Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: If there are 8.5 million disabled people in this country and we allow for a reasonable multiplier to account for their carers and family, 20 million people may be involved, which is between 30 and 40 per cent. of the population. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want to lose between 30 and 40 per cent. of his customers.

The Chairman: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman does not follow down that road.

Mr. Randall: I agree, Mr. O'Brien.

The point I am trying to make is that budgets in the private sector are limited, but much has been achieved under the 1995 Act. However, I am concerned about the LEA system and I have some experience of it. As the hon. Member for St. Ives said, when it is known that a contract emanates from an LEA, tenders do not always reflect the true market value. We all know what happens with public sector tenders, and there is often less flexibility.

Schools and LEAs may consider different ways of implementing provisions, and some schools, bearing in mind the pressure they are under, may try to say that it is for the LEA to fund the work while the LEA may say that it is for the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry made a valid point. There is consensus, and we do not want to impede the provisions, but we must have some idea of how they will be implemented.

There will also be local differences, and some areas will have many schools that are difficult to adapt. In the London borough of Hillingdon, some further education sites and listed buildings are being closed--although the provision will be continued--and sold to the private sector because the cost of converting them for accessibility is too high for the local authority. Local authorities must make difficult decisions.

The hon. Member for High Peak referred to lifts, which must be considered but which include a maintenance cost. Again, I know from experience of an old shop that the cost of installing and maintaining a lift is substantial and companies must budget for it. I do have concerns, and the problem must be considered. It is easy to say what we want when in Opposition, but it is up to the Government to fund it. We are suggesting an audit, so to speak, of what would be needed, so that the costs would be recognisable. I must point out a problem to my hon. Friend, however. I do not know what approach one would use in examining the costs. It would depend; tenders might be expected. We want to flag up our concern about the possibility of greater overall costs—or just to find out the implications of what is proposed.

Mr. Levitt: Given the inadequacies of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 it has been a pleasure this afternoon to hear the fervour of converts from the Opposition Benches. I am against the amendment, partly for the reasons explained by the hon. Member for St. Ives and partly for the reason just given by the hon. Member for Uxbridge. The first thing that an adaptability strategy needs is assessment of need. Need is independent of the availability of money. After assessing need, one must assess priorities and look for the easy-win parts of the strategy—those that can be implemented quickly, easily and cheaply. At that point one considers a time scale for implementing the rest. Those elements add up to an accessibility strategy, which is not initially dependent on cost.

It was right to table the amendment, and for us to debate the issue. For four years, before I came to the House, I advised local authorities on making services and information accessible to people with disabilities. I am only sorry that I shall not have the opportunity, in a few weeks' time, to return to that profession, which I enjoyed. If I learned one lesson, it was that the cost of getting things wrong is much greater than the cost of getting them right. It is very important that the right provision is set up, the right advice is taken and needs are tackled in the right way.

I would, although it would involve a cost, include in the access strategy an element of awareness training: disability awareness, deaf awareness and visual awareness training for staff. To pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley, I commend anyone who is building an infants school to visit Chapel-en-le-Frith infants school in my constituency. In my maiden speech, I condemned that school—well, I think that it had been condemned already—for its wholly inadequate buildings. On one side of the road was a rotting Victorian building and on the other were leaking 40-year-old huts.

Within six weeks of my coming here, the Department for Education and Employment wrote to me saying, ``Here is £1.75 million. Go and build a new school.'' It is an enhanced resource school, with a very big special needs department. There are children with disabilities in the school, and it was built with them in mind from the word go. Even the window sills are only about 2 ft from the floor, which means that the children can look out the window. That is almost unique in an infant school. The design is excellent because the requirements of the children—and in particular of special needs children—were kept in mind throughout.

My final point on accessibility strategies is that it is not only the children and further education students who benefit. In a few weeks' time, many schools will be used as polling stations in one election or another, and people who vote will benefit.

Mr. Randall: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about polling stations. In 1997 I was an election agent and discovered that quite a few polling stations in schools were not accessible. Also, five or six years ago, a local authority put up a nice structure on a sports ground, accessible for disabled people, with suitable toilets and so on. The only point at which those responsible forgot what they were about was when they put in a step. It is necessary to keep a careful eye on planning throughout, or there will be what can only be described as a cock-up.

Mr. Levitt: The hon. Gentleman is right. Scope reported after the previous two general elections on the non-accessibility of polling stations—often in schools. High Peak has always emerged well from those assessments. I was about to sit down, but I shall take another intervention.

Mr. Boswell: It would be useful to record that at least three members of the Committee—the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), the hon. Member for St. Ives, and I—participated yesterday at lunch time, just across the road, in launching the Polls Apart campaign on the accessibility of polling stations. It is an important campaign, and whatever action we can take may improve access to schools.

The Chairman: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not follow that trail.

Mr. Levitt: I shall sit down.

Ms Hodge: That useful exchange follows a lengthy debate on those matters when the clause was considered in another place, and those matters concern the disability rights task force a great deal. Sadly, the hon. Member for Uxbridge has left his seat, so I shall address my remarks to the hon. Member for St. Ives. We do not suggest that all schools should be accessible immediately. Everyone recognises that increased accessibility needs to be planned, which is why the Bill imposes those planning duties on LEAs. However, it must clearly be done within resources.

I can tell the hon. Member for Daventry that we are far from being coy. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak on the work that he has done on behalf of disabled people and his commitment to them as a Member of Parliament. The duties will start for schools in 2002; recognising the greater complexity in the post-16 sector, the basic duties will start in September 2002; the duties of auxiliary aids will start in 2003; and the changes to physical features for the post-16 sector will start in 2005. That is part of the sensible planning in which we are engaged.

The amendment is unnecessary because those planning to increase accessibility schools, including post-16 institutions, would need to bear in mind the resources available. With as many as 24,000 schools, and a huge range of post-16 institutions, and with no work having been done yet, it is difficult accurately to estimate the cost of securing total accessibility.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister is, of course, right in saying that schools would have to have regard to the resources available. Indeed, that might be a reasonable defence. Is it not implicit in some of the financial material embodied in the explanatory notes, that the Secretary of State should take an increasingly well-informed view on the overall cost to the sector, not least because from time to time he will have to speak with the Chancellor to obtain the necessary resources?

Ms Hodge: Our Secretary of State has been incredibly successful in securing resources for that and for other aspects. We are proud to have £220 million to spend during the coming three years on school access. I do not wish to bring politics into the arena, but we shall be spending 10 times as much on accessibility to school buildings as was spent in the last year of the previous Government. I can tell the hon. Member for Daventry that we could help future Secretaries of State in their negotiations with the Treasury. In guidance, we could underpin the duty to plan with a note that the plan should include the planning body's analysis of the costs. That might support the negotiations that would need to take place with the Treasury.

I can tell the several members of the Committee who have raised the subject that the recently published ``Within Reach'' report has given us a helpful steer. It will assist our continuing evaluation of the schools access initiative.

4 pm

It might help if hon. Members understood some distinctions. Within the context of reasonable adjustments that restrict or inform schools' duties, schools will not be required to make adjustments for physical features when they deal with individual children who want to exercise their rights under disability discrimination legislation. The physical adjustments will come through the planning duty on LEAs. That is part of the increasing accessibility over time that is tied in with our plans.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak referred to the sort of measures that schools will have to take. They will include adjusting timetabling of disabled students' lessons, ensuring that those who use wheelchairs have their lessons on the ground floor and do not have to go to the top floor if there is no lift, and ensuring that library books are brought to them if the library is inaccessible.

 
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