§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)
The Education Bill, now in another place, builds on the Education Act 1981, creating a new framework for all children with special educational needs. Pupils who need statements will benefit from many of the new arrangements, including time limits on the making of assessments and statements. We shall issue comprehensive, practical guidance to local education authorities and schools in the form of a code of practice.
§ Mr. Steen
That is all very well, but is my hon. Friend aware that there are children with special needs in some of the most deprived urban areas who have to wait up to three years before they can be tested because of the philosophical and political views of the local authority, which is opposed to the testing? Will he consider enlarging the powers of the ombudsman so that parents can go direct to the ombudsman, who can then direct local authorities, mostly Labour, to get a move on?
§ Mr. Forth
My hon. Friend is correct in identifying unacceptable delays in producing statements of special educational needs and also unacceptable variations between authorities. We are well aware of the problems and they are exactly what the Bill, now in another place, will address. We shall issue regulations to put time limits on the statementing process; we shall issue a code of practice to introduce a standard format for statements to ensure that all children are uniformly and properly cared for; and we shall introduce a tribunal to give genuinely independent advice and be an independent source of appeal to parents who feel that they have not been properly treated.
If my hon. Friend looks at what is in our Bill and at the code of practice and tribunals that will follow, he will see that the problems that he has identified will be dealt with fairly and firmly.
§ Mr. Win Griffiths
Does the Minister accept that, although what he said is likely to produce an improvement in the present situation, which all too often leads to heart-rending difficulties for parents and children, even today a lobby of the House is being organised by the Spastics Society in which several hundred parents will have terrible stories to tell of the stress that they have been caused by the statementing process? Those parents remain dissatisfied with the provisions of the Education Bill, particularly with regard to the resources to meet the needs of any child with a statement. Will the Minister now commit himself to making sure that all local education authorities have the resources to provide for the needs specified in any child's statement?
§ Mr. Forth
I am very much aware of the views of the Spastics Society and I keep them closely under review. The society has not yet perhaps fully appreciated the advances that the Bill represents. I hope that when it realises what the code of practice and the regulations to follow mean, it will be happier than it now appears to be with that advance.
I believe that local authorities have the right resources to provide for statements and for those children with special needs who are not covered by a statement. The fact that the proportion of children statemented by local educational authorities varies between just over 1 per cent. in some authorities to more than 4 per cent. in others demonstrates that different authorities have taken different views up to now and that parents and their children, therefore, have tended to be treated differently. The Bill will address that problem and will make uniform the content of statements and the approach to be taken. I hope that the Spastics Society and all the other special educational needs interest groups will welcome that when they have reflected on it and seen the full development of our proposals under the Bill.