Side by side

Maggie JonesMaggie Jones on Labour’s commitment to those charities concerned with the Children and Families Bill

Peers will today begin consideration of Part 3 of the Children and Families Bill – the section of the legislation which reforms provision for Special Educational Needs (SEN). And we do so at a time when over a hundred major children and disability charities have written to the Prime Minister raising concerns about the bill. 

The charities say that two years on from the government’s Green Paper “the reforms, in their current state, will not deliver on the promise to make the system less stressful for families”. They call for changes to protect the existing rights of disabled children and young people, create fully integrated education, health and social care services, make local authorities more accountable for the services they offer them, and ensure that all, and not just those with SEN, can benefit from the improvements.

From the outset of the publication of the bill, Labour has met regularly with a wide range of charities and listened to their concerns – and their experiences have helped to bring the issues alive and we share many of their worries. We have also met families who have been pushed from pillar to post, trying to get support from different local agencies. And children who suffer the day to day humiliation of being treated as outsiders, making life awkward or difficult for others. They all crave a system that is welcoming, inclusive and straightforward.

That is why my Lords colleague Beverley Hughes and I have written to the charities to reassure them of our determination to amend the government’s proposals so that the next generation of children and young people will see genuine improvements in disability and SEN education, health and social care provision.

In particular, we have tabled amendments to ensure that all children and young people with a recognised disability, chronic illness or long term health condition are included in the provision for Education, Health and Care plans. This is a key worry for the sector, which estimates that 25% of disabled children who are not classified as having a SEN would be denied access to the new provisions. We think it right that the bill should bring together entitlements for children and young people with disabilities and make life simpler for them and their parents. We are also keen to ensure that they all have the right to information, advice and consultation when their needs are being assessed.

Our amendments on the joint commissioning of services between schools, healthcare and social care providers will widen and extend the definition of the support to be provided and ensure it is secured. We will ensure that the ‘local offer’ of services which councils expect to be delivered are actually defined as being available, and meet agreed minimum standards to avoid a postcode lottery and allow parents to compare services across boundaries. This way, they will be able to hold their local authorities to account. Our amendments will also simplify and streamline the appeals process with a single route of appeal.

Other amendments will tighten up the rights of children with SEN to a mainstream school education where the parents and child feel it is in their best interests. And we aim to remove the government’s potentially discriminatory caveat that this can only be delivered where it is resource efficient and would not interfere with the efficient education of others.

Labour will continue to work closely with children’s charities on these and other issues in the bill. We have a wide range of issues of common concern and I hope we are able to persuade them that our front bench is genuinely interested in their views and committed to working collaboratively to improve the life chances of all disabled children and young people.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a Shadow Education Minister in the Lords

Published 23rd October 2013

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