EDUCATION minister Margaret Hodge faced political embarrassment this week after it was revealed that the Government is investigating claims that a local authority in her constituency has been breaking the law on special educational needs.
Barking and Dagenham council is one of five local authorities accused of operating a blanket policy on special needs by refusing to specify the extent of additional help available to children with special needs.
The claim is doubly embarrassing for Mrs Hodge, who is also the Government's disabilities minister.
Barnet in north London has already been forced to change its policy on statements for children with special educational needs after the Government found it was acting illegally.
Other authorities being investigated by the Department for Education and Employment are Derbyshire, Essex and Kent. Officials have already written to Barnet telling the council it needs to change the way it writes statements to comply with the law.
Barnet councillor Alison Moore said: "We accepted their advice that each SEN statement should specify more precisely the support and provision to be given to pupils with special needs."
Derbyshire and Essex are believed to have been cleared of acting unlawfully by the DFEE, and inquiries into the actions of Barking and Dagenam and Kent are said to be continuing.
"It is a matter for the council (Barking and Dagenham) to comply with its statutory obligations and I'm sure it will do so," Ms Hodge said.
However, all four authorities deny operating blanket policies. A spokesperson for Essex County Council said: "We would be happy for anyone to investigate."
Barking and Dagenham, Kent and Derbyshire claimed that they were unaware of any investigation. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Ombudsman has been asked to examine claims that the DFEE has not adequately investigated the complaints.
Sally Capper, of the Down's Syndrome Association, said: "The DFEE is colluding with LEAs to save money. It is not providing children with the help they need."
More than 250,000 children have special needs severe enough to warrant a statement setting out the extra help they should be given.
Although the law does not require LEAs to specify the number of hours of additional provision each child should receive, it says that needs should be assessed separately and provision quantified where necessary.
The number of children in England with statements has increased by 45,000 since the general election. New figures released by the DFEE this week show that in January 2001 261,000 pupils had statements compared to 253,000 last year. More are also being educated in mainstream schools, 61 per cent this year compared to 57 per cent in 1997.