Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: I have been following the hon. Lady's arguments with interest and a degree of anticipation. Will she explain to the Committee why such difficulties, which must inhere in the local education authority, would be excised by removal of the caveat? What safeguards will there be for the individual child because of the removal of that caveat? Even if she waves her magic wand and asks for an inclusion policy, how will it emerge in practice? I am referring to the need for redress when LEAs are recalcitrant.

5.30 pm

Jacqui Smith: Clause 1 sends an important positive message about inclusion. The point about recalcitrant LEAs relates more to efficient education. Our proposals will mean that maintained schools and LEAs will have to justify why no reasonable steps could be taken to prevent a child's inclusion from being incompatible with the efficient education of other children. I hope that that is an adequate response to the concerns expressed by some hon. Members about whether LEAs would be able to use the caveat of efficient education to deprive children of a mainstream place when their parents want it.

Mr. Boswell: These are important issues and it is right to discuss them. Is the measure to which the Minister referred tied to the general duties of LEAs in relation to disability discrimination as laid out in this Bill, rather than to the SEN provisions? I am not clear as to how those two different aspects interact.

Jacqui Smith: We will go on to consider the duties of LEAs and schools in relation to reasonable adjustments and the duty to plan when we discuss the second part of the Bill.

Concern has been expressed whether the efficient education caveat can be used to deprive a child of a mainstream place. Our argument is that the Bill ensures that LEAs will have to justify their inability to take reasonable steps if they use that caveat. The clause transforms section 316 into a positive force for inclusion.

Some Members have suggested that our plans are intended to save money and create inclusion on the cheap. Others have raised sensible concerns about whether resources are available to fulfil the aim of the legislation. We are clear that inclusion is not related to cutting costs; that is why we have already pledged and made available significant additional resources to facilitate the inclusion of children in mainstream schools in a meaningful way, delivering the high standards of educational achievement that we want for those children.

I repeat that £82 million is being made available through the standards fund for 2001-02 and £220 million is being made available over the next three years through the schools access initiative, in addition to increased overall funding for schools. It is worth pointing out that under this Government, real terms increases in overall funding per pupil have been more than £300 per pupil already and, by 2003-04, they will amount to nearly £750 per pupil, in comparison with 1997-98.

Mr. Boswell: We are fairly used to the rehearsal of figures by Ministers who are trying to show how generous they have been to education. May I bring the Minister back to the specific point about LEAs? Insofar as they have additional duties and obligations under the Bill, will she give an assurance that the revenue support grant will be adjusted to take into account additional current costs in discharging those duties?

Jacqui Smith: I was pointing out that we have not only put in place specific support for some of the issues raised today but, through the significant extra funding that we have already made available and planned to put into schools, ensured that resources will be there to enable the sort of high-quality and inclusive education that we all want.

The hon. Gentleman might not enjoy hearing me rehearse the extra money that the Government have made available to schools, but it is important to emphasise that the increase in funding has not just been made through revenue funding. We must also consider capital spending over and above the schools access initiative, including public finance initiative credits. As I pointed out on Second Reading, the overall increase in capital spending has often improved special educational needs facilities in schools as well.

I do not completely agree with the hon. Gentleman's argument that capital funding always brings additions to revenue funding. In some cases, sensible capital funding may help to relieve pressures on revenue funding. Some £1.35 billion of additional provision has been included in the standard spending assessment for 2002-03, showing that the Government are serious about raising standards for all children, including those with special educational needs, regardless of whether they are in mainstream or special schools. As I also pointed out on Second Reading, funding per pupil in special schools has increased by 20 per cent. in real terms between 1997-98 and 2000-01.

Dr. Harris: The Minister must accept that, however generous the Government have been, they have not provided an answer. Simply to state how much money they have given does not relieve concern about whether it will be enough. Had the sum been £181 million rather than £221 million, she would still have announced it, even though it was £40 million less. I am sure that the sum is generous in her terms, but she must be aware of concern that some estimates of the cost of the measures exceed the sum that she gave. It is the potential gap rather than sum that counts.

Jacqui Smith: It is my job to understand such points. In any such situation, Opposition Members will raise the issue of resources. We live in a world in which local authorities and schools have had extra resources provided by the Government. They faced cuts under the previous Government, and under Conservative spending plans, face cuts again if the Conservatives ever get back into government. That is the reality that I seek to demonstrate.

Mr. St. Aubyn: The Minister must know that funding for education must keep pace with growth in the economy because, broadly speaking, teachers' salaries need to rise in line with inflation.

The Chairman: Order. We are broadening the issue much too much by talking of teachers' salaries and revenue support grants. I have been tolerant, but I want the Minister to deal with the points raised in the amendment.

Jacqui Smith: I shall come to the point raised by some hon. Members about the threat that the Bill might pose to special schools. It has been suggested that inclusion is an agenda to close many special schools. I am keen to put it on record, yet again, that that is not the case. Special schools have nothing to fear from the Bill. We seek to ensure excellence and choice for all.

I have visited several special schools, and have been impressed by what I have seen. Some of the heads and teachers whom I met told me that they did not feel threatened by the development of inclusion, and instead knew that they had a continuing vital role to play in an inclusive educational system. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) has already pointed out how such schools can operate. Along, I am sure, with other hon. Members, I pass on my congratulations to the school that he mentioned, the name of which temporarily escapes me.

Mr. Levitt: Horton Lodge.

Jacqui Smith: I thank my hon. Friend. That school is clearly doing exactly the sort of job in its links with mainstream schools that the Government consider important.

The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) appeared to agree that the role that we envisage for special schools by developing such links is important. Does he recognise that special and mainstream schools are better able to work together because of the Government's investment through the standards fund? Last year, I was pleased to launch the CD-Rom ``Connecting Schools for Inclusion'', which not only expresses the wish for but provides the practical means by which schools can work together.

I have dealt with some of the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, but I must reiterate that there will continue to be changes to local provision to reflect local circumstances; that has always been the case.

Mr. St. Aubyn: If the Minister is about to close her remarks, I hope that she will not do so without answering my questions about the cost of funding disputes under the system and how that will be affected by the Bill.

Jacqui Smith: Unfortunately, I am not yet drawing my remarks to a close, much to the chagrin of the Government Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). I shall make some progress.

The size of the special school sector dropped from 1.3 per cent. of all pupils in 1991 to 1.2 per cent. in 1995. It has remained constant during each of the past six years, catering for 1.2 per cent. of all children. We do not envisage that that will change dramatically. We have a buoyant, vibrant specialist school sector, which is what the Government want.

Mr. Hayes: Will the Minister give way?

Jacqui Smith: No, I will make some progress.

Amendment No. 1 provides that the educational needs of individual pupils—presumably children with special educational needs—are paramount. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon pointed out some of the problems with that. Presumably, that would mean that their need would override any other considerations. Although it is important to meet the needs of children with special educational needs, it cannot be right that their needs should always override those of other children. I do not believe that that is what Conservative members of the Committee want, but it would be the effect of the amendment.

Ensuring that individual needs are paramount also presents a number of practical difficulties. What does the hon. Member for Daventry envisage would happen when the needs of two children conflicted? Whose needs would then be paramount? The individual needs of children must be balanced alongside the wider needs of different groups of children. That is the only way in which the interests of all children can be protected.

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