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As we know, the Bill was considered at length in the other place. I now recognise the relevance of my right hon. Friend's invocation of Humpty Dumpty: it was especially apt in view of what I have heard so far, and, more important, what I discovered when I read the record of debates in the other place.
The Government have given a number of welcome undertakings as a result of those debates, but I feel that three issues are still worthy of comment. Clause 1 is a Humpty Dumpty clause, is it not? To a large extent, it is a question of how people interpret certain words and phrases. Under the Bill as it stands, a pupil with special educational needs and a statement must be educated in a mainstream school, unless that is incompatible with the wishes of the parent or the efficient education of other children. I realise that the Opposition would like a third condition to be included. May I make a comment that I do not intend to be dogmatic? It relates to an issue that others have raised. Of course I respect the wishes of parents, but it must be said that the wishes of a parent and those of a child are not exactly the same.
In the other place, there was much discussion of how the child's best interests and the wishes of the child--the child's voice--could be taken into account. Comparisons were made with the provisions of the Children Act 1989, which require account to be taken of the child's wishes. The Government argued that, if such a provision were included in this Bill, children who could benefit from inclusion could be prevented from gaining a mainstream place. That is possible, but it is not entirely obvious that it would happen.
I welcome the Government's assurance that the child's views would be given clear prominence, as an important principle in the revised code of practice. This is a difficult problem to which I can offer no simple solution, but which we need to address increasingly as society pays more attention to the views of children as well as those of their parents.
I note that the taskforce did not recommend the retention of the condition relating to efficient education. I agree with my noble Friends Lord Ashley, Lord Morris and Lord Rix--I usually agree with them on matters such as this--that reference to efficient education could leave a loophole enabling local education authorities to exclude from mainstream education SEN children who would otherwise benefit from it. However, I acknowledge the Government's assurance that mainstream places would be refused in only a small number of cases.
My final reservation is one that some of my colleagues are expecting. The Bill refers to the remedies available to disabled children who experience discrimination. The Government have argued that if a child experiences discrimination on the ground of disability, the educational remedy is appropriate. I consider that remedy to be the most important, but I agree with what was said about the issue in the other place. It was pointed out there that if a child were refused a place on a school trip on the ground of race or gender, the case could be pursued, with financial compensation being a remedy at the end of the day. Under the Bill, if a child were refused a place on the trip on the ground of disability, financial compensation would not be possible.
I appreciate that, given the way in which the new tribunals are being structured, the Government rightly want to minimise antagonism and conflict. I am reluctant to say more than this: there is currently an inequity in the approach to discrimination in education, which depends on whether that discrimination takes place on the ground of disability or on the ground of race or gender. I hope that the maximum range of remedies will be considered in regard to disability discrimination.
Despite those small reservations, I think that the Bill constitutes a massive step forward. More important, disability organisations, parents' groups and local education authorities see it as such. A number of organisations have gone out of their way to tell most Members that they think it should be passed as quickly as possible, and I hope that no Member will do anything to prevent that this evening. This is a landmark Bill, which should be supported with enthusiasm.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I welcome the Bill, and pay tribute to the way in which it was handled in another place. It was handled in just the way a Bill of such sensitivity should be handled. I am thinking especially of the Government's responses to criticisms from, in particular, lobbying organisations. Bills of this kind should not be dealt with in a party political fashion. The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) was right to say that the Bill is yet another staging post along the route on which we started in 1979 with the Warnock report, and on which we have travelled since.
Liberal Democrat Members welcome the Bill's two underlying themes. First, disability should never be a barrier to access to mainstream education. I do not think that any hon. Member would not support that principle. Secondly, unlike some official Opposition Members, we believe that there should be a presumption that, whenever possible, children with special educational needs or with disabilities should be educated with their peers. We believe that that is an issue of natural justice that should be enshrined in law, and that the Bill goes some way towards meeting that goal.
We welcome many of the Bill's provisions. The establishment of parent partnerships to try to resolve disputes is one of the issues that has bedevilled special needs education for so long. I have been closely associated with that issue for many years. Nothing is more unseemly than to have a dispute about where to place a child with special needs or to argue about a child's statement. There have often been such disputes, and we welcome action to resolve them.
The Government expect that the Bill will enable, both at local education authority level and at school level, planning for access for youngsters with special educational needs. That issue has not been mentioned so far in the debate, but we welcome that provision. However, in Committee we shall be arguing for a proper implementation timetable. It is no good simply saying that we should have planning. As we know from so much experience in schools and local education authorities, planning can become a distant ambition rather than a means of producing tangible outcomes.
Liberal Democrat Members also support the Bill's minor provision on the duty to inform parents if their child has a special educational need. It might seem obvious, but there are still many cases in which schools do not inform parents of such needs, even when children have been placed on stage 1 or stage 2 of the register. It is important that parents should be informed, although it is often hurtful to parents to receive the information.
We welcome the fact that the Bill addresses the issue of disability discrimination, to which I shall return later in my speech. We particularly welcome removal of the third caveat, in section 316 of the Education Act 1996, on the efficient use of resources. That was a cop-out clause, then section, and we are delighted that it is being removed.
We particularly welcome the emendations to section 329 in the 1996 Act, as they will allow schools or other responsible bodies to begin the statementing process. So often, relying solely on parents or on some other type of intervention to begin the process has bedevilled the child's best interests. I hope that, in her reply, the Minister will clarify whether parents will have the right to veto the process once it has been started by a school. I support the principle of allowing schools to begin the process, but we should know where the duty of the school or other responsible body--such as a health authority--to the child begins and where the parents' duty ends.
I closely followed the debate on the Bill in the other place. Lord Northbourne, Lord Rix, Lord Ashley, Baroness Darcy de Knaythe and my hon. Friend Baroness Sharp of Guildford made particularly cogent contributions in speaking to various amendments. Lords Rix and Ashley have of course contributed for many years to disability rights and special needs legislation. We appreciate their many contributions.
Despite what I shall say in a moment, I think that it would be churlish not to express our thanks to Baroness Blatch. Her scrutiny of the Bill in another place was, to put it mildly, very thorough, and it was consistent with much work done by previous Conservative Administrations since 1981. Indeed, the way in which those Administrations progressed from Baroness Warnock's 1979 report to the 1981, 1993 and 1996 Education Acts, to make special needs a real issue in schools, was one of the hallmarks of those Administrations--[Interruption.] Perhaps it was too good to last.
I think that the hon. Member for Kingswood was a little churlish in his comments on the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Although one tends to remember the unseemly scenes of father and daughter fighting, that was important legislation. I pay tribute to the fact that it was passed.
How sad, however, that on Third Reading in the other place, and, today, on Second Reading in this place, the official Opposition should sink so low as to seek to stop the Bill's progress. It is especially sad when one considers the record of those past Governments and the record of some of their colleagues in the other place.
Baroness Blatch and the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) purport to raise as their standard the best interests of the child, and they do so as if the best interests of the child were not already enshrined in a host of legislation. It is sad that anyone working with children in schools, local authorities or the independent sector should not have children's best interests at heart. Although I appreciate why Conservative Members are seeking to make the change, it is sad that we should have to make such provision in legislation.
Conservative Members believe that the omission of such provision in the Bill is sufficient reason to deny all children with special educational needs and disabilities the opportunities that the Bill would make possible. Denying them that opportunity would be the consequence of accepting Conservative Members' reasoned amendment.
The amendment is only a hollow gesture. The best interests of the child will be served by guaranteeing that the Bill receives Royal Assent before the general election. Every one of the special needs and disability lobbyists who have been involved in the issue over very many years will never forgive Conservative Members if they halt the Bill's progress.