Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Jacqui Smith: As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the amendment seeks to ensure that LEAs publicise their parent partnership services in ways that take account of the importance of securing a fair and informed choice of school for children with special educational needs. However, I hope to convince hon. Members that the amendment is unnecessary.

The Government believe that such partnerships, set up on a statutory basis, should provide parents with information that allows them to make a fair and informed choice about the school that their child will attend. However, parent partnership services will also be expected to provide information and advice about a wide range of other special educational needs matters.

Parents must be informed about the wide range of options available to them, so that they can make the right decision about their children's placement. That is why LEAs already have a duty, when a proposed statement is issued, to provide parents with information about non-maintained schools. Schedule 27 to the Education Act 1996 provides that LEAs must give written notice containing prescribed information before a statement is issued. That information is described in regulation 12 and part A of the schedule to the Education (Special Educational Needs) Regulations 1994. It currently includes a list of the non-maintained special schools that make special educational provision for pupils with special educational needs in England and Wales, and a list of independent schools in England and Wales that are approved as suitable for the admission of children with statements of special educational needs.

I assure the Committee that we intend to ensure that parents continue to receive information about independent schools and non-maintained special schools. Indeed, we intend to go further by placing a duty on LEAs to provide such information when they propose to amend the school or type of school in a child's statement.

The hon. Member for Daventry suggested that he was concerned that parent partnership services might seek to promote only one option and that parents might be discouraged from seeking a special school or non-maintained place for their child. That would be totally unacceptable. The role of parent partnerships is to disseminate accurate information on the range of options available to help parents make informed decisions for themselves. In addition to the measures that I have outlined, I can repeat the assurance given in the other place that these measures will form part of the minimum standards for parent partnership services, which will be set out in the revised code of practice. LEAs must have regard to the statutory guidance in the code, which will set out the minimum standards that we will expect all parent partnership services to deliver. The Secretary of State can use his powers under sections 496, 497 and 497A of the Education Act 1996 to intervene where LEAs are acting unreasonably, and these powers should help to ensure that LEAs fulfil their duties in respect of parent partnership services. In the light of those assurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the Minister for those assurances. Just as she does not like to accept amendments that she regards as unnecessary, I do not like to press votes that I think are not essential. However, the Minister must keep an eye on the matter. As she said, it will be clear to everyone, through guidance and the inspection process, that the matter must be treated in good faith.

Mr. Hayes: I mentioned earlier, but perhaps it is worth repeating, that when Baroness Warnock produced her report on these matters, she referred, in paragraph 3 of chapter 5, to the provision of a handbook for parents, which would describe all the options open to them. The current law suggests that LEAs should provide lists of options, and, of course, parent partnerships will provide fuller information, but perhaps the Minister would consider the idea of a handbook as a means of satisfying our demands, to which I am sure that she is sympathetic.

Mr. Boswell: That was a characteristically constructive suggestion. In these days of information technology and desktop publishing, a handbook could be revised and kept up to date very quickly.

Mr. Hayes: An electronic handbook, perhaps?

Mr. Boswell: That may be, though some of us would need a printed version in order to read it effectively. However, I am not suggesting that parents should not have it in that format. Much could be done. There is a common interest in improving the situation and, indeed, in exposing local authority practice, if it is less than ideal.

I took great interest in and some comfort from the Minister's reference, for the second time, to clauses 495-497 of the Education Act 1996, relating to the Minister's power to intervene on local education authorities that resort to, what I might loosely call, monkey business. It is important that we should look into that a little more. It has relevance to coming events and to how matters should be conducted in future. I am sure that the Committee agrees that we need to secure good practice and that local authorities will rightly have slightly different approaches but that they must all discharge a proper minimum standard to be fair to parents and, in the long run, to advance the cause of education and of local authorities, because proper provision must be right all round. That said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Resolution of disputes

11.15 am

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 4, line 20, after `authority', insert `, acting in good faith,'.

The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 9, in page 4, line 27, at end insert

    `and the authority must make that right clear to parents in advance of any procedure under this section.'.

Mr. Boswell: We are now motoring, as we should. The amendments are entirely consistent with our previous debate, albeit in a slightly different context. They concern the resolution of disputes. It must be right to look for mediation, not litigation—a simple answer—where possible. I need only make clear—as the Government have already suggested—that that should not remove parents' statutory rights. Amendment No. 9 makes it clear that there should be no attempt to cover up those rights. Amendment. No. 8 concerns an authority ``acting in good faith''—for precisely the reasons that I rehearsed in relation to advice and information.

To go back to Churchill's phrase, we want ``jaw-jaw'' rather than ``war-war''. Parents of children with special educational needs have enough difficulties without having to go through a protracted process. We have already said enough to suggest that the intervention of the lawyers, although occasionally necessary, is not always desirable. I hope that we will approach the matter in that spirit.

Let me refer to something a little more contemporary than a Prime Minister of more than 50 years ago. The experience of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service in dealing with industrial disputes and individual employment tribunals has been helpful and constructive. As the Minister will know, I have experience of legislation in that area. In the guidance, there may well be suggestion that LEAs and ACAS run alongside one another; they may learn lessons from each other. Of course, there are other exemplary mediation services. The Law Society is taking an interest in the matter. It is not always best for cases to come to tribunal or court, but that cuts both ways. There is not only an obligation on the parents to discuss the resolution of disputes but an obligation on the authority—which the amendments are intended to secure—to act in good faith. It contains the experts who deal with the matter day to day; the parents are not the experts, but are the lay party, directly involved, who must be properly treated and given all the information about their legal rights as well as the opportunity of a sensible and informal resolution of their problems.

Mr. Hayes: I want to set my hon. Friend's remarks in context. First, for the sake of accuracy—I know that my hon. Friend would not want any inaccuracy to remain on the record—Winston Churchill ceased to be Prime Minister rather less than 50 years ago.

Mr. Boswell: I am delighted that my hon. Friend was paying such close attention to my words. At the time of my reference, Winston Churchill was talking about the need to go to war, and I was thinking of his period as the wartime Prime Minister, rather than his post-war Government.

The Chairman: Order. We seem to be drifting from the amendment.

Mr. Hayes: Thank you, Mr. O'Brien. You have brought us back up to date, as you always do.

The context in which I want to place my hon. Friend's remarks is one that pervades much experience of hon. Members of the matter. It is best summed up by anecdote. I know of parents who feel bamboozled and disadvantaged. They feel that in trying to obtain the best deal for their special needs child they have entered an esoteric world in which they may feel that they are not always treated with appropriate sensitivity and where they may not always have the impression that their views are given sufficient weight. That is not uniformly true, and I do not think that anyone desires it. However, it is the experience of many parents of children with special needs.

We need, in a sense, to overcompensate in favour of parents when it comes to resolving disputes and disagreements about provision. The Committee has a responsibility to understand the vulnerability of not only the children but the whole family when faced with such difficult and life-changing choices. That is the context in which I want to place the very proper remarks of my hon. Friend.

 
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