Sharon responded to a Westminster Hall debate on SLT, for the first time as a Shadow Minister.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to make my first contribution to a Westminster Hall debate as a shadow Minister.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this important debate. I compliment him on his well-informed and impassioned speech. Mrs Williams, his speech therapist, taught him not to rush, but to slow down, and a lot of us-especially me-could benefit from following that advice when making our speeches, even given the time constraints. I am delighted that so many Members are in the Chamber to contribute to this important discussion. They have raised many questions, which I hope that the Minister will answer today.
Many Members will know that I have a personal interest in this topic. I did not have speech therapy myself, but my son required it from the age of two and a half. I have put on record the problems we encountered when we moved around the country, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) mentioned a lot of similar issues when he talked about the case of Dylan. My son's speech therapy stopped when he was seven, because we had moved from Gateshead to London, and we were told that speech therapy was not given to children over the age of five. Incidentally, when we moved back to Gateshead, local professionals said, "We know he's 14, but he could really still benefit from speech therapy." Members can imagine how I reacted to that, when he had missed out on seven years of possible speech therapy because of where I lived.
A lot of Members have spoken, and I want to give some quick tributes. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) gave a very intelligent and thoughtful speech, showing her immense knowledge from a long and successful professional career in the education and SEN sector. She is a true asset to the House, especially on this issue, and the Minister would be wise to pay particular attention to her contributions.
The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) always speaks with good wisdom and great analysis on SEN matters, and that was evident once again today. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) is a long-standing campaigner on this issue, and I wish that he could have spoken for longer. The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) gave a short, concise, but important contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling gave a very knowledgeable speech, as we would expect, and raised the important case of Dylan in his constituency. I hope that the fact that he has done so will lead to a change in Dylan's situation. The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) also made excellent contributions.
I regret that I was unable to attend the reception in the Commons a couple of weeks ago to mark the launch of "Hello", the national year of speech, language and communication, which ties in with this debate, but I look forward to hearing what is planned for 2011. If the Minister can give an assurance that departmental funding for that important initiative will survive the cuts that the Chancellor chose to make, it will signify a commendable commitment to the campaign.
The national year is, of course, one of the 40 recommendations of the Bercow review, an excellent and thorough piece of work, which was welcomed by everyone on both sides of the House. No one was more receptive to those recommendations than the former Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls). Together with the Health Secretary at the time, he published an action plan and pledged £12 million to ensure that all the Bercow recommendations were put in place.
It is important to pay tribute to that commitment, as well as to the work of Mr Speaker, who will be keeping a keen eye on the debate. I am sure that commitment is shared by the Minister, and the debate gives her a good opportunity to give us an update on what progress has been made since the election on carrying on the good work that has been done.
The Government have, of course, recently consulted on an SEN and disability Green Paper, and I certainly look forward to reading the responses to it and scrutinising the conclusions that the Minister draws from them. One concern that has been raised with me is that work on the Green Paper is going on while the education and health systems are going through fundamental changes. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm today that she meets Department of Health Ministers regularly to ensure that when children need support from NHS professionals, as is the case with the children we are discussing, the Government's reforms will not have a negative impact on the provision of such support.
In that respect, my main concern is that the Green Paper should focus purely on improving services for young people with differing needs and not on reducing the money spent on such improvements. There is real concern in the sector that the results of the comprehensive spending review will force the Minister to do just that. If she could confirm that the funds for statemented children with speech, language and communication difficulties and other needs will be entirely on top of any pupil premium funding that they may attract I think a lot of people's fears will be put to rest.
When we include in the equation significant cuts to local government budgets, and the wholesale restructuring of the NHS, which employs the vast majority of the professionals such as Mrs Williams who help children with communication difficulties, we are left with inevitable pressure on funding for supporting those children-unless the Minister can tell us otherwise this morning. I look forward to her speech.
Concerns have also been raised, especially by the National Deaf Children's Society, that budget cuts to existing Building Schools for the Future projects will mean that new facilities do not meet the standards set for acoustics. I would welcome comments from the Minister on how those effects can be mitigated.
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys described in his maiden speech how without speech therapy at an early age he might never have had the ability to be in the Chamber talking to us. He is a great example of early intervention reaping huge dividends. I am sure that if Mrs Williams is watching today she will be enormously proud of her work-and his.
One of the better things to be announced in connection with the CSR was that the Government are to go ahead with Labour's plan of extending free nursery places to disadvantaged two-year-olds. Although I am slightly dubious about whether enough money has been committed to achieve that, I hope that doing so will present an opportunity for earlier identification of more children with speech, language and communication needs. Earlier intervention is important in tackling the problems that those difficulties can lead to later in the child's school career. In some deprived areas, as we have already heard, 50% of children begin school with language delay already obvious. As they get older about two thirds of them will have behavioural problems. Because they are often not recognised as having difficulties that may be causing their behaviour, it leads to exclusion and the problems that go with that. It is no surprise, then, that well over half-probably more like two thirds-of young offenders are said to have those difficulties. With early intervention, I am confident that those depressing figures could be reduced, and I shall welcome any measures set out in the Green Paper to that effect.
I believe that the Government are committed to universal screening for two and five-year-olds, and I would be interested to hear from the Minister how that will be implemented. If we are to have early intervention, it will of course require funding for the extra cases that it brings to light. Training all teachers to spot risk factors at all stages of a child's school life will require yet more funding. Again, I am not sure where all that funding will come from, and I think that pretty much takes my remarks full circle.
I think that hon. Members who have taken part in the debate are in unanimous agreement that action is needed to ensure that children get the right support. I am sure that the Minister shares that view. I realise that much of what constitutes future Government policy on speech and language therapy will rest on the outcome of the consultation for the Green Paper, so she may not be able to give too much away today; but I hope she can offer some reassurance to Members, as well as to the many parents, professionals and their advocates who will have a keen interest in this debate, that providing the best possible facilities and support for children and young people with speech, language and communication difficulties, as well as other special educational needs, will be a matter of principle and not of price.