Leading article: Compassionate Conservatism

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:19

It is common for political leaders to deliver speeches on topics on which they have no personal experience. But that will not be the case when David Cameron addresses an autism conference today on the subject of special needs. In February, the Conservative leader sadly lost his six-year old son, Ivan, who had suffered from cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy.

When it comes to special needs, Mr Cameron knows whereof he speaks. Armed with knowledge of the bureaucratic jungle faced by parents in similar situations, he is putting forward sensible proposals to improve the lives of children with disabilities, as well as their carers. The expected pledge that a future Conservative government will put an immediate stop to the programme of special school closures is welcome. Undoubtedly, some disabled children benefit from being educated in a mainstream school. But the Government's policy of pushing "inclusion" has made life harder for many disabled children and their carers. Special schools still have a vital place.

The pledge from the Conservative leader to increase the number of family health visitors and the availability of respite care will also be greeted with enthusiasm by the parents of many disabled children. These carers will also share Mr Cameron's frustration with the "statementing" process which defines the nature of a child's special needs. The present system is complex and onerous. It is also often unfair. Local councils, which administer care, have a financial incentive to keep down costs. Too often, they focus on costs rather than needs. The idea the Tory leader will outline of putting budgets for a disabled child's health, education and care in the hands of parents makes sense. This is the kind of shift that can help bring the voluntary sector into the provision of public services, one of Mr Cameron's longstanding strategic goals.

The big stumbling block is resources. These reforms cost money. But with a future Conservative government committed to cutting spending and terrified of making spending pledges, can this be really delivered? On special needs, Mr Cameron understands the problems and has sound ideas on how to improve matters. But the test is whether he can turn bold plans into reality.

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