Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Several Labour Committee members have campaigned on this issue for many years. I am sure that I speak for all of us when I say that we are immensely proud to have been selected for the Committee, and that we should like to see the Bill become law without any hesitation. If the hon. Member for Daventry thinks that his party will be in government in a few weeks' time, it will not be so much a dream team as a ``dream on'' team.

The Chairman: Order. Let us leave the canvassing and campaigning until later.

Mr. Levitt: That was the point I wanted to make, except to say that Labour Members recall that on Second Reading the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends supported an amendment that would have killed this Bill. We must view our debates in that context.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I just want to put on record that while, on the surface, the motion of the Programming Sub-Committee may seem generous in allowing the Committee to sit on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, it is against the usual practice of the House for a Standing Committee to meet on consecutive days. Many hon. Members need time to deal with constituency matters, especially during the foot and mouth crisis. Therefore, we shall probably not take up the full allocation of time. I understand the reason for the motion, and I also note that we have to bring the proceedings to a conclusion at 5 o'clock on Thursday 5 April rather than 7 o'clock. There may be speculation as to why that might be the case. However, I do not feel that such a timetable is helpful. It does not allow amendments to be tabled or properly considered, and it does not give us a chance to speak to relevant interest groups. It is not, therefore, a practice that we would be happy to see in future Committees.

10.45 am

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): During debate on the programming motion on the Floor of the House a few days ago, we made the point that, because the Bill has the support, in principle, of all parties, there is little point in having such a programming motion. I hope that the Minister will now deal with that point, which was not properly addressed during that 45-minute debate.

Only yesterday, a member of an interest group rang me to say that she had not realised how quickly the Bill was to pass all its stages in the House of Commons. Her interest group wanted amendments made to clause 1, and I had to explain that, unfortunately, we were already on clause 1—or we will be this morning—and given the time constraints it may not be possible to consider those amendments. We are sometimes hermetically sealed in the House of Commons political process and do not realise how long it takes for those outside who may be affected by legislation to wake up to what is going on. People have often approached me—and, no doubt, other hon. Members—to ask what stage a Bill has reached only to be told that, because of the speed with which the Government force legislation through the House, we have already passed the point at which issues could be clarified or a clause modestly amended to make its meaning clear.

I hope that we will have a concise debate, as there are many issues to discuss. As my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) said, we do not need to sit on so many days, because it will be even harder for those with points to raise to prepare amendments in time. We did not need this programming motion. For once, the Government should have trusted to the good instincts of hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1

Education in mainstream schools of children with special educational needs

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 9, at end insert—

    `(1A)For each such child the Secretary of State has a duty to make arrangements to secure that the educational needs of that child are paramount.'.

The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to consider the following: amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 14, leave out from `parent' to end of line 15.

New clause 1—Duty of education providers—

    `.—It shall be the duty of all providers of education under the provisions of this Act and of all professions and ancillary agencies providing services in connection with special educational needs to have regard to—

    (a) the educational needs of the particular child; and

    (b) the need for partnership working in order to ensure efficient and appropriate educational outcomes.'.

Mr. Boswell: We now come to the meat of the Bill. It may not have been appropriate to mention it when discussing the programming motion, but I welcome the Minister's announcement this morning of additional supportive software and equipment for children in school. I have taken some interest in that area and, as occasionally happens, without making a public fuss about it, I have corresponded with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who deals with technology, about some especially interesting material that I came across. There is a huge opportunity in that area, and I hope that we shall continue to exploit and develop those opportunities collectively, whoever is returned to government in due course.

In moving amendment No. 1, with which in your wisdom, Mr. O'Brien, we are considering amendment No. 2 and new clause 1, I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I reverse the order. I said that we have a dream team on the Conservative Benches. The exigencies of time and numbers—and, indeed, the Opposition's size—have on this occasion not permitted the selection of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who is a tremendous contributor on education matters and did us a great deal of good and amused us on the Committee considering the Learning and Skills Act 2000. If he were here, he would no doubt say, in the best classical tradition, that I was making a preposterous suggestion—putting the cart before the horse—by starting with the new clause. However, I should like to refine, from some general considerations, the single issue that we regard as the central piece of unfinished business in the Bill: the rights of the child.

I want to draw out two matters from the new clause. First, it would create a duty on education providers, whether in the maintained or non-maintained sectors, and on all those associated with providing SEN services to have regard to

    ``(a) the educational needs of the particular child; and

    (b) the need for partnership working in order to ensure efficient and appropriate educational outcomes.''

I shall pause on that point for a moment, because it would add another element to the Bill. The Government say that they are strong on joined-up government, and partnership and co-operation. Oddly enough, I am not against any of those. That may be because I am, as I occasionally point out, one of the relatively few Members who was born on a co-operative farm, although it was not a Co-operative Wholesale Society farm.

More seriously, we do not always have the special educational needs provision that we want. I have no direct experience of being a parent of a child with special needs, but many of us know constituents or others who have such experience. Those parents face many difficulties, as was well put to me not long ago in a meeting in Essex, which as the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Barking, knows is my native county. At that meeting, a parent of a child with SEN, who was at a special school, said that such parents were not worried by and could cope with the disability or impairment, and that their problem was with the second round—the wrestling with the local education authority to obtain the required resources. We have no immediate solutions. In our hearts, we all know that that is a continuing problem. We want to ease it and find ways round it.

If I may be allowed an algebraic illustration, I shall call one of the ways in which the issue arises the Venn diagram problem. Apart from speech therapists and educational psychologists, others may be called in on physical disabilities that are not specifically the special educational need, but are associated with it. Those people have a tangential or peripheral interest in the subject. There is often a shortage of resources. For example, speech therapy services are under pressure, as they are required not only at the paediatric end, but for stroke victims and others. Such resources need to be commissioned and put in place, and we must try to fit provisions together. There should be a proper assessment of the special needs of the child in question, and how they should best be met and provided for. If appropriate, a statement or some other understanding should be issued.

The subject is complex, and no one would contend with the idea that it is sensitive for the parents. The problem is to join up the various bits. I hope that there will be good and constructive relationships with the LEA and its special needs team, and between the school or education provider and the special needs co-ordinator and education team in each school. However, even if that is the case, for the want of a nail the battle can be lost—some other essential factor may not be in place. Someone else might have some budget that does not enter into the equation because it is not committed to the problem.

As constituency Members of Parliament, many of us will be familiar with such Venn diagram situations, in which two interests come together. We have to write letters—often to chief executives, in an attempt to scare—saying that we do not mind who sorts the problem out, but that social services and the health authority should be brought together to do so. Often on special needs provision, we must ensure that the bits work together. There should not be lip service about partnership working, but a positive commitment to its delivery. That does not always happen.

The problem is not limited to what might be termed a responsive approach to the needs of a particular child, although our new clause 1(a) requires an obligation to consider that. A more general point is set out in new clause 1(b), which is that we need to consider the importance of partnership working as a natural and proactive activity. In my experience of the official world, at local authority or agency level as well as nationally, people do not try deliberately to subvert children's interests—that would be absurd, inappropriate and unfair. None the less, agencies have their own agendas, and a catalyst is often required to bring them together in the interests of the child. It is the child who matters most, and we must ensure that all parts of the equation fit together to produce the right outcome, rather than resulting in a series of ragged ends, with parts that do not function properly or deliver the right service.

In a sense, this is code and circular territory, and we shall need to discuss at a later stage how it will all work. I invite the Minister to take my remarks as general aspirations, and to tell the Committee what she would like to happen as good practice. I also invite her to reflect specifically on whether including such a provision in statute—even if it breaks her no amendment rule—would at least encourage the various players to get into the habit of working together.

Amendment No. 2 might surprise Committee members. The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) has already twitted us about our position on Second Reading, but if he seriously thought that our reasoned amendment would be accepted on Second Reading, he must hold a particular view about the current situation in the House of Commons. Perhaps he knows his hon. Friends better than I do, or perhaps he anticipated a revolt. I notice that the Government Whip is out of the Room, so all bets may be off.

While I am on the subject of Whips, and if I may briefly depart monstrously from order, I should like to say how sorry I was to hear of the death of Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, reported in this morning's press. He was a good friend—even Whips are human.

It was important to register our concerns on Second Reading, although it was unlikely that they would pull down the Bill. If they had, a new Conservative Government would reintroduce the legislation briskly and early to ensure that it went on to the statute book in better shape than the Bill is in.

As I have said, people might be surprised by our proposal in amendment No. 2 to delete one of the two remaining caveats in section 316—I apologise to new visitors for using such technical language. The amendment would leave out the caveat relating to

    ``the provision of efficient education for other children.''

Some of my colleagues may wish to say more about that. I also want to say something about the paramountcy of the education of the child, but mine is a probing amendment, tabled in the hope that the Government will explain why they believe it necessary to retain the caveat. I understand—indeed, for the avoidance of doubt, I warmly support—the other caveat about parental choice. That is an essential human right. Were we not constrained by time, we could debate whether parents adequately represent the interests of their children, an interesting question that was touched on in another place.

I want to highlight two areas. One is the impact of one child on another in a mainstream setting, to which the entitlement is extended by the removal of other caveats. The second is the question of resources. At present, although I do not promise that I shall not feel an amendment coming on—that may well depend on the Minister's response—no specific amendment has yet been tabled with respect to resources. Still, there is a heavy commitment.

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