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Official Report of the Grand Committee on the

Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill

Tuesday, 6th February 2001.

The Committee met at half past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux): I remind your Lordships about the special provision of having no Divisions at Committee stage as set out in Hansard on the first day. If there is a Division in the Chamber, I ask any noble Lord or noble Baroness who is speaking to sit down immediately and we shall adjourn for 10 minutes.

Clause 13 [Accessibility strategies and plans]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 114:

    Page 12, line 5, at end insert--

("( ) In preparing their accessibility strategy, each local education authority must include the estimated costs, at current prices, of the implementation of such improvements, and must if the cost cannot be found locally, forward to the Secretary of State these estimated costs with a request for capital grant to cover those costs for the years in question.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 114, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 120, 129, 130, 131, 192, 193 and 194. Clause 13 requires the local education authority to prepare what is called an accessibility strategy. That is to be a forward plan as to improvements to be made to the fabric and environment of all the schools for which the authority is responsible in order to improve the accessibility of those schools for pupils with disabilities.

The requirement simply refers to planned improvements and that such a plan should be updated constantly. There is not a requirement to make those changes, as we heard from the Minister. There is no requirement necessary to make structural changes but there is a requirement to plan for improvements and regularly to update the plan. Nowhere is there included an assessment of costs for such a plan.

If there are to be improvements, they are going to cost money. A programme of improvements to all schools to improve access to and the environment within schools for disabled pupils will cost money. My amendment requires the local education authority to include the estimated costs, at current prices, of the implementation of such improvements of that accessibility strategy, which seems only reasonable. The authority, the local taxpayers and the Secretary of State all need to know how much it would cost.

Furthermore, the amendment would require the local authority to forward the plan to the Secretary of State with estimated costs included and to include a request of the Secretary of State for a capital grant to

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undertake the work over the years in question. By implication, if there is no capital grant, the work cannot be done.

Honesty in planning and feasibility should be watchwords for those who will have to draw up these plans. Amendment No. 120 applies to independent schools. Having made it a duty upon the local education authority to prepare an accessibility strategy, whether or not funds are forthcoming, Clause 13 goes on to require the same thing of maintained schools and maintained special schools, all the independent schools and those independent special schools which are approved by the Secretary of State. The only difference in that part of the clause is that the accessibility strategy is called an accessibility plan when it is applied to all schools.

Again, it places an unqualified duty upon the governors of those schools to implement that accessibility plan. No respite is allowed, even if it cannot be afforded.

As for local authorities, I wish to add a further provision which requires this plan for schools to include the estimated costs and to invite, but not demand, the governing body to forward those estimated costs to the Secretary of State.

I move on to Amendment No. 129 which, as before, throws an obligation to fund back upon the Secretary of State rather than on the local education authority. Again, it is important that the obligation should be for government to pass on the duty to the local education authority.

Amendment No. 130 is to emphasise, yet again, that the governors of independent schools do not usually have a pot of gold to implement the Bill as it applies to them. Therefore, the accessibility plan must include some information as to whether or not the money is available, so that they have some notion that they are doing the Government's bidding. Therefore, a view must be taken about what the resources shall be and from where they shall come.

Amendment No. 131 again throws back to the Secretary of State the need to fund what could be extensive additions to schools. In practice, the governors of a county school would presumably funnel any such request through their maintaining local education authority. The governors of a voluntary school would make a direct request to the Secretary of State, supported by the local education authority. The governors of an independent school would have to make a request for a grant, not a loan, directly to the Secretary of State.

Amendments Nos. 192, 193 and 194 would amend Clause 40, which contains the customary financial provision that the costs arising from the Bill will be met by money provided by Parliament. Interestingly, the clause is titled:

    "Expenses of the Secretary of State".

It does not refer to the expenses of local authorities, schools or colleges. In other words, the Secretary of State should fund his own Bill.

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The amendments would place the financial responsibility firmly on the Government, who are the proposers and sponsors of the Bill. It is for the Government to explain how LEAs--and, in their turn, schools--throughout the maintained and independent sectors will be able to meet all their obligations under the Bill if the money is not forthcoming from central government. I beg to move.

Lord Addington: I admit that I am not totally familiar with every word of the amendments, but the principle of making sure that resources are available to do the job seems reasonable. How will the Government calculate whether expenditure is reasonable?

Lord Northbourne: I support the principles behind the amendments, which are crucial to the success of the Bill. Many of us are concerned that the outcome of the Bill will be rather like the previous Government's care in the community policy, under which many establishments for people with mental difficulties were closed, but there was no care in the community because there were no resources with which to pay for it. Sending more young people to mainstream schools will save the Government or the local authority a lot of money, but we must ensure that the provision will be there in the mainstream schools to support those children.

Lord Davies of Oldham: As the noble Baroness has said, Amendments Nos. 114, 120, 129 and 130 would require responsible bodies to estimate the costs of their accessibility plans and to seek additional resources if necessary. Amendment No. 131 appears to go even further, by moving the costs of the planning duty on to the Secretary of State and providing that duties have to be complied with only to the extent that he has provided the resources.

Amendments Nos. 191, 192 and 193 would amend Clause 40, which authorises any expenditure required under the provisions of the Bill. The Bill currently makes no provision for expenditure. Clause 40 is drafted only in terms of expenditure under other Acts. The only possible need for the amendments appears to be that they are linked to the provision of resources by the Secretary of State in relation to the planning duty. The Government contend that the amendments are unnecessary and that those relating to the planning duty would place new burdens on responsible bodies.

In preparing their strategies and plans, LEAs and schools should take into account the anticipated resources to be made available to them over the planning period. The duty is clearly to plan within the resources available to the responsible body. That is realistic and common sense. To link the implementation of the duties to the provision of extra funding ignores the resources that are already available to responsible bodies, and would, I fear, merely give some bodies an excuse for not acting as quickly as we would want them to.

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The Government are making 220 million available through the schools access initiative over the next three years to ensure that LEAs, in partnership with their schools, have the support to improve access by disabled pupils. We are supporting capital funding of 2 billion in total next year. These are some of the sources of funding that LEAs and schools will take into account when drawing up their plans.

The proposal that responsible bodies should forward their estimates to the Secretary of State is excessively burdensome and smacks of a great deal of sentimentality. It seeks to take away the initiative from LEAs and schools and to make their planning dependent on central government decisions.

The planning duty is not intended to make all schools accessible immediately. There are 25,000 schools in the mainstream sector in England alone and we recognise that accessibility will take some time. We also acknowledge that different schools require different amounts of work to make them accessible. Defining what needs to be done is not a job for the Secretary of State, but for planning at the LEA and school level.

It would not be right to link so directly the implementation of the new duties to resources from the Government. As I have explained, responsible bodies will already plan within the resources available to them and those resources are growing. To allow any exemption from the duty would give an excuse to slow the pace at which we are now making schools accessible to disabled children.

I therefore hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and her colleagues will withdraw their amendments.

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