HC Deb 19 November 1968 vol 773 cc1111-3
Q4. Dr. David Kerr

asked the Prime Minister if he will now make a statement on the transfer of responsibility for mentally-handicapped children from the Secretary of State for the Social Services to the Secretary of State for Education and Science.

Q7. Mr. Archer

asked the Prime Minister whether he will now transfer responsibility for the education of mentally-handicapped children from the Secretary of State for Social Services to the Secretary of State for Education and Science.

Q8. Mr. Moonman

asked the Prime Minister whether, in order to ensure effective co-ordination of the mentally handicapped children's service, he will now transfer responsibility from the Secretary of State for Social Services to the Secretary of State for Education and Science.

The Prime Minister

I would refer my hon. Friends to my reply on 14th November to a Question by the hon. Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison).—[Vol. 733, c. 144.]

Dr. Kerr

Is my right hon. Friend not aware that he gave me a rather line-holding answer many months ago? Is this not a little unfair on mentally-handicapped children, who would benefit enormously if responsibility for them were to be transferred to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science? Could we please get a move on?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that the matter is quite so clear-cut as my hon. Friend suggests. I agree that this Answer, like the previous one, is a line-holding reply. I hope that we shall not have to hold it for very much longer, because I hope to be able to make an announcement in a few days' time. We have had to have consultations with all the organisations involved. Many of them are in favour of transfer, others doubt whether it is in the best interests of the children, and others have reservations about the timing of any transfer, but I hope to be able to put my hon. Friend's mind at rest in a few days.

Mr. Archer

While appreciating that consultations take time, would my right hon. Friend agree that the basis of the original allocation of functions, namely, that severely subnormal children are ineducable, has been demonstrated to be false? Can we get on with educating them?

The Prime Minister

I know that that view has been expressed by many organisations and, as my hon. Friend knows, we are aware of the Seebohm Committee's recommendations in favour of the transfer. However, it was right to consult in a matter of such importance involving the future of a considerable number of children who start life with a great handicap. As I have said, I hope that we shall be able to make a decision in the next few days.

Mr. Moonman

While welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement that a decision will be made shortly, is he aware that there is increasing anxiety about the problem whereby one child in ten is at risk, and there is a waiting list for special places of something like 10,000?

The Prime Minister

I am aware of the anxieties both in relation to the decision and on the question of places. Those of us who have seen special places in our constituencies know what a tremendous job is being done and also what is being done to increase the number of places.

Sir D. Renton

Is the Prime Minister aware that the most essential step is to get started the training of teachers of mentally-handicapped children? This has been held up for a very long time pending the Government's decision. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the matter brooks no further delay?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman may be exaggerating the delay in teacher training. In fact, training courses for teachers of mentally-handicapped children and other mentally-handicapped persons have been organised by the special Training Council, which was set up for the purpose in 1964. The staffs of training centres are now seconded to these courses in increasing numbers. The decision about the transfer is not affecting this problem significantly, but, as I say, we intend to take a decision in the near future.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Since delay has held up the release of funds raised for the benefit of mentally-handicapped children, when the Prime Minister says that we shall have a decision in a few days, will the days really be few?

The Prime Minister

I intend that the days shall be really few.

Sir E. Boyle

Can the Prime Minister say whether there have been full consultations with local education authorities on this matter, and is he aware that, quite apart from the machinery of government aspects, there is overwhelming evidence that there are many children who ought to be getting education and having some contact with the world of education authorities who are at the moment right outside it?

The Prime Minister

What the right hon. Gentleman has said accords with the experience of many of us in our own constituencies. On the earlier part of his question, it is the case that the education authorities and authority organisations have been consulted. These consultations have been going on for the greater part of this year. Different views have been expressed, though it is fair to say that the predominant view is in favour of transfer.