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Sir Tony Baldry speaks in Second Reading of Children & Families Bill

25 February 2013

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): This huge and important Bill intends to improve services for vulnerable children and to support strong families. It intends to reform the systems for adoption, looked-after children, family justice and special educational needs—my comments will focus on special educational needs.

As a constituency Member of Parliament for three decades, I have too often met parents who have felt that they have had to battle for the support they need. They have been passed from pillar to post, and bureaucracy and frustration have faced them at every step. Being a constituency MP and hopefully helping people is a great privilege. For example, I was grateful to the parents of a 19-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter who both had Asperger’s syndrome. The parents recently wrote to me that

“after years spent battling with LEA and schools to get some SEN support for our son and daughter, it wasn’t until your personal intervention Sir Tony that we were actually listened to. As a result, our daughter was successfully placed in a specialist school near Oxford and today is Head Girl. It was sadly too late for our son and the damage has been immense”.

They went on to ask:

“how will the County Council work to ensure that Government proposals to reform the SEN systems are implemented and that our children get the right levels of support to get the education they deserve”?
Hon. Members agree that it should not be necessary for parents to feel constantly that they have to battle the system, and/or that the only way they will make progress is by enlisting the help of their Member of Parliament. Everyone welcomes the fact that the Government want to put in place a radically different system to support better life outcomes for young people, and to give parents confidence by giving them more control and transferring power to professionals on the front line and in local communities. It is good news that the Government clearly want to bring about better life outcomes for young people from birth to adulthood by helping professionals to identify and meet children’s needs early; by ensuring that health services and early education in child care are accessible to all children, and that those services work in partnership with parents to give each child support to fill their potential; and by joining up education, health and social care to provide families with the package of support that reflects all their needs. But there are still many questions, to which I am not sure that I yet have all the answers—and actually in this regard I see myself just as a typical constituency MP wanting to make sure that I can give help, support and appropriate advice to any parent who comes to see me with questions or concerns.

I do not expect the Minister to have time in his winding-up speech to respond to all my questions, but I hope that he might in due course write to me. Who will be responsible for ensuring that parents understand the process of the combined education, health and care plan? How will schools prepare themselves for when parents are much more in control of the SEN budgets? What will happen to those children who do not quality for the EHCP and those children whose difficulties are often not diagnosed until later on in their school life? Among the health and social service professionals needed in some instances to support children with special educational needs are educational psychologists and speech and language therapists.

Do we have enough and how do parents access them? Are we sure we are giving teachers adequate training to teach children with a whole range of conditions, particularly those on a wide scale such as autism? How can we ensure a more consistent approach is taken across all local education authorities? How do we improve the transition from primary to secondary education? How do we improve the selection and training of special educational need co-ordinators in schools?

Parents of children with special educational needs raise two further issues with me. First, they feel all too often that their children are being bullied at school. I hope that we can do more to explain to students, perhaps in year 7, about the various neurological disorders and other disabilities that they might find among school friends, which I hope would then reduce bullying by increasing understanding.

The other concern is the number of exclusions of children with special educational needs. I think I am correct in saying that pupils with a statement of special educational needs are at present nine times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion than those without. Of course, SEN is not some sort of label that can be used to excuse bad or unruly behaviour in schools, but I would have thought it sensible that, if it was thought appropriate for any child to have either a temporary or, in particular, a permanent exclusion, very serious thought be given to whether that child has special educational needs and whether those needs are being properly met.

Many parents are concerned about what happens to their children when they leave school. As one parent put it to me:

“What is the vision for the future for our children to be able to live productive, independent and supported lives when currently post-18, there seems to be little more than part-time college courses for their continued education and properly supported residential places to enable independence and learning of life skills are all out of county”.

I support the notion that parents should be given greater choice, but they must also have the choice of being able to send their children to specialist schools—depending on their needs and disability—such as the National Star College, or the Royal National College for the Blind.

There is a specific issue in respect of Oxfordshire, simply because when the Learning and Skills Council was created and the SEN block grant was first established, there were no post-16 places in maintained special schools in Oxfordshire. As a consequence, no funds were included in the SEN block grant. This is an issue on which I know that Oxfordshire county council has written in detail to officials in the Department for Education and, in anticipation of today’s debate, I have also written to Ministers. What Oxfordshire is requesting is that the Education Funding Agency treats Oxfordshire in a way that is broadly consistent with other local authorities.

Finally, as co-chair of the all-party group for carers, I want to echo the hopes expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House that in Committee Ministers will think about whether provision can be made in the Bill for young carers to mirror the provision for adult carers in other legislation. Young carers are a very vulnerable group. Otherwise, this is an excellent Bill, and the Government are to be congratulated on introducing such a huge and encompassing Bill that will do so much to help vulnerable children.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): I am delighted to respond to this debate and, alongside the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), to be introducing legislation on issues about which I am so passionate. It is a pleasure to have heard all the contributions by hon. Members from across the House, and I welcome the general warmth and support for the Bill. Its measures are diverse, but they are united by the guiding principle of bringing about real, radical and positive change for children and families.

In the time available, I will respond to some of the specific points raised but, as, wonderfully, we have heard from 34 Members, I will not be able to address every point. We may perhaps hear further from some Members in Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), who was so concise in her remarks. Clearly, the House contains a lot of expertise on these issues and we will have interesting discussions in Committee.

Many hon. Members spoke about the reforms to special educational needs, and I, too, wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for the work she did to start this reform process, which has of course been continued by the Under-Secretary of State for Education. I also thank all those who got involved in pre-legislative scrutiny, particularly the Education Committee, as that process was a good example of how the House can improve legislation before it becomes a full Bill. I welcome the broad consensus on many of our SEN measures, particularly the support for a statutory framework that works for children and young people from birth to 25. We, of course, look forward to further discussions in Committee, but I wish to say that if any hon. Member was in any doubt about the intention of the Bill, they should look at clause 19 for the key founding principles on which the SEN provision will be based.

The Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), made specific mention of the local offer and the Under-Secretary’s use of the term “common framework”. The regulations will provide the common framework for local offers, setting out all the things they should contain. That will bring consistency and will enable provision in local areas to be compared, and I am sure that will be welcomed. As my ministerial colleague has mentioned, we will be providing indicative regulations for the Committee, so that we can have a fuller discussion at that time.

On the issues of family justice, we heard from the Chair of the Justice Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), and from the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who brought us his personal experience, memorably talking about the nightmare of the family courts. It is important that we hear that direct experience. I also note the comments by the former children’s Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who eloquently put the case that the needs and welfare of the child remain of paramount importance. I know that some hon. Members expressed concern that the paramountcy principle will be undermined, but I wish to reassure the House that the relevant clause has been drafted with the express intention of not diluting that principle, which is so important, as has been said.

The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) raised the horrific example of the experience of a young child victim of abuse giving evidence and the traumatic way in which that took place. We take this issue very seriously, and we will certainly bring that to the attention of Ministry of Justice Ministers in order to raise the point she makes. Such issues have been discussed recently; the Under-Secretary has been holding round table meetings on tackling child sexual exploitation. So we are aware of those issues and she is right to raise them.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) asked for reassurances about the details of our plans for childminder agencies. We will be setting out more detail, including some draft regulations, in Committee. Introducing agencies is about increasing choice for parents; no childminder will be forced to join an agency and parents will vote with their feet, choosing the childminders or other child care offering the best quality and value for money. Let me just set out the context. In the past two decades the number of childminders has almost halved. That is a real problem on the provision we need to secure for parents. Agencies will help us to increase that provision, which is much needed, and, especially, to give the greater flexibility that many parents increasingly need for out-of-hours child care provision, too.
The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) raised the issue of the sufficiency duty, and I wish to clarify the position in case there has been any misunderstanding. Our proposal is to repeal the requirement for local authorities to conduct an assessment of the sufficiency of child care in their area in very specific terms. However, the duty to secure sufficient child care remains—it is in section 6 of the Childcare Act 2006—and to meet that duty, authorities will need to collect data on supply and demand. We are repealing the bureaucratic requirement to create a specific document and publish it.

The issue of staff-child ratios in child care is not dealt with in the Bill, but as it was raised by more than one Member today, let me say that our focus is on quality rather than quantity. We are consulting on the proposal, and in particular on what levels of qualification would unlock higher ratios. I encourage the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, and any others who are particularly interested in the subject, to contribute to the consultation.

While welcoming the Government’s plans to extend the right to request flexible working, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) expressed concern about the move to guidance. Let me reassure her, and other Members, that we want to make the process simpler and less bureaucratic for employers and employees alike. I was rather horrified when, having arrived in the Department and asked what the procedure was, I was shown a flow chart featuring eight separate steps with periods of 28 or 14 days elapsing between them, the total amounting to 84 days. Far too much bureaucracy was involved in what should be a straightforward and simple set of discussions between employers and employees. We are replacing that with two pages of common-sense, straightforward guidance, so that everyone will know where they stand. I think that that move should be welcomed.

These reforms are long overdue. They address systems that are old-fashioned and out of step with the needs of children and the wishes of modern parents. The needs of children will be put where they rightly belong, at the heart of the services that support them. In the Children’s Commissioner, children and young people will have a strong and independent champion. Children for whom adoption is the right option will be settled more quickly in a safe and loving home. Unnecessary and damaging delays will be driven from the family court system. The most radical reforms of the special educational needs system in 30 years will raise aspirations and put children, young people and their parents at the centre of decisions. Child care will be more widely available and of better quality, helping parents to juggle their work and family lives.

Perhaps because there has been general agreement on the subject, we have not heard a great deal today about the shared parental leave plans, but they constitute a radical reform. Mums and dads will have freedom to choose how they share time off after having a baby or adopting. As every parent knows, having children brings both joy and plenty of challenges. Our changes will let families get on with sharing the care responsibilities in whatever way works for them, replacing rigid rules based on an outdated stereotype that assumes that men are the breadwinners and the role of women is to stay at home and look after children.

By extending the right to request flexible working to all employees, we will help families in the widest sense, while also removing some of the workplace resentment about the different rights that exist for parents and those without children. We will also help the economy to benefit from a more flexible, committed and productive work force. Changing the culture of United Kingdom workplaces to embrace flexibility is good for employers and good for workers.

At the heart of the Bill are two simple changes. We are giving families real choice and flexibility in relation to the decisions that affect them, and we are ensuring that services focus consistently on the best interests of the children who need them. This is a Bill that will make real, long-lasting changes, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.