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Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, especially for the support that they expressed for my amendment.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, was right to raise the point about blind children and those with other disabilities. I spoke about deaf children. I have been President of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy for some five years. I am President of the RNID. I am especially interested in the problem; it is a personal problem. I am glad that the Minister accepted the noble Lord's point.

I am sorry that the Minister could not go all the way on the amendments, although I appreciate the spirit in which she advanced her arguments. It is a considerable advance. However, before Third Reading, I should like to know, first, whether the guidance is to be mandatory. If someone with whom I disagree offers me guidance I say, "Thank you very much", and go my own way. So guidance can be important or unimportant; and unimportant guidance is of no value, no matter how kind the Minister's words may be. We seek assurance that the guidance will be mandatory.

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Secondly, unless the guidance is monitored carefully, we shall get nowhere. It will go by default. Can the Minister assure us that it will be monitored carefully by the Secretary of State?

Thirdly, working parties can take years. How soon can we have the guidance? I hope that it will be strengthened by my noble friend's efforts. I am sure that she will do what she can. The RNID and noble Lords who have spoken in the debate regard this amendment as profoundly important. I shall be grateful for the continued endorsement of my noble friend. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness David moved Amendment No. 27:

    After Clause 1, insert the following new clause--


(" . In section 323 of the 1996 Act (assessment of educational needs), after subsection (4) insert--
"(4A) In making an assessment under this section, the local education authority shall take account of the ascertainable wishes of the child."").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving the amendment I speak also to Amendment No. 28. They are grouped together and both have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Rix.

We had long discussions in Committee about these and similar amendments. There was strong support from all sides of the House. The Minister said that the amendments were unnecessary: that the code of practice and guidance would ensure that the voice of the child would be heard, and that would be statutory. I should say that the purpose of Amendment No. 27 is that the child's views are taken into account in the making of an assessment; and Amendment No. 28 ensures that the child's views are taken into account in the making and maintaining of a statement.

The Minister's remarks about the code of practice and the statutory guidance were not accepted as satisfactory by the children's organisations. There was a good deal of disappointment all round that we did not have a better reception for our amendments. I think that the perception is very important. Those children's organisations really want the voice of the child written on the face of the Bill. It is not enough just to say that the guidance is statutory.

There is a precedent in the Children Act for the voice of the child being on the face of the Bill. If it were accepted in this Bill it would mean that the educational side would also be on the face of the Bill. Also in the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act 2000 the voice of the child is mentioned.

I do not want to take up the time of the House, but I should like to impress on my noble friend that there is very strong feeling about this issue. I hope that she can be a little more helpful than she was in Committee. I beg to move.

Lord Rix: My Lords, I echo the sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady David. I recognise and welcome the Government's attempts to strengthen the voices of

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children within the code of practice. But I believe that a greater degree of precision is necessary to link the wishes of the child to statutory assessments and the drawing up of a statement. Without doubt, this would benefit young people, families and educational practitioners.

In Committee, I highlighted the importance of proactively seeking the view of young people with learning disabilities and supporting them where necessary. I believe that that should be routinely done. There was also much debate on the difference of opinion between children, their families and professionals. The amendment does not suggest that the child's voice should be paramount. It is a sensible step forward, ensuring that children with disabilities have a real stake in decisions which crucially affect their lives.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, it is very important that we should acknowledge as often as possible in the Bill the need for children to have their wishes about their own future heard. As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said, it is not a question of those wishes being paramount, but of their being taken into account. It is important that they should be seen to be taken into account, not just by a mention in the code of practice, but by a specific mention in the Bill. I hope that the Government will see their way to accepting the amendments.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I support the amendments. Of course local education authorities and responsible teachers will take account of the ascertainable wishes of the child, but what goes into the Bill is important. We have already dealt with a number of amendments that would have included the words, "the wishes of the child". None of them has passed the Blackstone barrier. I do not complain about that. The Minister has explained her views. However, it is bizarre that Part I of a Bill that deals with special educational needs does not contain a single reference to the wishes of the child. That should be corrected. That is why I support the amendments.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I, too, support the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. The amendments would be a sensible change. It is right that the wishes of the child should be taken into account if they are ascertainable--an important condition. It will not be possible to ascertain the wishes of some children who have a mental impairment. However, the great majority of the children concerned do not have a mental impairment.

I have come across these children in large numbers and have discovered that, by the age of 10 or 11, having been looked at, examined, probed and asked questions endlessly, they have become expert in their disability and are usually very articulate about it and able to discuss their problems in an adult way. If their wishes can be ascertained, they should be taken into account. I hope that the Government will be sympathetic.

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Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I, too, support the amendments. My name should have been attached to them, but they were tabled rather late and I was not able to add my name to them.

A number of arguments for the amendments have already been articulated. There is also the, "Does he take sugar?" principle. There is a great danger of not taking into account the wishes of the person about whom we are taking decisions. We are not saying that those wishes should be paramount. On some occasions, they are not ascertainable, but if they are, the wishes of the person about whom we are taking a decision should be considered.

There is also the issue of the ownership of the principle. If the children have been consulted, they are more likely to be happy with the decision. There is a precedent, which we mentioned in Grand Committee. The Special Educational Needs Tribunal has, from time to time, listened to children and taken account of their wishes.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, raised another important issue in Grand Committee. Some children do not have parents to speak up for them and have to rely on local authority social services departments. If the wishes of the child are ascertainable in those circumstances, they should certainly be taken into account.

In Committee, the Minister told us not to worry, because there was a whole chapter in the code of practice dealing with the issue. However, some people do not necessarily always adhere to the strict letter of the code of practice. If the provision is written into the legislation, they are more likely to obey it. We therefore feel that it is better for provision to be made on the face of the Bill. Both amendments would do that.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I, too, support the amendments. I re-emphasise the key points already mentioned--that the wishes of the child should be ascertainable and that they should simply be taken into account. They do not have to be met if that is not in the educational interests of the child. Clearly, the professional judgment about what is in their interests may well supersede. The noble Baroness, Lady David, has simply made it clear that those wishes should be taken into account.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, I am deeply disappointed that there is no reference in this part of the Bill to the wishes and interests of the child. Both issues are important, although they may not always be the same. The wishes of the child may not entirely be reconciled with their educational interests. However, they should be primary aims of the Bill. The Minister keeps saying that they are, but the Bill would be much strengthened if those issues were on the face of the Bill and the Government would lose nothing if they conceded the point. I strongly support the noble Baroness, Lady David.

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