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Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [H.L.]

8.30 p.m.

Further consideration of amendments on Report resumed on Clause 2.

[Amendment No. 33 not moved.]

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 34:

("( ) A local education authority must at all times have regard to the best interest of the children for which it is responsible.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as I discussed before supper, I have degrouped Amendment No. 34 and will speak to it separately. I shall not repeat all that was said in the Moses Room. We went over this subject many times in an effort to try to find a way of using the Bill to bring local education authority practice into line with the Children Act and other more recent pieces of legislation to make sure that the best interests of the child are taken properly into account.

I think that we set up a row of several amendments and the Minister skittled us out very effectively by pointing out that if we impose an obligation on local

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education authorities to have regard to the best interests of a particular child, we were only likely to find ourselves disfavouring some other child. In response to the arguments raised in Committee I seek to impose a general duty on a local education authority to have regard to the best interests of the children in its care and to leave it to that local education authority to balance matters as it sees properly fit. But at least the duty will be there underlying its thoughts and actions and education will come into line with the other ways in which we have dealt with the manner in which authorities deal with children. I beg to move.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful for the elegant way in which the noble Lord introduced his amendment. However, I am sorry that he thought that he had been skittled out in Committee. That is not our intention. If he saw my donkey drop bowling these days, he would realise that I am not capable of skittling anyone out.

I seek to meet the point behind Amendment No. 34. I agree it is right that LEAs should consider children's interests. That is as true of children with special educational needs as it is of all children. In providing advice and information parent partnership services must be neutral. There may be various different ways of making appropriate provision for children with special educational needs. Parents should be offered the choice and they can decide what is in their child's best interests. I think that the noble Lord shares that sentiment.

Parent partnership services can support them in this, but, in giving advice, they should not substitute their judgment for that of parents. They are not in a position to judge what may or may not be in the child's best interest. Parent partnerships can make sure that parents have information about the full range of options that are open to them so that they can take informed decisions about the best provision for their child.

As was indicated earlier, the revised code of practice will clearly set out that the advice and information provided by parent partnership services must be neutral and must set out the wide range of options available. This will be part of the minimum standards and core functions that we expect of parent partnership services. That ought to be the framework within which the interests of the child are best served. I know that that is the intent behind the noble Lord's arguments this evening. I hope that in the light of that reply the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I held out no great hope that I would make progress with this amendment. I am grateful for the noble Lord's reply. I shall read it with interest in Hansard, along with the other replies that have been made to amendments on this same subject. But for now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 35:

    Page 3, line 42, leave out ("proprietors") and insert ("governing bodies").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 35, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 37, 39, 59, 97, 98, 99, 156, 157 and 158.

There is a kind of dogmatism that rules in the Bill. I suspect that the edict which has gone out in government circles is, "Whatever you do, do not give in to anything, however strong the arguments might be for it". I read the responses in Hansard to my suggestion for a different word to "proprietor". They make interesting reading. In fact, I tried them out at a dinner party the other night to give the guests some idea of some of the parliamentary gobbledegook that is used. Anyone who consults a dictionary for the meaning of the word "proprietor" will realise that it is the wrong word to use in the Bill.

I refer to the argument which I have always said I am never impressed with, even though I may have been a Minister in the previous government; namely, the fact that it has been used in legislation before is no argument for it to be used again. Whatever counsel may say in the background and however tidy minded people are about the matter, it seems to me that there is a good argument for using a more relevant word and one that means something in practice for the poor people who will have to interpret the meaning of the Bill. They are the people--not us in Parliament--who at the end of the day will have to make sense of the Bill and make it a practical proposition at ground level.

"Proprietors" should be replaced with "relevant authority" or in other parts of the Bill with "governing bodies", "head teachers" and so on. The term "proprietor" appears many times in the Bill. In many of those places I sought to replace it with the words "relevant authority". Elsewhere, where the context requires it, I sought to replace the term with the words "governing bodies" and in other contexts with the terms "head teachers", "governing bodies", "trustees", even "proprietors or other relevant authorities".

The term "proprietor" is clearly understood in the world of education as being the owner of a profit-making independent school. There are few such schools in this country, but there are some which are owned by a proprietor. These are not charities; these are schools which make a profit as an income to the proprietor and possibly also to some shareholders. Most independent schools are not for profit registered charities. Certain well-known independent schools are not for profit exempted charities--a term used by the charity commissioners. A proprietor himself is the governing body of the school or may himself appoint a governing body of several persons. It is clear therefore that the use of the term "proprietor" in the Bill covers only those few for profit schools.

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The Minister said in Committee that the term "proprietor",

    "has a very long-standing legal meaning. It is defined in Section 579 of the Education Act 1996 as meaning:

    'The person, or body of persons, responsible for the management of the school, including governing bodies'".--[Official Report, 29/1/01; col. CWH 103.]

I suggest that that was a meaning put on it by a civil servant or even by parliamentary counsel. It is certainly not a meaning that one finds in any dictionary in the world. The 1996 Act was passed under the previous government and I make no apologies for that. I simply believe that in the context of the Bill the word is wrong.

If past legislation states that black is white, lawyers might say that black is white. However, everyone else would say that that is nonsense. The use of the term "proprietor" to mean the governing body of all independent schools and even, as the noble Baroness said, of the city technology colleges and academies, is a nonsense. Lewis Carroll may have given the words to Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass,

    "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, nothing more, nothing less",

but I doubt we should apply such logic to a piece of legislation which is supposed to be read, as I said earlier, and understood by all those in the world of education and others besides. For them, when I use a word it has to mean what is generally understood by them to be its meaning.

The noble Baroness put up a vigorous defence of her use of the word "proprietor" and no doubt we shall hear it repeated tonight. However, I cannot understand why she did so when much more accurate descriptions of the persons responsible for a school were offered to her. In no way do the amendments change the intentions contained in the Bill. On the contrary, they clarify that it is the relevant authority of all schools which is to be consulted, informed and so on in the different clauses of the Bill. Nor do you have to go to the Treasury to ask for money. When I was a Minister in this House, I heeded the advice from time to time (although not always) that when the opposition oppose a Bill or put amendments to it, the government should concede if to do so costs nothing or even--dare I say it--may improve the Bill. That used to buy peace. I suggest that the Minister may consider doing the same. The amendment would make more sense to people who have to read the Bill. It would make more sense to parents who have to make sense of legalese. It would make it easier for those who are divorced from reading these legal niceties.

The Minister made one tiny concession in Committee. She said that the Government were prepared to consider adding "or head teacher" at the end of Clause 8(12)(b). I request the noble Baroness to include that concession in the Bill and to accept all the amendments which replace "proprietor" with the more encompassing term "relevant authority". In some clauses of the Bill the proposed amendments spell out all those responsible for schools--trustees, governing bodies and head teachers. In that context, "proprietors" can also be included, thereby covering

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that tiny number of schools which have a proprietor. I see no amendment on the horizon to that effect. I beg to move.

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