Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Jacqui Smith: I am sure that people would be willing to pay good money to be taught Latin by the hon.Member for South Holland and the Deepings, but the point is that, even if they were not charged, the services that he would be offering would be covered by part III. On the point about comparing part III with part IV, the duties are different. The trigger for the part IV duty in the Bill is that students must not be subjected to substantial disadvantages; the trigger in part III is that the member of the public must not find it impossibly or unreasonably difficult to access the service. To that extent, the new provisions in part IV are stronger.

The hon. Member for Daventry mentioned student unions. If the unions provide a service, they will be caught by part III; if they hire employees, they will be caught by part II of the 1995 Act. It is worth while pointing out that the Bill's definition of student services is broad. For example, it would cover leisure and social facilities primarily for students provided by an institution, such as student restaurants, common rooms, clubs and associations, and sports facilities.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of funding for post-16 requirements. I am sure that all Committee members were heartened to hear that, once again, the Government were investing in their responsibilities in post-16 access. Additional Government funding of £172 million has been made available over two years. That is, of course, supplementary to the big increases in overall budgets for post-16 learning, which are already distributed in ways that are sensitive to disabled learners' needs. The hon. Gentleman asked whether that was capital or recurrent funding; to break it down, £151 million is for capital funding—equipment and adjustments to physical features. We recognise that those are potentially costly, and the money will make a significant difference to the ability of institutions to make those changes. We also expect institutions to contribute to the cost of change from their wider resources, hence the match funding approach to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is not unusual or unexpected, despite having been raised on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). The matched contribution that the Learning and Skills Council will require from the other resources available to further education colleges will be 50 per cent., an argument for which is that it will lever out substantial additional funds for delivering the objectives. However, it is less than the normal matched contribution expected for FE capital funds, which is 75 per cent. In that respect, this is not a new principle; it is entirely consistent with the way in which the FEFC has allocated—and the LSC will allocate—other capital funds to FE colleges.

From the £172 million, £21 million will be for recurrent funding, particularly for training staff and for proper support for changing practices and procedures, which, although not very costly, may incur a small administrative cost. Most recurrent costs of meeting the additional needs of students with disabilities are already met through the FEFC's—now the LSC's—funding methodology. As I said earlier, the distribution of those funds is sensitive to the needs of disabled learners, and is done through the disabled students allowance in higher education, which contributes towards the provision of auxiliary aid, for example. Broken down for each sector, the £172 million means £66 million for further education, £56 million for higher education, £35 million for adult and community learning and £15 million for the youth service.

We have discussed resources on several occasions, and I hope that members of the Committee recognise the Government's significant investment in ensuring that resources are available successfully to carry out the legislative proposals.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings raised the issue of work experience, which the Bill covers, although indirectly. If a student on work experience is in paid employment he is covered by part II of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 as an employee. Whether or not a student on work experience is in paid employment, the institution providing the course is likely to be providing services in respect of work placement that are caught by the Bill: for example, by helping the student to organise the placement, or because it has set the rules that a placement must be part of a course.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister saw my burgeoning distress, so I hope that she will clarify something for me. What would happen if an institution, in good faith, had negotiated an arrangement with a sub-contractor to provide the work experience and there was an act of dereliction by the employees of that sub-contractor, or there was disability, racial or gender discrimination at a level that was not under the direct control of the institution? Does that wash back on to the institution itself, which is then guilty of an offence?

Jacqui Smith: The duties on an institution to arrange the work experience, including evaluating whether the placement is suitable for the student—

5.9 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.24 pm

On resuming—

Jacqui Smith: I was reassuring the Committee about the provisions relating to work experience. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) also raised the issue of placements for language courses. Those would be covered by arrangements similar to those that I was outlining for work experience. As I was saying, the services that an institution carries out in arranging a work experience placement will be caught by the very wide definition of services under the Bill. Education providers must fulfil their statutory duties in carrying out those services.

Mr. Randall: Does that mean that the educational institution should check that the foreign facilities are up to scratch? What would be the position of the British Council, which often funds such placements?

Jacqui Smith: Yes, it would part of the responsibility of an institution, as I was suggesting in relation to work experience placements, to carry out reasonable checks on the appropriateness of placements, whether they were for work experience or overseas. As it offers services to the public, the British Council would be covered by part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

On the issue of reasonableness, the institution might also have to consider helping to find a reasonable alternative placement. In the case of work experience, it might be reasonable, and it would certainly be good practice, for the institution to take steps to raise the employer's awareness about meeting the needs of a disabled student. However, over time, employers will become more used to their responsibilities under part II of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and that will impact on the quality of work experience placements for disabled students.

Mr. Boswell: I do not want to put words into the Minister's mouth, but listening to this discussion, which has been helpful, I would construe her remarks to mean that educational institutions based in the United Kingdom have a duty of care to make reasonable inquiries as to the likely situation in the receiving institution. That receiving institution might be abroad in the case of a language placement, or in the UK in the case of a work placement. UK institutions will be obliged to check the lie of the land, and that cannot necessarily be done by a purely formal check or undertaking—they might need to undertake physical investigations.

I also construe the Minister's remarks to mean that an institution's duties would be enhanced in cases where it knew that its student had a disability that might need some special attention. It would then need to ask specific questions of the receiving institution, such as whether the student would have to cope with flights of stairs, or whether he or she would be able to gain access to particular buildings. I am not necessarily asking the Minister to make a definitive judgment, but is that the sort of area that the obligations will cover?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman is helpful, because an institution would, for any student, have to carry out research into the appropriateness of a placement overseas. It would be within the scope of reasonableness for that research to include establishing whether the placement was appropriate or could easily be adapted for a student with disabilities. However, as I was saying, if it proved impossible to impose on, for example, a foreign university, standards to which the UK institution had to conform under this legislation, it would be incumbent on the UK institution to offer an alternative placement. It would be reasonable for the institution to make such an alternative arrangement.

Mr. Randall: Presumably, the Minister would not consider an assurance in writing from a foreign institution to be acceptable. Would it then be necessary for the specific British institution to examine something physically? I am not thinking of places in western Europe, but in other countries, such as Moscow, Minsk, Belgrade and Zagreb. Some of those would not be suitable alternative placements. Where do the Government stand?

Jacqui Smith: It would be difficult to say that, as a blanket provision, a representative of an institution would have to visit a university physically. It is important that reasonable steps be shown to have been taken. Individual cases would vary depending on what the institution knew about the extent to which a foreign placement could deal with students with disabilities, based on experience. On a case-by-case basis, we want institutions to act reasonably, and to provide alternative placements if necessary.

5.30 pm

Mr. Boswell: The Minister is being very reasonable and helpful, I want to add two points for consideration.

First, although I could not possibly suggest that the Minister commit colleagues from another Department to any specific course of action, it might be helpful to make use of the post in the country, and perhaps the British Council, which I have always found excellent on such matters abroad, to check situations out. That is intended as a constructive comment.

Secondly, I hope that the Minister will bear in mind, in any guidance that she gives to institutions on the subject, the sensitivities of students with learning difficulties. They may be in physical danger as well, which is not strictly an educational problem, in some overseas countries. She must also bear in mind the sensitivities of students with mental health problems, which might be recurrent rather than continuous. It is important to have back-up cover for such students if they become depressed in a foreign environment.

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