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The speech that I intended to make has been somewhat overshadowed by what we heard in the House earlier. The gravity forecast in the Chancellor’s statement was rammed home with grim reality this evening and there is no doubt about the task that lies ahead.
I should like to begin by congratulating the Chancellor and his team on a Budget that was ambitious in scale and bold in reach—an orchestration of fiscal and monetary measures that truly delivered on our promise to the British people. It is right that the Budget placed at its core the small and medium enterprises that are this country’s beating heart. It is only by setting conditions in which those wealth-creating and job-creating industries can develop and flourish that we can fund the public services that are the subject of this debate. It is their support and survival that has become the great imperative for the Government.
There are three aspects to the funding of public services that I would like to address this evening. First, in relation to GP pension relief, when I was first elected and met the chair of my local clinical commissioning group, he told me that the issue of GP pensions was the most significant problem for health services in my constituency. The threat of unexpected tax bills had resulted in a spike in GPs taking early retirement and an increase in GPs reducing their practice sessions. He estimated that in real terms that was a reduction of 50 to 60 patient contacts a week per GP. I have raised the issue repeatedly in this House, and I know how welcome the change is. It will bolster frontline services at this critical time; increase the availability of GP appointments; enhance staff retention; and, most importantly, boost morale at a time at which our brilliant doctors need all the help they can get.
Secondly, in relation to school funding, I was glad to see clear confirmation of our manifesto commitment to minimum levels of per pupil funding at primary and secondary levels. However, I would like to say a few words in relation to the significant funds that have been ring-fenced for special educational needs provision—£780 million. What is critical is not how much is spent but how it is spent. Talking to heads in my constituency, three themes have emerged. First, it is critically important that some of that funding goes towards early diagnosis. I have heard how damaging, not just for the child but for other children in the class, it is for the child to linger too long without a proper identification of their needs. If the child is distracted or disruptive because they cannot access the curriculum, that affects the whole cohort.
Secondly, special educational needs funding should support smaller teaching groups, because the evidence is overwhelming that outcomes for children with special educational needs can be radically improved when focused support is provided. Thirdly, I would respectfully request that this spend is guaranteed or bettered in the years ahead. As of last year, the Government withdrew the disabled students allowance in further education institutions. I understand why they did so. None the less, that underscores the imperative for full and robust SEN support during a child’s formative school years.
Thirdly, in relation to public safety, I commend the funding that has been allocated to the trial of a domestic abuse court in England and Wales. I saw that as a clear reflection of the Government’s root-and-branch commitment to tackling this hidden and heinous crime, by focusing it in a single court, rather than via the twin tracks of the family and criminal divisions. As Liz Twist said in a Westminster Hall debate two weeks ago, that is a critical step for the protection of children, who are often innocent collateral. At present, there is often a paradoxical situation in which a perpetrator of domestic abuse is judged to be a violent criminal in the Crown court, but he is a “good enough Dad” in the family court when the issue of custody falls for consideration. That is not just a discrepancy—it is an injustice, and a domestic abuse court offers a joined-up forum to address it.
Staying on the subject of children, I hope that in the life of this Parliament the Government will go further and recognise the need to look at legal aid, particularly in the family court. As the outgoing head of the family division, Lord Justice Munby, put it last year:
“The fact is we have far more litigants in person than we did…
Our court processes, our rules, our forms, our guidance, is woefully inadequate to enable litigants in person…to understand the system…
That’s a current reality.”
I hope that this bold and reforming people’s Government will seek to address that issue.