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Lord Addington: My Lords, both of the amendments address real problems. They both have one thing in common in that they seek to address these problems at an early stage. Let us learn from the Jesuits as regards this matter. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that speech and language abilities are important, but so is visual recognition. If support can be provided to enable these children to communicate, one may reduce their emotional problems. If someone is deaf and dyslexic, one will probably not find that out as the person cannot talk. One has to be able to try to establish communication to be able to deal with these children also in later life.

I turn to Amendment No. 66 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rix. If a body is to receive funding, it should make adequate provision available. An amendment along the lines of Amendment No. 66 should be included in the Bill. I await with interest the Minister's comments. If we are to fund educational provision, we should ensure that it is satisfactory.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I also support the amendments. I believe that on Second Reading and in Grand Committee, when speaking to other amendments, I said that the key to the success of the Bill would be early intervention. The more emphasis that can be placed on early intervention, the better matters will turn out. I strongly support the amendments. I have one question for the Minister. How do the amendments, which I support strongly, interact with a provision of the 1993 Act and, I believe, the 1996 Act, whereby statements can be made for children of the age of two? This is more than a question of children requiring statements. Some children will require intervention to prevent them needing full blown statements later. As I say, the key here is early intervention and I support the noble Lord, Lord Ashley.

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6.15 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, we believe that early identification of special needs and the provision of appropriate support for very young children with identified special needs and disabilities are critical if we are to help them to secure the best opportunities to succeed. We are wholly committed to improving expertise and services in this area.

The first of these two amendments seeks to secure government commitment to provide support, post-diagnosis, for children under two years, when it can be shown that the absence of early intervention will significantly impede speech and language acquisition. The effect of this amendment would be to place a duty on LEAs to support a child under two by providing speech and language support, where it is needed.

The second of these amendments--I believe that they have been grouped as they both concern young children--seeks to put a requirement on the face of the Bill to ensure that early years settings delivering government funded early education have an SEN and disability policy. While I cannot accept these amendments, I am more than happy to offer a very positive response that completely supports the intentions behind them.

With respect to the first of the two proposed amendments, the Government fully agree with my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke that early and appropriate intervention is critical to securing the best outcomes for children with special needs and disabilities who may have difficulties with speech and language acquisition. In fact, we recognise that early intervention is appropriate for all children--to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Baker--with special needs and disabilities. We do not think, however, that imposing a statutory duty on LEAs is the appropriate way forward.

LEAs do not have the same duties to make educational provision for children under two as they have in respect of those over two. However, they have the power to make and maintain a statement for children under two if they consider it necessary, and they must carry out an assessment of a child with SEN if they need to determine the special educational provision that the child needs, and the parents request an assessment. Thus, where a child's needs are such that educational provision cannot be made without providing a statement, the LEA can make that statement and set in place arrangements to provide for the child. I hope that that answers the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. Any parent who considers that an LEA should assess, or make or amend, a statement for his or her child under two can, if they are dissatisfied, complain to the Secretary of State, who can direct the LEA to take action.

We are already investing significantly in pilot activity and projects around the country to try to advance and evaluate best practice. Sure Start programmes focus on children under four. We are expanding those programmes and they are in the lead in developing a multi-agency approach, which we favour. The Department of Health recently

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announced a pilot of 20 sites around England to introduce Universal Neo-Natal Hearing Screening (UNHS), a new hearing test for babies in the first few days of life. My department has taken a number of steps to support the pilot.

The National Screening Committee, which advises the Department of Health, regards UNHS as a much more effective (and, indeed, cost-effective) approach than the infant distraction test which is currently used but has concluded that rather more work is needed on the practicalities of introducing the change across the NHS--hence the pilot projects.

We consider that the most appropriate way forward is to establish a multi-agency working party that would include representation from specialist bodies with an interest to develop practical guidance for the range of professionals involved in the identification of, and support for, young children's special needs. We envisage that the Special Educational Consortium (SEC) should play a key role in this work, as the leading umbrella organisation for those with an interest in children's SEN and disabilities. The guidance will exemplify best practice and set out in practical terms how practitioners and agencies should work together to optimise the support they can offer to children who need it and their families. We intend that it should discuss the importance of early identification and intervention; explain the legal responsibilities of the agencies involved; and address the needs of families as well as individual children. As part of this, it will establish protocols for engaging services for children who need them. The working party will include in its remit work to establish a system of monitoring and review to be overseen by Government to ensure that the guidance is implemented effectively.

Local authorities have duties under the Children Act 1989 to provide services for disabled children within their area so as to minimise the effect of their disabilities. The guidance will provide advice on what those services might be for the under-twos and how they might be provided. If the local authority acts unreasonably in failing to provide those services, it can be held to account through judicial review.

For the future, we intend that early years and childcare development partnerships should acknowledge the cross-departmental guidance in their plans and explain how they will implement that guidance. This is not the realm of a single department. A joint approach is essential and I hope that a working party along the lines that I have outlined can deliver what we are all seeking. Ministers in my department have already discussed this idea briefly with colleagues at the Department of Health who have indicated their support. Further meetings between officials are planned for the near future.

I turn to the second of the amendments. We support fully the notion that all early years settings delivering government funded early education should have an SEN policy and we are committed to achieving that. But I do not think that it is necessary to have further legislation to do so. Conditions of grant are an entirely appropriate mechanism for achieving the desired aim

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with respect to SEN policies. They ensure that the requirement has the right profile and the very fact that they are conditions on which payment depends helps to ensure that the requirement bites. There is certainly the power to impose this requirement as a full condition of grant, but there is less certainty about the power to bring about the same end in regulations.

The 2002 revision of Requirements of Nursery Education Grant will make it a full condition of grant for settings to have an SEN policy. Setting such a requirement is currently an option for LEAs. So making it one of the full conditions on which grant is dependent represents a significant strengthening of the arrangements. This change is not a temporary one. We are committed to long-term improvement. Our investment record in this area to date should confirm that. We intend to continue to improve early years SEN support and expertise through a programme of development and training for practitioners.

Enforcement arrangements to ensure compliance with the Requirements of Nursery Education Grant are robust. District auditors will ensure that LEAs comply with the conditions for administering grant. And Ofsted inspections of early years settings delivering government-funded early education will check that SEN policies are in place and that they are being implemented.

I am pleased to confirm that the requirement will stay a full condition of grant. I hope that that reassures my noble friend Lord Rix as to the importance we place on that and that he feels able to withdraw his amendment. I also hope that I have reassured my noble friend Lord Ashley. Increasingly, very young children's needs will be identified early, as they should be, and appropriate action will be taken to get the right support in a timely fashion. On that basis I hope, too, that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.


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