May 13th 2009
Reading the national press during the past week and watching television you could be forgiven for thinking that the only topic of conversation at Westminster has been the matter of the allowances available to and claimed by Members of Parliament.
I do not wish to make light of what is, most certainly, a serious and complex issue (my own expenses have been published on my website for many months, as has a "View" that I wrote on the subject in August 2008) but the economy is, still, tottering on the brink of collapse, soldiers are still losing their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka is truly terrifying and there a myriad of domestic issues in addition to constituency casework that still require attention.
There is also private members` legislation.
As the chairman of the Autism Bill, currently in committee, I am non-combatant and, acting for the Speaker, restrained from making public comment or voting on the measure.
I have, though, wanted to lend my backing to the Schools (Health Support) Bill introduced by my friend and Labour parliamentary colleague, Jim Cunningham. This Bill, which was given a brief airing on Friday, is designed to draw attention to the need for schools to recognise and to make provision for the specific and chronic health condition of some children.
Mid-week and prior to the reading of the Bill, I found myself on the doorstep of number 10 Downing Street in the company of six year old Cole Barnard, who has type 1 diabetes. Labour and Liberal MPs were joined by other children with stroke and brain haemorrhage, depression, muscular dystrophy and cancer and together with some twenty-five charities are seeking to highlight the fact that a lack of support for some such young people in school can blight the rest of their lives unnecessarily.
A day later, Asthma UK was lobbying to focus attention on the staggering 49% of children and young people who have problems joining in lessons and who miss out on sport and other activities because of a lack of understanding of and provision for their condition.
The fact that a student has medical needs that require regular or constant attention does not mean that they are not bright, cannot achieve and learn and pass exams and go on to participate in fulfilling careers if given the chance.
I know full well that there are, within Herne Bay, young people who, because of a lack of understanding or resources or both will be compelled to struggle unnecessarily to make headway in the classroom.
That is why we want to see proper medical conditions policies put in place in schools with staff receiving appropriate training and support to assist children with health conditions. Schools, in turn, will need the backing of NHS bodies, local authorities and primary care trusts if we are to try to make sure that all children have equal access to education.
I am not, and never have been, a supporter of "inclusion" for the sake of doctrine. There are many very fine specialist schools - the Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate is one such - offering superb opportunity for those whose conditions sadly prevent them from mainstream education and the work of such establishments should be nurtured not undermined.
I also recognise that today's teachers face a lamentable burden of red tape and bureaucracy and I have no wish to add to that burden by adding yet another layer of regulation to an already oppressive workload.
I know, though, that there are many teaching staff that take a real and caring interest in young people who may not enjoy the same good health as most and that, with additional support, can be enabled to help to ensure that quite a large group of children do not miss out.
Jim Cunningham's Bill is unlikely, as a private measure, to make progress but I hope that the fact that it has been given an airing will have raised an important and overlooked item up the political agenda. That, surely, is the real work of parliament.