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Children’s Services

Volume 557: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2013

It is a pleasure to have secured this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and to have the opportunity to discuss this very important topic in such a timely manner. I believe that it provides the Minister with a last chance to allay the concerns about reform of special educational needs provision before the children and families Bill enters Parliament.

I remind colleagues that this is not a marginal issue. There are about 700,000 disabled children in England. One in 15 families with dependent children has at least one disabled child and more than one fifth of children—about 1.7 million—are said to have special educational needs. Far too many of those families feel close to crisis point. I know of no MP whose casework file does not include countless calls for help from parents of disabled children and children with SEN. Parents are forced to fight their way over seemingly endless bureaucratic hurdles to get the support they desperately need for their children. Parents come to me, and have done for many years, exhausted and demoralised, unable to understand why it is such a battle even to get their children’s needs recognised, let alone be given adequate support.

At the heart of the battle that families with disabled children and children with SEN face is the unacceptable lack of support close to home. Scope’s recent report, “Keep Us Close”, found that the biggest issue facing families with disabled children was a lack of local support services.

When we first come into this place, we all think that it is just an individual problem, but I see from the Scope report the scale of the problem. The average distance travelled is more than 4,300 miles a year. That is staggering. When someone has to travel, it is always a fight to get funding from the local authority to cover even that.

I empathise and agree with the point my hon. Friend makes. I will refer to that issue later in my speech. It is about not only distance, but cost, which in the case of low-income families can be an incredibly difficult burden to bear.

More than six in 10 parents of disabled children say that they cannot get the services they and their child need in their local area. A measly one in 10 parents told Scope that the process of getting local services was simple. Families with disabled children and children with SEN want to use the services that many families simply take for granted: child care, so that parents can work; short breaks, which enable families to rest and a disabled child to enjoy a leisure activity; therapeutic services, to support development such as speech and language; and, of course, the right educational setting, so a child can learn and reach their potential.

A lack of local, accessible services can have a devastating impact on a family’s quality of life. Recent research by Scope found that 80% of the families with disabled children who cannot access the services they need locally report feeling anxious and stressed, and more than half said that as a consequence they missed out on doing family activities together, such as days out or celebrating birthdays.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, families with disabled children travel on average more than 4,300 miles a year —84 miles a week—to access the services they need. The logistics and complicated arrangements necessary to get them to appointments, school and activities on time are vast. Travelling long distances is extremely demanding, particularly for children who tire easily or become distressed if they are contained for long periods. For disabled children and children with SEN, such journeys can be even more stressful. As one mother of a disabled child put it:

“Not being able to access the fun things for my child has left us isolated and almost housebound for most of the month. It is difficult to access things as we don’t drive and no thought is put in to the placement of services for disabled families who need to use public transport. It is always assumed we drive. Therefore public transport costs a fortune and takes at least twice as long. Services are a distance away, so if you don’t drive it means you just don’t go to services at all, which means being housebound and being further isolated.”

In some cases, the immense financial burden placed on families can literally tear them apart, which is the important point my hon. Friend made earlier.

My hon. Friend describes a situation with which we are all familiar in our constituencies. One concern that parents in my constituency report is that funding for home-to-school transport has been reduced significantly due to pressure on councils’ budgets. Does she agree that it is extremely important to ensure that families can manage the day-to-day journey to school readily and affordably and that it ought to be given priority in any local offer?

Transport is extremely important, as my hon. Friend points out, but so is the consistency of the service. Having the same driver, routine and route to school is often incredibly important for children, particularly those with autism, for example. There are issues with consistency of service and central Government funding for local government to ensure that such services are consistent and of a high quality.

My hon. Friend mentioned the impact of funding cuts, which are of particular concern, given the additional responsibilities that will be pushed on to local services by the Government through the legislation. She will share my concern that extra services will be demanded and local authorities will need to put on those extra services, but the money will not come with them. At a time of pressure, that will make it even harder for the families she described.

My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. When local authority budgets are being reduced significantly, we may see the expectations on local authorities quite rightly increase in relation to disabled children and children with SEN. I will be pleased to hear the Minister’s response on that point. In Sheffield, £1 in every £3 is being cut from the council budget by central Government. Something has to give somewhere.

Frustrated at not being able to access support, some parents find that the only way to gain the help they need is to go through the formal process of getting a statement for their child. For too many, that process involves navigating their way round a very complex system, characterised by a lack of information, poor support and negative attitudes. Indeed, “banging our heads against a brick wall” is a phrase my constituents use time and time again when talking about the challenges they face to get the support they need. All too often, they feel that they have to be persistent and tireless if they are to get the services they need, and they often feel that only articulate families or those who shout the loudest—middle-class families—are successful in accessing services.

The Government have said that their reforms to SEN provision will reduce the adversarial nature of the system, putting an end to the frustration at having to fight to get the support families need and deserve. The former Minister with responsibility for children, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), said that the proposed children and families Bill would put an end to the unacceptable situation in which thousands of families

“are forced to go from pillar to post and face agonizing delays and bureaucracy to get support, therapy and equipment.”

I welcome the intention behind the Bill. I particularly welcome the requirement for local authorities to publish a local offer to better enable families to find the education, health and care support that they need. I also welcome the duty on local agencies to jointly plan and commission services for disabled children—it is long overdue.

Too often, families feel that their child, and indeed the whole family, has been compartmentalised, with local agencies failing to see the whole picture of what is needed to support them. One of the most common refrains I hear from my constituents is that children are not seen as individuals and that services fail to see them as individuals and families.

My hon. Friend is right. Bringing together education and health in the plans is a positive move. The concern presented to the Select Committee on Education in evidence, when we conducted pre-legislative scrutiny, was about what happens at the thresholds. What happens to those people on the borderline who have low or medium levels of need? I am sure that she will touch on that concern and I know that the Minister is aware of it. It is one of the key issues around statementing.

I was the cabinet member for education in Sheffield, and low incidence need is an area of SEN that has long been neglected. My personal view is that children with low incidence needs—dyscalculia, dyslexia and such heath conditions as diabetes and asthma—are often not given the care and support that they should receive in the education and health systems. Movement on that score is and will be very welcome, but we must scrutinise carefully what the Government are proposing, because this is a great opportunity to get it right.

The Government’s proposed reforms to SEN provision are well intentioned, as I have just said, but I cannot help feeling that they very much lack the ambition truly to improve the support available for families with disabled children and children with SEN. I hope that the Minister will prove me wrong on that point when he responds.

In its pre-legislative scrutiny report, the Education Committee said:

“The importance of getting the Local Offer right cannot be overstated.”

The local offer is designed to set out which services are available to support children and young people with SEN and their families, reflecting those services that can be made available from within existing local resource, but that only reinforces the status quo. Where is the vision to improve both the quality and the availability of services? Rather than reducing the adversarial nature of the system, the reforms in the proposed Bill might actually increase the battles faced by parents with disabled children and children with SEN, with the onus being placed on them to ensure that services meet the needs of their children.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we want to avoid the adversarial conditions of the past that have worn down whole families. Does she agree that it would be helpful if the Minister outlined what redress there is for parents who do not get adequate services?

I take the hon. Lady’s point. Ambitious about Autism is pressing for the right to appeal to be included in the proposed Bill, but I want to state that it is important for services to be right in the first place. A problem with the current system is that the right to appeal in the tribunal process is exactly one of the reasons why parents find the system so difficult. At the moment, I do not think that services are meeting the needs of parents when the first offer is made to them in relation to their children. The constant obstacles and hurdles that parents have to go over to get where they need to be is the most depressing part of the SEN process.

Is it any wonder that people are so lacking in faith about what the Bill contains, given that a former Minister has openly stated that children and families policy is simply “not a priority” for the Secretary of State or the Department for Education? Unsurprisingly, the disability sector is worried that insufficient attention is being paid to a proposed Bill, the title of which comprises the words “children and families”. This concern is increasingly turning towards the development of the local offer, as is illustrated by the lack of detail and clarity in the Bill about that. Will the Minister confirm that the development of the local offer is being sufficiently prioritised by his Department?

That relates to the point that I previously made. Services must work really hard to ensure that they get the local offer right first time—when parents need to put support in place for their children. We do not want parents to have to battle against inadequate offers that may be made to them by local services. If the local offer is not of a high quality, families will continue to have to battle to get the services they need and the Government will have failed in their ambition for the proposed Bill.

There are widespread calls for the local offer to be strengthened. For example, Scope has called for a “provide local principle” to be introduced to place a clear duty on local authorities to ensure that local services—schools, playgroups, children’s centres and leisure centres—are inclusive and accessible for families with disabled children and children with SEN. That would ensure that where those services do not already exist, there is a duty on local agencies to commission and guarantee the delivery of them. Many feel that it is only through bringing about a cultural change in local authorities, with local councils and service providers thinking differently about the services they commission and run, that a step change in provision can be initiated. Such a cultural change is needed now more than ever.

I have already referred to the strongly worded pre-legislative scrutiny report from the Select Committee. Colleagues on the Committee have recommended that the Government strengthen the local offer through the introduction of minimum standards or a national framework, which I strongly support. Does the Minister have any plans to implement such a national framework or minimum standards? A commitment from him that the Bill will include such proposals would go a long way to alleviate the many concerns held by families with disabled children and by the organisations that represent them, as well as by many local authorities.

There is no doubt that local authorities face immense financial constraints, which means that many services for the disabled are being cut. That is particularly being done through tightening eligibility criteria, which means that people with lower-level needs are losing support. It is therefore imperative that the local offer meets the needs of children with less complex needs—that was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson)—notably, the 1.3 million who have SEN, but are not eligible for a statement. The needs of those children cannot merely be met by, as the Minister has stated,

“improving teaching and learning for all”.—[Official Report, 12 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 304W.]

For example, many of those children have distinct difficulties, such as speech and language problems, which require specialist attention that cannot be provided by mainstream teaching alone. I have personal experience of that, and it relates exactly to my point about having to go over all the different hurdles that are in the way of getting the right support.

Many of those children currently receive support from the school action and school action plus programmes. The Government have announced that those programmes will be scrapped, which has created huge fear and uncertainty among parents, who simply do not know what support will be available for their children. The Education Committee highlighted that as a key concern. Will the Minister clarify exactly what support will be available for the 1.3 million pupils with SEN who do not have a statement, particularly those who currently receive support under the school action and school action plus programmes?

When the Minister gave oral evidence to the Education Committee, he stated the importance of ensuring that there is a strong local accountability mechanism for the local offer. That is extremely important for families with disabled children, and will be crucial to the success of the local offer. With plans to replace the school action and school action plus programmes with a single school-based category, there is an increased need for a strong local offer, as such children will be reliant on the universal services outlined in the offer. It is therefore crucial that families are able to hold local authorities to account for the delivery of the services described in the offer.

Ministerial responses affirming that the introduction of a local offer will “inevitably...prompt discussion locally” offer alarmingly little reassurance for families. Indeed, in the proposed Bill, the Government are relying on parents to create accountability for services within the local offer, which they could well do without. At the moment, parents already have to battle and struggle—and become demoralised—to get things right for their children. We do not want to replace one system with another that puts in place a different set of obstacles and hurdles. Parents will be forced to go from individual service to individual service to complain about inadequate local provision, or they will themselves have to examine local offers from neighbouring authorities to identify services that are missing in their area. That is not acceptable: it might lead to a deterioration in standards, and will not provide adequate accountability.

I want to end with a comment from Joanna, whose son has Down’s syndrome:

“I am not naive and I don’t expect services to exist just for me, or facilities to be for my convenience. The frustration comes from the possibility of services being made easier; the facilities are already there...but are out of my reach.”

No one disagrees that the battles faced by parents such as Joanna are unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will think that this a timely opportunity, before Second Reading of the proposed Bill, to answer some important questions. Lots of people, including parents of disabled children and children with SEN, are closely watching this debate, and I urge him to seize this opportunity to break down the barriers to accessing the services that those families so desperately need.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this important and timely debate. I know that she speaks from personal experience, and that she gives support to people in her constituency. I believe that she will be doing that on 1 February when she attends an employment fair for individuals with autism in the city of Sheffield. I hope the fair goes well. She has a strong and sustained interest in the issue and I am delighted that she has taken the time to look carefully at the Green Paper that was brought out by my predecessor and subsequently at the draft clauses that were subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Select Committee.

I will endeavour to cover as many points as possible in the short time that is left. In the usual way, I will be happy to write to the hon. Lady to provide full answers to any outstanding points; all her points carry weight and deserve a full response. Let me deal with the specific points that she raised at the outset. In relation to the local offer and where it will sit in the future provision of services for children with special educational needs and disability, clearly the purpose of the local offer is to have, for the first time, a single source of information, which is transparent and which sets out all the services in the local area and beyond. Clearly, there are not provisions for some low-instance conditions in every local area, but it is important that parents and young people know where they can access them if they fall outside their local authority area. Parents need to know how to access all the services in their local area and what support is available to enable them to do that. Where the support is not provided, parents need to know how they can redress that.

The approach of the Scope campaign has been constructive. It has supported many elements of the Bill that we, hopefully, will be introducing shortly. To allay some of its concerns over the veracity of the local offer and over how parents and young people will be able to review the services that are on offer to ensure that they match the need within the local area, it needs to be involved in the consultative stage of the local offer; I will come on to that in relation to the point that the hon. Lady raised about the framework and where it will sit as a national model. I do not see the local offer as a static document. It is important that it is an evolving piece of information and guidance for local people who have the opportunity to review, monitor and influence it to ensure that it reflects everything that is required by all young people with a special educational need or disability within the local authority area. I want to have local people as involved as possible in the whole process, and that is something that I hope to take forward in the Bill, which will deal with many of the issues that Scope has raised.

What will the local offer look like? What we have found from the 20 pathfinders across 31 local authorities is that close involvement of parents and young people in the development of the local offer, through the parent carer forums funded by the Department, is a much more powerful way of ensuring that the services that local authorities will provide match the local need. To drive up national consistency, the code of practice, which is not in primary legislation, will set out a common framework that shows what should be in the local offer. We do not want it to require local authorities to provide only what is in that framework; it must not be a race to the bottom. It will set some parameters so that both local authorities and other agencies and services know their responsibilities and their duty to co-operate and to provide information for the local offer. Parents and young people need an explicit assurance that they will have that information available to them.

That is really helpful. Our concern is that some local authorities will simply re-badge what they have already, and they will not drive up standards. A key role is to ensure that parents and local groups work with the local authority to raise those standards.

That is a sensible approach and one that we share. As is illustrated in the Green Paper, the redrafted Bill following the Select Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny, and the subsequent regulations in the code of practice, the whole purpose behind many of these reforms is to put parents and young people at the heart of the whole process—before the assessment and through the assessment, the delivery of service and any redress that follows. That can be done on an individual basis and also with the help of professionals. It can also be done through existing groups such as parent carer forums, which can be a powerful voice for parents in their local area.

The Bill will strengthen the role of young people in the system, which is hugely important. We will move to a single system for those aged nought to 25 with a more co-ordinated assessment and joint commissioning, and increase the opportunities for young people over the current age requirement to take their own case to tribunal where their request for an assessment has been refused. We will also pilot a scheme for children to take forward an appeal if they feel that they have not been provided with everything that they require. That is a huge advance in ensuring that this system moves away from the huge barriers which the hon. Lady rightly referred to in her speech. Too many parents are still finding obstacles in their way, too much duplication of information and that they are having to retell their story again and again. We need to get away from that and have a system that has parents and young people at its heart from the start, rather than when it is too late and when there is too much division between them and the services that should be there to support children.

What the Minister is saying is absolutely right; I think we all agree with him. But without the additional resources, and given the constraints on local authorities because of the funding problems that they already have, will this be deliverable? That is a very grave concern for local authorities.

The overall spending on special educational needs is consistent; about £5.7 billion is being spent across local authorities. Clearly, other services fall outside that funding envelope. What we are seeing from the pathfinders, particularly with the onset of personal budgets, is that there is a much better way of bringing together services so that they can co-ordinate their response. Not duplicating efforts means that there can be a more efficient and effective provision of the service that the individual child needs.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of transport. That will be contained in the local offer, so it will be clear to parents and young people what the opportunities are for accessing transport. One pathfinder has demonstrated the power of personal budgets in that regard: in the East Riding area, a group of parents have pooled their personal budgets to provide a mode of transport on which they can all rely, which is far more cost-effective and puts them more in control of the arrangement.

Mr Sheridan, I am conscious that I have only 40 seconds left and there are many issues that we have not managed to cover. None the less, I welcome the hon. Lady’s broad support for the direction of travel of our reforms. When the Bill is finally published and we take it through Parliament, I hope that she will see that I have taken time to listen to many of the aspects that she has raised today and to the concerns of parents and others, and that I have taken on board much of what the Select Committee has said to get the proposed legislation in as good a state as possible. However, I recognise that this is about not just the legislation, but the culture change that we need, and we are determined to make that happen.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).