Speech, Language and Communication Education

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing this debate and onthe way in which he raised these issues in relation to the Children and Families Bill on Report. I am sorry that I was unable to attend that debate, but I read his speech with great interest because I have been approached by a number of constituents about the difficulties they have faced with their children who have speech and language impairments.

As a consequence of those approaches, I convened a meeting in my constituency. The meeting was on the wider issue of autism, but nevertheless I heard many very moving accounts from parents about the difficulties they face under the current fragmented system, which makes it unclear to whom they can turn, and presents difficulties in accessing the help their children need. For those reasons, I welcome the recognition implicit in the Government's introduction of the Bill that the current system for addressing special educational needs is not fit for purpose and that we need a system that better integrates the provision of services for parents and, frankly, just stops making it so difficult for parents to achieve what they need.

My hon. Friend, for reasons I understand, emphasises the economic benefits of ensuring better provision, but there is a more fundamental question about our duty as a society to ensure that parents who face difficulties that other parents do not face are spared being repeatedly put through the ordeal of finding it impossible, or at least very difficult, to access the services they need. The transitions through the different phases of a child's life present repeated hurdles that parents must clear.

In the specific case of speech and language impairment, what do parents want to ensure? First, they want to ensure that the problem is diagnosed and picked up early. Secondly, the diagnosis having been made, they want to ensure adequate provision of the therapy and the particular, specific and, yes, sometimes resource-intensive services that such children need, without having constantly to petition different agencies and providers and without the difficulties that they have experienced. And thirdly, in the event that they do not feel a service is being provided adequately, they want to make certain that they have the ability to appeal, that the appeal is clear and that providers are therefore held to account for the services they are obliged to provide. We should judge the new measures in the Bill against the yardstick of those three tests.

I welcome the Bill and the Minister's particular commitment to it and to these issues. He has made enormous strides in setting out a new approach that will produce a much better system. From his response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon in Committee and on Report, I think the Minister recognises that there is still some concern about speech and language therapy and whether the new system will have the accountability that I describe.

I know the Minister is considering the code of practice, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon mentioned. Will the Minister take this opportunity to reassure those groups and parents who are engaged with this issue that the move to the new system will indeed secure an improvement for parents and not make things more difficult for them? First, will the new system ensure that the issues that children might have are picked up at the earliest possible stage?

Secondly, will there be no room for doubt in the new integrated assessment, so that where speech and language therapy is identified as being needed, it will be treated as an educational provision that cannot be gamed or passed over by providers? The concern is that if that is not the case and if for some reason the existing case law that has built up in this area can be bypassed or ignored, parents will be left in a position of being told that a particular form of provision has been identified as necessary but that, because the provision is not held to be an educational provision, it will not actually be provided and will instead be passed over to another provider that sidesteps its obligation. The concern is that the Bill's aim to ensure that there is an integrated assessment and that agencies work together, which is exactly what parents want, might be sidestepped.

Thirdly, as a consequence of ensuring that speech and language therapy is treated as an educational provision, where there is a lapse or where parents are unhappy with the provision, is the appeals system adequate to ensure that their concerns will be answered?

I know my hon. Friend the Minister has indicated his willingness to address those concerns, but there is still anxiety out there about whether the transition to a new system will produce exactly what the Government intend. The Bill is an important opportunity to achieve very different provision of essential services. We know the gains that can be made when the agencies work together, and we know that they can produce a tailored, integrated service that not only produces a better service for the children but hugely reduces the anxiety that parents face when they constantly have to navigate their way around the different services.

There is a huge opportunity here, but there is also a need to reassure parents about the move to the new system. If my hon. Friend the Minister is able to do that, with particular reference to the code of practice, and to address the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon has now raised on two occasions, I would be very grateful.