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Lord Lucas: Of course I shall withdraw the amendment. However, I should like access to the long list of the research that has taken place, in whatever form the noble Baroness finds convenient to provide it, particularly if it is on the web. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 52:

(" . In the 1996 Act, insert the following section--
"Interests of child.
315A. A local education authority shall at all times act in the best interests of a child for whom they are responsible."").

The noble Lord said: We have covered the matter before so I shall not go into all the byways of it. The basic question is this. In the Bill dealing with children, why should we not have the same basis as in other modern Acts dealing with children? That is to act in the best interests of the child.

The Minister gave one answer to that when we touched on the matter previously: that it was not clear to whom this duty applied. However, in the amendment it is quite clear that it applies to the local education authority. It would solve a lot of other problems in the Bill on how the local authority will act in particular circumstances and what matters it will bear in mind.

I remain of the opinion that the amendment would be a neat way of bringing the best interests of the child into the Bill, and one which would have many advantages for all concerned. I beg to move.

Lord Northbourne: I was one of those who started this hare about the best interests of the child and it is a hare that I intend to pursue. I entirely support the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Would there be a need slightly to reword the amendment so as to place a

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balance between the needs of that child and the needs of other children? That is the question I ask, though it could be taken at a later stage.

Lord Davies of Oldham: It is exactly the last point to which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred that is perhaps at issue with regard to this apparently uncontentious suggestion that the best interests of the child should come first. After all, we would surely all agree that the watchword of all statutory service providers for children should be to seek to act in children's best interests. The problem arises in terms of the necessary balance to be struck between best interests and available resources.

The SEN framework already safeguards the interests of children with SEN. The wider framework of education Acts is intended to ensure that the educational interests of all children are protected. Placing a duty on LEAs to act in the best interests of individual children would not improve the way children's special educational needs are met. LEAs are already under general duties under the 1996 Act to make provision for children with special educational needs. They have a particular duty to assess and make suitable arrangements for children with the greatest difficulties. Governing bodies of maintained schools have a specific duty to use their best endeavours to make the necessary provision to cover the learning difficulties of all the children in their schools.

The current statutory arrangements, supported by the advice given in the SEN code of practice to schools, LEAs and others, already provide for children's special educational needs to be addressed. Our SEN action programme, of which this Bill forms an important element, is designed to improve SEN provision.

The amendment would promote unproductive contention and argument rather than the partnership we are trying to promote. What constitutes the best interests of the child is not always straightforward and clear cut. Those noble Lords with children will be aware that there can be divergence between what a child considers, and what its parents consider, to be in his or her best interests. Many of us would probably confess that the two parents can also differ on what they consider to be in the best interests of their child! We are all aware of the difficulties that occur in this area. Where relationships are good, there ought to be negotiation and agreement on how to make proper provision. Through parent partnership services and conciliation arrangements we are promoting improved relations between parents and schools and LEAs. Thus, through working together, children's needs can be met effectively. Ultimately, schools and LEAs have to use their professional judgment on how to meet a child's learning difficulties. In some cases parents will continue to disagree with decisions arrived at by schools and LEAs.

However, in such cases parents will continue to have the right to ask for their children's needs to be assessed and to appeal to the SEN tribunal. We all know that parents will always, quite properly, demand more than may easily and readily be provided by the local

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education authority or school. This apparently straightforward amendment--with whose sentiments I could not possibly disagree as a basis of principle for all our actions in relation to children--concerns the allocation of resources to needs. That, surely, requires a framework of partnership, negotiation and reconciliation rather than a mere statement of principle.

Lord Lucas: I am grateful for that helpful reply. We shall doubtless return to the subject at Report stage but will be better informed when we get there. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 [Resolution of disputes]:

[Amendment No. 53 not moved.]

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 54:

    Clause 3, page 4, line 13, after ("made") insert ("in a statement").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 54. There are some interesting amendments in this group but mine is just technical. I beg to move.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I aim to speak to Amendment No. 55 in this group and also to Amendments Nos. 58 and 59, which also fall within this group.

The purpose of these amendments is to specify in slightly more detail some of the issues that arise in relation to the parent partnership conciliation service. By and large, we support the idea of an intermediate body between the schools and local authorities and the tribunals. There is no doubt there have been difficulties here and the notion that you can have a more informal body in the way in which you can help to reconcile the differences is a good one. The reservation is whether there will be enough people both to provide the advocacy support for parents on the one hand and to provide those who will end up as the conciliators and facilitators provided for in the Bill. It is suggested here that whoever plays that role is an independent arbitrator, and we would very much endorse the independence.

However, we also feel rather strongly that whoever does this job should be well informed about special educational needs provision. As those of us who are participating in the Bill recognise, it is an area where there is a great deal of case law, practice, codes and so forth, and it is not one that somebody coming in from outside with no knowledge of the area could easily fulfil. Therefore, the purpose of Amendment No. 55 is to suggest that it should not only be an independent person but someone who is knowledgeable about the issues arising in special educational needs.

Amendment No. 58 picks up a different issue, which is that the conciliation service might be seen as something of a soft option and parents might be pushed in that direction without being informed that, at the same time, they have rights. This picks up the proposal in the subsequent Amendment No. 59 that they must be kept informed that, if they wish to do so, they can proceed and go to appeal at the tribunal but

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that they should not be held up unnecessarily in the process of conciliation. Some of them might feel that they were be pushed towards conciliation, that there was not much hope, quite frankly, of reaching conciliation through the conciliation service and that they were going to a tribunal and they did not really want to be held up by the process of the conciliation service. It is reasonable that there could perhaps be time limits on this.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: I speak to two amendments and support the other amendments but particularly Amendment No. 59. With Amendment No. 56 it is important to ensure that the independent persons who are required to resolve a dispute are truly independent of the previous decision, but, nevertheless, have the relevant expertise. So it really is a belt and braces amendment, which reads,

    ""Independent persons" as required in subsection (3) above, shall mean persons with no previous connection with the parents and the child, nor of any of the authorities involved in the dispute, but shall include persons of knowledge and experience relevant to the special educational needs of the child".

I hope it is self-evident that, if it is to be an independent assessment, it ought to be not just independent but seen to be independent.

Amendment No. 60 is a fleshing-out or extending of the definition of "relevant school", to include an independent school named by the parents of the child. The provision of this part of the Bill needs careful examination. Clause 3 deals with the arrangements to resolve the disputes with the parents. It sets up a panel of independent persons to examine and resolve the dispute.

In the clause, the term "relevant school" is used and Clause 3(8) defines what is meant in this context by "relevant school". It lists maintained schools, city technology colleges and so on, and it includes an independent school named in the child's statement of special educational needs.

Where the statement does not name any independent school, or even any school at all, or where the independent school is not one asked for by the parent, then the "relevant school" in the matter of this dispute may well be one which the parent prefers, even if the local authority does not, and thus that school should be a "relevant school" and should at least be informed of the dispute and even consulted upon it. It is a matter of bringing all interested parties into the resolution process.

My amendment adds to the list of what is a "relevant school" by saying,

    "an independent school named by the parents of the child".

I support the amendment.

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