Dr Julian Lewis: This Bill is clearly close to the hearts of Ministers, hon. Members and many of our constituents. Unlike the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who has just made a typically well-informed contribution, I am not an expert in this policy area. Most of what I have learnt about it has come through the tuition of a very good organisation in the New Forest, Supporting special Children And their Relatives and Friends – SCARF. It has alerted me to one particular aspect in the Bill, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) when he talked about the cliff edge encountered by young people when they reach 16.
SCARF is composed of parents of children with serious learning difficulties. They cope, and in most cases they cope quite heroically, but they need a degree of certainty in order to plan their lives. They told me that young people aged up to 16 were guaranteed five days of tuition per week, and were subsequently classified as adults. They had been receiving the full range of support to proceed to further education on what might be regarded as a full-time basis – for at least five days a week – but over the years since 2008, first under Labour and then under the present coalition Government, further education funds had been successively cut, and they were able to receive further education provision for their children with special needs first for just four days a week, and then for three. A ravine, or chasm, had appeared between the ages of 16 and 18. Families who had worked out a way of coping beforehand, and could cope afterwards, were suddenly confronted with an additional severe burden which could disrupt all their plans and hopes over that two-year period.
This is not the first occasion on which I have raised the issue in the House. I must say that I have been very impressed by the response that I have received from the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Edward Timpson), and I think it is a measure of Ministers’ commitment to the Bill that he appears to have been present since the beginning of the debate. I was also struck by the fact that the Secretary of State was present for the first two hours, although he would not be participating directly in the debate, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who will wind up the debate, has been present for the vast majority of it. I therefore have no doubt about the seriousness with which these problems are being taken.
I originally raised the matter in an Adjournment debate on 22 October last year. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich sent me a very helpful letter on 13 December, at the end of which he wrote – it was the first occasion during all my time in Parliament that a Minister had done this – “If you would like to come and talk this over with my officials, please do so.” I did, and the meeting took place on 13 February, less than a fortnight ago.
A particular point emerged from those discussions. I shall observe the principle that one should only try to make one main point in any given oration; at least, that is what Mr. Speaker always used to tell me during the years when we were practising our speaking techniques before entering this place. I understand that, whereas in the past funds have been effectively guaranteed on the basis that a minimum of 450 teaching hours a year will be supplied for young people with special educational needs, that minimum will rise to 540 hours, with an average of 600. What was impressed on us by the Minister’s officials at the meeting was that that should mean that any further education college delivering those hours should deliver them over a period of at least four days, rather than three.
Let me make a simple suggestion. It relates, I suspect, to clause 37(4) of the Bill, which states:
“Regulations may make provision about the preparation, content and maintenance of EHC plans.”
I think that we need either an amendment at a later stage, or a commitment from a Minister that those regulations will specify that the minimum number of teaching hours – now, I believe, guaranteed to be 540, with an average of 600 – shall be delivered over no fewer than four days. That would be a major step in the right direction, because it would mean that those parents – with all the burdens that they bear, all the efforts that they make, and all the courage that they show – could be assured that, for at least four days a week, their children could receive appropriate stimulation and support. As they point out, the last thing someone aged between 16 and 18 wants is to be nursemaided by their parents. They need stimulation and support. The Government are offering the extra hours – all praise to them for that – but they should ensure that the local authorities are instructed to deliver them over a minimum of four days a week.