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9.25 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): The debate has been fascinating and was enlivened by a range of distinguished contributions. I sat through nearly all the proceedings missing only, I think, the speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne). I found myself sympathising with many of the points made, not least--if I may say so without invidiousness--those by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg). There has been a leitmotif--I do not know why--that has cast the Opposition in the role of the bad guys because we have dared to move a reasoned amendment. The hon. Lady will appreciate that it is outwith my power to bestow a last minute change of heart, even at her blandishment. Perhaps the usual channels will reflect on the possibility that were we not to proceed with our reasoned amendment, they might drop their programme motion.

The implication is that we are not acting in good faith, yet the Government are requiring us to conclude the Bill's consideration in Committee by 5 April. I do not think that we can have a full discussion about the proper issues unless we put down a marker of dissent and then persist in that dissent by tabling amendments in Committee. Incidentally, that is the role of the Opposition and part of the democratic process. I will award a small prize--not, of course, a pecuniary one--to any Labour Member who is prepared to tell me when the Government have been defeated in the past four years as a result of an Opposition amendment on Second Reading. If they are as worried as they say, it makes me wonder whether they are beginning to run scared of the fate that they will shortly meet.

The debate has been good natured, for all the noises off. It has been informed by passion and commitment on both sides of the Chamber to the cause of special education in its widest sense. In general, hon. Members who contributed felt for children with special educational needs, their parents and--this was eloquently put--their teachers and those who resource them.

The Opposition approach the Bill with three general principles in mind. First, there

Those were the words of my noble Friend Baroness Blatch on Second Reading. That has been our consistent position, and it remains so.

Secondly, I have no objection in principle to inclusion as such. There are plenty of excellent examples of inclusion in secondary schools and some rural primary

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schools in my constituency. I have also seen some good examples of what one might loosely call blended provision. For example, a primary school near my constituency, to which some of my constituents send their children, perfectly blends dedicated special provision with other provision. If we were really in the business of the third way, we could follow that example rather than others that I might suggest another time.

Looking at the legislative framework, I consider the Education Act 1996, which consolidated measures and is the basis on which the Bill amends provisions. It reflects legislation that I helped to pass through the House when I had just become a Minister late in 1992. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) will remember debating it. Looking back, I was surprised to find it is a little stronger on inclusion than I remembered it to be. We should say that there is no ideological objection to inclusion, nor is there any objection in principle to the extension of disability rights. Much has been said about why education was not incorporated in the 1996 Act. There were difficulties, including those with resources, which have cropped up in other areas, and the attitude of vice-chancellors, who might not have taken kindly to what they saw as an imposition on their territory and academic freedom.

Leaving aside the judgment that was made at that time, we can say that for a variety of reasons, such as good leadership in the Disability Rights Commission, which we also support, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has bedded down and shown that it can work without unduly disturbing consequences, so this is an appropriate time to extend it to education. However, enough has been said tonight to make it clear that even if the Bill is not party politically controversial, there is a good deal to discuss and argue about.

I, too, met the Gloucestershire parents and children from Alderman Knight school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), and I realise that they feel very strongly. I understand that 32,000 people have signed a petition to the LEA in protest at what is being proposed for that school.

There is controversy, and the place to deal with it is here. Clearly, the Bill has already been improved by detailed scrutiny in another place. In fact, if I may mix my metaphors, the walls of Jericho fell without a shot having been fired because the Government withdrew the objectionable proposal to replace the word "specify" in the proposed code on statements with the words "set out". We felt that the original proposed change was unacceptable, and the Government withdrew the proposal before it was ever debated.

A good deal has been done by noble Lords from different parties to put the Bill right, but that does not absolve us--or, dare I say, with respect, Ministers--from the task of taking it through Committee in this place and considering it properly on its merits. It is in that spirit that we tabled the reasoned amendment on which we will invite the House to divide. Principally, it highlights our concern that the educational interests of the child should come first.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) said--I particularly noted this phrase--coercive social inclusion could be counter-productive. The principle of putting the child first is surely unexceptionable in all quarters of the House and

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occasionally even begins to stray into the speech of Ministers; yet that principle or caveat is apparently being deleted because it is alleged, even by the Special Educational Consortium, to which we have talked, to have damaged the interests of children. The idea that removing a right makes it easier to uphold that right is counter-intuitive. Even if we are wrong, the matter needs to be properly debated. We have all heard flip political statements, notably from current Ministers, in which the phrase, "I have no intention of" means "I will". In all events, we need to consider the apparent mismatch between principle and practice.

Our second concern relates to the implied agenda for tilting the balance of special education towards inclusion only. We believe that if parents and children are to exercise an informed choice, they need a range of providers in which to exercise that choice. If, for example, an LEA has closed all its special schools--a case in London was cited--there is simply no choice. An LEA in a rural, dispersed shire such as my own may have special schools grouped in inconvenient places that might be as much as 30 or 40 miles away from the residence of the child concerned, so there is no effective choice.

If the local education authority fights consistently in principle against referring pupils out of area, whether to maintained or, if appropriate, independent special schools, there is at best a restricted choice. Alternatively, an LEA could be driven--possibly by tacit resource complaints--to opt for inclusion on the cheap, with a fanfare of trumpets to say how modern it is being, but without proper resourcing or teacher training in mainstream schools.

Having commented earlier on the schools access initiative, I must point out that it is not only the capital side that matters, as the report has shown. The back-up with current expenditure and the resourcing of teachers and curriculum access also matter. If that proper resourcing cannot be provided, the choice left to parents is an unappealing one.

I am particularly concerned about reviews. When counties such as Gloucestershire, about which we have heard a great deal today, or my own county of Northamptonshire, which has given rise to a little apprehension, review their provision, they might be doing so not out of a genuine concern to reappraise, improve or--dare I say--modernise the pattern of provision. They might be following a hidden agenda.

The problem with hidden agendas is that we never know what they are until it is too late to do anything about them. Such a hidden agenda as I have described could reflect the fact that either the accountants or the ideologues have been sent in to wipe out the special schools. It would be welcome if Ministers could calm our fears, but those points will need careful examination before we can go out and say that, after all, it is all clear and there is no danger. However, I fear that there is danger, in some cases.

Beyond those issues, there is still a great deal more in the Bill to talk about. A matter that I have already raised implicitly was also raised in another place by my noble Friend Lord Baker of Dorking, who said eloquently, with the authority of an ex-Secretary of State, that there was a problem with resources. It is self-evident that if inclusion

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is to be properly resourced, it will be an expensive matter. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) spoke eloquently about that earlier.

Mr. Willis indicated assent.

Mr. Boswell: I note that the hon. Gentleman is now nodding in agreement with what I have said.

It is incontestable that the number of children with statements has risen sharply as a proportion of total pupil numbers. There has been an increase of about 25 per cent. over five years, compared with an overall increase of only 5 per cent. in pupil numbers during that time. The cost directly attributable to statements--only a small proportion of the overall cost of special needs--rose in the comparable period from £290 million annually to £370 million.

On the wider expenditure front, the Audit Commission has estimated that 15 per cent. of the total spend on education is allocated to special educational needs. Dr. John Marks, working on a wider definition, has suggested a spend of roughly double that percentage. In any event, we need greater transparency in the delivery of provision. We also need to ensure that the resources earmarked for special educational needs go through and end up with the children, about whom we all say we care most.

I shall not let this occasion pass without referring to the comments in the brief provided by the National Union of Teachers, which states:

those provisions. The NUT has also expressed concern about the need to obtain an assurance in the House of Commons

It has been suggested that opposition to the Bill has disappeared. However, I must say in all seriousness to Ministers that there are still concerns about many points. Those concerns need to be raised and to be answered. With respect to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South, I should not like the disability clauses to pass without further comment. I am not a real lawyer but a lawyer manque, and have always taken a certain interest in human rights and judicial review issues.

It is remarkable and a little disturbing that, in a different context, the Royal National Institute for the Blind has pointed out that many thousands of cases under part II of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 have already been taken to tribunals, which are the recourse under that provision, but the number of cases involving breaches or alleged breaches of part III duties, although they cannot quite be counted on the fingers of one hand, are under 50, as they have to go to court. Having a background in further and higher education, I am disturbed by the fact that such students, although they have the same nominal rights as school pupils, have to take their cases to court, not the tribunal, as school students do.

The point is made even more sharply if we consider the case of identical twins with identical special educational needs who are over 16, the statutory school-leaving age. One might remain in school and avail himself of rights

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which he could press at a tribunal; the other, after leaving school, might go to further education college and would have to assert his rights in court. That amounts to a functional discrimination which, in turn, may well find its way to the courts, when decisions and situations are well traced by legal experts.

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