Special Educational Needs (Direct Payments) (Pilot Scheme) (Extension and Amendment) Order 2014 — Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:20 pm on 27 January 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Morgan of Ely Baroness Morgan of Ely Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 8:20, 27 January 2014

My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords will welcome any effort to develop a system that would lead to improvements in the effectiveness of the provision of services to individuals with special education needs. The educational requirements of individuals with special educational needs are, by definition, likely to be varied and need to be special. Intuition would tell us that these needs may best be fulfilled by services that are chosen and arranged specifically for each individual. Placing the responsibility of managing funds with families gives decision-making power to those who care most about their children—parents or carers with children with special education needs. That can, in principle, help to improve the suitability of services and result in better educational outcomes.

When advocating autonomy for those individuals receiving direct payments, we do, however, need to bear in mind a few issues. It must be ensured that the diversion of funds to personal budgets does not lead to a reduction in the standards and quality of services which we know are delivered by most well organised local authorities at the moment. This is a known concern of many parents and professionals in the sector itself. We must also be assured that the quality of outcomes for those young people on the direct payments scheme will not fall below the standards we have learnt to expect from service delivery by local authorities.

Although the principle of allocating discretion to families is a positive one, there are no guarantees that providing families with the discretion to organise their own services will necessarily deliver adequate educational outcomes. Reports from the ongoing pilot have suggested that real benefits to the young people concerned and their families occur mainly from the enhanced control regarding the organisation of transport. Further evidence from the pilot is needed to ensure that, if this is indeed the case, benefits are restricted to the organisation of transport. We need to see that the scheme is sufficiently justified.

Some individuals may have no desire to organise their own service provision. This may be due to the individual already receiving suitable support of a high standard or because the family concerned feels unable to arrange a better service itself. In such cases, the direct payments scheme must not be made mandatory. In cases where direct payments are requested, sufficient support must be made available to ensure that individuals who may experience difficulty with implementing their own arrangements can do so effectively. Concerns were raised regarding this issue when the Minister of State for the Department for Education shared the worries expressed by respondents to the initial consultation regarding these proposals.

Assurances must also be given to taxpayers regarding the value for money provided by the direct payments initiative. When specialist services are provided from small markets with limited choice, such as those which exist in the provision of transport for people with a physical disability, it must be ensured that a limited market does not inflate prices. The interests of the taxpayer must also be safeguarded from the inevitable fragmentation of budgets caused by dividing funds between service providers, which may cause losses from diseconomies of scale.

However, the need for an extension is accepted. The slow progress which the direct payments pilot scheme has experienced has necessitated its extension. It also makes sense to wait until the Children and Families Bill has gone through its legislative process. If more time is needed for the assessment of this scheme before a potential larger-scale rollout, the time must be used to develop confidence in the practical successes of devolving SEN provision budgets. If this confidence is instilled, progress can be made in realising the implementation of the scheme on a countrywide scale, but it would make sense to wait until the pilot has had an extended run.

When the Secretary of State lays his report before both Houses, after the conclusions of this pilot study are produced, the concerns aired by the critics of this piece of legislation will need to be considered with respect and reason. In the mean time, it is essential that the concerns which have been highlighted today are borne in mind. Further evidence gathered from the pilot scheme must demonstrate that the direct payments method for SEN provision indeed provides value for money and delivers high-quality services, yielding acceptable educational outcomes for all young people with special educational needs.