Tristram Hunt MP: 'Disabled children should have access to services they need'
THIS afternoon, Crewe and Nantwich MP and Education Minister Edward Timpson enters the political limelight, presenting to Parliament the Children and Families Bill.
Few doubt his good intentions or qualifications for the role as the Government's children's champion, but there are real concerns surrounding his bill and the broader impact coalition policies are having on Britain's most vulnerable children.
Of course, there are not many MPs whose surname adorns the fronts of over 1,000 UK shops.
Founded in Manchester in 1865 and owned, in part, by his family ever since, the multi-million pound shoe repair firm Timpson's is regularly cited as a model of good employee relations.
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Yet the most interesting aspect of Mr Timpson's background is the fact that he grew up sharing his home with over 80 foster children. And he has inherited from his parents a passionate concern for the life chances of challenged young people.
All of which is addressed in today's bill, which touches on adoption, childcare and family justice systems.
However, the most dramatic changes come with reforms to the special educational needs system. The old policy of special educational need 'statements' – the contracts that schools, parents and local authorities draw up to meet a child's particular needs – are to be replaced by education, health and care plans.
The crucial difference with these new agreements is that they can be accessed by children until the age of 25. Previously, they could be stopped if the child dropped out of school at 16 years old.
The bill also requires local authorities to publish a 'local offer', listing information on all the relevant services in the area, including schools and the support they provide.
Rightly, there is a much stronger emphasis on ensuring that the different agencies involved in looking after vulnerable children – be they schools, the NHS, charities or local authorities – will work together more closely and stop trying to pass the buck.
When such integration is done with the aim of providing a better service, as opposed to being driven by financial considerations, co-ordination can only be a good thing.
Whether these improvements can be delivered at a time when most public bodies face significant funding cuts and our schools and hospitals are undergoing massive reforms remains to be seen.
In Stoke-on-Trent, it is still too early to tell what the impact of the school academy programme will be in terms of educational attainment.
But there are already widespread concerns that the diversity of schools it encourages makes running dedicated special educational needs services far more challenging.
But the most glaring omission from Timpson's bill is that it fails to tackle the key issue of a lack of local services for disabled children.
Believe it or not, being disabled does not automatically mean that a child officially has special educational needs.
Indeed, the Department for Education estimates that a quarter of children identified as disabled fall into this category and are not identified as having special educational needs.
And with the breakdown of local control under an academy system, councils will no longer tailor integrated services to all disabled children. This seems to be an extraordinary oversight.
The Government must change the bill to ensure that local provisions cater for every disabled child.
Yet given the coalition's worrying track record towards disabled citizens, perhaps such oversights are to be expected.
From the closing down of Remploy factories (including Trentham Lakes) to the catastrophic results of the Work Programme to the ugly shambles of Atos's work capability tests, the disabled are all too often bearing the brunt of the austerity assault.
Recent proposals are no better. The mobility component of Disability Living Allowance, the benefit designed to help people lead more mobile lives has had its eligibility criteria significantly tightened, meaning over 200,000 disabled people will find it more difficult to visit friends, attend hospital appointments or get to work.
And then there is the dreaded 'bedroom tax' on housing benefit. Under these plans, social housing tenants' benefits will reduce if their home has one or more spare bedrooms. But crucially, this cut currently includes couples who could not share a room because of disability or care reasons.
Mr Timpson has a good grasp of the challenges disabled people face. And his well-intentioned bill would only require a straight-forward amendment to correct this problem.
I fear the real problem is whether other ministers have the same concern for ensuring that disabled young people in modern Britain can enjoy fulfilling lives.