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I declare an interest as my wife works providing support and tutoring to a child with special educational needs in Birmingham, who receives support through the welfare system.
The covid pandemic has had a severe impact on many children around the country—on their education, their development and their welfare—but it has had a particular effect on many children with speech, language and learning disabilities. Understandably, some of the legal obligations on local authorities and on the national health service were eased earlier in the year with respect to the availability of staff during the heavier stages of lockdown. That was a necessary step, but it must not be a signal that necessary and vital support, particularly for children and young people with disabilities, is in some way discretionary. It is pleasing that no local authorities at all are currently using the easement provisions, which must be triggered only where absolutely necessary. Even then, all public authorities and agencies must ensure that appropriate and suitable provision can be made with the available staff.
Many local authority and national health service workers did heroic work throughout the first wave of the pandemic, particularly in the period between late March, when lockdown started and schools closed, and the end of the summer term in July. It was a time when an awful lot was expected of relatively few people, who did amazingly well, but far too many children received no specialist support during that time. It is almost worse that they did not even receive any explanation from the various agencies involved about why support was being withdrawn and when it might return.
Although it is clearly right for the Government to be doing everything possible to keep schools open and to be taking the measures available to ensure that children can continue going to school, we need to recognise that many children, particularly those with the most severe and complex special educational needs, have not been able to return to school. Many are still being educated at home, so it is important that a disability-inclusive covid response must involve thinking about how agencies can evolve to support SEND children who are stuck at home, and considering the parents and families of those children.
I see that my four minutes are up, so I will draw my remarks to a close. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, and I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow on securing the debate.