Standing Committee B
Tuesday 3 April 2001
[Sir David Madel in the Chair]
Discrimination against disabled students and prospective students
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): This is a pleasing opportunity for me to welcome you to the Chair for the first time, Sir David, and I am sure that the Minister will also do so. Unless things go awry this afternoon, you will find that we have good-natured debates. We have been able to explore important issues that deserve our attention, even though they do not always generate extreme political heat. We have been lucky to have had Mr. O'Brien in the Chair, and with you, Sir David, as someone interested in education, we are carrying on as we started.
We are moving on to a new chapter as we discuss further and higher education. However, it is not entirely new territory. Methods of dealing with disability discrimination in this slightly different context should be broadly equivalent to those applicable in schools. We should not relax our attention as we progress through the Bill, because this is an important area. I have specialised in it, and take a continuing interest in it, as the Minister knows.
There are two reasons for paying special attention to the topic. First, the Government are closely connected with the funding of further and higher education. I appreciate that Ministers do not fund such education directly. Even this week, the Learning and Skills Council has taken over from the Further Education Funding Council, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England and its Welsh and Scottish counterparts are hardly touched by the Bill. However, since the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, the Government, through those funding bodies, have been the basis of funding. They have, therefore, a more hands-on connection with the funding of further and higher education than with the funding of schools, which is delivered and moderated through the deliberations of local authorities and local education authorities.
Secondly, we must remember that post-16 students are volunteers. That cuts both ways. If they are not properly treated, they will not stay in education. A major concern is that, if there is not a good regime for disabled studentsto provide access, support and general encouragementthey will be dissuaded and deterred from going into further and higher education. They will not then pick up the skills for which they have the ability, and they will not have many of the employment opportunities that should be open to them.
We should approach debates on the issue in a spirit that recognises its importance. We could have concocted various probing amendments, but it is better to orchestrate discussions, as we did this morning, around clause stand part debates, with a limited reference to the amendment paper.
Clause 26 inserts into the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 new section 28R. There is an essay to be written about the different philosophies of the British and the French in constructing acronyms such as NATO and OTAN. I shall not bore the Committee with that, but it is a matter of moving from the particular to the general or the general to the particular. I shall follow the British modelthe Opposition Whip is relieved about thatby raising a couple of particular points before moving on to a more general point.
We have discussed schools and I am not seeking to reverse my opinions in relation to further and higher education, but my first point is this. The explanatory notes and the Bill make it pretty clear that private providers will be caught by the clause. The Under-Secretary nods. Will she provide some elucidation about private providers of tuition? Subsection (6) refers to
``the higher education sector . . . the further education sector''
or educational institutions
``designated in an order made by the Secretary of State.''
If, for example, a member of the Committee gives part-time Latin lessons, or a more musical Member gives piano lessons
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I taught Latin once.
Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend has been hiding his light under a bushel. Given the exigencies of the parliamentary timetable, some of us may be driven to those activities in due coursewho knows? That is a jocular point, but a serious one too.
The mainstream provision in publicly funded further and higher education is easily recognisable. It is slightly less easily identifiable, but can nevertheless be conceptualised, in private further and higher education. The same duties extend, although they may not work in quite the same way. The question of tuition then arises. I am tempted to say that it is a minor issue, but it may not be. If, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings were to start offering Latin lessons, perhaps to members of the Committee, and were to discriminate on grounds for which there was no good justification in human rights terms, such as gender, ethnic origin, disability
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): Or political allegiance.
Mr. Boswell: The Under-Secretary took the words out of my mouth. However, as far as I know it is not yet a crime to be a Conservative, although some Labour Members may wish otherwise. It would not help the Committee's deliberations if we were to get into a discussion of whether people's political allegiances should be protected under the Human Rights Act 1998.
To sum up my first substantive point, someone who legitimately offers tutoring as a business may wish to discriminate. My understanding of the provisions is that they would be caught under part III of the 1995 Act. The Under-Secretary nods, but it would be helpful to have a full response. Are the duties any weaker, or are they just as binding, albeit that they are expressed in a different way?
My second point sits across both further and higher education. Here I return to some extent to the publicly funded sectoralthough they are autonomous institutionsto look at the position of student unions. From time to time, we discuss the provision of education. This is a new chapter in an expanded part IV dealing with education and related services. Student unions are not in fact part of the same foundation in either further or higher education. Many long and tortuous discussions about their regulation took place in respect of legislation that I myself took through this place. With the help of a number of then Government and Opposition Members, we eventually got the balance about right.
Not for one moment do I want to signal any interest or wish on the part of student unions to adopt overtly discriminatory policies. The only area in which there may be some difficultieswhich I should perhaps flag up and then pass hastily onis freedom of speech clauses. I wonder whether those who are regarded as particularly militant in political or ethnic terms might be excluded from deliberations. Such a matter is on the margins of this provision, but I am particularly concerned about where the Act will bite. It would be useful if the Minister could elucidate whether part III or part IV duties will apply in that regard, and whether there will be a material difference. To balance things up a bit, I shall, for a change, invoke Deng Xiaoping, who said that it does not really matter what colour the cat is as long as it catches mice. In other words, I do not mind which part of the Bill will apply, so long as the effect is the same.
Finally, I want to say a word or two about the real world issue of resources. The helpful explanatory notes, which make it clear that the total amount available to post-16 providers will be £172 million in the financial years 2002-03 and 2003-04, state:
``Before commencement of the new provisions''
a matter for a later debate
``providers will be strongly encouraged to make voluntary adjustments to improve physical access.''
They then make the following point, on which the Minister needs to comment:
``Funding for access projects in England will be made available on a 50 per cent. match funded basis in the further education sector.''
My immediate reaction is to ask from where the other 50 per cent. will come. How, and how easily, will such finance be provided?
When the further education sector was incorporated in the early 1990s, a kind of Domesday survey, known as the Hunter survey, was undertaken. Money was allocated for capital works in further education, all of which had to be spent on essential health and safety work in the first year or two, so bad was the inherited physical stock at that time. I am not saying that that is still the case, but there are certain inevitable knock-on effects. Even if Ministers were to sweeten the pill by saying that additional expenditure post-16 will decrease recurrent costsI am not sure that that is easily demonstrablethe fact remains that there will be up-front costs, not all of which will be met by the Government. Ministers need to respond to that point.
Turning to higher education institutions, I have received representations about the Bill from Universities UK, which says:
``The compliance costs for the higher education sector need to be carefully assessed. The Government has stated that £56 million will be provided to improve access for disabled students to higher education institutions''
in the same financial years that I have mentioned. Universities UK continues:
``Although that is very welcome, work undertaken with a small number of pilot institutions suggests that the costs might be as large as £250 million.''
That is a big hit on the universities sector. Universities UK says:
``We urge the Standing Committee to look very carefully at the figures to ensure that the success of the Bill is not compromised by pressure on resources.''
That is from an organisation which is no more hostile than I am to the intentions of the Bill. However, it is aware from the Bett report of the substantial potential liabilities in relation to pay in the higher education sector that could occur as a consequence of equal opportunities. It is concerned that those aspirations will not be met because resources will not be available.
Those are serious matters, and there are several specific issues. First, there is the interaction of the clause with part III duties for any institutions, organisations or activities that are, by their nature, educational, but are not necessarily covered by part IV duties. Secondly, how will student union activities be covered? Thirdly, although we do not object to the principle of the clause, throughout the six years since the exclusion of education from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, there have been concerns, which still remain, about whether the resources are available to do the job. We look forward to the Minister's reassurances on that issue.