Labour leadership hustings
How do you plan to improve the lives of disabled children and their families, at school, home and in the community? This includes reform to the current postcode lottery SEN Statementing/ funding system.
Ed Miliband: While we were in Government we did take steps forward to improve the lives of disabled children and their families, including significant investment in the Family Fund and seeking to extend it to children up to 18 years old to help fund short care breaks for families, helping to make life a little easier for families. We also strengthened the Disability Discrimination Act and introduced the Equalities Act. These have all helped but I fully recognise that we must to more to support disabled children and their families, to give them equal opportunities in life and I think SEN support and funding should be protected, and there are some specific areas, like support in schools, where I think there is a strong case for increasing it to help save costs in the longer term.
I know the Coalition government has agreed to publish a green paper on this later on in the year, but I greatly fear the impact that this Coalition's decisions and cuts will have on SEN support in schools up and down the country. I know Ed Balls raised serious concerns about the Academies Act, which they rushed through Parliament before summer, as it completely failed to take into account those children with special educational needs. This is a dangerous precedent. It is essential that we take full account of the impact of such legislation on the more vulnerable children in our communities.
Ed Balls: I believe we have done more for disabled children and children with a Special Educational Need (SEN) in the last three years than at any other time by providing over £800 million to local councils and Primary Care Trusts to increase short breaks and specialist childcare, provide equipment, help disabled teenagers and fund parent groups. I made improving outcomes for kids with SEN a central mission when I was Children's Secretary, by increasing the number of dyslexia-trained teachers, accepting the Bercow recommendations on speech and language therapy and making Ofsted inspect all schools on the quality of their SEN provision. Of course, I know there is a long way to go before every parent gets the support they need for their kids. That's why I will continue to champion the needs of these children in Opposition, and challenge Michael Gove and Sarah Teather to build on the substantial progress we have made and not roll back to the days when disabled children and their families were frankly ignored and left to get on with it.
Diane Abbott: I agree with you about the current problems for parents trying to access statements and then the right funding for appropriate provision. I have helped hundreds of parents in this position. In the end, improving the lives of disabled children and their families is about better co-ordination between statutory services and increasing the level of funding. Too many of the problems stem from funding problems. I assume you appreciate that, with the cuts this government is planning, things could potentially get much worse.
Andy Burnham: Families and carers of children with disabilities and special needs do an amazing job, often against the odds. We did a great deal in Government, from legislation to provide families with paid short breaks, giving them much-needed respite from the pressures that they face day in day out, to making our schools more accessible to those with physical disabilities so that they can sit alongside able-bodied children in the classroom and receive the same educational experience.
However, we need to do more. I recently visited a school where they have a specialist unit for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders so that they are taught part-time within the unit and the rest of the time in the mainstream school. This is a great model and one I would like to see rolled out across the country. But it's not just about education. Specialist equipment and carer support can be incredibly expensive and parents’ caring responsibilities can make holding down a job difficult. This puts an enormous strain on finances and, while there is some support available, the benefits system can be too complex and even if families navigate it successfully, it is still difficult to make ends meet. As a result, many families turn to doorstep and other unscrupulous lenders. I plan to establish a National Credit Union, working alongside local credit unions, to give families of disabled children access to affordable finance to ease that pressure.
David Miliband: Isn't the key early assessment and intervention? Labour made a lot of progress in delivering choice and control for people with disabilities and we need to build on this foundation. As leader of the Labour Party, I would seek to listen to parents of children with special educational needs. We need to improve information for parents and make the tribunal process more transparent, so that children with SEN and disabilities get the support they need.