Lord Pearson of Rannoch speaking in the Mental Health Debate in the House of Lords on Decemeber 18th, 2002.
My Lords, I start, as usual, by declaring my interest as the father of a 22 year-old Down's syndrome daughter and as the honorary president of RESCARE, the National Society for Mentally Handicapped People in Residential Care. I shall divide my contribution into two parts: remarks about legislation to protect children with mental incapacity and remarks about legislation to protect mentally handicapped or incapacitated adults.
First, I shall speak about children. Last year's Special Educational Needs and Disability Act is not working as the Government hoped and promised. Your Lordships will recall that the Act gave parents who wanted their mentally incapacitated children to go to a mainstream school the right to send them there. When the Bill was going through your Lordships' House in January and February 2001, I and others predicted that it would result in greater difficulty for parents who wanted their mentally incapacitated children to go to a special school. We tried to amend the Bill accordingly, and the amendments can be found in the Official Report for 23rd January 2001 at columns CWH 43 to 47 and 57 to 58 and for 29th January at columns CWH 80 to 84.
Of course, the Government did their best to assure us that our fears were unfounded. In fact, the Minister the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone was quite specific:
"The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, was particularly concerned about the claim that has been made by some people that the Bill will make it harder for parents to get a special school place for their child. That is not true. We want an inclusive education service to offer excellence and choice and we recognise that some children need the support that special schools provide. We see no reason why the Bill should result in any diminution of that choice or any reduction in the number of special schools.
"I categorically assure noble Lords that the existing right of a parent whose child has a statement to make a positive choice and express a preference for a special school place will be fully maintained. It is important that LEAs listen to what parents want and where a parent wants a special school place and an LEA refuses it, parents can appeal to the SEN tribunal".—[Official Report, 23/1/01; col. CWH 46.]
I trust that your Lordships will agree that that was a pretty firm commitment from the Government that parents of mentally incapacitated children who want those children to go to special schools would not be disadvantaged by the Act.
However, there is now ample evidence that the Government's promises have not been fulfilled, just as some of us predicted. There is even evidence that the tribunals have been influenced against special schools. Indeed, I wrote to the Minister for Education recently with a particularly tragic case, to receive the reply that there is no appeal against a tribunal's decision.
The failure of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act to protect mentally incapacitated children was amply reported in the Daily Telegraph last Thursday 12th December in a substantial article by that newspaper's respected education correspondent, Liz Lightfoot, and entitled "Parents reveal torment of special needs pupils". I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, who is to reply to this debate is not an education Minister, but I ask her to do her best to make sure that her colleagues in education do read that article, and also the letters to the editor of the Daily Telegraph which followed on 14th December.
The article reveals that children with learning difficulties are threatening to take their lives rather than go through the school gates in the morning. It says that others lock themselves into their bedrooms or run away in order to avoid the hurly-burly of comprehensive schools. It then points out that despite a 40 per cent increase over the past 10 years in the number of children identified as having special needs—from 178,000 to 248,982—the number of schools dedicated to catering for them has gone down from 1,352 to 1,162, and around 100 more are facing closure under plans published by local authorities in England. The article quotes Mr Peter Clark, the leader of Gloucestershire County Council. It reads:
"We are following Government policy on inclusion, an Act which was passed by Parliament".
It seems that parents have become so desperate with this situation that they have set up a special schools protection league. The article ends with a quote from the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, the education Minister who has responsibility for special needs. She says that the Government have,
"underlined that there remains a continuing and vital role for special schools. The right of parents—where their children have a statement—to make a positive choice and express a preference for a special school place is being fully maintained".
Noble Lords will note the resonance in those words, and the quote that I gave earlier from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, on 23rd January 2001.
If the Government find any article printed in the Daily Telegraph unconvincing, perhaps I could quote from the letter published by that organ from Mr Mic Carolan, head of the excellent Hurst Special School in St Helens, last Saturday, 14th December. It reads:
"I write as a socialist, and as a special educationalist, with experience as the head of three special schools and an inspector of special schools over three decades . . . Racial and religious differences are legally recognised. Faith schools have a legal right to exist. The talented and gifted are recognised. We have the ridiculous pattern where specialist schools for art, drama, technology and business are encouraged, and yet special schools for very special children are seen as being unacceptable".
Mr Carolan then makes another very telling point:
"The growth in SEN tribunals is in the area of parents insisting on a place in a special school, rather than insisting on places in mainstream schools. I am working with children who never communicate with adults, who hit, bite, spit, who do not believe in themselves. We are tired of the 'specialist' who never teaches a class, making value judgements about our effectiveness, and I am tired of picking up the pieces for professionals who wait while the child experiences six years of frustration and damaging self-concept, and who then decide that maybe a special school has something to offer".
Not my words, but from a leading SEN practitioner, confirming what as a parent I have been saying to your Lordships for several years.
Before I leave children and move on to adults, I should just say that I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, is in good faith, as no doubt was the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, before her.
The problem is that what the Government want is quite simply not being carried out at local level.
It is the same problem with adults. The Government have recognised that many adults with mental incapacity, especially those with the more extreme disabilities which are often accompanied by severe health problems, can only with great difficulty and at disproportionate expense be properly looked after under their policy of care in the community. The Government have also recognised that many of the families of such people who cannot make choices for themselves want a place in a village community for their relative.
In this, the Government are also attempting to meet their commitment to choice, but here again they are being frustrated at local level. A very informative debate about what is happening in one such instance at St Ebba's, Epsom, took place in your Lordships' House on 12th June this year in the name of my noble friend Lord Renton. I would like to record my sincere thanks and those of the St Ebba's families, to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and to his colleague, Miss Jacqui Smith, for their tenacity in trying to see that the families' wishes are met in this case. But it is not easy when the local authority, Surrey County Council, brazenly denies that there is any demand for a village community in the face of massive and unequivocal evidence that there is. So here again, with mentally handicapped adults generally, we have the problem that the Government's, parents' and families' wishes are being blocked at local level. We very much hope that the Government will stick to their guns.
I conclude by repeating that RESCARE is not against inclusion; indeed, we support it when it enriches the life of a person with mental incapacity. But that cannot always be the case, especially with the more handicapped people like my daughter. Nearly all of the professionals who take the decisions which affect the lives of people with mental incapacity have no experience of it in their families or immediate circle of friends. So perhaps I may offer them some quiet advice, born of long and uncomfortable experience. That is that you cannot make a mentally incapacitated person normal by making him or her live what you regard as a normal life. You may satisfy your innate fear of mental handicap, but you may not help them. Indeed, you may make them extremely unhappy and bewildered. I am sure that none of us wants to do that.