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Baroness David: My Lords, as my name is attached to this amendment, I should like to support it very strongly. It has been very ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. The whole idea of individual learning accounts I like, and it is very important that those who are disabled should have the opportunity to make use of them. For that they will need help, I think. As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said, they can learn by means of some computer courses and information technology courses, and those can be invaluable to people with disabilities. Often, if they have difficulty in writing, they can manage a word processor very well, but they

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are going to need help with running their accounts. Therefore I hope very much that this amendment can be accepted by my noble friend.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I like the idea of being able to give people independence, and particularly to a group who had seemed to have it taken away from them by the way society is run. "Does he take sugar?" comes to mind when we think about being able to run an individual learning account--that is, being able to have some input into the process.

We are talking about support to enable people to do that. So often when we deal with disability issues we are talking about trying to enable people to have control over their own lives. This will be a small step towards encouraging such people to become a more integrated part of society. If that means giving some guidance on how to handle something themselves, I suggest that the Government should at least look very favourably at this amendment, because it relates to bringing a person on as an individual. I hope that the Government can give us a full answer on this.

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is too modest. He is our Jimmie Logan; he is our star attraction as far as this debate is concerned. I am surprised that he should think it is any future debate that has attracted so many people into the Chamber this afternoon.

Individual learning accounts, or qualifying accounts as they are referred to in this clause, are indeed--to use the noble Lord's own words--a major strand of the Government's policy. They are designed to assist people of all abilities to access a wide range of learning opportunities. They are only one of many policies aimed at widening participation in learning, which should encompass all people, including people with learning difficulties and disabled people. I can assure the House that we take that very seriously indeed, as I hope has been reflected in our earlier debates on or around this particular topic and in the concessions made by the Government during the passage of this Bill, both at this stage and at Committee stage. We continue to look at how best we can support these people.

The learning account system will be simple for people to use. There will be help available both from a customer service centre and from learning providers on how to use the incentives and discounts to enhance their skills. People will open a learning account through the customer service centre. They will be able to do this in person, over the telephone, by post or, in the future, through the Internet. Once the individual has decided on the learning he or she wants to undertake, the customer service centre will identify the incentives that can be claimed under the scheme. The learner will pay the balance direct to the learning provider. The customer service centre will also easily provide information about whether learning will qualify for government support, the balance of a person's account and a record of their learning.

We plan to make links with others who can provide extra support so that people get the best possible service. Careers service providers, for example, and

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staff in "learndirect" centres will be available to help people with learning difficulties, whether this is about opening a learning account or accessing actual learning provision.

At the present time, we are also in discussion with relevant partners and interest groups to ensure that qualifying accounts meet the needs of individuals with learning difficulties. For example, we are exploring how we can make information available in various formats, such as in Braille or on tape, to suit all needs. I hope that the noble Lord will be pleased to hear that those discussions are continuing.

I appreciate that this is a probing amendment, but we believe that it is simply not necessary to specify support for any specific group in respect of individual learning accounts on the face of the Bill. Our clear policy intention, which is no doubt supported by all sides of the House, with individual learning accounts is--as their name suggests--to help to meet the different requirements of different individuals. This is as true of the operation of the account as of the learning provision to which its incentives and discounts will apply. While of course we have sympathy with the intention behind this amendment--indeed, I am grateful to the noble Lord for tabling it because it has given us an opportunity to have this important discussion today--I would ask the noble Lord, having heard the assurances that I have given, to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Rix: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, although I am happy to accept his assurances, would it be possible to have a further assurance that people with learning difficulties could be included in some of the pilot schemes?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I shall not be able to answer the noble Lord directly, but I can say to him that we shall look into that matter. Our feelings are sympathetic towards the idea. Perhaps I may write to the noble Lord in more detail in the near future.

Lord Rix: My Lords, I am happy to accept that assurance and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 138A:

    After Clause 97, insert the following new clause--

("Grammar schools: retention of selective admission arrangements

. In the School Standards and Framework Act 1998--
(a) in section 104 (designation of grammar schools), omit subsection (4),
(b) omit sections 105 to 108 (procedure for ballots to determine retention or discontinuance of selective admission arrangements),
(c) in section 109 (proposals by governing body to end selective admission arrangements), omit subsections (3)(b), and (4).").

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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I shall focus specifically on my own amendment. It seeks to remove the petition and balloting arrangements, which are designed to determine the fate of grammar schools, from the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.

When the Government introduced the system of petitioning for signatures and ballots to determine the fate of grammar schools, it was obvious that a pernicious and relentless war of attrition would be unleashed on these schools. Those hostile to grammar schools busied themselves canvassing for signatures, chose what they deemed to be a soft target--Ripon Grammar School--and successfully triggered a ballot. The result is now history. Parents, but incidentally not the parents of children who attend the school, voted two-to-one in favour of retaining the grammar school. However, in the wake of the Ripon result, a group of anti-grammar school activists are already fundraising for a return to the fray.

I shall turn to the crux of my amendment. This power, as set out in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, allows those who are opposed to grammar schools to return in four years' time to canvass yet again for signatures in order to trigger another ballot. That can go on ad infinitum.

However, for the schools concerned, their staff, the parents, and, most significantly, for the children, this is a most unsettling, disruptive and debilitating process. Time, energy and money are expended in fending off those who hold a political grudge and have a philosophical objection to grammar schools.

I welcome the response to the Ripon Grammar School ballot result on Friday from Mr Blair, Mr Blunkett and certain of their colleagues. They wish to end hostilities against grammar schools. They have said that arguments about selection are now a past agenda and, instead, they wish to draw a line in the sand on this issue. I welcome, too, Mr Blunkett's comment that he is not "hunting grammar schools", but that he would rather concentrate on the issue of raising standards. We all say "Amen" to that.

The timing of this Bill is fortuitous and I hope that I can be forgiven for taking advantage of it. But this opportunity gives us all--including the Government--a chance to make a reality of the statements made over the weekend by the Secretary of State and his colleagues. The provision of education should, as far as possible, match the needs of all of our children. That means that there should be an extension of choice, a widening of diversity and the freeing of schools to offer education to young people with learning disabilities or those with particular talents and aptitudes for science, music, the arts or sport, and for those who are academically able. The issue should be to encourage more, rather than less, choice.

I hope that the noble Baroness will feel it unnecessary for me to press this amendment to a Division. However, if that is not to be the case, I hope that as many noble Lords as possible will support me

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in putting an end to such a disruptive, deeply damaging and relentless war of attrition by voting in favour of my amendment. I beg to move.

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