Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Andrew George: Will the Minister elucidate a little more on the responsibilities of the LEAs? I am concerned that certain LEAs may want to resist pushing forward with accessibility plans, because they have other priorities or simply cannot be bothered. To do so, they might deliberately inflate the costs of accessibility. What methods will be used to ensure that the estimated costs of accessibility plans for specific schools are realistic, and are not inflated to suppress development?

Ms Hodge: The Secretary of State will have the power or duty—I am not sure which—to assess those plans. That will give us one mechanism. Another is Ofsted, which will be involved in assessing accessibility to school buildings as a result of an amendment agreed in another place.

We have never suggested that no costs are related to the duties, or that we have a clear view of how far they extend. However, we are clear about wanting to increase accessibility. We have made extra resources available and will have to review them over time. Some of the costs are explained in the regulatory impact assessment and the explanatory notes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley raised the important point that the planning process was a way in which sensible decisions could be made, so we did not need the amendment to inform or restrict the process. That process will ensure that we will proceed with the augmentation of accessibility to school buildings at appropriate times when resources are available.

Before I move on, I want to deal with some issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, who made a massive contribution when he had responsibility for educational issues as a Welsh Minister before devolution. It is worth mentioning the great advances in accessibility that have been made in Wales, although, interestingly, it has not had a separate schools access initiative. LEAs in Wales have been able to draw on significant additional resources from the Assembly's new deal moneys and the additional capital funding for schools programme. Also, the additional £85 million allocated from 2001-02 to 2003-04 for school building has provided £300 million for schools in Wales for those three years.

The Assembly has also significantly increased, in absolute and percentage terms, the money available for special educational needs priorities under its GEST programme—grants for education, support and training. So there is much to celebrate about the way that these issues have been progressed in Wales, and I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend for his role in that.

We must take a commonsense approach to the issue. Schools will have to plan according to the resources available to them. They will be under a duty to implement their plans, so they will have to make sure that they plan only for what they can deliver. It would be wrong for us to be prescriptive in telling schools how to go about the planning process. They will need to prioritise and allocate resources according to those priorities.

I have already referred to the schools access initiative and the £220 million that we have made available. I add, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Daventry, that, year on year, we are increasing the revenue moneys available not only for education, but as a direct allocation to schools to enable them to meet their priorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak said that accessibility was not just about physical access to high buildings, but about access to the curriculum. That is a key part of ensuring that the rights of disabled children in schools are upheld. That is why I am proud of the extra money that we have been able to put into the standards fund. We have a record expenditure level of £26 million this year, much of which goes on training and development for teachers to ensure that they are sensitive to the needs of disabled children. This year's expenditure is greater than last year's, and next year, expenditure will increase to £30 million from the overall special educational needs standards fund of £84 million. That will be spent on SEN training, so that LEAs will be free to spend more. We also should never forget that, nowadays, every governing body has greater freedom to choose how to allocate its budget share.

I am conscious that the Committee has worked hard this afternoon, but I want to mention another issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak. Accessibility, both to the school and to the curriculum, is often about much more than resources. I refer to it endlessly when I speak about disability issues, in the House and elsewhere. It is crucial that we change attitudes and culture. Even in discussions with teachers and head teachers, it is clear that we have a long way to go to change attitudes and cultures. People need to think about their attitudes and misconceptions. A little change in attitude, without any money at all, can make all the difference to an individual child's ability to develop his or her full potential and have equality of opportunity in the system. The ``Within Reach'' report made some important findings about attitudes towards including pupils, especially those with physical and sensory impairments. We are conscious of the improvements that have been made, but we equally conscious that there is a long way to go—and probably a long way to go among Members of Parliament to understand how unthinkingly we often discriminate against disabled people or impede their full participation in society simply by what we do or how we behave. Inclusion and accessibility do not demand resources but we must work on them.

In conclusion, the amendment is unnecessary and I ask the hon. Member for Daventry to withdraw it. I am grateful to the Committee for the informed debate that we have had this afternoon.

Mr. Boswell: May I start on a note of consensus by saying that I could not agree more with what the Minr said in her conclusion about attitudes to disability issues. If she wants to form a road show to go round the country to say such things in tune, we shall join her. I often say that the most important adjustments are not physical but mental or psychological—people becoming alert to the needs of disabled people who, let us remember, are people first and have a disability second. It is a question of how to deal with them, to meet their commercial needs, as the exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge suggested, and to treat them as fully participating members of society. All that need not cost any money to start with, but there is a fall-out from it.

Like the Minister, I welcome the tone of the debate; realistically, we will not have a precise figure at any one moment. As she says, when an LEA is planning an individual institution or an accessibility strategy, it must have regard to the level of resources available and may spread the process over time. There are real merits in integration, and I was especially pleased that the Minister mentioned that individual plans could have costs attached; that is realistic. However, there is also an important undertow—from my experience in my constituency of building works funded by schools' capital, people see one coming. If there is a local authority flavour to a tender, up it goes. I shall not go on about that, but it is terribly important that we get as much done in the most economical way that we can; the debate has been helpful for that.

I am conscious of a slight error of omission, which may have occurred because the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) is not in Committee this afternoon. Having talked about the Polls Apart initiative, in which three of us participated, it was quite wrong of me not to mention that the hon. Lady came to give a Scottish flavour to the proceedings—not that a general election is anything other than a United Kingdom election. We all joined in, as we should.

Although resources are always the subject of political contention, trying to find the most sensible way forward for disability access to the services in the widest sense that schools provide is what we are all about. We have had a good rehearsal of the matter; we have had some new insights; we have some helpful responses from the Minister. Things may not be as easy as she hopes; there will be thrills, spills, and even shortages of cash ahead, but we are all pointed in the same direction. Having explained our general attitude to the disability provisions of the Bill earlier, I will not spoil things by pressing for a Division. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 15 and 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Betts.]

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Four o'clock till Tuesday 3 April at half half-past Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
O'Brien, Mr. Bill (Chairman)
Barnes, Mr.
Benn, Mr. Hilary
Betts, Mr.
Boswell, Mr.
Ennis, Mr.
George, Mr. Andrew
Griffiths, Mr. Win
Harris, Dr.
Hodge, Ms
Levitt, Mr.
Moffatt, Laura
Randall, Mr.
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Smith, Jacqui
Whitehead, Dr.

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