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Baroness Darcy de Knayth: Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, would like to speak before I withdraw my amendment.

4 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: If I speak now, it will save coming back to my amendment later. I am grateful to the noble

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Lord because he has gone into great detail and much of what he has describes good practice--something that we would like to see dispensed throughout the country. However, I need to read his response more carefully because I was quite concerned about some of what was said.

The input behind my amendment is that there should be a presumption of a speedy response where professionals are concerned about the educational needs of a child being met. In addition, I made more than a passing reference to the need for that work to be done as early as possible and certainly before a child leaves primary school and goes to secondary school.

It does beg a lot of questions when a child in the early stages of secondary school requires a statement. There have to be some serious questions asked about was happening during all the years prior to the transfer to secondary school. At one stage the Minister said--perhaps in a slightly different context--that this is not the Bill to improve the system. I was always proud that the 1993 and 1996 Bills went through the House with a great deal of all-party support and I regard this Bill as an opportunity to build on and to improve them where we possibly can. This Bill gives us an opportunity to look at some of the weak links in the system--one of those is most certainly the transfer of children with special educational needs from primary into secondary school--as well as the speeding up of statements for children.

I think I heard the Minister say that, where a health professional spots a problem with a child who may require special educational needs and goes to the local authority, it is for the local authority to make that decision. I want to pose a specific question to the Minister: where the health professional comes across a child before the age of five and over the age of two and considers the child to require special provision, for whatever reason, then if the LEA disagrees and decides not to carry out an assessment, where does that leave the parent? Indeed, where does it leave the needs of the child? There is something rather unnerving in that because the noble Lord said something else which seems to conflict; namely, that where a health professional picks up a problem, usually one really does exist.

As the chairman of a playschool for some eight years, prior to coming into this House, I know that those problems can often be picked up accidentally. I recall a child who produced what was thought to be scribbling and doodling but which turned out to be most accurate mirror-writing, though in a rather shaky hand. It transpired that that child was seeing and writing in a way that required a great deal of correction. That was picked up purely by informal, unprofessional observation at a playschool. We were then able to call in the professionals, who made representations to the LEA. It is a question of where the rights of the parents lie in a situation where the problem is picked up by a third party professional and the LEA decides not to carry it through.

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Lord Morris of Manchester: Before my good and noble friend Lady Darcy de Knayth rises to respond to the Minister, I, too, congratulate him on

Lord Morris of Manchester: Before my good friend the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, responds to the Minister, I too thank him for his reply.

My noble friend is well aware of my wide-ranging contacts with the organisations of and for disabled people and their families. From these contacts, I know that the strongest and most persistent criticism of the parents of children with special educational needs is that, the wider the discretion allowed, the longer the delays and the wider the diversity of local authority practices.

One important objective of the amendment of the noble Baroness's amendments is to reduce that diversity by levelling up on the basis of the best existing practice. I hope very much that the Minister will reflect carefully on the arguments the noble Baroness put forward this afternoon and will respond positively to her on Report. If the problem is one of finding more felicitous drafting, that is not insoluble. I am sure my noble friend will want to do all he can on Report to ensure that we leave these sections of the Bill in a form that will give pleasure to the parents of children with special educational needs, many of whom are at present dismayed by unacceptable delays in today's wide diversity of local authority practices.

Lord Northbourne: I wonder whether the Minister could clarify something. He has told us what the local authority is supposed to be doing and, with credulity, I believe that some local authorities are not doing so. Am I right to believe that Ofsted is now inspecting local education authorities? If so, will they inspect these issues?

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: Before the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, replies, perhaps I may say that the Minister seems to be wearing rose-coloured spectacles. Those of us who have been involved as governors of schools feel that the situation on the ground very seldom operates in the way described, partly because there is such a shortage of specialist advisers.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, said that the strongest and most persistent criticism related to the diversity of LEA practice. I find that the strongest and most persistent criticism is about the time taken and the degree of foot dragging by local education authorities when it is clear to the professionals involved that it would be useful to have a statement. In introducing Amendment No. 32, the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, argued that when the professionals are involved you do not get a statement which specifies with any precision the amount of help required.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, mentioned, one reason is that the local education authorities are currently very squeezed of resources. We have every

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sympathy for them. However, the fact is that the system does not operate on the ground in the way outlined.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, managed to sum up in 10 words what I took about 10 minutes to explain. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for her support. As the "mother" of the 1993 and 1996 Acts, that means a great deal. I share her concern. I hoped that the government amendment about the responsible body might cover her amendment. I, too, have an amendment to increase the pressure on the timescale, but we shall consider that later.

The noble Baroness, Lady David, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, gave great support for Amendment No 32. This amendment found the least favour with the Minister. Surely it is absolutely crucial. There are always arguments, and people go to tribunals, on the provision aspect of the statement and it is more an more important. In the Bill aids and services are excluded for school children--they are given to the post-16s--on the grounds that those aids and services need not be included under the DDA because the children with statements and special educational needs are safeguarded by the security of their statements. It is absolutely crucial therefore that statements contain very specific provisions. Surely, if there is a professional report, that report ought to be included. I am not asking the professional to write the statement; merely to make the report available and the LEAs to pay attention to it. As I said when I introduced the amendment, at the moment some of them instruct the professionals not to include the opinion on provision.

I thank the Minister for his detailed and thoughtful reply. I was gloomy about Amendment No. 32 and ask if he is willing to discuss it further outwith the Chamber at some point. I see he is nodding, for which I thank him.

I was also rather gloomy about Amendments Nos. 32, 34 and 37. I believe I understood him to say that he would take them away and look at them. Again, I am grateful for that nod because I had been rather gloomy when I heard him pray in aid Schedule 27(8). That gives some rights but is not nearly as strong nor as satisfactory a process.

Amendment No. 37 appears to be almost pointless but was made necessary by Amendment No. 34. We knocked out something in Amendment No. 33 which Amendment No. 34 would need. So I was putting back the trigger. Anyway, I am sure that the department will have a much better way of drafting it and will not need anything like Amendment No. 37, and for that I am hugely grateful. If the Minister would be prepared to discuss Amendment No. 32 further, I would be doubly grateful. In the mean time I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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[Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 not moved.]

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 35:

    After Clause 1, insert the following new clause?

(" . In the 1996 Act, insert the following section"
"Conciliation service.
333A. The Tribunal may establish and maintain a conciliation service."").

The noble Lord said: I am not sure why these amendments have been grouped together; they are nothing to do with each other. In relation to the next group, I shall not speak to Amendment No. 96; it is on a different part of the Bill entirely, let alone a different subject.

Taking Amendment No. 35 first; this is merely to sound out the Government on the possibility of the tribunal being allowed to encourage conciliation. It is a practice which is catching on quite satisfactorily elsewhere and it seems to me that the tribunal ought to be looking in that direction.

Amendment No. 38 deals with a minor difficulty which causes considerable distress in some individual cases. Where a parent is appealing against an assessment, the local authority normally does not have the right to go ahead with that assessment until the appeal has been determined. However, where there is an amendment to an assessment, the local authority can go ahead with that amendment even though there is an appeal pending. Several local authorities are using that provision to chuck children out of one school into a school of the authority's choosing, which can result in a child's education being severely disrupted for a period of a year or more while the appeal is taking place, which eventually puts the child back into the school where he was originally. The principle in the Act that the local authority should not be able to go against the parents' wishes until the appeal is determined is one we should follow in all cases rather than just most.

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