Speech, Language and Communication Support for Children — [Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:58 am on 4th July 2018.

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Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (International Development) 9:58 am, 4th July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

I start by acknowledging the tremendous level of support and activism there has been throughout the country to raise the profile of the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report and the need to improve speech, language and communication support for children and young people. That support is essential in improving the lives of the more than 1.4 million children and young people in the UK who have communication difficulties, too many of whom are not getting the support they need.

I welcome the representatives of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists who are here today, and thank it for all the work it has done. I also put on the record my thanks to Gillian Rudd from Birmingham City University in my constituency for her work raising awareness of this matter.

The petition on Parliament’s website regarding the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report has more than 10,500 signatures. That demonstrates the public’s desire to ensure that support for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs is improved, along with the support for their families, carers, teachers and other professionals.

The nationwide figures are stark. More than 10% of children and young people in the UK—some 1.4 million—have some form of persistent, long-term SLCN, and in areas of social disadvantage up to 50% of children can start school with delayed language or other identified SLCN. Across Birmingham, that translates to more than 21,000 children and young people with communication needs, 7.6% of whom will have a developmental language disorder and at least 1% of whom will stammer. Those children and young people would likely benefit from long-term support to enable them to achieve their full potential.

Let us not forget that we are also talking about the need for parents, carers, teachers and other professionals to be supported and equipped with the skills that they need. Those who have difficulty communicating can have problems with understanding and expressing themselves, including in social interactions. Imagine for a moment not being able to make yourself understood, not being able to understand what is being said to you, and not being able to make friends or develop positive relationships; it is a truly frightening thought.

Left unidentified and unsupported, difficulties with speech, language and communication can have a huge impact on children and young people’s life chances across a wide range of areas: educational attainment, behavioural issues, mental health and wellbeing, health inequalities, employment prospects, and interactions with the criminal justice system. “Bercow: Ten Years On” has demonstrated that more needs to be done to ensure better speech, language and communication support for children and young people who have SLCN.

The Minister has written to me outlining some of the things that the Government are doing, including focusing on closing the word gap at age five and working more closely with Public Health England to support health visitors and early years practitioners. That is a good start, but more needs to be done, particularly for the children and young people who need help beyond the age of five. Can the Minister confirm what discussions his Department has had with the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice, and the Youth Justice Board regarding the report? Furthermore, what plans does his Department have to extend the proposals to improve identification and support in respect of SLCN to children over the age of five?

As the Minister knows, I have written to the Prime Minister asking what the Department of Health and Social Care is doing in response to the report, given the need for specialist services. Joint commissioning between education and health, and the impact of communication difficulties on mental health and health inequalities, is absolutely integral.

In separate correspondence, the Minister for Care, Caroline Dinenage told me that

“more needs to be done to ensure that children with a stammer are able to access the communications support they need”,

and that

“the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education will be considering what more could be done to strengthen commissioning of communication support.”

That interest from the Department of Health and Social Care is encouraging because, as the Minister knows, many children with SLCN are identified initially by health visitors. As speech and language therapy services are most often commissioned and provided as part of the health system, it is essential that the Department of Health and Social Care plays its full part in responding to the report. Only with cross-Government action can we improve the life chances of all children and young people with speech, language and communication needs.

“Bercow: Ten Years On” makes numerous recommendations to improve speech, language and communication support for children and young people, the most central of which is a cross-governmental strategy for children with speech, language and communication at its core. I wish to place on the record my support for the recommendations in the report. With that in mind, will the Minister commit to introducing a cross-Government strategy for children with speech, language and communication at its core? When will the Government formally respond to the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report? The Prime Minister committed to responding at Prime Minister’s questions on 21 March.

Finally, I thank Rebecca Pow for securing this very important debate and, of course, the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, for his leadership in this area. We all recognise how important communication is to our children, and I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues to ensure that we all play our part in helping to improve the life chances of all children and young people with speech, language and communication needs. If we do not, it is clear that we will be failing the next generation of children and young people.