope that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West will be able to support the amendment in the light of this helpful commentary from the NUT.

I need not remind the House today of the very real consequences for children. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People reminded us in its briefing that only 32.9 per cent. of deaf children achieve five GCSEs at grades A to C, compared with a figure of 57.1 per cent. for all children. That 24 per cent. attainment gap is unacceptable, yet three quarters of teachers felt that the lack of training meant that they faced a barrier in teaching children with hearing impairment. That training needs to be in place, and we need to see whether the Government’s focus on that area is achieving the breakthrough that classroom teachers and children need.

During the discussion on that subject in the Welsh Assembly on 7 November last year, the point was made that we need to train not only teachers but classroom assistants, too. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for classroom assistants to have the right information, as they are often the ones who take an active role with our younger children?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We need to consider all the interfaces that the children have with different staff to ensure that the training is in place to support those individuals. I was recently in a school in my constituency—Park View junior school, which I mentioned earlier—and signing is being taught not only to the teaching class but to all children in the school. I attended an assembly that was quite an amazing sight, as every child in the school signed the song that they were singing. We must have that level of commitment throughout a school in order to support children with those needs.

The hon. Lady has made a good point. I am sure that she will want to welcome the fact that Lord Adonis announced to the all-party group on children on 6 May that the Department would be tendering for a project to raise awareness of the status of British sign language.

I thank the Minister for his intervention. I know that the subject of deaf and hearing-impaired children and the support that we give them is under continual review. I know that from the work done in Hampshire to look at restructuring that provision in the county. I certainly welcome any support that the Government can give to counties such as my own.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for being so generous in giving way. On the subject mentioned by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) in his intervention, the inclusion development programme is for all the early years and schools work force, including learning support assistants.

I thank the Minister for that intervention, but I caution him to ensure that he has spoken to all the relevant outside organisations about their feelings on the inclusion development programme. Although we would all agree that any movement in this area is welcome, there is some concern that although the inclusion development programme offers a great set of materials, we need to ensure that it permeates down to the classroom. That is why I have tabled my amendment on monitoring and providing information on the level of training for teachers. Although the Government are introducing a huge number of initiatives, it is difficult to see where they are making a difference at the moment. When I speak to the NUT, I find that its concerns lie in that area, too.

Perhaps I could turn my closing remarks to new clause 1, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole after much discussion of the subject in Committee. It spells out another specific need for information to ensure that parents can make informed choices for their children at a local authority level. In his response in Committee, the Minister highlighted the duty on local authorities to provide information on their special educational needs arrangements. He also highlighted the fact that he had issued guidance from his Department to ensure good practice on the ground. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole has pointed out, research was issued earlier this month that will cast some doubt on whether local authority practices are moving forward in the way that the Minister might have hoped. I am sure that it would dismay him as much as it dismays me to see that not all the information that should be available is available.

Perhaps it would be interesting to hear what action the Minister plans to take as a result of the research report issued by Policy Exchange and CentreForum, which clearly showed that only 39 per cent. of local authorities explained how they monitor the allocation and effectiveness of SEN spending. Indeed, an interesting commentary in the report showed that potentially a great deal of SEN spending was wasted locally. Xtraordinary People, which does so much work in the area, has also commented on that fact. The report went on to show that only 18 per cent. of local authorities show how they secure training and support for SEN staff, which supports my earlier amendment and shows that local authorities are not making that information available. That would bring into question how many teachers have been given the opportunity to take up SEN training.

My local authority in Hampshire has an excellent programme of SEN training for teachers in the county. I recommend that the Minister look at that as a model of how such training can be offered. However, in north Hampshire it can be practically difficult for teachers to access that training because of the problems caused by a lack of cover in schools. It can be difficult for them to get the support to attend some of those courses. That is not always the case, but it can be.

I urge the Minister to review the report that was issued earlier this month. I think that he would find it useful, as it could help him to understand how these measures are working on the ground.

The hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West is doing superb work. She has highlighted this important issue and brought many people’s concerns to light. I wish her well and hope that she will consider my amendment in the light of my comments.

I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) about my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), who is quite a special person herself. My hon. Friend knows from our private conversations what I think about her communication skills. She is an extremely effective advocate on the subject and I congratulate her on the progress that her Bill has made so far and will continue to make today, we hope.

I praise the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for her involvement and interest in and passion for the subject. In Committee, she said that the purpose of the new clause is to ensure that local authorities make available clear information to parents on the range of special educational provision that is available—a laudable aim that I think everybody would support. Of course, such information should already be available. That is always the difficulty as we try to will the end result. The information should be available through several avenues.

Under the Education (School Information) (England) Regulations 2002, local authorities must publish information about their detailed arrangements and policies for special educational provision. That includes the provision made by an authority in its community, voluntary and special schools for people with SEN and the use made by them of such special schools maintained by other authorities. They must also publish information about the authorities’ arrangements and policies in respect of the use of non-maintained special and independent schools and the special educational provision provided otherwise than at school. The information must be published no later than six weeks before the date by which parents may express a preference for a school for admission that school year.

In addition, under the Education Act 1996 local authorities must keep the arrangements that they make for special educational provision under review. Under separate regulations covering local education authorities’ provision of information on special educational needs, authorities must publish information on the general arrangements they make for auditing, planning, monitoring and reviewing special educational provision in their area. The information must be made available on the authority’s website and in written form to anybody on request.

From our debate, I understand that not all local authorities meet their duty—it is indeed a duty—to publish such information. If Members have evidence of non-compliance, such as the reports that have been cited today, and they bring it directly and specifically to our attention, we will investigate. The Secretary of State can intervene to direct local authorities to carry out their duties.

Will the Minister tell the House how many times he has pulled up a local authority for not publishing such information, and what the penalty is when he does so?

It would not be for me in my ministerial role to do that. I shall attempt to acquire inspiration for a response to the hon. Lady’s intervention during the course of my remarks. If I do not, I shall write to her later. However, the powers exist and I assure the House that if specific cases are brought to the attention of the Secretary of State we will investigate them.

Not all local authorities fully comply with their duties, which is why we have asked the national strategies team of SEN national advisers to explore during their visits to local authorities their compliance with those duties. In Committee, I mentioned that local authorities have new duties to provide information. Since 1 April 2008, under the Childcare Act 2006, local authorities have had a duty to provide information, advice and assistance to parents of children and young people aged up to 20, or prospective parents. We have published guidance for local authorities that makes it clear that information that may be of benefit to parents should include details about schools, such as their location, composite prospectus, behaviour units and so on. The guidance also sets out the information that should be available to the parents of disabled children, such as the availability of local social services and specialist medical services.

I have two points. Has there been any evaluation of the children’s information services that should have been fully in place by April 2008? Secondly, the Select Committee, in its report on special educational needs, recommended the mapping of provision, yet I understand that the Government’s response—twice—was to reject that recommendation. In light of the general consensus that the information needs to be available, why are the Government not supportive of the Committee’s recommendation?

The guidance under “Aiming high for disabled children” refers to the core offer, and to clear information, the early support programme’s information for parents and parent partnership services. We need to evaluate the effectiveness of the guidance that is coming into force. There may be disagreements about the best way to conduct the evaluation but we are confident that we will be able to carry it out.

Local authorities must publish information about admissions arrangements, and there are choice advisers to help parents who may struggle with the admissions system. The advisers are expected to know about special needs and disability policy and provision. We want the parents of children with SEN to have access to a range of special educational provision. Last year, we published for local authorities the guidance “Planning and developing special educational provision”, in which we advised local authorities to develop a range of provision to meet the range of children’s needs. The guidance lists the environments in which SEN provision might be made, such as resourced provision and designated units in mainstream schools, special schools, including those that specialise in a particular type of need, and co-located mainstream and special schools.

The guidance also makes it clear that parents and families should be provided with good information as and when they need it on the range of SEN provision in the area through local parent partnership services and other routes. They should also be given good information about their child’s progress and the plans and interventions used to address their learning and other difficulties.

Local authorities are obliged to send information to the parents of children who have been statemented to help them decide at which school they want their child educated. The parents of children with statements of special educational needs can express a preference for a school when their child is being statemented or when an existing statement is being amended. When they receive a proposed statement the name of the school their child will attend must be left blank. They must be provided with a list of all primary or secondary schools, as appropriate, in their area, and they have a right to request maintained schools in other local authority areas, too. They must also be given a list of independent and non-maintained special schools, whether in their area or not, to help them choose which school they would like named on the statement.

There is already an onus on local authorities to provide information to parents about the special educational provision that is available, which is in line with the intention behind the new clause. However, the effect of the proposal does not meet the intention that a local authority should publish information on special educational provision. Section 332A of the Education Act 1996, which the new clause would amend, was incorporated in that Act by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 to ensure that all local authorities make parent partnership services available to the parents of children in their area with special educational needs. In effect, the provision in the new clause that is intended to make local authorities provide information on the range of SEN provision will actually make parent partnership services give such information to parents whether or not they have asked about the availability of such provision. For example, the parent whose child does not have a statement and who is happy with the school their child attends might seek advice about the provision being made for their child. The local authority, via parent partnership services, would be compelled to provide information about the range of school provision in their region.

The second part of the new clause, which refers to annual publication of information under subsection (1) of section 332A of the 1996 Act, would in effect oblige local authorities to publish annually all the information given to parents by the local parent partnership services, including information on the range of school provision. Although I understand the rhetorical point that the hon. Member for Basingstoke was making about the fact that we should always be conscious of the burden on parents and young people with special educational needs, I do not apologise in the least for not wanting to impose considerable burdens on local authorities with no clear benefit to those children. It would be of no use and would divert resources from alleviating the burden, which, as the hon. Lady rightly said, should be first in our minds. The proposal would place a considerable burden on local authorities without any clear benefit to children with special educational needs or their parents.

Some of our discussions in Committee echoed some of the comments made this morning about the quality of parent partnership services and the impartiality of the advice they give. The hon. Lady referred to that in her remarks. Parent partnership services are meant to give parents impartial advice about special educational needs. The SEN code of practice gives statutory guidance about the services, including minimum standards. In 2006, we published an evaluation of the parent partnership services, which found that there were areas of good practice and supported previous reports in finding that the services are valued by most parents. However, it also found that there were wide variations between services due to organisational arrangements, staffing and resources.

As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, some parents feel that parent partnership services do not provide impartial advice. That is why, last year, we published an exemplification of those minimum standards set out in the SEN code of practice for the services and the local authorities to emphasise the need for services to demonstrate their impartiality. We expect parent partnership services to provide full information to parents. The minimum standards set out in the code state that services should provide information on the “wide range of options” that are available for their children’s education.

Guidance is also published in the special educational needs toolkit on parent partnership services, which advises the services to promote the sharing of information between parents, schools and local authorities. The exemplification of the SEN code’s minimum standards makes it clear that the parent partnership services have a published policy on how they act impartially and provide a comprehensive and balanced range of information for parents. So I hope that, in the light of what I have said about the duties and guidance that encourage local authorities to publish information on SEN and about the effect of the new clause, the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw the motion when the moment arrives.

The Minister has comprehensively dealt with that issue, but can he assure the House that, when he has the information in response to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), he will make it his job as the Minister to ensure that tough sanctions can be imposed on local authorities that do not comply with all the duties that he has set out?

I will certainly undertake to consider that suggestion in conjunction with my colleague, Lord Adonis, who has direct responsibility for such matters—I speak on them in the House of Commons—and I certainly undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Basingstoke in relation to the sanctions that are available and any further measures that could be taken.

Amendment No. 2, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Basingstoke, would place requirements on the Secretary of State to collect specific information on the training received by members of the school work force. Again, I do not apologise for saying that any new data requirements—I am sure that the hon. Lady’s friends in local government would agree, as would mine—must be considered carefully in the light of the burdens placed on schools, local authorities and other data providers to comply. Although I agree that our principal concern is the burden placed on parents and young people, we must ensure that we do not divert resources from meeting those needs.

Careful thought also needs to be given to whether the information collected is likely to be of the right quality and meaningful in a way that could bring benefit to those people who are trying to help. I am not immediately convinced that collecting the data proposed would, in itself, lead to improvements in the ability of the school work force to support and help children with special educational needs and disabilities and to improve outcomes—obviously, that is at the bottom of all this—for those children and young people, which is what all hon. Members want, or that that would necessarily influence the prioritisation of professional development in SEN and disabilities at school or local level.

I believe instead that improvements will come through the work that we are already taking forward with the Training and Development Agency for Schools—the TDA—our national strategies and others both to improve initial teacher training and to provide resources to support the continuing professional development of those staff who are already in post. Again, we share that objective across the House. I should like to say something about that before I return to the specifics of the data collection.

The TDA has been developing new specialist units for trainee teachers that are designed to improve their skills in identifying, assessing and supporting the needs of pupils with SEN and disabilities. Those units, which were developed for primary undergraduate initial teacher training courses, have been successfully piloted and will be rolled out to all course providers this September. That is the right way to do things. We are being urged to move more quickly and I understand people’s concerns, but it is right that those initiatives should be properly piloted and tested before they are rolled out universally.

Work is also under way to develop similar materials for secondary undergraduate courses and for postgraduate certification in education courses, and that will be rolled out in September 2009. Ofsted has also been undertaking a thematic review of the journey taken by trainee teachers in acquiring SEN and disability knowledge and skills during their initial training and induction. The results of that review are expected shortly, and they will help us to understand where further improvements can be made—again, based on the evidence.

For those who are already in post, our inclusion development programme, which was launched in October 2007—the hon. Member for Basingstoke made some observations about that, and I shall refer to them in a moment—will help to boost the confidence of teachers and other staff in a number of SEN areas. The opening round of the inclusion development programme has focused on training in relation to the communication difficulties experienced by children. Of course, that includes dyslexia, which has been mentioned during the debate. New specially produced training material is being distributed to schools via their local authorities. In subsequent rounds, the IDP will focus on the autistic spectrum disorders, ASD, and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, BESD.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke is critical of the IDP because she feels that it does not have support beyond the Government’s walls and that, out in the country, there is an upswell of opposition to it. The IDP was developed in conjunction with I-CAN and Dyslexia Action, and it is endorsed by a wide range of voluntary organisations involved in communications and dyslexia. I fear that we may never be able to please all the various organisations—whether teaching unions or others—who write to us at the House and send their briefings to Front and Back Benchers, but we do not introduce such programmes without seeking input from stakeholders. They have a very extensive input into the IDP, which is widely endorsed. So I should like to paint a more complete picture of it, rather than the partial pictured painted by the hon. Lady.

The Department also already plans to introduce a school work force census from 2010—again, that has been referred to during the debate—and it will provide the Department with individual-level information that relates to all teachers and support staff. I accept that the census is not intended to cover the detail of SEN-related training that is sought in amendment No. 2, but any data collection exercise on that scale requires a long lead-in time. Some data providers are already calling on us to reduce the existing scope of the planned census. It is a continual tension in government that hon. Members call on us to reduce burdens, bureaucracy, red tape and so on and that, sometimes almost before they have reached the full stop in the same sentence, they then ask us to impose more data collection and more activities on local government and schools.

We must try to make a judgment on these matters, and any data collection exercise on a big scale must be considered very carefully and not undertaken without extremely good evidence that it will produce results on the front line. It is important to strike the right balance between collecting useful data and minimising the burden on service providers. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be aware of the old Welsh proverb, “You don’t make the goose any fatter by weighing it all the time.” We must ensure that the activities that we undertake will result in real delivery on the front line.

The census may prove to be a suitable vehicle for collecting such information, but it is a complex undertaking. We are piloting it in 2008-09 so that we can ensure that the burdens placed on schools are in fact manageable. If the pilots are successful, the census will be extended nationally in 2010. After that, we would be prepared to enter a dialogue with the interested partners about how the scope and coverage of the census might be expanded in future years. Perhaps information about the training and qualifications of teachers and support staff could be collected with effect from 2012 as an additional data item, but that would be contingent on several factors, including burdens on schools. I am not going to apologise for that, because it affects burdens for pupils at the front line, including burdens on schools and other candidates imposed by extra data items, of which there are likely to be many, because there is a long list of data collections that people would like to be undertaken but which have to be weighed carefully in relation to the burdens that they can create. We must be careful not to place unreasonable and undue burdens on schools and local authorities, and in the light of that, I invite hon. Members to withdraw amendment No. 2.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole referred to services for deaf children. I have reminded the House of the all-party parliamentary group announcement by Lord Adonis about British sign language, and I can provide more details. The tender has been published, and we look forward to organisations coming forward to run the project, which will allow families with deaf children to make informed choices about whether their children should use British sign language. That has been welcomed by a wide range of organisations representing deaf children, and we are working closely with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the National Deaf Children’s Society to address the gap in attainment between deaf and hearing-impaired children and their peers, so I hope that that information is useful for the hon. Lady.

Part of the inclusion and development programme is the “Removing Barriers to Achievement” initiative, which is based on what is known about effective teaching for SEN children. It is a national programme, and we have just published a DVD on meeting the needs of children with dyslexia and speech, language and communication disorders. We are now developing materials for teaching children with autism, which will be followed by material on social, behavioural and emotional difficulties. I hope that that information is useful to the House, given the points that have been made.

Finally, amendment No. 1 would oblige the Secretary of State to publish a report on how special educational needs information may assist him or other persons to improve the well-being of children in England with special educational needs. I am sure that it is intended to develop the purpose of the Bill and improve the provision of SEN information, but it is unnecessarily prescriptive. It will limit the way in which the Secretary of State can publish information to assist him or others in improving the well-being of children with SEN in England. The amendment would mean that that information would have to be published in the form of a report, which would not be helpful.

The Bill as drafted does not preclude the possibility of a report being published, but it allows information to be published in any way or form that the Secretary of State considers helpful in promoting the well-being of children with SEN. A report is not the only way—and it may not be the best one—of achieving that end. As ever, I want to be helpful, because I understand the point that has been made by hon. Members and the sincere intention behind the amendment. The Department publishes an SEN statistical bulletin every year. Following the passage of the Bill, I undertake to look at how we can expand that bulletin to include more information—for example, information on attainment—to highlight which children with different types of SEN are not making as much progress as we would like, and to point the way towards action to address underperformance.

The problem with the amendment is that it appears to force the Secretary of State to abandon that approach in the bulletin and instead publish a discursive report on SEN information. Publishing only a report would not be the best way of achieving the ends that we share across the House and that we all want to achieve.

If the Minister is about to announce an important concession, I apologise for intervening. However, he has not yet addressed the question of why the Secretary of State should be the sole judge of what information will provide assistance. That is the position under the Bill as drafted, which would be changed by amendment No. 1.

It is the job of the Secretary of State to do that, and it is right that he should do so. Moreover, in the Education and Skills Bill, a general well-being duty has been introduced in relation to children’s welfare. It is therefore appropriate that it should be the Secretary of State who performs that role. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting this, but the Secretary of State is not trying to hide anything; he is making a judgment about how best to exercise his duty to promote the welfare of children in the broadest sense by publishing that information.

I do not want to shut down completely the possibility that the Secretary of State may publish the sort of report envisaged by the amendment. As hon. Members will know, we have asked Ofsted to review progress in special educational needs next year. If Her Majesty’s chief inspector, having conducted that review, recommends that we publish the sort of report proposed in the amendment, I undertake to consider that recommendation very carefully. I hope that in the light of what I have said that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole will not press the amendment further. I will conclude simply by reiterating my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West on the Bill, and I wish it godspeed in its remaining stages.

I welcome the issues raised by the amendments, and I have some sympathy with their intentions. I hope to be able to offer my support in ensuring that something can be done to address the concerns that led hon. Members to table them.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) first raised the issues in new clause 1 in Committee, and asked me to consider them. I wholeheartedly agree that we must ensure that all parents have access to good-quality information that provides fair and impartial advice about the services available to them. In fact, I see no reason why the Government and individual Members should not encourage local authorities to publish that information because, as we heard today, authorities are already supposed to do so. However, it should be available in a format that is far more digestible for parents than the form in which it is often provided. Indeed, that is if, as the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), pointed out, it is even provided in the first place. I was interested to hear the Minister say that the Government would go away and look at how they could deal with local authorities when it is brought to their attention that they are not providing that information.

The Minister explained in detail that the information was supposed to be available, but simply because information is made available does not necessarily mean that it is accessible. I hope that the recent guidance that the Government have sent out on improving parent partnership services will go some way towards addressing the issues. A series of regional workshops has thrown up problems concerning perceptions of partiality and impartiality. That would not be affected by the new clause, but I have sympathy with the points that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole raised in Committee, which were supported by the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger), who was sadly unable to be present today.

I have concerns about one aspect of the new clause: it states that the publication should also cover any relevant local authorities. A report published by the Audit Commission this year shows that the cost of placing a single pupil outside their local authority is well above £100,000 a year. I do not for one minute mean to propose that we put a price on the quality of a child’s education, but we should carefully consider the effect that any increase in the number of children in external local authorities will have on the overall SEN funding available.

Another smaller concern is that by prescribing an annual publication, we may force local authorities to waste resources in years in which SEN provision does not change at all. If we were to legislate for such a report, it might be better to state that it must be produced from time to time, when significant changes in provision take place.

I appreciate the aims behind the new clause, and I know how strongly the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole feels about the issue, but I fear that the new clause, in its current form, is not the best solution to the problem. It could unintentionally force councils to produce information that is not necessary at a cost to the public purse, and may encourage parents to shop around unnecessarily. It may encourage parents to go outside the local authority, which, as I have said, is hugely expensive, when local provision may be almost identical. That brings me to an important point. One of my main intentions in the Bill is to ensure that provision, availability and standards across all local authorities improve to such an extent that parents will not feel the need to go out of the borough, because the provision in their borough will be as excellent as the provision anywhere else in the country. That sounds like utopia, I know, but why should we not strive for that to become a reality? That is why many of us are in politics.

I welcome the spotlight on local authorities, but I would not want the most well-off parents to buy into the better performing local authorities—a point that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) highlighted. We need to ensure that parents have access to good-quality, impartial advice, but the new clause is not the best legislative vehicle for achieving that aim. I respect the reasons behind the new clause, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole will know, but I fear that pressing it to a Division would do more harm than good. With that in mind, I ask her to withdraw new clause 1.

I turn to amendment No. 2, tabled by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller). First, may I state my wholehearted support for the intention behind the amendment? I know that it has the support of the National Union of Teachers, and I am sure that it will have been interested to hear the Minister’s response. We all know that improving teacher training has to be right at the top of the agenda when it comes to improving overall support for children with SEN, and I agree that we need to monitor both what training is given to teachers at the start of their career, and what ongoing professional development they receive throughout their career.

We do not want information for information’s sake. That may sound a little strange, considering that I am pressing the case for more information in other areas concerning SEN, but there is strong consensus that information concerning outcomes for children will be of greater use, as a tool, to campaigners. I cannot see how the proposals in the amendment would have the same effect for teachers. I welcome the NUT’s interest in the Bill and its support for strengthening the Bill’s provisions, but I believe that we would be wise to wait and see exactly what the work force census, which the Minister spoke about, will entail, so that we do not pre-empt the decision on which qualifications will be recorded.

We are rightly mindful of the administrative burden on teachers, and I am unsure of the views of other teaching unions, such as the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women and the National Association of Head Teachers, on recording training. I imagine that a lot of the burden of recording the information would fall on head teachers, or heads of departments. The Minister outlined in far more detail than I could exactly what the current framework is for the work force census, and I hope that that will give the hon. Member for Basingstoke food for thought.

Teacher training is an issue not just for the NUT, but for everyone with an interest in improving SEN support, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising the issue. It shows a great deal of understanding of the problems in training teachers to identify and support children with SEN. The Bill gives us an opportunity to try to secure a further commitment from the Government, to speed up their plans for improvements to teacher training. I give the hon. Lady an undertaking that I will not let the issue rest. I will seek a meeting with the Minister, which the hon. Lady is welcome to attend—I hope that she will do so. The offer extends to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, too. In that meeting, we could explore every avenue of opportunity that the Bill gives us to improve teacher training. Given those strongly held and sincere intentions, I hope that the hon. Member for Basingstoke will not press her amendment, although I am confident that she will not withdraw her attention from the issue.

Amendment No. 1 would result in all the information collected as a result of the Bill being published in the form of an annual report. I agree with that proposition 100 per cent. Since I set out on the Bill, I have always envisaged the end result being a tangible document that is freely available to all parents in order to give them the information that they need to improve their children’s education—we all agree on that. I therefore listened to the Minister’s response with a degree of concern. It may be that a report would not be the best way of releasing the information, but it would be better than placing the information deep in the Department’s website, where only the most determined parent or researcher can find it—even if people can find information, there is no guarantee that they can understand it.

I am mindful of the Minister’s concern that amendment No. 1 would restrict the publication of such information in other formats. Bowing to greater knowledge than mine, I understand that it would not fit neatly within the Bill and would not produce the intended effect. However, I will consider it a failure on my part and a missed opportunity for us all if a tangible report is not published for parents as a result of this Bill. I will be sure to seek a meeting with the Minister to reiterate my strength of feeling on that point. Taking all that into consideration, I hope that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole will not press the amendment, and I hope that we can find a neater and less prescriptive way of ensuring the intended consequence.

I thank the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) for her comments and congratulate her on the Bill’s reaching this point. I shall endeavour to be brief, because I am anxious that we reach a successful conclusion this morning. I will withdraw new clause 1, because it is important that the Bill makes progress.

Important issues have been raised today. I thank the Minister for his comments about new clause 1, because it is helpful to have on the record the information that local authorities should be making available to parents. We now have a yardstick and all the material in one place. The study to which I have referred considered the information on local authority websites. I suggest that it would be straightforward for the Department to sample the available information and to act if there are any deficiencies. I will be interested to hear the outcome of that issue.

I am also pleased that the Minister has acknowledged that parents are concerned about impartiality. I stress that that is not necessarily the case, but that perception exists and it is important for everyone to acknowledge it.

I always feel humbled when the deficiencies in my amendments are exposed. Somehow, my amendments sometimes fail to achieve their objectives. However, I am pleased that we have flagged up where there is a lack of information for parents at the moment.

Amendment No. 1 was drafted to help anybody involved with special educational needs to see the wood for the trees when a mass of information is published. The Minister has already gone some way to acknowledge that we want more than masses of statistics and that there must be a framework.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West is concerned that we should have a report that is accessible, understandable and useful. I hope that we will continue our discussions.

Finally, I should like to thank the hon. Lady for inviting me to participate in future discussions on teacher training, which is, of course, crucial. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am delighted to be here for this stage of the Bill, especially as we have now all agreed that it has real potential to deliver for the 1.6 million children who are identified as having special educational needs. I hope that after today we can move discussions forward before, as we hope, it enters the other place. Once again, I place on the record my thanks to Jonathan Tanner, my parliamentary researcher, for his tireless work and commitment to the Bill. He is now as passionate about SEN as are some of us here today, and he is knowledgeable about the issue too.

Our debates on Second Reading, in Committee and this morning have provided an invaluable opportunity to raise issues concerning special educational needs. We have been able to achieve a broad consensus on the need for the Bill and for further action to tackle areas in which SEN children do not get the quality of support that they all so richly deserve. I note that we are back here on a Friday, and yet again, it is fair to say that the House, including the Press Gallery, is not packed to the rafters. Other forms of political entertainment are, of course, on offer to the media today, not least in the north-west. However, if we succeed in our endeavour to get this Bill passed, those involved from both sides of the House should get credit.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on the Bill and its progress. Has she had any indication of when the Government would like it to commence?

I meant to mention commencement on Report. I will be biting at the heels of the Secretary of State—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—and asking him to bring the Bill into effect at his earliest convenience. Members who know me will be aware that I am a formidable character in that regard: the Secretary of State will know that I am around.

From a sedentary position, the Minister said that the Bill had to go to the Lords first, and clearly it does. However, in her discussions with peers, has the hon. Lady discovered whether they, too, have good will towards it and want it to become an Act as soon as possible?

The short answer is yes. Baroness Pitkeathley is to guide the Bill through the House of Lords on my behalf, and I am sure that she will seek cross-party support in the other place. It should pass through without too much damage, I hope.

Our debates have been held in a constructive manner that has not been entirely devoid of criticism and differences of opinion—nor should it have been. I should like to thank my colleagues across the Benches for their contributions to and support for the Bill. As others have said, it is an example of how the party political divide need not always dominate the proceedings of Parliament. I have been enlightened by the expertise, experience and commitment that my colleagues have shown to the issues that they feel need to be aired.

I should also point out that early-day motion 619 now has 161 signatures from both Government and Opposition Members who support the work that we are doing here today. It is welcome that the Government should also have lent their support to the Bill, and I believe that that represents a willingness to work with MPs on both sides to achieve change. Of course, we will be pushing them for further concessions over the months to come, and I hope that these suggestions will be heard with open ears.

On Second Reading, I listed all the organisations that have provided me with support. Having their expert knowledge on hand has been an invaluable resource throughout this process, and I hope that we can go on to reward their support and unswerving commitment to this cause. Each organisation still has areas that it would like to be addressed, and I will touch on some of those later. I hope that we will be able to equip those campaigners with the tool of improved information about SEN so that they can continue their work. I have said all along that I want the Bill to be a catalyst for change, and I sincerely hope that it will be so. Information alone will not make a monumental difference, but we all know how hard it is for Government to ignore the facts. We already know that there are facts out there among reams of information already collected, but the Bill should ensure that we gather further figures that will demonstrate a compelling case for stepping up the pace of reform.

The Bill has struck a chord with members of the public. I have received a number of letters from people across the country who support the work that we are trying to do. I want to draw on a few examples in order to underline the importance of the Bill and the need to ensure that we keep our foot to the floor on further progress. I hope that hon. Members present will indulge me in doing so and agree that these letters raise some powerful points.

My first example concerns a woman who has worked in an organisation supporting dyslexic pupils for more than 14 years. Many of the letters are about the struggles of dyslexic children. One woman wrote to me to say that she does not want to hear any more stories about failing schools. A particularly moving part of her letter describes the experience of a boy who was

“embarrassed in his class because, when the rest of the children were taking a test, he was left out and asked to read a book instead. He was so upset that his mother enquired what the test had been. The young teacher, just out of training college, explained that it was an intelligence test and she did not want him to be upset because he wouldn’t be able to do it. At the mother’s request, the Head arranged for the boy to do the test later and took his answers verbally. The child came out top of the class.”

As the letter continues, it highlights a familiar theme:

“Nothing will improve for dyslexic pupils until all teachers are trained to recognise the common signs of dyslexia and are given a good basic understanding about it—a dyslexic person is not necessarily lacking in intelligence and can be extremely bright; dyslexia is not just about reading, problems with spelling and poor organisation are just as common; there are things even a non-specialist teacher can do to make life easier for the dyslexic child. At present, learning about dyslexia is an option only on teacher training courses. Surely dyslexia must be the single most common reason for failure in school and all teachers should be properly prepared to recognise it.”

I have also received letters from parents who know the sheer frustration of watching their children having to battle the system to make the progress that we know they are capable of and fully deserve. Here is another example:

“As a parent with a dyslexic child, I am well aware of the many problems my daughter experienced at primary school and those which she is still experiencing in developing coping strategies for her dyslexia and I wanted to share my own experience with you to highlight major fault lines that currently exist in our schools.

My daughter’s teacher said to me during her last year of Primary school in 2007, that she knew nothing about dyslexia and was interested in learning more from me. I found this unacceptable as I fear for my daughter’s future in secondary school, but this is the reality. Some of our schools have a higher standard of learning support, however this is not reflected across all primary and secondary schools in the United Kingdom.

Dyslexic children are extremely gifted children, of which dyslexia is not a learning disability but instead requires a different approach to learning, which is not currently available in our schools at the present time in my view.”

Not everything that I have received is in agreement with the current way of thinking. The same letter says that

“the pressure of OFSTED reports and meeting targets has created a vacuum of dishonesty in schools putting children with the slightest learning difficulties, such as poor handwriting etc into groups with Dyslexia etc to basically fiddle the figures so that when school results are completed the school doesn’t appear on paper as failing to meet targets. The learning support groups at my daughter’s school receive 2 twenty minute sessions a week, called ‘clicker or catch-up’ whereby each pupil sits at a computer and writes one sentence. It is in this group that the real patchwork quilt exists, as you have children who shouldn’t be there, as mentioned above, then there are those who have fallen behind and do need to ‘catch up’ and that leaves the children with severe learning difficulties and dyslexia. All these children require a different approach to learning and therefore it is impossible to support them all as one group in this way.”

Recognising that underlines the importance of ensuring that we have a work force who are skilled in meeting the individual needs of every child. That process will take time, and we need to ensure that, before we tailor teaching approaches to individual children, we are able to say exactly what they need extra support with. That will come only by categorising all children who are identified as having special educational needs.

Does the hon. Lady accept that the best way of ensuring that we know about such children is to provide screening in all primary schools at the age of five, six or seven, using the criteria that I referred to during my interventions on Report?

I listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s interventions earlier, especially with regard to the Dore programme. I am particularly interested at looking at that programme for my son, who is severely dyslexic. I understand that such screening should be happening. Professor Rose is examining the primary curriculum in his review, and I imagine that one of the things that he will be looking at is the process of screening all children. I will be interested to hear what he finds out when that review is finalised.

On the Dore website, there is a very interesting definition of dyslexia:

“Being dyslexic has no reflection on your intelligence—it is about the access to your intelligence.”

Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to promote that concept a bit more, so that dyslexia is not regarded as some inferiority complex?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very pertinent and valid point. I will be making a similar point later in one of my quotations; it is obviously the considered view of many people in the SEN community—

Order. May I just remind hon. Members who wish to contribute to the Third Reading debate that we are discussing what is in the Bill?

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that guidance.

If hon. Members will indulge me, I have one more letter about my Bill, from an ex-journalist. She had retrained as a teacher via a postgraduate certificate of education, and her experience of SEN provision is informed by having a 10-year old son with suspected Asperger’s and separation anxiety disorder. She wrote to tell me of her experiences and observations during her PGCE:

“SEN was briefly covered—one lecture—on the PGCE course, and the broad issues were run through again on each of my two school placements by the head of SEN. But there isn’t time to learn enough about anything on a one year PGCE course, let alone how to recognise the signs of the many different SEN needs in the classroom. Training in school must be the way forward, but my experience is that teachers barely have time to go to the loo in school.”

Again, this first-hand experience highlights the need to do more to ensure adequate ongoing training opportunities for teachers in schools. The letter goes on to describe a particular difficulty in identifying and supporting a dyslexic child:

“in my second placement I identified one pupil in particular that I thought may be dyslexic, and I alerted the SEN department to that…a very good SEN department… This was a girl whose parents were Somalian, but she was born and educated in this country. I was told that it was not possible or worthwhile to test her dyslexia. The results of the test would not be accepted by the LA because there was a possibility that there could be an element in her poor writing which is brought about by her having English as an additional language. If this is a general rule it would mean that not one child from a refugee or immigrant background with dyslexia is being picked up in our schools.”

I have spoken to the Department about that, because, as I am sure Members will agree, if it were the case it would be very worrying. According to the statistical first release, children from all ethnic backgrounds are identified as having SEN. Although that does not prove that they have English as an additional language, it does calm my initial fear that their SEN was not being picked up at all. It is also worth noting that incidences of SEN among children categorised as being of black ethnic origin are higher than the national average. I hope the Minister has taken heed of that.

I am nearing the end of my self-created evidence session, but I want to draw attention to a few more of the points that have been raised with me. The letter from which I have just quoted also states:

“In a third school I identified a boy who clearly had a dysfunction linked to his handwriting—it was severe. He was in year 9, and it was clear just from glancing at the school’s own tests that there was a major gap between his ability to read—15 year old plus—and to write—which was at about a 9-year-old level. He was working hard, clearly very bright, had a wide knowledge of words—but could not write them down correctly, or see that they were wrong.”

The writer adds:

“The school had not picked it up. Incidentally I was asked by the head of SEN as a general rule NOT TO GIVE the school’s test results on writing and reading to parents—I gained the impression that the fear was that parents might then want something done about them! In fact I did give the results to this boy’s mother and suggested she look for private diagnosis (they weren’t poor) in order to get a speedy response.”

The experiences of the people who wrote to me varied vastly. Some praised their local schools, their local authorities, their parent partnership officers, their sons’ or daughters’ special educational needs co-ordinators, or even individual teachers. The examples that I have chosen help to illustrate the points that have been raised so far during our debates on the Bill, but the variety of the correspondence that I have received does even more to highlight the fact that SEN provision across the country is itself extremely varied in terms of both quality and quantity. Wherever people live in the United Kingdom, if they have a son or daughter with SEN they cannot currently guarantee that that child will receive the same support as a child with the same needs living five or 10 miles down the road.

I received an interesting submission about the choice of language in the Bill. I have learned very quickly that every word counts in legislation, and I was enlightened by the view put to me by the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education. It gave me food for thought, and I hope that it will do the same for other Members. It states:

“My suggestion stems from the knowledge that there is considerable unease with the use of the term ‘special educational needs’, within disabled, practitioner and academic circles. In a nutshell, the notion that a child has special educational needs represents thinking within the ‘medical model of disability’, i.e. a perception that disability is the consequence of a person’s impairments.

The alternative (initially put forward by disabled people but now regarded by many as the contemporary, if not dominant, perception of disability) is known as the ‘social model of disability’ and sees disability as an experience (not a state) arising out of an interaction between a person’s impairments and inflexible structures around them. Within this frame of mind, for example, a child with dyslexia is disabled not solely by the way their mind processes written information, but also by an educational system which privileges excellence in reading and writing in ways that the majority find easy to process. Perhaps less controversial might be the words of a wheelchair user who said something along the lines of: ‘Using a wheelchair is my way of getting from one place to another. When faced with a flight of stairs, I am disabled. When faced with a ramp, I am not.’”

That relates to a point made by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). Dyslexia is not necessarily an impairment in itself. There are ways in which children with dyslexia can be helped to lead full and fulfilling lives. I shall say more about that in the context of well-being and the outcomes to which the Bill refers. Although I have not changed the wording of the Bill because of that submission, it gives a valuable insight into the thoughts of those involved in shaping our understanding of both disability and SEN.

A further and final contribution came from an experienced educational psychologist based in the north-east, who said:

“The issues that arise from this, and that concern me most are those of unrecognised need, the alarming degree to which otherwise bright children underachieve, and the far reaching emotional consequences for children and young people who see themselves as failing when they know they are as able, or even more so, than the next child. The loss of confidence, lowering of self esteem and drop in motivation can have devastating consequences for a child’s educational future, and personal well-being and development.”

I am sure that that will resonate with all of us.

We now have a flavour of what has come into my postbag from members of the public concerning this Bill, and it is clear that they want us to achieve even more than we can perhaps achieve in one go with a solitary private Member’s Bill. However, let us look at what we can achieve with this Bill as it stands.

The Bill makes two substantive provisions by amending the Education Act 1996. First, it requires the Secretary of State to exercise certain of his powers under the Act with a view to securing the provision of information about children in England with SEN that would be likely to assist in improving the well-being of those children. Secondly, it requires the Secretary of State to publish, or to arrange to be published, in each calendar year information about children in England with SEN, the publication of which will be likely to assist in improving their well-being.

Several recurring themes have been raised in the discussion so far, including the availability and uptake of teacher training in SEN, the need to be able to identify best practice and roll it out across the country, and the need for assurances that parent partnership services are able to operate truly independently from the local authority to which they are linked.

We have not looked yet, however, at how the Government currently define SEN, but it is important when reading the Bill to know exactly what is meant, so I shall take a moment to outline their working definition of it. Under the 1996 Act, a child has SEN if they

“have a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age; or have a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of educational facilities of a kind generally provided for children of the same age”,

or they would fall within these definitions if special educational provision were not made for them.

The Bill also refers to special educational provision, and we have not yet looked at how the powers that be define that either. According to the Department for Children, Schools and Families, special educational provision means,

“for children of two or over, educational provision which is additional to, or otherwise different from, the educational provision made generally for children of their age in schools maintained by the”

local authority, other than special schools, or for children under two, educational provision of any kind. These definitions seem sensible, and they have, indeed, caused little controversy. It is welcome to be working from a legislative base which sets out in such non-contentious terms exactly what we mean by SEN.

On Second Reading, I set out some of the landscape across the UK concerning SEN, and I highlighted the fact that about 2 million children—it is 1.6 million, to be exact—are identified as having SEN and that there are significant regional variations in levels of recording across the country. We already have a picture of SEN across the country. We know that 229,110 had statements of SEN in 2007, which is 2.8 per cent. of the school population. A further 1,333,430 pupils have SEN without statements, which is 16.4 per cent. of the school population. The vast majority—57.2 per cent.—of children with statements were taught in mainstream schools, and 36 per cent. were taught in maintained special schools.

We know that since 1997-98 funding has increased by £1,440 per pupil, from £3,050 in 1997-98 to £4,490 in 2006-07. By the end of 2007-08, the real terms funding per pupil will be £1,680—or 55 per cent.—higher than in 1997-98. Local authority planned expenditure on SEN has increased from £2.8 billion in 2001-02 to £4.5 billion in 2006-07. That represents an increase of 60 per cent., and some 13 per cent. of all education spending. Of that £4.5 billion, £1.8 billion is delegated to mainstream schools and £1.3 billion to maintained special schools, and £506 million is spent on placing children with SEN statements at independent and non-maintained special schools.

Despite debate over inclusion, we know that since the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 the proportion of children with SEN statements taught in all special schools as a proportion of the number of children with statements has increased by about 1 per cent, despite a fall in the number of children with statements.

When I set out to try to create this Bill it was important to me to know exactly what information was already available for my local area. I examined the provision across Gateshead and Sunderland, my two local authority areas. Hon. Members will be able to make a comparison with the situation in their own constituencies, if they have the relevant data with them—one could say that that will form the beginning of our proposed scrutiny of regional variations in provision.

In January 2007, Gateshead had 15,732 pupils in maintained primary schools, of whom 1.1 per cent. had a statement. That compares with figures of 1.3 per cent. for the north-east and 1.5 per cent nationally. Some 3.9 per cent. of the pupils were receiving provision at school action plus level, which compares with a regional figure of 6.4 per cent. and a national figure of 11.8 per cent. Some 14.8 per cent. of the pupils received provision at school action level, compared with north-east and national figures of 11.8 per. cent. That means that 19.8 per cent. of primary school pupils in Gateshead were identified as having SEN, which is comparable with the figures of 19.4 per cent. for the north-east region and 19.2 per cent. for England.

In January 2007, Sunderland, my other local authority area, had 23,707 pupils in maintained primary schools, of whom 0.9 per cent. had a statement. That compares with figures of 1.3 per cent. for the north-east region and 1.5 per cent. nationally. Some 5.6 per cent. of the pupils were receiving provision at school action plus level, compared with 6.4 per cent. regionally and 11.8 per cent. nationally, and 14.1 per cent. of the pupils received provision at school action level, compared with 11.8 per cent. both regionally and nationally. That means that 20.6 per cent. of primary school pupils in Sunderland were identified as having SEN, compared with figures of 19.4 per cent. for the north-east region and 19.2 per cent. in England—thus, Sunderland’s figure is slightly higher.

Even across the two local authorities in my constituency there is a slight variation in identifying SEN and issuing statements to children, further evidence of which lies in the number of statements issued. In January 2007, Gateshead was maintaining 896 statements of SEN, whereas Sunderland was maintaining 1,204. Its figure is higher than Gateshead’s, but Sunderland is a larger local authority with a bigger school population. According to my analysis—I am not that good on a calculator—Gateshead awards marginally more statements per pupil than Sunderland.

I was also interested to note the difference in the length of time that it took to complete statements. In January 2007, Gateshead completed 95.5 per cent. of its statutory SEN assessments and drafted a statement within the statutory 18 weeks, whereas Sunderland drafted 100 per cent. of statements within 18 weeks—the average performance for local authorities in England was 96 per cent. So it seems that it is possible to find out how local authorities are performing in terms of figures for a host of data sets. There were many more that I could have cited, but I decided to spare the House that ordeal.

Those facts do not, however, give us the most important information. That is why it is vital to measure outcomes for children with SEN, rather than just keeping an eye on the numbers in a doomed attempt to derive understanding. We have all accepted that it is important that we improve the current data. If we are to do that effectively, they need to be improved over and above existing data collection. I want to take a look at what data are already being collected so that we will all know what needs to be increased and we can be aware of the true impact of this Bill once an annual publication exists.

The sources relevant to the collection of data on SEN are the pupil level annual school census, or PLASC as it is often called; the SEN2 survey on statements issued by local authorities; the OC2 collection, which is on outcome indicators for looked-after children; the Children in Need survey, on children’s social services provision; and section 52 returns, which are on funding.

PLASC collects individual level pupil characteristic data. These include indicators relating to pupils’ SEN, namely, no identified provision, school action, school action plus or statement of SEN. For pupils at school action plus and statements of SEN, the type of need is also collected, together with flags to indicate whether the pupil is a member of an SEN unit or of resourced provision.

I am delighted that the Minister has already undertaken to look at extending categorisation of type of SEN to school action level. If carried out, that would lead to around 1 million families being put in the picture as to exactly what need their child has. That will not only relieve uncertainty for the families, but will ensure that teachers pay greater attention to determining what support a child needs. Of course we cannot achieve that to the levels that we would desire without lifting levels of training, and that is a subject to which I will turn later in my speech.

The SEN data from the census can be cross-tabulated with other characteristic data collected via the same means, such as age, gender, free school meals eligibility, ethnic group and first language. Pupil characteristic data, including SEN indicators, collected via the school census have been matched to attainment data via the national pupil database, which means that analysis of pupil attainment by the various SEN fields is also available. Admittedly, it takes some digging to find it but it is there.

Coverage of the school census does not extend to independent schools, pupil referral units or general hospital schools. For these types of schools, just overall totals for the number of pupils with SEN with or without statements are collected. Those institutions are covered by the annual school census, which is an institution level collection, so no pupil level data that can be cross-referenced with other collections are available.

The annual school census collects information on the number of pupils with certain characteristics, such as gender, eligibility for free school meals, SEN with statements and SEN without statements. The current intention is that pupil-level school census arrangements will be extended to pupil referral units in 2009. Therefore, there is no need for that to be addressed through the Bill. The SEN2 survey is a local authority level survey, focusing on the number and placement of pupils with statements of SEN. Although I have tried to restrict the level of debate during this Bill on statements, it is important that we understand what is collected in this field as well.

The SEN2 survey asks local authorities to give information about the number of children for whom the authority made a statement for the first time in the previous year and the number of children for whom the authority maintains a statement of special educational needs. It also requires local authorities to record the number of statements issued in the previous year, divided by different categories, as well as the number of children who have been assessed for whom a statutory assessment was completed in the past year but for whom it was decided not to issue a statement of special educational needs.

The survey also monitors the number of children who have moved from special independent schools into mainstream schools. I imagine that that information will become increasingly useful in informing the progress of SEN strategies in local authorities that are trying to reduce the use of statements by increasing the amount of additional resources attached to mainstream schools. That process is under review in Gateshead, and I am monitoring the situation carefully to ensure that all children’s needs are met, and that the requirement to meet those needs comes before that to meet other targets.

The SEN2 survey also covers the number of statements of special educational needs that have been reviewed and discontinued in a calendar year. The survey provides useful information with which to monitor the development of schools and local authorities in dealing with SEN, but not the development of pupils. That is why my Bill focuses on the importance of measuring pupil level outcomes.

The OC2 survey is also taken at local authority level, and concerns looked-after children. The incidence of SEN among looked-after children is often far higher than among other children. Many campaigners would like local authority funding for supporting children with SEN to be ring-fenced, so that we can ensure that it is spent on those who need it the most. Local authorities are required to show, on the section 52 return, how much they delegate to schools for SEN individually and how much they have budgeted to spend on SEN. Schools are not required to account for SEN expenditure separately, as that would be particularly cumbersome and bureaucratic. Also, it would be difficult to pinpoint exactly what constitutes SEN spending at an individual school level.

Reams of information are out there. It is usually available from the Department for Children, Schools and Families website as first statistical releases. Additional information can also be found on RAISEonline. The Department says that the system allows mainstream schools to analyse SEN pupil outcomes for both attainment and progress, and to determine whether performance is significantly higher or lower than expected. The reports also allow schools to analyse how SEN performance might be related to free school meal status, or other pupil characteristics of relevance. Also, schools can identify SEN pupils for whom specific intervention has taken place and evaluate pupil outcomes.

Although that information should contain some of the detail needed to assess attainment outcomes for pupils with SEN, we need to build on that and consider wider outcomes. It is all very well for schools to have access to that information, but the work that is required to analyse and act on the findings might end up taking a back seat. We need the information to be readily available, in an accessible form, for public scrutiny, but, currently, it is not available to parents or the public at all. We need to protect pupil anonymity, and we do not want to pressure schools unduly, but I hope that we can ensure that wider information is openly available, rather than being tucked away in a blinding avalanche of tables and figures somewhere in the backwaters of the internet, available only to schools and local authorities.

In shaping the Bill, I looked at the information that cannot be collected and why. It is rightly a primary consideration that we do not want to increase the burden of box-ticking for teachers, but where a short-term increase in administration might lead to a longer-term reduction, we might need to strike a balance. However, any recorded information must always be high quality and clear in usefulness.

Campaigners are keen that there should be a change in the categories that are used to record SEN types, and I am pleased that the Minister has said that they will be reassessed after the 2009-10 Ofsted review into SEN provision. Some people are also concerned about why the number of statements is being reduced in certain local authority areas. As I have outlined, we can monitor those trends through local authority returns under the SEN2 survey.

One of the main issues that has been raised, and rightly so, is teacher training. Before looking at what can be done to improve teacher training, I want to examine the guidelines set out for teachers to help them identify children’s needs. As we know, those guidelines are set out in the SEN code of practice. It states that if a pupil is known to have special educational needs when they arrive at the school, the head teacher, the SEN co-ordinator, literacy and numeracy co-ordinators and departmental and pastoral colleagues should use information from the pupil’s primary school to provide starting points for the development of an appropriate curriculum for the pupil; identify and focus attention on the pupil’s skills; and highlight areas for early action to support the pupil within the class, as well as ensuring ongoing observation and feedback. They should also keeps teachers and parents up to speed with the pupil’s achievements and experiences, and ensure that the pupil has a chance to show their knowledge in informal circumstances. In addition, the code of practice encourages the involvement of both pupil and parents in developing a plan to meet the pupil’s needs.

All this is sensible stuff, but it is worth noting that these procedures are for pupils who are already identified as having SEN when they arrive at the school. Even then, I can testify from personal experience that this transition does not always go smoothly. In fact, it can be rife with problems and new hurdles to overcome, which mostly arise from the lack of experience or even awareness among the bulk of teachers of how to teach or even spot a child with SEN.

As most Members will be aware, my son Joseph is severely dyslexic. He is now 14 and was eventually statemented in year 5, aged 10. He is of above-average intelligence, but has a reading age of only 6.5 years. When he recently changed schools, most of his teachers were not told of his SEN due to an administrative oversight at the school. Most of his new teachers did not recognise him as being dyslexic until they were told about it—even after weeks of teaching him. For those who know the signs, it so obvious that Joseph is severely dyslexic. This is a telling testimony, even if I do not spell it out in detail.

Teachers are encouraged, however, to look for pupils who

“despite receiving differentiated learning opportunities make little or no progress even when teaching approaches are targeted particularly in a pupil’s identified area of weakness or who show signs of difficulty in developing literacy or mathematics skills that result in poor attainment in some curriculum areas”.

That is how the code of practice tells teachers how to spot a child who needs intervention, but it does not give strong enough guidance on how to distinguish the severity or category of SEN. That is where the training should come in.

At the moment, schools have a statutory responsibility to ensure that the necessary provision is made for any child with SEN. They must ensure that teachers are aware that a child has SEN, and stress the importance of teachers’ identifying SEN. Schools must also consult the local education authority and other school governing bodies to create a co-ordinated SEN strategy where desirable and possible. Further, schools must take steps to ensure that, where possible, SEN children can take part in activities available to pupils who do not have SEN. Finally, schools should also report to parents on the implementation of their SEN policy and have continuing regard to the SEN code of practice. The whole procedure would be better informed, however, if the teaching work force were better skilled in identifying and teaching children with SEN.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole raised the issue of parent partnership services. I have held discussions with both constituents and experts on this, and it seems that, again, we are faced with considerable regional variation in the services provided. As I said earlier, it is right to point out that it is absolutely vital that parent partnerships can deliver impartial information to parents. Having said that, I am confident that the majority of parent partnership services are doing a good job, but there is merit in keeping the situation under close review. As I stated at the start of my speech, the main thrust of the Bill is to ensure that we improve the monitoring of outcomes for children with SEN. There is agreement across the sector that that would be a welcome development.

It is important to know what data are already used to try to improve the outcomes so that, if the Bill proceeds to the other place, we can look back in times to come and hold the Government to account on their implementation of the legislation. Six mechanisms are identified for improving outcomes for SEN children. First, academic achievement is monitored. SEN data have shown that much of the improvement in overall academic performance can be traced to increased attainment by children with SEN. Data on the varying attainment of children with different specific forms of SEN have been analysed for the first time and will be used to inform more tailored teaching.

Secondly, policy is kept under review. Thirdly, I am told that RAISEonline is already used to outline performance. I have already outlined what evidence the system provides for ongoing school improvement. I reiterate my hope that the use of RAISE use as a tool will increase over time. Fourthly, P scales are used to analyse the progress of pupils operating below level 1 of the national curriculum. The systems enable the attainment and progress of a range of SEN pupils to be analysed and compared across a range of pupil needs.

The information collected also informs national strategies. I understand that regional advisory teams work alongside the national SEN strategy team. I hope that they will be encouraged to support and challenge local authorities as they seek to bring about improvements in identified schools using increasingly sophisticated data for pupils at school and local authority level.

I look forward to the roll-out of indicators that monitor how effective schools are in reducing the gap between the attainment of children with SEN and that of those children with no SEN. The indicators have been included in the national indicator set for local government that will be used from 2008-09. That is an important step forward.

The mechanisms concern only attainment and, of course, the aim of this Bill is to concern ourselves with wider aspects of how to improve the outcomes of children with SEN. That is why I pressed so hard to have the outcomes listed on the face of the Bill.

As I have said, I have received a great deal of support from across the SEN sector and I want to draw on some of the points that have been raised in relation to the Bill. TreeHouse is a national charity for autism education whose vision is to transform through education the lives of children with autism and thereby the lives of their families. TreeHouse was established in 1997 by a group of parents. It runs a school for children and young people with autism and campaigns nationally for better autism education. I look forward to visiting the school in the near future.

The Special Educational Consortium is an umbrella group that represents a number of charities with an interest in SEN. The consortium says in its briefing on the Bill that

“the lack of information on children with SEN prevents a clear focus on whether the provision made for these children is promoting the best possible outcomes for them. The lack of information at a central government level has been highlighted in responses to parliamentary questions, which often concede, ‘This information is not collected centrally.’ The information this Bill will secure is required to provide a better basis for national planning, particularly as the pattern of needs change over time.”

The support of such a large number of organisations in the shape of the SEC is clear evidence that we are taking the right step. I would like to thank Brian Lamb again for the support and guidance he has given me and my team. I am also pleased to have had the ongoing support of Dyslexia Action. Shirley Cramer has been behind me from the inception of the Bill and I want to thank her and her team once again.

Dyslexia is not a minority issue. As many as one in 10 people have dyslexia, and 4 per cent. have it severely. Two to three children in every classroom may be affected. There is a clear link between unidentified dyslexia and poor literacy, longer term failure at school, limited work opportunities, unemployment, poverty and crime. With the right specialist support dyslexia need not be a barrier to achievement. Dyslexia Action says:

“One of the big questions for parents, teachers and schools, and organisations like ours, is around the lack of specific information about what is happening regarding SEN in English schools. The Special Educational Needs (Information) Bill demands transparency for this complex area that is often frustratingly patchy—good in some places, bad in others.”

We can but raise expectations for children with SEN by increasing information about their progress. Improved information will help to highlight areas that need greater attention through personal or financial support.

Some good things are beginning to happen. The Department for Children, Schools and Families’ inclusion development programme, in which Dyslexia Action works with the children’s communication charity, I CAN, to provide expert input and training materials, will improve awareness and recognition of dyslexia and communications problems. The programme is being implemented and represents the right course of action to improve outcomes for children with dyslexia and communication difficulties.

Dyslexia Action lobbies for early intervention, which is critical if children with special learning disabilities are to be prevented from developing the long-term problems associated with poor literacy skills, such as reduced employment opportunities that can lead to long-term unemployment. Even worse, children can go on to lead a life of crime, starting with youth disorder, which incurs the huge financial burden that time spent in and out of prison brings to the taxpayer. It is no coincidence that the percentage of prisoners with dyslexia and other SEN is far higher than in the rest of society. The implications of that failure are a huge cost to the individual and to the UK economy. Government statistics tell us that poor skills cost the UK taxpayer approximately £10 billion a year.

Dyslexia Action has so far relied on imaginative and far-sighted private donors to set up the project. However, in December, the Minister announced funding for the partnership for literacy of £250,000 over three years—

Order. I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady’s contribution. She is dealing with things that are related to the topic of the Bill, but she must try to relate what she is saying directly to the content of the Bill, as that is the purpose of Third Reading.

As I mentioned in Committee, the needs of deaf children deserve strong consideration as we try to improve provision for children with SEN. I am pleased that the Royal National Institute for Deaf People has given the Bill its support.

There is evidence that deaf children are more likely to experience mental health problems. The RNID believes that collecting data on the five Every Child Matters outcomes, including information on admissions, attendance, behaviour, bullying and exclusion, will play a crucial role in helping us to monitor and ultimately improve the well-being of deaf and hard of hearing children.

I realise that other Members want to speak, so I shall make only one or two more points to underline why the Bill is of such importance. At national, local and school level, better information has an important part to play in improving outcomes for children with SEN. The information that will be collected if the Bill becomes law has the potential to improve our understanding of what works for children with SEN. It will help to raise expectations and provide a better basis for evaluating particular projects and programmes, enabling us to share good practice and improve our understanding of training and professional development.

Overall, the Bill will help to generate a more secure basis for the development of national policy. At every level of our education system there is significant potential for developing better understanding of the impact of policy on outcomes for children with SEN. As I said on Second Reading—I have reinforced the point today—there is tremendous support across the spectrum for more progress on SEN. Getting the best possible support for children is often a hugely frustrating experience for parents as they battle their way through the myriad forms and evaluations presented to them by the system.

In my conversations with the parents of children with SEN, the same phrase comes up time and again—I have even used it myself. Parents say, “If I had known then what I know now, then I would have done things differently.” In time, the Bill will ensure that parents know more about SEN support in schools. It will give campaigners the tools they need to keep pressing local and national Government to follow the evidence. Most important, it will help us all to identify what needs doing to improve things for children. Over time it will make a difference in classrooms across the country.

Every child deserves the best possible chance to make the most of their talents. For 1.6 million children with SEN we can make that happen only if we know how to make it happen. I hope that in a few years’ time more parents will say, “I’m glad I knew that, imagine how difficult it would have been if I hadn’t.” I commend the Bill to the House.

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate again the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on securing the Bill and on trafficking it well through the House and, we hope, through to further discussion in the other place. I should also like to put on record my thanks to her and her staff for the discussions that we have had on the Bill, to produce a constructive set of debates. She has prompted a very important debate. In her opening remarks on Second Reading, she said that

“private Members’ Bills come in all shapes and sizes”

and that

“special educational needs come in all shapes and sizes.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2008; Vol. 471, c. 558.]

and she is absolutely right. The Bill will help parents, schools and teachers to come to terms with how diverse special educational needs are, and I hope that, through the data that are collected, it will help to ensure that the strategies that are needed to address such issues carefully are in place.

The hon. Lady spoke movingly about her experiences with her son Joseph and his needs. That was echoed by a number of hon. Members in their contributions on their personal experiences with SEN. Many people are affected by the issue; almost 20 per cent. of children are now on SEN registers. As a consequence, this can no longer be seen as a sideline issue; it is very much a mainstream issue for education to deal with. Given that children with SEN are eight times more likely than other children to be expelled from school and twice as likely to have no qualifications at the end of their school careers—again, as the hon. Lady suggested in her earlier contributions—we need to ensure that that tremendous waste is curtailed. Moreover, we need to ensure that we do not entrench disadvantage by incorrectly addressing the issues identified during the debate.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made important contributions to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) made an important contribution in Committee and on Second Reading. Indeed, he drew on his family’s experience of SEN. We have also heard important contributions from the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins). Today, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) drew many incredibly important undertakings from the Minister in discussing amendment No. 1.

My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who is the shadow Minister with responsibility for the disabled, said something that resonated with me: information is not the outcome that we seek with the Bill, but it is the route to better outcomes for children. That sentiment drove a number of the amendments that hon. Members tabled both in Committee and on Report. The type of data is key, not just the collection of data for its own sake, and the Minister has echoed that sentiment in his comments.

Particularly today, I feel that the discussion of teacher training yielded a great deal of clarification on the Government’s position, although we have discussed that throughout the debates on the Bill. I remember that the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) made a contribution on training. She highlighted her inadequacy in SEN training when she was trained as a teacher and said that that issue still required a lot of attention.

The thing that I found most helpful was the undertaking from the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West to press the issue of training further, and to meet the Minister—I should be delighted to attend that meeting—to ensure that it is not forgotten. Her tenacity makes me certain that it will not be forgotten at all. Her commitment to the issue is welcome, and I look forward to doing what I can to support her. I know that she will not allow the Minister to dismiss the issue without a fuller investigation because she, like me, knows that the quality of teaching directly affects the outcomes for children. Perhaps, at that meeting, we can join together to persuade the Minister to place a burden on himself to undertake to work in his Department to co-ordinate research on teacher training. It is important that the initiatives that the Government have introduced, and which we all welcome, have an effect on what happens in the classroom.

Like the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, I thank all the organisations that have taken so much time and trouble to develop briefings for everyone involved in these debates. There are many such organisations, but I shall mention just a few, including TreeHouse, the national charity for autism education, which, throughout my time as an MP, has always taken the time and trouble to keep me informed about many issues, and has shown great support for our debates on the Bill. Xtraordinary People, the RNID, the National Union of Teachers, the National Children’s Bureau, and the special education consortium, which the hon. Lady highlighted, have all provided important insights on which we, as parliamentarians, have been able to draw to ensure that our debates are as well-informed as possible.

There has been no lack of initiatives from the Government on SEN. As I said on Report, I would detain the House far too long if I detailed each and every initiative introduced by the six Secretaries of State who have been in post since the Government took office 10 years ago. Each of them has taken the time to introduce some initiative or make an announcement on SEN. Importantly, the Bill’s provisions will help us to see how those many initiatives translate into action in classrooms throughout the country. By collecting information and providing it to parents, we will ensure not only that the money that the Government are using is deployed effectively but that the initiatives result in pull-through on the ground—something about which concerns have been voiced in our debates. It is important that we have the information for which the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West has called, so that we can drive up standards. I remain concerned that the ambition for children with SEN is not as high as it should be, and it is important that we do all we can to support those children throughout their educational lives.

In conclusion, the hon. Lady called her Bill “a catalyst for change”, and I hope that she is right. Baroness Morris of Bolton, who will work in the other place in support of the Bill, shares my enthusiasm for it. I am sure that the Bill will be safe in her hands, but she will pick up on the issues that I have raised, including teacher training, to make sure that we get the detailed information that will be useful to parents. There is a compelling case for the Bill, and I wish it well as, hopefully, it goes to the other place. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, who has shown the energy, drive and commitment to make sure that it makes a real difference to this country.

I, too, reiterate my congratulations to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson). She has shown superb leadership and persistence throughout proceedings on the Bill. I am extremely pleased that she has indicated that she will persist in raising the issues on which detail is still needed, even when the Bill is passed. I also thank the Minister and the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), because we have all had very constructive discussions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), who brought his personal experience to the debate.

We all want a real difference to be made, and the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West reminded us that we are talking about a difference for individual pupils. We are looking to ensure improved information at individual parent and pupil level, school level, local authority level and national level, but at the end of the day we are talking about individual pupils. The Ofsted report of 2004 said that only a quarter of local education authorities have strong strategic management of SEN, and the majority had weak evaluation systems. It is a long time until 2009 and the next comprehensive Ofsted report on SEN, but I hope that our discussions during the passage of the Bill will have provided information for that report, and will have allowed the agenda to be moved along.

We want the Bill to result in monitoring, evaluations, the planning of better provision by local authorities, and of course the sharing of good practice. I keep mentioning local authorities; I intend to be challenging rather than critical, but I want to highlight the fact that local authorities occupy a pivotal position, and I want the most made of that position. On Second Reading, much comment was made about the fact that when questions are asked, the answers are typically, “The information is not collected centrally” or “The answer can only be gained at disproportionate cost.” I hope that that will no longer be the case.

On Second Reading, in Committee and on Report we spent a great deal of time talking about teacher training, and I am glad that our discussions on the subject will continue. Clearly, we are looking for a balance. We do not want the Bill to create bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake. We want evidence-based policy and practice. It is critical that we get that balance right. The hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West mentioned the very large number of children who are identified as having special educational needs; perhaps we should add to that number to take account of those whose special educational needs have not been identified. We want to unlock the potential of all our children. The key to unlocking that potential is more than just information, but better information systems will make it easier to turn the key. I look forward to the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act.

It is my great pleasure to speak on the Third Reading of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson). In the light of the praise that has been lavished on her, she will have difficulty getting out of the door after today’s debate, but all that praise is deserved. She is very persuasive in a way that is not always encountered in politics; she bowls people over with charm, as well as with the logic of her argument. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton, West (Mr. McAvoy), who is on the Front Bench, uses similar tactics in the Government Whips Office.

I was recently in the north-east. In many ways, people from the north-east and people from south Wales, where I come from, are very similar. I noticed that there is an advertising campaign for the north-east, and its slogan is “Passionate people, passionate places.” My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West is a living embodiment of that. Perhaps she should appear on the posters promoting the north-east to the rest of the country and the world, because she certainly lives up to that slogan in the way she puts forward her arguments on behalf of her constituents, and families with children with special needs right across the country. They have great reason to be grateful to her for introducing the Bill and steering it through its stages in such an exemplary fashion, and with great charm.

I want to thank the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople for the serious and thoughtful way in which they have engaged with the Bill. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and I are former Select Committee colleagues, and I know how assiduously she cares about the issues, which showed in her contributions to the debate and the way in which she probed to ensure that the Bill achieves what we all want to see it achieve.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) has a good knowledge of the issues. We do not always agree across the Floor of the House, but we have debated the issues in a civilised manner. It is important that her party is, like the other parties in the House, committed to the cause of children with SEN. She has pressed me once or twice about whether the Government are doing enough in that area, and I have responded. It is only fair that I press her back occasionally, especially because she mentioned in her concluding remarks on Third Reading that children with SEN are eight times more likely to be expelled than the average. I remind her that that situation would not be helped if an important tier of protection on exclusions were removed by getting rid of independent tribunals. I urge Conservative Members to think about the impact of such a move on children with SEN, whose interests the hon. Lady has discussed during the course of the Bill.

The Bill is short, and it is not mine—it belongs to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West. I will not match my hon. Friend’s level of detail on Third Reading, but I will make a few brief points.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke asked whether our ambitions are high enough for children with SEN. The Government have shown their high ambitions in the children’s plan and by supporting this Bill. One of our ambitions is to make this country the best place in the world for children to grow up. That is our mission and our ambition, and we want those words to become reality.

When we discuss the issues, it is important to will not only the ends but the means. That is why we have made record investment in education and SEN. In the course of the Bill, I announced a number of measures on the provision of information and the improvement of teacher training. Our ambitions are high, and the children’s plan, which we published last December, makes it clear that those ambitions are high not only for some children, but for all children. In particular, our ambitions are high for children from the most deprived or vulnerable backgrounds and for children with SEN.

We all believe that every young person should have a fair chance to reach their full potential, which is the driving force behind this Government’s agenda on children. As a result, the Government are determined to help children overcome the barrier presented by SEN. As we have discussed, a great deal of work is under way to try to narrow the gap in achievement.

Incidentally, another hon. Member who contributed to proceedings and who is worthy of attention, particularly in relation to her contribution on deaf children, is my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley), who made a good speech earlier in our proceedings.

We are determined to do more in the future, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, which is why the Government have supported and will continue to support the Bill in its passage through Parliament. We will not get anywhere on improving outcomes without better data. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole has said, we do not want bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake, so it is important that we collect information and data for a purpose that will have an impact at the front line and, ultimately, on the outcomes for those vulnerable children. We need a clearer picture of the scale and impact of SEN around the country to drive up the transformation that we want to see in standards. We want to see better outcomes for all children with SEN as well as other children in our schools. That is why the Bill is so important, and that is why the Government have been able to give it our wholehearted support. We wish the Bill bon voyage on its way down the Corridor to the other place, where we hope it will have a smooth journey into law.

In this short contribution, I want to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on getting the Bill to the stage that it has reached today. Hers was the second in the ballot of private Members’ Bills; last week, we got the first one through. I am not sure how many more Bills will get on the carousel before the end of this Session, but getting the first two on their way to the other place is a great achievement for the two Members who were lucky in the ballot.

I should like to ask the Minister a rhetorical question. What will the Government do with all the information to be provided? During these debates, we have referred to the issue of deafness. I have here a letter from a constituent who says how horrific it is that only 32.9 per cent. of deaf children in England achieve five GCSEs at grades A* to C, against a national average of 57.1 per cent.; the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has also referred to that. Now that we have those figures, how will the Government ensure that something is done to remedy the situation? Information is power; that is why this Bill could be significant. However, it will not be any use unless the information gained gives power that is exercised to bring about some improvements.

Earlier, I referred and paid tribute to the work of the Priory Church of England primary school in Christchurch and its work with the Dore programme. All that was drawn to my attention by Judy Jamieson, the hard-working and able deputy chairman of governors. She has almost single-handedly been trying to promote the idea in a wider area of Dorset. Although the Minister did not really address the issue on Report in his response to the amendments, I hope that proper information about the Dore programme will be made available. One of the problems seems to be that the programme relates to a different category in respect of some of the special educational needs that we have been discussing. As was said by one of the professors giving evidence to the Welsh Assembly in November last year, there can be two approaches:

“You can try to tailor the teaching to the child, or you can try to change the child in some way so that they are more able to benefit by traditional teaching.”

The Dore programme uses that latter approach, and it is not clear to me whether the Government are wholeheartedly open-minded about or willing to endorse it. The professor went on to say:

“It seems that this is what the complementary therapies of all types are perhaps trying to do; rather than directly teaching reading, they are trying to alter the child’s ability to learn.”

There is tremendous potential there. If there are people following these debates who find it difficult to access information about various symptoms of dyslexia, dyspraxia and other conditions, I am sure that they will become better informed, as I have, by looking at the Dore website, which has an amazing amount of information.

Most important of all is the issue of early screening, to which the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West referred in her Third Reading speech. If there were proper screening of all pupils of between six and eight years old, I am sure that we would be able to take remedial action much more quickly and direct it to the relevant children’s differing needs and circumstances. I hope that that will be one of the things to come out of the Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Lady once again. If the Government are genuine about taking the matter forward—I hope that they are—the hon. Lady has done a good job in bringing the Bill before the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

Fixed Term Parliaments Bill

Order for Second Reading read.—[Queen’s Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is difficult to believe that last year the whole political and media establishment of this country spent more than two months doing little else but speculating about whether there would be a general election and when it would occur. By the end of it, people had become experts in the most extraordinarily arcane subjects, such as the likelihood of rain on particular Thursdays in November, the hours of daylight in that month, or the details of precisely when the electoral registers were compiled. In the end, the only way one could have guessed that the Prime Minister was going to bottle out, as the inelegant phrase of the time had it, was if one understood that if he were to go to the palace at the time that he was rumoured to be doing so, there would not be enough time to turn off all the Members’ computers in the Palace of Westminster. We therefore knew at that point that there was not going to be a general election. The political system was reduced to a sort of guessing game. That seems to be a bizarre way to run a country. One has to be some kind of Hercule Poirot to work out whether there is going to be a general election.

That entire episode was, of course, subsequently disastrous to the Prime Minister’s own political reputation, but it was also ridiculous and damaging to the whole country and to the political system itself. As a consequence, I went back to an old proposal from my party that in future Prime Ministers should not have the power to decide when general elections should be held but that the parliamentary term should be fixed by law. The current position, as everyone in this House will understand, is that the Government can in effect call an election whenever they want within the five-year term of Parliament. If the Government win that election they get another five years, and the whole thing starts again.

The first and most obvious thing wrong with that arrangement is that it gives an enormous unfair advantage to the incumbent party. It is rather like having a 100 m race in which one of the runners has the starting pistol, and can occasionally use it to shoot one of the other runners. The incumbent need wait only for a few favourable polls and call an election within a three-and-a-half week period and is then rewarded with another five years in power. That makes politics rather more a matter of luck than of performance. As we all know, in political life there are times when Governments are blamed for events entirely beyond their control, but there are also times when they receive the credit for events that equally had nothing to do with them.

Of course, if the Prime Minister had called the election last autumn and won it on the basis of a bit of luck about foot and mouth or the floods not being the disastrous administrative episode that they might have been, we would now be facing another five years of him. I am not sure whether that prospect would be very attractive to the country, to his party, or, sadly, to himself. Our system can produce unfortunate results for all concerned, and it is the ultimate in incumbency advantage.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on the point about incumbency. Are the Liberal Democrats in favour of this Bill because for nearly a century they have not had an incumbent Prime Minister, and have no prospect of having one for the next century? At least the Labour party and the Conservative party have a fairly equal chance of having an incumbent Prime Minister at some time.

The hon. Lady’s remarks are on the record to haunt her in future decades. A point against the present system is that it favours richer parties, which can raise funds to fight general elections more than once every four or five years. There may be something in what the hon. Lady says, but only because of the unfortunate way in which we fund political parties in this country.

The second reason the present system should be got rid of is that it interferes with good government. It is said that fixed-term systems produce a political cycle in which Governments cause pain—necessary pain, they would say—in the first part of their term, but move to pleasure in the second part. At least that cycle is obvious to the electorate. In a non-fixed term system, things are worse because in effect we have a convention of four-year Parliaments, with all the disadvantages of a fixed term, but with the possibility of periodic panics where the idea that an election might be in the offing leads to immobility in government. It might not be a bad thing if the Government were to do less, so perhaps immobility might be a good thing in some circumstances, but it is not good if it prevents the Government from working on particular projects.

I have one specific example with which I was involved last summer. The Climate Change Bill got through a Joint Committee in July and was supposed to appear well before the new Session of Parliament. It was supposed to be debated extensively in this House early in the new year. As far as I can tell, no work at all was done on the Bill during the summer; the whole process was massively delayed. It has gone through the other place, but has yet to appear in this place. Having a system of occasional, months-long speculation about whether there will be an election leads to stop-start, boom-and-bust politics. It would be much better to have a regular rhythm.

The intervention from the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) was interesting, because another disadvantage of the present system—I am being stared at by a number of Whips at this point—is that it adds to the Government’s power over their Back Benchers. The threat to recalcitrant rebels that if they vote the wrong way, they might bring the Government down, leading to a general election, has been heard recently in our political lives. The general election gives the ruling party an interesting threat to make to its own Members—that they might find themselves not selected for the subsequent election.

I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. He might be coming on to this, but I have been trying to see where in his Bill there would be provision for an earlier election if, for example, there were some emergency. If a Government were to lose a substantial vote, that should trigger a general election. Would that be covered by his Bill?

I will indeed go into that later, but the point that my Bill tries to make is that to hold a general election in those circumstances should require a greater consensus among the political parties in the House of Commons and the other place than merely a decision by the Government of the day. The power to call an election in such circumstances still exists and must exist, but should it lie with the House or with the Government? I say that it should lie with Parliament.

The fourth reason for rejecting the present system is that it leads to a rather silly macho style of politics, as we saw last autumn when the debate was effectively reduced to a version of “Come on and try it if you’re hard enough”. We ended up with a game of political chicken between the parties, each trying to outdo the other in showing that it did not fear a general election. The outcome was very nearly a general election that no party really wanted, and it is extraordinary that that situation was allowed to arise.

Part of what was going on last year is another reason for rejecting the present system. Certain elements in the media wanted an election, and tried to encourage the parties to vie with another in their eagerness for one. That was because newspapers tend to sell more copies during general elections. I want us to resist the underlying thesis that politics has become simply part of the entertainment industry. The power of Governments to call elections is definitely entertaining, but it does not strike me as good governance.

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that last year there was a perfectly legitimate reason for a general election to be held? The premiership had changed. The Labour party had the privilege of electing the new Prime Minister, but the rest of Parliament and the people of the country had not had an opportunity to do so. We can discuss later whether it would have been right to hold a general election, but there was a perfectly legitimate reason for some commentators and Members of Parliament to say that there should have been a general election. If the hon. Gentleman’s Bill became law, that would not be possible. Under a fixed-term system, if the leadership of the governing party changed there would be no opportunity to hold a general election, and therefore a plebiscite on the new Prime Minister.

That is not exactly true, for reasons that I shall explain later—they relate to the answer that I gave the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall)—but even if it were true, I do not think the hon. Lady would be right. I know that the leadership of my own party made a point similar to hers last year, but I do not agree with it, because I consider that we are a parliamentary rather than a presidential democracy. I think that the idea that every time there is a change at the top there must be an election takes us in the wrong direction, down the road of a presidential system. I prefer our traditional parliamentary system.

That brings me to my next point, which relates to what happens in other countries and elsewhere in our own country. It is true that fixed terms are far from universal. I do not claim that the fixed-term system is the one that everyone else uses, and that we are out of line. There is a division of opinion in mature democracies. In France, for instance, there are no fixed terms: the President can dissolve the Assembly at will. The best known example of a fixed-term system is the system in the United States, which has strict fixed terms with no escape clause. That, however, is not the normal way in which fixed terms are arranged in mature democracies. There is normally a fixed term, but also some mechanism for escaping from a form of political deadlock. If stable government becomes impossible, most fixed-term systems involve some way out of that deadlock, although it usually requires a much broader political consensus than simply a decision by the Government to call an election. In Germany, for example, there is quite a complicated mechanism, whereas in Spain there is a very simple mechanism: a four-year fixed term, and if they cannot get a new Prime Minister within two months of the election another election is held; the Government have no power in the process. There is a similar idea in the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 2006: the Scottish Parliament sits for four years and the only exception is if a new First Minister cannot be found within 28 days, and there is a similar system for Wales.

There is another type of system, the best example of which is in Sweden. There are regular elections every four years. The Government can call extra elections, but if they do so they do not get a new four-year term; they get only the end of the previous term. Therefore, they cannot cause the regular four-year election cycle to stop, which reduces their incentive to try to take a short-term advantage.

I am fascinated to hear about that; is that option used much in Sweden, and what is the purpose of it?

It is not used often, and I fear that Governments might use it to clear out the rebellious Members whom they no longer wish to be in their party, which might be an attractive option for a Whip.

Local authorities in our country offer another example. They are on strict fixed terms, which encourage parties to work together. There is a legitimate question to ask those who favour the current system at national level: why are they not therefore calling for it to be extended to local government? Why not say that the leader of a county council or London borough may call a council election whenever they feel like doing so? That is such an absurd proposition that it throws into doubt the reasons of those people who want to maintain the present system at national level.

The principle of the Bill, which I hope will be endorsed on Second Reading, is simple: that elections should happen on a regular cycle that cannot be changed by purely ministerial action. Everything else in the Bill is detail, which I would be happy to discuss in Committee. I fear that some of the details might not be popular in some parts of the House, but I will be happy to discuss them at a later stage.

I just want to let the hon. Gentleman know that he has my support at least for one small detail of the Bill. I and most of my hon. Friends would entirely support it if it consisted only of clause 1(1):

“The next general election shall take place on 7th May 2009.”

We think that that day—if not sooner—would be an excellent date.

I suspected that that might be the case, and I also suspect that the Government might not like that provision at all. I accept that if I were to have the opportunity for the Bill to proceed I might have to give up that date to gain the Government’s support. That provision makes the current Parliament a fixed-term Parliament, but I fully accept that to make further progress I might have to give it up and instead go for making the next Parliament a fixed-term Parliament—although I think we should start as soon as possible.

Another detail in the Bill is that the campaign should be a month long. The Bill controls when dissolutions will happen so we do not have the extraordinary variations in campaign length of the past 20 or 25 years; sometimes they have been two months long, and at other times barely a month.

Surely if the date of the election is known, the campaign can start at any time? There have been different lengths of campaign because the date of an election has been called later, but under the Bill the start of the campaigning would be a simple matter.

I consider that to be an advantage of the Bill, although the form of politics that we have reached is arguably one in which there is campaigning all the time. That is true both in our system, where there is no fixed term, and in the US system, where there are fixed terms; a constant campaign seems to have been adopted there, too.

One of the objections raised when I first announced the Bill was that it would prevent the Government, or Parliament, from changing the day of the week on which the election was to be held. I have dealt with that in the Bill; the House of Commons would retain a power to change the day of the week, if it so desired.

Why is the hon. Gentleman keen to have the election in May? Having general elections in May on a fixed-term basis would surely always give the incumbent Government the opportunity for a giveaway Budget shortly before the election started?

That is one point of view, but if the election were held at another time, I suspect that the budgetary cycle could be changed to make up for it.

I chose May, although I am not wedded to it as a principle of the Bill, simply because that was when the previous election took place, and making the present Parliament a fixed-term one required the election to be held in May. One of the things that we learned last year was that late autumn elections are not particularly convenient, especially given the way in which the electoral register is put together, and what happens when the clocks change and the rain starts. There might be an argument for May on general principle.

One of the advantages for an incumbent Government of an autumn election might be that if Parliament did not sit during the summer they would not have had to be scrutinised and the Executive would not have had to sit and listen. There might be some advantage for an incumbent Government in having a September or October election.

That is a very interesting point, which had not occurred to me. My view in favour of May is strengthening as time passes, although I am not tied to these particular details. Another such detail is whether the term should last four years or five. Some countries have five-year Parliaments; the European Parliament has such a term. The principle is for there to be a fixed term, not that it should particularly be for one period or another.

Finally, I wish to touch on the escape clause—the break clause. Avid readers of the Bill will have noticed that it contains no such clause, although there is an implied one. The implied escape clause is that if it was generally thought desirable for there to be an election, because it was the only way to break a political deadlock, it would of course be possible to pass an amending Act. Passing such an Act would simply say, “There shall be a general election, notwithstanding what the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill says.” Such an approach is always possible under our system, which does not have a written constitution. The break clause means that there would have to be more general political consensus—not only here, but in the other place—that there should be an election than simply what the Government of the day believe.

The hon. Gentleman just addressed this point; I was just wondering whether this Bill to change the date would be subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament, including an unelected House.

It should be. That is in line with at least one part of our existing constitution, because there is an exception to the Parliament Act that if there is a Bill to extend the life of Parliament, the House of Lords retains its ancient veto. As a safeguard, it should retain that veto in the instance we are describing too, although I, of course, look forward to the time when the House of Lords is fully elected, and, thus, fulfils the promise made to the people of this country by the Liberal Government of 1911.

The hon. Gentleman said that Parliament could pass an Act to amend this Bill, should it become an Act. In effect, he is arguing that the Prime Minister of the day could throw out the provisions of this Bill and have a general election whenever he or she wanted within the four or five-year period.

Fortunately, it takes a long time to get Bills through without the co-operation of the other parties. It is easier for a Government to get Bills through this House than the other place, but the combination of the two would mean that it would take so long to get the Bill through that the opportunity to hold an election that might have arisen because of some short-term shift in public opinion would probably have passed. It would also be risky for a Government to try to push through such a Bill to take advantage of a short-term opportunity that might have gone by the time the Bill had been passed. If there was a political crisis, and it was agreed by all parties that the only way out of the deadlock was to have an election, a Bill could pass through the Houses smoothly. Therefore, although the Bill does not apparently have an escape mechanism, it does have quite a good one, by implication.

Am I right to think that the Government would have to move a Bill of the sort that the hon. Gentleman describes, so if the Government did not want to do so in a political emergency, the Opposition would not be able to do so—as is the case now, as we cannot choose when we want an election?

That is right, and that is in line with the practice in most other countries, although it could be changed by amending the House’s Standing Orders. The Standing Orders in the other place are as great a mystery to me now as they have ever been.

It would also be possible to add another escape clause. I am happy to listen to arguments for such a mechanism in Committee. Although because we do not have a written constitution we can never escape from the possibility that Parliament might pass another Bill incompatible or inconsistent with this one, it might be possible to build into this Bill another way to do that, which might meet the hon. Gentleman’s objection. One could build in, for example, something like the Scottish mechanism of a two-thirds majority in this House on a motion moved on an Opposition day. I would be happy to listen to such proposals in Committee.

The present system led to a farce last October that affected not only the Prime Minister’s reputation but that of the entire political system. The present approach is both unfair and creates bad government. There is a better way. I am happy to argue about the details of how to achieve that in Committee, but I ask the House to endorse the principle that the term of Parliament should be fixed by law and the right to call general elections taken out of the hands of the Prime Minister.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) for introducing his Bill in such lucid terms. It is important for the House to consider such issues anew, and he has brought some fresh thinking to bear on the subject. The only merit in the Bill is that it would provide for a general election sooner than we would otherwise get one, and if it gets into Committee, I would be keen to move an amendment to provide for a general election even sooner than 7 May 2009.

The hon. Gentleman’s motivation seems to be to cover up for the bottling out by the Prime Minister last October, but the electorate appear to be making their own judgment about that in fairly harsh terms. Indeed, that is not confined to the electorate, but includes many members of his own party, including those in Parliament. There was a similar situation in 1978, when the Prime Minister, Callaghan, could have gone to the country. He chose not to do so in October 1978, and was penalised by the electorate in 1979, when he did not win the general election. People still look back at that period and say that if he had had the election in 1978, he might have won.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman most about the current system giving the incumbent party an enormous unfair advantage. It does, but his system would give the incumbent party an even greater unfair advantage, because it would enable it, from the day that it got into government, to do everything to get the electorate on its side for that fixed date in four years’ time. In the United States, the two years before a presidential election is geared to that election. The consequence of having such a system would be that the Government would ruthlessly use all the tools at their command to their advantage.

I follow the hon. Gentleman’s point, which is important, but the difference is that, in a fixed-term system, both the Government and the Opposition know when the election date is, whereas in our current system, only the Government know.

When I was a member of the Government, I did not know the date of the general election until after everyone else seemed to know. When the hon. Gentleman says that only the Government know, perhaps he means that only the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s closest advisers know. I am not sure that that addresses the issue.

Under such a system, everyone would know that there was to be an election on a fixed date in four years’ time, but only the Government would have the resources to manipulate things to their advantage. I am thinking particularly of Government propaganda. The amount of money that the Government spend on advertising has been shooting up, and one can imagine them organising their advertising budget in the three or six months running up to the fixed election date. They would have an even greater advantage under such a system than they have under the present system. It is possible for the Prime Minister to take a raincheck after local elections, in May, and decide whether to have a general election in June. That happened twice in the 1980s, and reflected the opinion at that time. I am not sure that it would work to change the system in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests on the basis that it would make things fairer for everyone.

I also have a difficulty with the claim that the Bill would promote good governance by ending stop-start cycles and boom and bust. I wonder how consistent that is with the policy of the hon. Gentleman and his party of wanting proportional representation, which would make it much less likely that we would have a strong, single-party Government. The likelihood of having a strong, single-party Government—if that is what he is keen to have—would be more undermined by a PR system than it would be helped by the Bill.

One could argue that fixed terms and PR go together, as often happens in other parts of Europe. If there were a fixed term that could be bypassed only with broad political consensus, parties would have to work together more. The hon. Gentleman talks about strong government, but I would talk about popular government. The Government would be more popular, more of the time, because they would be backed by more of the people.

The hon. Gentleman talks about a Government being popular, but what is important is having a good Government. A Government who are not popular in the short term might often prove popular in the longer term, when the benefits are seen.

I am simply putting down a few markers. I am sure that the Bill will go into Committee and that the Government will be enthusiastic about allowing it to do so, so that it can be amended along the lines I have been suggesting. I am also sure that other Members present would like to contribute to this timely debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having chosen this subject, which is a refreshing change from a lot of the routine that we have on Fridays.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) on introducing this important matter. I am not enormously enthusiastic about his Bill, but this issue ought to be discussed and I am very pleased that he has given us that opportunity today. It occurs to me that there is one Member of this House who might have wished that this Bill was already law by this time last year—the Prime Minister himself. Then, he would not have got into the dreadful mess that he got into in the autumn, and which has so fatally damaged his reputation as a politician. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not introduce this Bill in order to help the current Prime Minister, but he has raised many points today that the Minister is no doubt looking forward to addressing.

This is one of those issues that is very much a question of balance. On the one hand, there are the advantages of the present system’s flexibility, some of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, as did my hon. Friends. On the other, there is the enormous political power that the current system gives to an incumbent Prime Minister. As I said earlier, it might be that both the larger parties in this House, which have for the last century formed either the Government or the Opposition—

Indeed. It might be that both those parties can see the advantage of incumbency and would like to hold on to that advantage. It is Labour’s now but it will be ours at some point, and so it goes. The Liberal Democrats, I am afraid, have no chance whatever of benefiting from that incumbency, so I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman wishes to introduce a Bill that reduces the advantage given to a current Prime Minister.

I see why the matter arises now—because of what happened, as I said, last autumn. I recall that in its 1992 manifesto, “It’s time to get Britain working again”—it was not the most successful manifesto in history—the Labour party said:

“This general election was called only after months of on-again, off-again dithering which damaged our economy and weakened our democracy.”

Of course, that was not the case. The then Prime Minister, now Sir John Major, might have called a general election in 1991—I recall being ready for it myself, just in case—but he did not call it until the spring of 1992. In the intervening time, that did no harm to the economy or to the political process. Indeed, it did no harm to Sir John Major, either, or to the Conservative party, but it did do a lot of harm to the then leader of the Labour party and his campaign and campaigning style, and presumably affected the amount of campaigning that the then Opposition were doing. I do not know what sort of effect it had on Labour’s party funds, but Labour felt strongly enough about the issue to have fixed Parliaments in its 1992 manifesto.

Strangely, fixed-term Parliaments—what a surprise!—were not in the successful Labour party manifesto of 1997, when Labour eventually did get into government. My point is that it would appear that every Opposition want to use all the tools available to them—not surprisingly—to get rid of the Government. However, as soon as they get into government they do not want to do that.

Let me put everything in the picture about the 1992 manifesto. The subject of fixed-term Parliaments was dropped but, as the hon. Lady might remember, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) described that manifesto as the longest suicide note in history. Perhaps that was not the only proposal to be dropped from that manifesto, as quite a lot of other things have changed since then.

The hon. Lady is right. I could have been much crueller about the 1992 manifesto—and indeed about the 1983 manifesto—but I thought that that would be unfair. The hon. Lady is right that there were many other reasons why the 1992 manifesto failed to bring about a Labour Government.

I apologise. The hon. Lady is quite right to mention 1983. That was my mistake, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton was describing the manifesto from 10 years earlier than 1992. Nevertheless, manifestos change from time to time.

I remember the 1992 manifesto with some clarity, and I was about to point out that the quotation cited by my hon. Friend the Minister referred to the 1983 manifesto. I was grateful for the dithering of the then Government in 1991, because I was pregnant, and at one point I anticipated that I would have my baby in the middle of that autumn election campaign.

The hon. Lady strikes a potent chord with me, and I have every sympathy with her. As the hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned earlier, the date of the 2001 election was changed because of the foot and mouth crisis. I was expecting a baby at that point, and had thought quite happily that we would have an election in April or May, at which point I could manage one just fine. The election was quite rightly postponed for a month, and so I fought a general election on 7 June and gave birth to my son on 14 June. I sympathise completely with the hon. Lady.

I do not know whether fixed-term Parliaments—I am not suggesting that we get into this argument—will help future generations of female Members of Parliament and potential Members of Parliament to plan the birth of their children. I know that I got it pretty wrong—well, not entirely, because my son is of course the most wonderful person in the world. I appreciate that that point is out of order and nothing to do with the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) said that Governments are given a great deal of incumbency power, but what happened last autumn showed the Prime Minister to the populace in a bad light. His power was turned against him and he is now the most unpopular Prime Minister since records began.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, which I hope we can emphasise during the rest of the debate.

I quoted the Labour party manifesto from 1992, which said that the question of whether the election would take place in late 1991 or 1992 had

“damaged our economy and weakened our democracy.”

The hon. Member for Cambridge argued that what happened in the political world last autumn likewise damaged our democracy and our economy. However, I argue that it did not damage the working of our democracy and it did not damage our economy. The only damage was to the Prime Minister and to the reputation of those around him for good political management. That is part of the world of politics—it is what happens in a democracy. Legislation such as the Bill would not prevent such things from happening again.

I think my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge was making the point that because of the speculation many actions that were important for the country were put on hold: for example, brand new Secretaries of State were put in charge of a possible election campaign. That false start, which none the less involved much planning, led to delay in many areas—not least the Climate Change Bill.

I understand what the hon. Lady says, but the same thing would happen in a fixed-term Parliament, as we can see in the USA at present. The Americans have been campaigning for a long time—it seems like centuries. They refer to President Bush as a lame duck president because his term of office will soon be finished, but he is still in office. The circumstances she describes arise just as much in fixed-term systems as in flexible systems. It is all part of the democratic process.

A cross-party organisation called Fixed Term was set up in October 2007—I do not know whether the hon. Member for Cambridge was a mover. The organisation campaigns for fixed-term Parliaments and has published the results of a poll conducted in October 2007. It found that 25 per cent. of Conservative MPs, 41 per cent. of Labour MPs and 88 per cent. of Liberal Democrat MPs support fixed-term Parliaments. If anything was to convince me to be against any Bill it would be the fact that 88 per cent. of Liberal Democrats but only 25 per cent. of Conservatives are in favour of it.

I did not quite understand the relevance of the other statistics published by Fixed Term, which tell us that 43 per cent. of male MPs, but 49 per cent. of female MPs, support fixed-term Parliaments. I could not understand why the organisation had bothered to research such information until the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made a point with which I entirely agree. I can now understand why female Members of Parliament are more in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, and I might even be persuaded on that point myself, but not this afternoon.

The strongest argument for change is that the incumbent Prime Minister has an unfair advantage. As I said earlier, it is ironic that the one person who would prefer a fixed-term Parliament system right now is the incumbent Prime Minister.

The debate has been valuable, and I am sure it will become even more valuable as we hear what the Minister has to say. I want to ensure that she has plenty of time to address the issues, and I am certain this will not be the last time that we debate the matter over the coming months.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) on his success in the private Members’ ballot. It is always a great achievement and Back Benchers value it greatly. I am grateful to him for initiating this debate on fixed-term Parliaments. Parliamentarians love to discuss the topic; we always feel more expert than anyone else on anything to do with Parliament and the way it works—we always think we know better than most about that.

May I apologise again to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for my absolute lapse of memory on suicide notes and Labour party manifestos, especially, after all, as I was elected on the 1992 manifesto? I should hardly want to admit that I was elected on a manifesto with which I did not have some association. Nevertheless, manifestos evolve and change, as does the parliamentary system.

The hon. Member for Cambridge has put his argument with great cogency. Indeed, in some ways, it would appear a neat and persuasive one. In fact, the issues that relate to the dissolution of Parliament and the timing of elections strike at the very heart of our democracy and constitution. We need to treat them seriously, so we very much welcome openly discussing possible changes to enhance the democratic process. That has been reflected in today’s debate and in some of the other things that we consider, not just the timing of general elections but the other aspects of our constitution, the way that campaigns develop and so on.

I was concerned that the hon. Gentleman said that his Bill made provision, albeit implicitly, for situations where the fixed term should not apply. It is a short, neat and very clear Bill, and I can see nothing in it that would allow Parliament, the Government or any other part of the Executive or the legislature to call an election outwith the fixed term.

The simple answer to the Minister’s question is that the principle of parliamentary supremacy allows us to pass any Bill that we like, and it would take precedence over anything that we had passed previously.

The hon. Gentleman referred to that in his opening remarks. Yes, Parliament can pass any Bill that it likes. Some Bills take longer than others to pass, and others can be passed in a day. If a Government had a reasonable majority they could present a very short Bill—it would be at least as short as this Bill, if not shorter—to say, “We’re going to change the Fixed Term Parliament Act” and railroad it through very quickly in a day. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would consider that not very democratic and certainly not within the spirit of what he is trying to achieve with the Bill.

I thank the Minister for giving way again, but trying to force a Bill through the House in a day is very difficult without the co-operation of the other parties. Resources and procedural devices could be used that are not used when the other parties are co-operating. Furthermore, without the co-operation of the other parties, getting a Bill through the House of Lords, where the Government have no majority, is impossible in a day.

I would not say that that is necessarily impossible in the House of Lords; otherwise a Government might find themselves never reaching the end of their legislative programme. However, it is true that Labour Governments certainly have far more difficulties in the House of Lords than do Conservatives ones. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental flaw in the Bill, but I will come back to that later.

Clause 2, which deals with the dissolution of Parliament and states that the present Parliament should be dissolved on 7 April 2009 and that it therefore cannot be dissolved at any other time, goes on to state that every subsequent Parliament should be dissolved 30 days before a general election. However, again, that does not seem to offer the flexibility required if other perhaps non-parliamentary events took place that might make a Government consider it appropriate to dissolve Parliament. Indeed, if a Parliament were to complete its fixed term, and something happened within, or close to, that 30-day period, there would be no flexibility in such circumstances, either.

The Bill primarily seeks to fix the date of the next general election, and I understand why the Opposition see merit in that proposal. However, they will not be surprised to know that the Government do not quite take that view. The Bill is prescriptive in its provision that elections should take place on the first Thursday in May, although I accept that the hon. Member for Cambridge said that that date could be changed on Parliament’s say-so. The worrying thing about the Bill’s wording is that it categorically forbids the dissolution of Parliament other than in accordance with its provisions.

From my perspective, there are two reasons why the hon. Gentleman has introduced the Bill, both of which are based on a genuine wish to improve the democratic process. First, the measure would repeal the serving Prime Minister’s sole ability to decide the timing of general elections, presumably to ensure that there is a fairer, broader and more democratic system; and, secondly, it would curtail the duration of Parliament generally by regulating the timing of general elections. The Government believe strongly in representative democracy with Parliament at its heart, and we have a long history of constitutional reform. Indeed, we have championed change in response to demands to modernise the institutions of government. As a Government, we are not afraid to consider and to implement constitutional and parliamentary reform if it better reflects the changing face of our modern democracy.

In honour of that philosophy, in July last year, the Government launched a Green Paper entitled, “The Governance of Britain”, which set out our vision and proposals for constitutional renewal. One of the main objectives was the rebalancing of power between the Executive and Parliament, and that agenda included a number of proposals to limit the Executive’s power, to transfer power to Parliament, and to expand Parliament’s role in certain areas. Some of those proposals were reflected in the Prime Minister’s statement about the forward legislative programme. We have undertaken an extensive consultation on policies with members of the public, private bodies, firms, academics and, indeed, other Government Departments. We always welcome contributions from Opposition parties.

I do not know whether the Minister has had the benefit of reading the proceedings of the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, but if she has, she will know that almost all the evidence that we have received complains of a big gap between the Government’s rhetoric and the reality, particularly in relation to the draft Bill.

I have not read the details of those proceedings, but we are in the process of having that debate—the Joint Committee has been set up, and we are discussing the measure with people. The rhetoric begins the process, and the reality is what will come out of the findings of the Joint Committee and others about constitutional renewal. The package of reforms that we have put forward represents the recalibration of a number of significant parts of our constitution. It is another step in the long and detailed programme of constitutional change that the Government have undertaken since 1997.

There have been some fundamental reforms, including devolution in Scotland, Wales and, more recently, Northern Ireland, and the transformation of the role of Lord Chancellor. A supreme court is about to be established. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act 1998 were introduced, although I know that members of the Conservative party are not necessarily persuaded that we need a Human Rights Act. A lot of work has gone towards ensuring a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber. The Government have been at the forefront of constitutional renewal for the past 10 or 11 years.

The reforms in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill will have real consequences for the governance of the country. For example, they will ensure that a future Government cannot make changes to the core values of the civil service without proper parliamentary debate and scrutiny. They will give Parliament a vote on the ratification of treaties. They will stop the involvement of the Lord Chancellor and Prime Minister in certain judicial appointments. Those are tangible reforms that will absolutely change the way in which our constitution and our Parliament work. I want to consider some of those reforms in detail in this debate.

The process of constitutional renewal continues with the publication of the Constitutional Renewal Bill. It is in draft so that we can respond to the debate so far, and then move on to the next phase. We invite Parliament and others to consider and comment on it and on the White Paper; that will enhance the quality of our legislation and contribute to the next step in the improved constitutional settlement. Of course, the Bill and the White Paper do not set out the final blueprint of our constitutional settlement; they are the next step in the governance of Britain programme. We hope that people across the country, in every walk of life, will continue to participate in the debate. That is a vital step in strengthening our democracy.

The governance programme is of particular relevance to today’s debate. It sets out to remove the power of the Prime Minister of the day to call a general election at will—that is the essence of the Bill before us. One of the main areas of the governance of Britain work is our commitment to consult on whether to change the system for dissolving Parliament. There is a very useful House of Commons standard note on fixed-term Parliaments. Currently, the Prime Minister requests that the monarch exercise her prerogative power to dissolve Parliament. The note says:

“it is the Queen who formally calls a general election since it is she…who is vested with the legal power to dissolve and summon Parliaments. The power dates back to at least the thirteenth century.”

Of course hon. Members will today have heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton, West (Mr. McAvoy) say that the Queen has given her consent to our debating the Bill in Parliament.

Constitutional monarchs may continue to play a role in the formation of Governments, even in European countries where proportional representation, written constitutions and fixed-term Parliaments are in place. In Denmark, for example, the Government are in existence in law by virtue of the Prime Minister being nominated by the sovereign. In some countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, the monarch traditionally plays an active personal role in forming a coalition.

First, that is not the position in Sweden. Secondly, does the Minister not think that it is a good idea to remove our monarch from any possibility of involvement in politics?

Our current system is better than those available elsewhere, which is why we should continue with it. The monarch decides on the appointment of the Government through constitutional convention, so it is important to note that the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments in the United Kingdom would not necessarily eliminate the use of the royal prerogative in dissolution. We do not intend to take away the important and historical tradition of referring to the monarch, but the system requires updating to reflect the more democratic time in which we live.

We intend to change the convention so that the Prime Minister is required to seek the approval of the House of Commons before asking the monarch for a dissolution. In effect, that would empower Parliament to influence the general election process, a role that it does not currently have. Evidently, any new arrangements will have to provide for a situation in which it proves impossible to form a Government who command the support of the House of Commons and Parliament refuses to dissolve itself. In short, the Government are already implementing a process of review for the dissolution of Parliament and considering an alternative mechanism, by which Parliament, rather than just the Prime Minister, will be more responsible, and therefore more accountable, in that process.

Does that mean that the Government would still keep the rule whereby a vote of no confidence in a Prime Minister leads to a general election, which could be important in the next few months?

While I disagree with the hon. Lady about whether that is likely to become important in the next few months, the Bill does not take account of what Parliament can do if there were a vote of no confidence in a Government, which is a big weakness. The Bill is too inflexible for Parliament to respond in such a situation.

Restructuring the recall of the House of Commons is another case in point. Currently, the House may be recalled by the Speaker during any period of Adjournment under Standing Order No. 13 at the request of the Government. There is no power for MPs, or even a majority of MPs, to force a recall. In the past, hon. Members have argued through early-day motions that there should be the opportunity for Members to ask the Speaker to recall Parliament. The current arrangement allows Parliament to be recalled. Indeed, in the past few years—

Order. The Minister is straying rather beyond the bounds of the Bill before the House.

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Because of the wording of the provision and the fact that Parliament can be dissolved only at certain times, the Bill would not allow the current flexibility whereby Parliament can be recalled at the Speaker’s behest, where an outside event might make it appropriate for hon. Members to gather together to discuss the matter, as we did, for example, in the cases of the Omagh bombing and Iraq.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to introduce fixed-term Parliaments in order to redress the balance of power between Parliament and the Executive, he should welcome the fact that we hope to introduce a system that will allow the House to be recalled at the initiative of the House rather than of the Government. That would allow a majority among Members of Parliament to request a recall, which the Speaker would then consider.

I shall go on to discuss other areas of reform that the Bill would curtail, but I want to point out that many Parliaments do not last for the full five years. Between February 1919 and the present day, very few Parliaments have gone the full term. The flexibility inherent in the current system allows for what I believe to be the principle behind the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, which—

It being half-past Two o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on 6 June.

Remaining Private Members’ Bills

Human Rights Act 1998 (Meaning of Public Function) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

Environmental Protection (Airports) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Disqualification from Parliament (Taxation Status) Bill

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [25 January], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Citizens’ Convention Bill

Order for Second reading read.

Foreign Nationals (Statistics) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Drugs (Roadside TESTING) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Drugs (Reclassification) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am rather concerned that the Public Sector Buildings (Energy Performance) Bill was not moved. I have received a lot of correspondence asking me—pleading with me, indeed—not to object to that Bill. Now it has not even been moved today. I fear that an enormous amount of energy has been wasted in that connection.

Whether Bills are moved or not is a matter entirely for the Members in charge; it is certainly not a matter for the Chair.

London Olympics (Employment)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Alison Seabeck.]

It gives me great pleasure to speak on the vital issue of the London 2012 Olympics and their possibilities for regenerating the lives of people in the Olympic boroughs in the east end. I clearly remember where I was when it was announced that London had won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics. In common with most Londoners, I was thrilled and excited—more than I had anticipated being. It is appropriate at this point to note the tremendous work and commitment of the then Prime Minister, the then Mayor of London and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics in helping us win the bid.

I was thrilled and excited not only because it is a huge honour for London to play host to one of the greatest international events but because of the possibilities for the regeneration of the east end. It seemed to me that not only was the country poised to host this tremendous event, but the east end of London, which includes some of the poorest communities in the country, also stood to benefit.

Three years later, I am still a strong supporter of the Olympics and hugely optimistic about what the Olympics can do for the east end of London and my constituency. As the plans have unfolded, we have all seen what an ambitious and creative project hosting the Olympics is. We now have a new Mayor in London, and whereas I knew the commitment of the old Mayor using the Olympics for regeneration, one has yet to hear in detail from the new Mayor. It therefore seemed to me appropriate to come to the House at this point to set out what the people who live in the Olympic boroughs in the east end of London were promised and what progress has been made on jobs, business and employment.

For the Olympics to be a genuine success for this country, for London and for the five east end host boroughs, the people who live in Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and the other Olympic boroughs must believe that they really will benefit from hosting the event; otherwise, the people of the east end will be like children pressing their noses against a window when something exciting and glamorous is happening on the other side. Local residents must feel that the employment possibilities for them and their children are going to rise. They must feel that the wonderful Olympic park, media centre and other buildings really will be turned into spaces that the community can use after the big event. It is important to remember that not just the local authorities of the five boroughs, and not just the streets, buildings and open land, but the people who live there are hosting the Olympics. Those people deserve to be part of the Olympics and to benefit from them.

However, it is not just a matter of principle. I remind the House that the five host boroughs—Greenwich, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Waltham Forest and Hackney—are among some of the poorest areas in the country. In fact, they are all among the 15 per cent. most deprived areas in the country, and my constituency of Hackney is in the bottom 5 per cent. Even at a time when the Government have done so much to invest in training and to put people into employment, only 55 per cent. of people of working age in Hackney are in employment. That is not just an abstract figure. There is a direct relationship between the problems that we see in our inner cities of gangs, deprivation and social exclusion and the continuing very low employment rates in the east end. As the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, remarked, many parts of the east end of London have not seen major regeneration since the Victorian era. The importance of getting economic regeneration right is immense. The Olympics represent a significant opportunity to turn round the fortunes of these poor areas and change the lives of the people who live there. For those of us who live in the east end, that means better transport links, improved facilities, a cleaner local environment, better access to sport, particularly for young people, and jobs for local people and contracts for local businesses. I will concentrate on the last two issues—jobs for local people and contracts for local businesses—in my remarks.

Let me remind the House of what was promised to the east end from the 2012 Olympics. In June 2006, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics said:

“We are determined to ensure that legacy is at the heart of everything we do, whether it is delivering world-class stadia or providing grassroots facilities designed to benefit the whole community.”

In October 2006, Lord Coe, chairman of the London 2012 organising committee, said:

“London was chosen to host the 2012 Games because of its diversity, unique heritage and the enthusiasm of local people. We want to invite people from all of London’s communities, particularly those who live around the Olympic park, to get involved and to reap the benefits the Games will bring.”

In its 2012 annual report, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport named one of the key objectives of the Olympics as:

“To maximise the economic, social, health and environmental benefits of the Games for the UK, particularly east London.”

I stress “economic”. The Olympic Delivery Authority says in its 2008 employment and skills strategy:

“London 2012 is committed to creating a positive employment and economic legacy for London and the UK after the Games. This will be achieved through the creation of new jobs, an increase in sustainable skills among local people and improved links between employers and those looking for work, recognising the high proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the community.”

Those are very hopeful words.

When we add the sheer volume of investment and work that needs to be done on the Olympic site to the hopeful words that the people of the east end have heard, we can see the possibilities. Five permanent venues will be built, as well as three temporary venues, one media centre, earthworks, landscaping work, 11 highway bridges, 13 permanent footbridges, extensive land clearing, waterways and new roads. And that is just to build the park. Once the games are over, there will be a large amount of work to do to transform the park into legacy mode. Recent research by ConstructionSkills—the sector skills council for the construction industry—found that because of the Olympics construction work in Greater London, construction jobs will grow in number by 8.4 per cent. between 2008 and 2012. Its research predicts that 14,930 new recruits will be needed every year to meet that demand and 3,000 construction, professional and technical staff will be needed each year until the end of the games.

A huge amount of money is going in. The Government are providing at least £5.9 billion; the Greater London authority and the London Development Agency are providing £1.17 billion; and the launch of the London 2012 business network includes details of £6 billion of contracts, and an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 associated supply chain opportunities. That represents huge potential for local people and local businesses. It is perfectly true that the ODA and the LDA have produced plenty of papers. They are planning training and skills programmes and there has been a lot of talk about employment possibilities and creating an Olympic work force that looks like multicultural London. Sadly, it seems to me that the reality does not match the talk. It does not match what people have been promised, the number of jobs that will be created or the billions of pounds of public money that have been invested in the Olympics. I know that people have been meeting; there have been committees, papers have been drawn up and people have highly paid jobs that ostensibly speak to that agenda, but it is important to highlight the problems and draw attention to what is happening now before it is too late for the employment benefits of the Olympics to make a difference to my constituents. I worry that by waiting to see whether local businesses are able to access tenders and whether local people get training, we may be waiting for one, two or three years in which local people have missed out.

I am sorry to say that the current figures are dismal. Despite the billions of pounds being poured into the construction of the Olympic park, the numerous training programmes and the huge amount of labour that needs doing, the number of people from the east end who have received jobs there remains low. I understand that only 430 people from the five host boroughs are currently employed in Olympic jobs, out of a possible 2,488 jobs that have been given out so far. Employees from the host boroughs make up only 17 per cent. of the total Olympic work force, and out of those figures, sadly, Hackney has the lowest number of residents involved in Olympic jobs. Just 48 Hackney residents have Olympic jobs out of the 2,488 people employed.

Unfortunately, the situation does not look much better for training, about which there has been a lot of talk. The training programmes designed to get local people into Olympic jobs have not had much success. A programme called Personal Best was piloted in Hackney, and 50 local residents graduated from it. But out of those 50, only two have secured employment whilst eight have been taken up as volunteers. The Olympic Delivery Authority scheme aimed at getting local people involved with the Olympics has put only eight Hackney residents into employment. As for local businesses, business suppliers to the Olympics total 600 at the moment. Out of those 600 businesses, only 77 are based in the Olympic boroughs and only 13 in Hackney. That means that Hackney businesses have just 2 per cent. of the business tenders available so far. That is simply not good enough and it would not be surprising if local people began to think that all the talk about them benefiting from this huge billion-pound extravaganza was simply talk.

The Olympic Delivery Authority’s equality and diversity strategy sets out the ODA’s aims—widening participation and opening up the construction industry to under-represented groups such as women and black people—and claims that they can be achieved by following a fair recruitment process and adhering to equal opportunities. That is admirable, but in reality a fair recruitment process and adhering to equal opportunities are the bare legal minimum, and what we should expect of any company or organisation. They are not proactive ways of increasing diversity; if anything, they are simply ways of maintaining the status quo.

The Department’s annual report does not focus much on local employment. Instead, it talks of the aim of local participation in cultural and community activities and volunteering. I have been there before. When billions of pounds were being spent on the Dome, I went to talk to those who were running the project about jobs for local people in Greenwich. All I heard about was volunteering. In the end, local people and companies did not benefit from the Dome as they should have, although there is now a fabulous building there, in south-east London.

I do not dismiss the benefits of voluntary work, but I do not want efforts to secure volunteers to detract from the crucial need for local people to be given paid employment. It strikes me as somewhat patronising to suggest that the residents of the Olympic host boroughs will remain compliant as long as they are thrown some cultural activities or volunteering work. If the Olympics are to have an impact on levels of unemployment, deprivation and social exclusion in the east end, they must focus on the employment issues.

I do not think that those who talk of employment for local people have got to grips with a proactive strategy. The ODA tells me that it aims to employ 10 to 15 per cent. of people in the Olympic park construction work force from the five host boroughs. It says that that is the average number of people currently employed on a typical work site in London, but I say that it is a pitifully unambitious target. The public have not spent billions of pounds on the Olympics only to achieve that level of employment. The Olympic project should be raising the stakes. It will have no sustainability if local people see 85 to 90 per cent. of jobs going to outsiders.

I am concerned about the low targets, and about the lack of a proactive strategy not just to make the Olympic park reflect employment realities now, but to make the Olympic park, Olympic construction and Olympic development show the way towards what can be done to employ and give opportunities to local people. I am sure that the Department is not merely cashing in on the image of London as a multicultural city, or on the idea that the Olympics will take a deprived region out of poverty—whereas, in reality, few local people have Olympic jobs or contracts—but that is how things look at present.

It seems to me that if the Government, the Mayor and the ODA are to make good the promises made to the east end three years ago, we need a much more proactive and urgent strategy both to put local people into jobs and training and to give local business, particularly small business, access to the tendering process. The current targets appear to admit defeat before even trying to increase local employment. There is a danger that some of the big employers will get away with making token gestures rather than doing the sort of work that was done at the time of the Atlanta Olympics, which represented a huge stepping-stone for black business and jobs for local young people because the necessary political leadership was there.

I remain as thrilled and idealistic about the Olympics as I was when I first heard that our bid had been successful. I bow to no one in my respect for the people, including my right hon. Friend the Minister, who were the architects of that successful bid. However, if we are not to see deepening disillusionment in the east end over this major project, we must deliver both the practical and the political meaning of the promises that were made about regeneration.

I would not like the change of Mayor to lead to a slackening of the emphasis on economic regeneration and jobs for local people. It is not enough to have meetings and working parties. It is not enough to draw out strategies on paper. It is not enough to recruit highly paid persons with supposed responsibility for these issues. The stakeholders involved in 2012 must raise their game and achieve concrete targets for local employment and local regeneration.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this important debate. I agree with almost everything she has to say—both in terms of her analysis and her challenges. She is right that when we made our bid to host the 2012 Olympics the then Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and I were absolutely clear that were we to win, it would accelerate the regeneration of east London by 10 to 15 years and on a scale that would be unimaginable if we did not win. I wish to take this opportunity to place on record the Government’s recognition of the enormous contribution the previous Mayor made both to our winning the Olympics and to securing those regeneration ambitions.

My hon. Friend is right that it has been envisaged that the legacy of the games will take two forms. The first is the structures, including the venues, the approximately 10,000 new homes by 2020 and the largest urban park anywhere in Europe for 150 years. The park will be a destination for not only the five boroughs, but the whole of London, and it will be populated by not only new environmental features but world-class venues, each of which is being designed with two objectives. One of them is community use and the benefit of the local community—there must be no local people longingly pressing their noses against the window because they are excluded, as that would be a travesty. The other objective is to provide the world-class venues that London has lacked for too long. It is worth reminding my hon. Friend that of the £8.1 billion—£6.1 billion plus £2 billion of contingency—that is available for the development of the park, 75p out of every pound spent will go on regenerating the wasteland that disfigures those boroughs following generations of neglect.

My hon. Friend eloquently described the second part of the legacy: the increased skills in five of the most deprived boroughs in the country. I shall deal in detail with the points she made. Our ambition always exceeded simply hosting the Olympics and Paralympics—and I should underline the extent to which our ambition goes further, and is being realised more quickly in practice, than in any other Olympic city.

As my hon. Friend knows, economic activity in the five boroughs is well below that of London and the rest of the UK: 40 per cent. of the working-age population are unemployed, 40 per cent. of the residents of the host boroughs are black and ethnic minority, and 22 per cent. have no educational qualifications. My hon. Friend has raised some sharp challenges for the work being undertaken by the Olympic Delivery Authority.

My first response to those challenges is to say that we must see the progress that has been made—which is by no means the extent of the ambition—in the context of generations of neglect in developing the skills and potential of so many of the people who live in the five boroughs. The Olympics and Paralympics provide unprecedented opportunities for those individuals and for local business. In providing those opportunities, we are rising to a challenge that sits at the heart of the Government’s ambition to raise the bar and to see the increase in the skill level as an essential driver of economic growth.

Two objectives in the bid and the staging plans for the 2012 Olympics are to regenerate east London socially and economically, and to regenerate it physically. We want to give new opportunities to people, particularly those who are furthest from the labour market and have absolutely no educational qualifications, thus creating opportunities for people in those circumstances to get into work and training and breaking the cycle of unemployment and deprivation.

I should say a word about apprenticeships, of which Hackney has fewer than 100. A commitment has been made through the skills academy that has been established for the Olympic park, focusing specifically on construction skills. The commitment is for 2,000 apprenticeships and work experience work placement opportunities, which will transform the entry point opportunities for people in the Olympic boroughs.

The Olympic Delivery Authority is responsible for overseeing the construction, and I wish to discuss its employment and skills plans. Its job, more than anything else, is to deliver the games on time and on budget, but, in doing so, to create a legacy of better trained workers with the prospect of better careers. My hon. Friend has challenged what she sees as the timidity—that is my word, rather than hers—of the ODA’s figures, and I should put that into context.

The ODA’s target is for 10 to 15 per cent. of the total work force to come from the local boroughs. The industry norm, which we must accept is a baseline, is between only 3 and 5 per cent, so the ambition is considerably greater. A second target is to ensure that 7 per cent. of the work force is made up of people who were previously unemployed, which compares with an industry norm of between 3 and 5 per cent. and a figure of 22 per cent in respect of those who come from Hackney. I accept my hon. Friend’s point that when things are translated into specific numbers, the numbers involved are small. The strategy focuses on getting people into training and employment, reflecting the skill levels in the area.

I recognise that Hackney’s local labour figure is low, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the ODA and the London Development Agency—my discussions thus far with the new Mayor give me no reason to believe that he will resile from this commitment—are working to address the low level of Hackney residents getting jobs on the park. The LDA is granting Hackney funds to build the capacity of its job brokerage scheme, and the ODA is working with it directly to analyse what more needs to be done to increase the number of Hackney residents gaining jobs on the site. By our deeds, rather than by our good intentions, shall we be judged, and that was the thrust of my hon. Friend’s speech.

There are early successes. The Personal Best scheme, to which my hon. Friend referred, is working with people who are as far as it is possible to imagine from the labour market. Every graduate of that scheme who gets into work is a story of hope in a context—for those people—of hopelessness and complete lack of ambition.

Time is short, and I hope that there will be many other chances to go through with my hon. Friend the many opportunities that will be provided. If we fail, we will have betrayed the great ambition we have for the Olympics in east London. We will not fail and, with my hon. Friend’s advocacy, we have an even greater chance of success.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o’clock.