HC Deb 26 November 1968 vol 774 cc302-8

The following Written Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Prime Minister whether he will now make a statement about the future Departmental responsibility for the education of mentally handicapped children.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Written Question No. 89.

After careful consideration of the views expressed by the bodies consulted, the Government have decided to accept in principle that responsibility for the education of mentally handicapped children in England and Wales should be transferred from the Health to the Education Service. No change is required in Scotland, where education authorities are already responsible for the education of mentally handicapped children.

The necessary legislation will be prepared to give effect to the change in England and Wales, and the date on which this can take place will be settled as soon as possible.

Before the facilities offered by junior training centres can fully become part of the educational system, many matters, including those affecting the future pattern of staffing and the training and status of staff, will have to be worked out in consultation with the appropriate bodies. This is bound to take some time, but I should like to make it clear that the conditions of service and salaries of these staff will not be adversely affected by the change, and that for the present training courses will continue to be provided under the auspices of the Training Council for Teachers of the Mentally Handicapped.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Peter Archer.

Hon. Members

Where is he?

Mr. Speaker

This is the second time that the Chair has been placed in difficulty. Normally, I do not call hon. Members to ask supplementary questions unless the hon. Member who asks the Question puts a supplementary question. The hon. Gentleman who tabled the Written Question should have been here.

Sir E. Boyle

In view of the very great importance of the Prime Minister's announcement to the education system, would he say what consultations there have been with local authorities on this matter? Secondly, in view of this decision, which, in principle, we welcome, could he say whether there is now a prospect of a thorough inquiry being held into the whole range of education for handicapped children?

The Prime Minister

Before I answer the supplementary question by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hands-worth (Sir E. Boyle), perhaps I would be in order in saying that I have taken the unusual course of asking for your permission, Mr. Speaker, to answer the Written Question because this has been the subject of many Questions at Question Time in past weeks. In the debate on the Fulton Report last week, I undertook to make a statement to the House at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Speaker

I am not criticising the right hon. Gentleman. I am speaking only about my own procedural difficulty in that I usually do not take supplementary questions unless the Member who tabled the Question puts one.

The Prime Minister

I recognise that, Mr. Speaker. I received a message just as I came into the Chamber that my hon. Friend the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Archer), who intended to be here, has been delayed on his way to the House for reasons which I do not know. It is only fair that that should be said.

The right hon. Member for Handsworth has been very much concerned in this problem. There have been very full consultations, in the light of the Seebohm Report, and indeed earlier, with the local authority associations and the health organisations. As I said last week, on balance, a majority of those consulted favoured this transfer, although the arguments were very finely balanced. We should now get on with the legislation, which there will be an opportunity to debate, and with the transfer, and consider whether any inquiries are needed. For our part, we would prefer to get on with the job rather than hold further inquiries.

Mr. Moonman

My right hon. Friend should not be left in any doubt about this good news, which will give immense satisfaction to those on this side of the House and throughout the country who have been pressing for this transfer. Would he facilitate this important transfer by encouraging concentration on three critical areas of this problem which will not necessarily be solved by the transfer: first, adequate staffing; secondly, adequate accommodation; thirdly, proper and effective training facilities throughout the country?

The Prime Minister

I referred to this in my statement, particularly staffing and the training and status of the staff. Accommodation is still limited, although we have increased the facilities available during the past three or four weeks and, indeed, over a longer period. Those of us who have visited these places in and near our constituencies know the tremendous job which is done and the great need for expansion of places within the very limited resources available.

Sir D. Renton

When does the right hon. Gentleman expect the legislation to be introduced? Meanwhile, would he say whether the project which the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children has, in co-operation with Government Departments, for establishing a teacher-training college in the Birmingham area can go ahead, perhaps even in anticipation of the coming into effect of the legislation?

The Prime Minister

We intend to go ahead with legislation at the soonest possible moment. The House will, I know, wish to give it a speedy passage for the reasons mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, amongst others. The question of a training establishment is one which he might like to put down to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be unequivocally welcomed in many quarters of the House? Is he further aware that many of us have pressed for this transfer over many years? May we be assured that there will be the closest consultation with all the voluntary associations concerned on the implications in the immediate future?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. There have already been consultations, and now that the decision has been taken there will have to be definitive consultations by the Department of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. I am glad that this transfer is unequivocally welcomed by those who pressed for it. This decision might have taken place much earlier but for the fact that for a period expert opinion in this sphere was evenly divided. It was not such a clear-cut case as some of my hon. Friends have suggested, but I am satisfied now that the right decision has been taken.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

Will the Prime Minister help the House by saying to which of his right hon. Friends we should put questions on teacher training colleges, either now or after the introduction of the Bill?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science.

Mr. David Steel

Is the Prime Minister aware that his comment, in passing, that there is no problem in Scotland will be regarded by those of us who have had dealings with this problem as rather over-optimistic, and that there are still difficulties between those children who are regarded as coming within the care of the health authorities at local level and those who come within the care of the education authorities? What steps will be taken to ensure that they come under the care of one authority so that there is no sub-division between those who are able to benefit from education and those who are considered unable to do so?

The Prime Minister

If I had said that there was no problem in Scotland I would have been open to the rebuke which the hon. Gentleman set out to embody in his supplementary question. I did not say there was no problem; I said that no change is required in Scotland in terms of administrative responsibilities, where in any case one Minister is responsible for both sub-departments.

If there are problems of the kind mentioned by the hon. Gentleman on some departmental boundaries, he should address this question to my right hon. Friend. Of course, there are problems there, as in England and Wales, apart from that responsibility, because of sheer lack of resources to tackle what is still an enormous job.

Mr. Molloy

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that those of us who will be involved in this matter know that voluntary associations will welcome his announcement? Would he not consider that, during the preparatory stages of legislation, the voluntary organisations might be provided with a venue where they can submit their proposals on an issue about which they know so much and with which they have been so closely identified?

The Prime Minister

I am aware that a number of hon. Members have closely identified themselves with this problem, not only in the House but in the voluntary work which has been going on outside.

The answer to the second part of my hon. Friend's question is covered by what I said earlier. Now that the decision has been made, the Department of my right hon. Friend will want to get into urgent consultation with the voluntary organisations for the reasons stated by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Doughty

Is the Prime Minister aware that this legislation will be welcomed, provided that it results in better education for handicapped children and is not swamped by the interests of those concerned with educating the greater number? Is he also aware that the phrase "mentally handicapped" is difficult of definition? There are many children who are not mentally deficient, but who are backward and retarded. Will they be included in the legislation?

The Prime Minister

They will be included in the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend. The difficulty of defining the boundary is one reason why it is right that they should all be the responsibility of my right hon. Friend who is concerned with education generally. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to this. It is also right to draw attention to the serious problem of the education, and particularly the training in handicrafts and productive work, of those who are over school-leaving age. Many of us have seen the magnificent work which has been done in that connection, and it is important that that work should be co-ordinated with the work to which I have referred today.

Dame Joan Vickers

In view of the extra knowledge we have of handicapped children, will the Prime Minister cause a survey to be made to find out how many handicapped children go to normal schools rather than to specialised schools which put them in a special category for the rest of their lives?

The Prime Minister

This will be a question for my right hon. Friend. He will want, as far as possible, to assimilate them into the existing educational system. There are very many where this will literally not be possible, particularly those who so far have been outside his jurisdiction, without detriment to the handicapped children themselves and perhaps to the schools to which they might be sent.

Mr. Costain

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that many hon. Members have problems with constituents whose children are mentally retarded? Will he say how this change of policy will affect those who reach maturity, since the problem is no less when such people pass the school-leaving age?

The Prime Minister

As I have just said, this is a separate problem, and a very important one with which many of us have been concerned. If the hon. Gentleman would put down a question on that subject, I will seek to answer it in detail. It is an important question, but a separate one from the subject with which I have been dealing.

Sir C. Osborne

On a point of order. May I seek your advice, Mr. Speaker, for the protection of back benchers? Would you consider in future whether you should give your permission to a Minister to answer a Private Notice Question unless the hon. Member asking the question is present, since this could reflect on the hon. Member in his own constituency; because the fact that he was not here to deal with the Question he himself put down may reflect on the hon. Member in his constituency.

Mr. Speaker

The problem is not so difficult as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is up to a Minister, if he has chosen to do so, either to make a statement or to make that statement in answer to a Written Question. I have no power to interfere with that. All I called attention to was the difficulty in which Mr. Speaker is placed if the hon. Gentleman whose question has been answered is not there to start the ball rolling.

Sir Knox Cunningham

On a point of order. May I ask your advice, Mr. Speaker? When a Private Notice Question is tabled it is notified on the board. Would it not help the House, when a Written Question is being answered orally, for it also to be notified?

Mr. Speaker

That would be a convenient practice. It is not, however, a matter for the Chair.

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