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Local Authorities: Essential Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:27 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 1:27 pm, 24th January 2019

My Lords, when I put my name down to speak in this debate, I had a little debate with myself about what I should speak about. I considered talking about the support for local sporting facilities—an important factor that leads into health plans and so on and, going forward, support for local clubs—but I thought I would have another look at one of the bigger spending commitments: the support for those who have special educational needs within the education system.

Just before Christmas, we got an announcement of extra money there, which is always welcome. But the reason why it was needed is that there seems to be a chronic underfunding in this department which has led to a culture of parents having to take local authorities to court to get what they are entitled to under the law. If ever there was one little thing that says, “Something isn’t working”, it is having to go to court to get it to function. There cannot really be any debate about that. When you look at the figures of the outcomes of tribunal and appeals, the best statistic that local authorities end up with here is a 12% success rate: 88% of parents winning appeals is the worst figure I have found—for most, the figures is around nine in 10. So something is going wrong here.

We were earlier told to take some responsibility for the things we have done here. Regarding the Children and Families Act 2014, yes, I was there and I took part in it. The framework which is set out there is one of the things on which these legal actions have been taken. That Act stated that local authorities have a responsibility for delivering support to those with special educational needs, and it got rid of the old statement system and replaced it with the education, health and care plans. We have this new responsibility that is supposed to reach into other groups, and it extends that help into further education to the age of 25. Those who have a disability or special educational need should be able to be supported until the age of 25. That was great, wonderful—it had all-party support, with very little disagreement—and was a good thing.

However, that requires resources. It requires resources because this is a growing group, not only because of the number of people who live through traumatic childhood illnesses and survive into later life but because we are getting much better at identifying those who have hidden needs. Now comes the time to remind the House once again of my interest with regard to dyslexia. It is a subject on which I have waxed long and often to noble Lords, but it is basically a hidden disability. I am dyslexic; it is not immediately apparent. The same could be said of numerous other conditions: attention deficit disorder, dyspraxia—the list goes on. Such hidden needs have been found. There are also groups whom we think we can now educate where we did not used to; they require help.

So a growing cohort is coming through, but they are accessing their help through the courts. That means of course that those on free school meals and with special educational needs are not getting their help and have some of the lowest pass rates. The tiger parent is not there. Two dyslexic parents with a dyslexic child are not going to wade through lots of legal documents and get the help they need; it just does not happen. People are having to fight the system to get help for their children, which means that only a few are being well served by it. That is probably because we do not have enough courage to recognise that it saves in the medium term to support people quickly. The various funding streams for interventions in the schools system, with academies and free schools also in there, are—let us face it—not straightforward, but they are there, and there is always a duty. We have got ourselves into a situation where only those who are well-off, well resourced and determined to access the right things are getting help with the frequency they need.

We then have the problem of groups with very high needs. Those groups seem to be most commonly in the courts. I have with me a list of shame in a briefing from the National Autistic Society. Glancing down it, I see Bristol, Surrey, Hackney, east Surrey and North Yorkshire. Long legal cases have been brought against local authorities in those areas for not fulfilling their legal duty. I do not think that local council authorities sit down at night and say, “How can we not fulfil the needs of these people?” It is a matter of funding and prioritising. The cost of fighting over funding decisions has reached an absurd level. I was told that it costs about £16,000 to fight against a parent at an appeal. Looking at dyslexia, which I know best, four level 7 assessors and support staff could be trained for that money and probably be able to deal with dozens of dyslexics coming through every year. We have got ourselves into a ridiculous situation where county councils and local authorities are sitting down and saying, “We will resist you because we are frightened of what’s happening”, as opposed to investing in the system.

Something has got to change. We can argue about it for ever, but we have certainly got to a very bad place. Nobody wanted to be here; nobody expected to be here. Unless we do something soon, we will end up with an ingrained system that excludes the worst-off, ignores huge chunks of the population who do not have the right backing and ends up in a very costly legal system where all we do is make sure that certain firms of solicitors do very nicely thank you.