Sharon Hodgson

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Children and Families Bill debate 11.06.12

Sharon spoke during the first Report Stage debate on the Children and Families Bill, which focussed on Special Educational Needs reform.


Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to debate this Bill again, this time on the Floor of the House. In Committee we had some excellent debates on this part of the Bill, in particular. A large number of amendments were tabled by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, but we were at all times united in our ambition for the children and young people to whom the Bill applies.

It is crucial that children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities be given the support they need to access education and reach their potential, academically and in terms of their physical, social and emotional development. It is not just a moral imperative that leads us to seek those better outcomes for all children; there is also a financial imperative for the whole country. A young person who makes a successful transition to adulthood and has achieved as much as they can educationally is likely to be less in need of welfare, health and social care support and more likely to be able to work and contribute their skills to the economy and their taxes to the Treasury. We support a great many of the reforms that the Government are making to achieve these better outcomes, but we have sought at all stages to ensure that we are going as far as we can, that current rights and entitlements are protected and built on, and that children and young people, and their families, are at the very heart of the changes made and are able adequately to hold agencies to account where they do not get the support they should.

We support the introduction of personal budgets to allow families a greater degree of choice in securing the choice that their child needs. As I said in Committee, I would have greatly welcomed such an opportunity when I was trying to get my severely dyslexic son the support he needed to get through his GCSEs. However, there are serious and abiding concerns about whether they can work in the sense of improving outcomes while providing value for money for the taxpayer, and there are still questions about how the market for support that this reform will create will really look. The Government are running pathfinders in an effort to answer these questions, but they have not been answered yet. Parliament is therefore being asked to legislate for something that we do not know will work and could well be a costly failure.

Mr Tom Clarke: I agree with my hon. Friend about the social, educational and employment needs of young people. On her point about the economy, I wonder whether she is aware that she is supported by the National Audit Office, which has said:

“Supporting one person with a learning disability into employment could, in addition to improving their independence and self-esteem, reduce lifetime costs to the public purse by around £170,000”.

She is therefore speaking very logically.

Mrs Hodgson: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who quantifies what we all know and believe is the crux of this issue. He has made a very important point.

Amendment 70 seeks to ensure that these reforms cannot be rolled out until such time as the pathfinders have run their course and provided sufficient evidence on the effectiveness of personal budgets that Parliament can be content in allowing the roll-out to go ahead. I hope the Minister will again take it in the spirit in which it is intended and give a commitment to the House that this measure will not be steamrollered through.

We support the switch from statements to education, health and care plans, extending the maximum age of support for young people to 25 to ensure that it covers further education courses and apprenticeships, and the ambition to encourage joint working between different agencies in drawing up those plans and providing the services described in them. However, there are still some concerns that, as worded, the Bill would give local authorities a get-out clause from providing services to enable young people between the age of 19 and 25 to carry on in education, even where they have not yet achieved to the level we might expect for young people without SENs. Those concerns are addressed by amendments 40 to 43, tabled by the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), which we support. I, like him, would be grateful for firmer assurances that prior outcomes, not age, will be the main focus of deciding whether or not to grant or cancel a plan.

My amendments 71 and 72 would ensure that we are measuring the outcomes of young people with plans up to the age of 25 rather than 19, as is currently required under the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008, which is transposed into clause 65. It stands to reason that if we are maintaining support for these young people, we should also know how well that support has helped them. I would be grateful if the Minister committed to how best that might be done within the “special educational needs in England” analysis documents that clause 65 will require the Secretary of State to produce.

Another set of information that should be published as part of the annual report relates to the special educational needs and disability tribunal. I would like parents and campaigners to have access to information on the outcomes and costs to the public purse in tribunal administration and the amount spent by local authorities on legal fees—of the cases that reach that stage—so we can see who the worst offenders are and which local authorities would prefer to pay a lawyer £20,000 to prevent a child from getting £5,000-worth of support. The Minister helpfully pointed me towards some information that was squirreled away on the Ministry of Justice’s website, but as he will know, it is not exactly what I am asking for in this amendment, and in any case the information should be much easier to find and interpret. I therefore hope that he will continue to look at this issue or tell the House why, in an age of transparency, this information should not be available to parents.

We want to reduce as far as possible the current postcode lottery, but still fear that the Government’s plans for local offers, as drafted, could lead to greater disparities in services across the country. We welcome the requirement to compile and publish local offers, but fear that without a baseline expectation from the Department of what should be in them or, indeed, any departmental oversight, they may not be worth the paper they are printed on. As the Education Committee has pointed out, getting local offers right is crucial. If we do not and the services that children and young people need are not provided, we will just see more and more requests for statutory assessments.

Our amendments 66 and 67 would therefore require local offers accurately to reflect what is actually available in the local area, rather than simply what the local authority might say it expects to be available. They would remove the wriggle room that local authorities might have and ensure that they keep the offers under constant review. I hope the issue can be explored further in the other place.

Amendment 69 would require the Secretary of State to set national standards for what the local offers should include. I am no enemy of localism, as the Minister might argue—local offers should absolutely reflect local needs and priorities and be drawn up in consultation with local parent groups. However, if we are to tackle the unwritten postcode lottery, there should surely be a baseline of services that any child or young person anywhere in England should be able to expect. I have said before that local offers may simply codify the unwritten postcode lottery, and that they have the potential to result in a race to the bottom as local authorities look at their budgets and seek to undercut the local offers of their neighbours. I want assurances from the Minister that there will be something—anything—to stop those fears being realised.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): The phrase “postcode lottery” is well used in all sorts of policy areas, but does the hon. Lady accept that there is a difference between a postcode lottery and a postcode democracy? In other words, where there is democratic accountability it is not, strictly speaking, a lottery, although I accept some of the hon. Lady’s concerns.

Mrs Hodgson: I accept that that phraseology is probably not appropriate for this scenario, but it is important that the Government consider a baseline so that we do not end up with different levels of service that can be referred to as a postcode lottery.

Amendment 69 also refers specifically to the participation of children and young people with special educational needs or disabilities as a key outcome that local offers should be geared towards achieving. The Minister made some positive comments about this amendment in Committee, so I would be grateful if he provided an update on his work in order to ensure that the need to help these children and young people make the most of the benefits that information communication can afford them is adequately reflected in the code of practice.

We are also concerned about the lack of clarity from Ministers on what will replace the graduated response to SEN in schools—school action and school action plus—which currently provides support to 17% of pupils. Members may know that the answer will lie in the revised code of practice rather than in the Bill itself, and that is why we have tabled amendments 73, 74 and 75, which seek to ensure that the document is subject to thorough public consultation before a final version is actively approved by Parliament, rather than laid under the negative procedure. I hope the Minister will recognise why we feel that is so important, and commit to tabling Government amendments to that effect in the other place.

In addition to our own amendments, I have also signed a number tabled by the hon. Member for South Swindon. As reflected in his valuable contribution to the Committee’s scrutiny of part 3, the hon. Gentleman has a deep passion for and knowledge of the issues, and I find myself agreeing far more than disagreeing with him, despite the fact that we sit on opposite sides of the House. In particular, we are both extremely keen to see some movement from the Government on clause 69, which states that children and young people in custody should not benefit from the reforms in this part of the Bill.

I feel—and I think the Minister agrees—that this is a massive missed opportunity. Many of the inmates of young offenders institutes will have special educational needs. For example, 18% of young offenders have a statement, compared with just 2% to 3% of the general population. At least 60% will have communication problems and a similar percentage will have literacy and numeracy difficulties. Many of those special educational needs will never have been identified, despite the fact that in many cases they were probably a contributory factor to those people finding themselves in this position. As it stands, they will not be able to continue to receive the support they were already getting if they are placed in custody, and nor will they be eligible for an assessment if someone working with them in the institution thinks they need one.

This is not only counter-productive, in that it will severely limit these institutions’ ability to reduce reoffending through education, which is what we want them to do; it is also overly prescriptive—it prevents local authorities from continuing the support they want to provide to a young person in the hope that it will improve their life chances and steer them away from crime and antisocial behaviour.

I dealt comprehensively in Committee with the reason the Minister gave why a plan is not suitable in these circumstances—the need to name an educational establishment in the plan—and I hope he has had a chance to look into the role that virtual academies and courses can play, and at the great work the Nisai Virtual Academy is already doing in this area.

Labour voted against clause 30 in Committee and will be tempted to do so again if the hon. Member for South Swindon wishes to test the will of the House, but I sincerely hope the Minister will respond positively and give us both an assurance that the Government will remove the clause at a later stage. If it is not removed, I fear it will face even tougher opposition from the noble Lords in the other place.

The hon. Member for South Swindon has also tabled amendment 37, which was one of the main bones of contention in Committee. I, like him, believe that education, health and care plans should do what they say on the tin and entitle the holder to expect all of the provisions they detail. At the beginning of this process we fear that they will be no better than the statements they are replacing, and simply provide entitlements to education provision. Ministers had said that there was no way of imposing duties on health bodies to keep up their end of the bargain, but the Minister, to his credit, quickly found a way of placing duties on them to deliver what they are expected to, and improved the plans immeasurably in doing so.

One piece of the jigsaw remains, however: the social care element. Once again, we have an opportunity in this Bill vastly to improve the rights of children and young people and their families in accessing the services they need. Amendment 37 would add the finishing touch to education, health and care plans by placing a duty on local authorities to secure the social care provision detailed within them, meaning that those plans would provide families with the certainty and confidence they need. I urge the Minister to find a way to make that happen.

I also support new clause 21, tabled by the hon. Member for South Swindon, on inclusive and accessible services, a subject on which we had a great debate in Committee; his amendment 39, on what constitutes educational support; and amendment 38, which seeks to create a single point of accountability for all three strands of provision within a plan. I look forward to hearing what he has to say about all the new clauses and amendments when he makes what I am sure will be an excellent contribution.

I also support new clause 8, tabled by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), which centres on provision in schools for children with medical conditions, and which I and my colleagues tabled in Committee as new clause 19. Some 29,000 children in our schools have diabetes, 1.1 million have asthma, 60,000 have epilepsy and many more have heart conditions or suffer from regular migraines or the after-effects of meningitis or cancer, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami).

Those children and their parents deserve to know that their school can effectively manage those conditions while they are there; that the child will be given their medication, inhaler or whatever they need whenever they need it; that staff will know when they are being affected by their condition; and that allowances will be made for them where appropriate. We do not have a consistent approach to managing medical conditions in schools as yet, and I agree with the Health Conditions in Schools Alliance that this Bill provides an excellent opportunity for the Government to at least look at how schools support these children and, indeed, at how schools are supported to provide that support. We cannot just expect teachers and school staff to know how to do that as a matter of course. They need help from the NHS, which has the experts.

We want much stronger assurances on all the issues covered by those amendments than we received in Committee. Otherwise, they will be revisited in the other place. I look forward to hearing those assurances when the Minister gets back to his feet.

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