Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Jacqui Smith: I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 36, line 26, leave out subsection (13).

Members of the Committee will be familiar with the procedures of the House and therefore know that the Lords amendment that added the words in subsection (13) is a standard provision in Bills that are introduced in the other place, protecting the privilege of this House to control charges on public funds. Before I am challenged by the hon. Member for Daventry, I point out that it is equally a standard procedure for the Committee that considers the Bill to remove it, and that is the purpose of amendment No. 13.

Mr. Boswell: Oh dear, Sir David. Normally, as the Minister suggested, the amendment would pose no problem for me. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee are most jealous of the privileges of this House and should not want to cavil at all. Indeed, I would not have wanted to say a single word about it had not the Minister unfortunately said, when she moved the programme motion on 20 March:

    ``I can say that the Government do not intend to table further amendments to the Bill.''—[Official Report, 20 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 290.]

I have been debating how this situation might have arisen, and I see four possibilities. The first scenario, which I hope is the least plausible, is that some person unknown, perhaps even an Opposition member of the Committee, donned drag, went into the Public Bill Office at dead of night, and tabled the amendment in the name of the Minister without her knowledge or consent.

The second possibility is that Ministers did not intend to table an amendment—I will accept their bona fides on that—but were so used to doing so that they could not help themselves. The third possibility—this is a little more plausible, especially at a time when our minds may be moving to other things, and given that we have used a variety of classical analogies in the Committee—is to cite a Biblical reference to the situation in Babylon, and to say that the Assyrian words ``Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin'' must have spontaneously appeared as the writing on the wall behind the Chairman. That really meant, ``Nasty things are going to happen to the present Government,'' and, believe it or not, they did.

However, given the circumstances, the most plausible interpretation of events is that the Government knew all along that they were going to have to do this. Within an hour of the Minister's assertion—I shall not embarrass her by repeating it—the other Minister moved a money resolution that would be incompatible with the continuation of the saving provision in the clause, so they had to remove it by tabling the amendment. That is the most likely scenario.

The only advice that I can give the Minister in the circumstances is that she should watch her language. She is a Minister who has been in the Commons for a year or two, and if she does not know how to put material saving and qualifying adjectives into her assertions, she should learn.

7 pm

Mr. Hayes: I merely ask my hon. Friend to be a little more gracious, because the Minister has been the model of charm throughout our proceedings and tolerant with Opposition Members. I hope that he will equal her charm, not by patronising the hon. Lady but by giving her the paternal advice that I know that he is well placed to give.

Mr. Boswell: Oddly enough, at that precise moment, I was about to make the Minister an offer. It is the kind of criticism that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) would have made to Ministers of any party in his excellent book, ``How to be a Minister''. She needs a short crash course in how to use words that can get her out of difficult situations, words such as those that are in the Bill and that we have been debating today—``substantial'', ``material'', ``relevant'', and ``adjustment'' for example. All those words could have been deployed to avoid this unfortunate situation, but were not. The fact is that the hon. Lady and the Bill team knew perfectly well that they would have to move a money resolution and, given what was implicit in her remarks, I am sure that she knew, rightly, that she would have to remove the subsection.

My worry is not so much that the Minister is adjectivally challenged, but more materially that the pursuit of the perfection of not amending the Bill might have led to mistakes of which we know not. We are about to debate—I hope not at length—many schedules, which are difficult and awkward matters. It is possible that a Government lawyer rehearsing the legislation may not come to her with an awful confession and say, ``Minister, I am afraid I have to tell you that, on page 37, there is a comma missing.'' It would be unfortunate if the Minister has trapped herself into a position in which she cannot amend the Bill. Luckily, she might have been saved from that.

I entirely concur with the general sentiments about the Minister's conduct that were expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, because it now looks as if, despite all the odds, we shall have a proper Report stage. Even if she has not felt inclined to amend her Bill by then, except with the single falling from grace that she has shown tonight, I hope that she will have the courage to return on Report to level with the House and amend the Bill if, for example, a comma is in the wrong place.

I must tell the Minister, more in sorrow than in anger, that she has put my hon. Friends in a difficult position. Of course I want to help her to carry out her assertion. To do so, I should vote against the amendment. However, I am also conscious of the rights and privileges of the House, which I think should be asserted, so I am faced with a dilemma and clash of principles. My hon. Friends might well take a different view from mine, and I could not possibly object, or reprove them if they did. On the whole, and by a short head, despite the deplorable situation that has been created, I would have to advise the Committee, with a heavy heart, to condone and tolerate the amendment, which the Minister, despite her pledges, has got round to moving.

Jacqui Smith: I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman after that—shall I call it a master class—

Mr. Hayes: Self-indulgent diatribe?

Jacqui Smith: Far be it from me to agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I can reassure the hon. Member for Daventry that, when I made those comments on Second Reading, I was fully cognisant of the experience represented by the hon. Gentleman and others, who I assumed would understand that a Bill coming from the Lords would need such an amendment. Given that reassurance, I hope that the Committee will support the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Boswell: I promise not to replay the previous debate. In your wisdom as Chairmen, Sir David, you and your colleague did not select amendment No. 10, which related to commencement. However, I should like the Minister's assurance that we are on track to have the code of practice done and dusted by September. We all understand that the Bill is one thing and the code of practice is another. That code is the serious operational part and has a huge impact on the conduct of SEN cases. It matters to the individuals, the parents and the local authority and we need to have it as soon as possible. I hope that the Minister will change from a perhaps slightly flippant tone to a deadly serious one. We were very grateful when the Government decided to return to the old formulation of specifying matter in a statement. That is the kind of assurance that we will seek in the code of practice. Will the Minister reaffirm the timetable and her readiness to debate the issue, and reassure us about the current state of play before the end of today's proceedings?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we want the final version of the revised code of practice to reflect and provide guidance on the relevant provisions of the Bill, and on the ensuing regulations. The code must therefore follow on from the debates on the Bill. I give him my assurance that it is our intention to introduce a final draft of the revised code of practice, together with the revised education SEN regulations and the education SEN information regulations, soon after the Bill has received Royal Assent. These will be laid before both Houses as soon as possible and the new code of practice debated so that the final version can be made available to local education authorities and schools before the SEN element of the Act comes into force this September. As the hon. Gentleman said, they will then know exactly what the new duties and regulations are.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 43, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 9 agreed to.

        Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Betts.]

        Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Seven o'clock till Thursday 5 April at Nine o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Madel, Sir David (Chairman)
Barnes, Mr.
Benn, Mr. Hilary
Betts, Mr.
Boswell, Mr.
Ennis, Mr.
George, Mr. Andrew
Griffiths, Mr. Win
Hayes, Mr.
Hodge, Ms
Moffat, Laura
Mountford, Kali
Randall, Mr.
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
St. Aubyn, Mr.
Smith, Jacqui
Squire, Rachel
Whitehead, Dr.

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