Howard is told not to 'exploit' individuals for political gain

The row about whether political parties should highlight individual cases during a general election campaign reignited yesterday after the mother of a 10-year-old autistic boy attacked the Government's approach to special needs education at a Tory press conference.

Maria Hutchings, a lifelong Labour supporter, criticised Tony Blair for his response to her complaints that teachers at her son's special school in Essex were being switched to other schools under the policy for special needs children to be educated in the mainstream schooling system.

In an emotional account, she said her family had "lived through a nightmare of bureaucracy and lies" since her son John Paul was diagnosed with autism in 1997.

She met Mr Blair for 10 minutes after confronting him when he appeared on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff last month, but was unimpressed by a letter he sent her after the programme.

Yesterday, she praised the Tories' pledge to halt closures of special schools and for looking at the issue "in a completely different" way when she sent them a copy of her letter to the Prime Minister.

But the Opposition's decision to use ordinary people rebounded when David Prior, a Tory former MP and party chief executive, said they should not be "exploited" by political parties. Now the chairman of a health trust in Norfolk, Mr Prior condemned the Tories for highlighting the case last week of Margaret Dixon, the woman whose shoulder operation was cancelled several times.

He said: "The hysteria whipped up in this fashion by exploiting individual cases is deeply irresponsible and particularly cynical so close to an election."I hope it rebounds on all those who do it."

His comments derailed the Tory press conference on education at which Mrs Hutchings appeared. She told journalists: "I feel total disgust that you should think I am here as a political pawn. The system hasn't used me. I've used the system.

I'm not a political football. Politics is about Margaret Dixon. It is about me. I don't want this to be a media circus. This is the only way for all those parents and teachers out there that I can get the issue into the limelight."

Mr Howard told reporters they were assuming that "the general election is only for politicians". He insisted: "I think a general election is for people who have concerns to express those concerns - people like Maria, people like Margaret Dixon. It should be about the people of this country declaring loud and clear what their concerns are, what they want from the politicians."

The Tories admitted that some of Mrs Hutchings's problems were caused by Tory-controlled Essex County Council. They conceded that Tory-run Wandsworth is to close a special school and that the policy of teaching all children in mainstream schools where possible began before Labour won power in 1997.

Labour said that spending on special needs education had risen from £2.7bn to £3.8bn in the past five years. It said 141 special schools had closed in the seven years before 1997 and 93 closed in the seven years since, pointing out that many parents wanted their children educated in mainstream schools.

Alan Milburn, Labour's election co-ordinator, said: "Politics is all about real people. You [should] avoid the idea that you can generalise from the particular, because you can't. There's a difference between taking an individual case or having a well-rounded policy.

"What's perfectly clear now from these past few days is that the Conservative strategy is to highlight any one individual in order to try to run down the state of our public services."

John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, said "the majority of decent people" would be appalled at Mr Howard's attempt to use individual cases to attack Labour. "To take one case and pretend that it represents the reality of the whole NHS is wrong."

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