Return of the Matt
He describes his own diagnosis as a “lightbulb moment” and is calling for all children to be checked for the condition by the end of primary school. Matt Hancock tells Noa Hoffman about his Dyslexia Screening Bill
Since resigning from his role as health secretary last year, Matt Hancock has been determined to make a difference from the back benches.
Chief among the areas of personal interest he now has the freedom to explore is dyslexia, a common learning difficulty that can cause issues with spelling, writing and reading. The MP for West Suffolk introduced a Private Members’ Bill, seeking to ensure all primary school pupils in Britain are screened for dyslexia. The learning difficulty affects 10 per cent of the United Kingdom population, including Hancock himself.
Hancock decided to “come out” about being dyslexic after being encouraged by his private secretary in the Department of Health and Social Care.
“You’ve got to tell everybody that you can make it into the Cabinet if you’re dyslexic,” the former health secretary was told. And so he did.
“I had an incredibly positive response,” Hancock says. Among those to message the MP was former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine, who also has the learning difficulty. Hancock says he now wants to encourage local authorities to offer young people struggling with language the support that he, Heseltine and Winston Churchill, reportedly another dyslexic, lacked early in their schooling.
“We know from all the research that if you identify a neurodiversity like dyslexia, then you can help kids to learn and to address the challenges of living with dyslexia,” he says. “You also improve their self-esteem.”
Hancock worries that where children do not have learning disabilities identified, they are often left feeling “stupid or not up to it”. It is a mental state the former health secretary can relate to, with his dyslexia formally diagnosed only at university.
“I just thought I was no good with words,” Hancock remembers. “And here I am in Parliament, which is all about words and how we use words to change things for the better.”
One reason Hancock says he is “enjoying life on the back benches much more than I expected” is because of the scope for cross-party collaboration. The MP has relished working with members across the Commons to refine the details of his Private Members’ Bill. He is particularly pleased to have the support of both the ex-shadow chancellor, Labour MP John McDonnell, and former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith.
In response to Hancock’s bill, the government recently confirmed a commitment to “the early identification of needs, including dyslexia, and ensuring that every young person receives the support they need to flourish”.
Having “received assurances” from the Department for Education, the MP will now reintroduce his bill in the next session of Parliament.
“My dyslexia campaign is making serious progress,” Hancock says. “I look forward to working with the Department for Education to incorporate my campaign into the [upcoming] Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Green Paper and Schools White Paper.”
Speaking of government and Cabinet decisions, would Hancock rule out a return to the front bench? “I’m not in any hurry, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself,” he says.
For now, he is determined to keep campaigning and working hard to push through his bill. Might this be the start of a political rehabilitation following his resignation in June after it emerged he had broken social distancing rules during his relationship with his now-partner, Gina Coladangelo?
“I’ve been a minister for nine years and I love the flexibility [of the back bench],” Hancock says. “I like being able to take an interest in areas of my choosing, like dyslexia.
“Tackling the problems I’m trying to tackle through this bill is something I’ve wanted to do for some time, and never had the opportunity to do in government.”
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