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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Minister's reply is quite baffling. The noble Baroness is arguing that somehow or other this would be a delaying tactic; that it would take too long; and that, therefore, if there is a resolution, it cannot in every case be informally resolved. As the noble Baroness will remember, I welcomed the process being set up by the Government. I thought it was important for us to do what we could to prevent cases going to a tribunal because, at the end of the day, that is much more costly and incurs much greater delay. I understood that it would be done informally.

However, the Minister is now suggesting that this is a rather formal process and that very formal procedures have to be adopted. My understanding was that the conciliation was informal and that it was there to resolve disputes. The noble Baroness is asking me to accept that there will be some parents with issues that are not resolved who will not necessarily be subject to the provisions under Clause 3. I am totally puzzled by the Minister's response. Clearly--though now I believe rather naively--I have gone along with an understanding of what that conciliation entailed; namely, that it was informal, local, much closer to the parents and would resolve issues that would prevent their having to go to a tribunal. It now appears that that is not the case. This is such an important issue that I shall return to it on Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 46 and 47 not moved.]

10 p.m.

Clause 8 [Review or assessment of educational needs at request of responsible body]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 48:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 49, 50, 52 and 53. Other noble Lords will speak to Amendments Nos. 51 and 54, which are also included in this group.

The Government's response to these amendments in Grand Committee betrayed yet again the philosophy that the local education authority knows best, and that the parents must do as they are told. All that the first of these amendments would do is to insert "the parent of the child" after the reference to "the responsible body" in paragraph (b) of new Section 329A(1), thus making him or her entitled to ask the LEA for an assessment of the child.

Under the rest of the provision, once the governing body of the school has asked for an assessment, or reassessment, of a child, the LEA can be triggered into action. All I am asking for is that the parents should also be able to trigger the procedure. After all, it is the

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parents' child who may need the reassessment. It is not sufficient to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said elsewhere, that the parent can ask for the child to be assessed. It is in the context of Clause 8 of the Bill that it is necessary to match the authority of the governing body to ask for an assessment with that of the right of the parent to do the same.

The consequential amendments that I have also tabled would oblige the LEA to get on and make the assessment when asked to do so by the governing body, or by the parent--or probably, in practice, by both. If it is a case of both, it seems to me to be even more important that that request should be met. At present, the Bill leaves it entirely to the discretion of the LEA as to whether or not to accede to the request for an assessment to be made. That is incredible, when one thinks about it. It means that the professionals at the school, or the parents of the child--who, of course, know the child intimately--have judged that an assessment needs to be made and yet the LEA, with no knowledge of the child and with no reassessments made, can nevertheless reject an application for a reassessment.

In defending the absolute right of veto by the LEA, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, said in Committee,

    "Depriving LEAs of the right to refuse to assess would also be a retrograde step. It cannot be accepted that every single request for assessment, either from parents or schools, is well-founded".--[Official Report, 29/1/01; col. CWH 129.]

There could be examples of stupid governing bodies or stupid parents who capriciously ask for an assessment when there is no need for one. But because any system can be abused if one really wants to do so is no reason at all for denying the great mass of informed and honest people and genuinely concerned parents the right to have their judgment respected. After all, the request for assessment from a governing body or from a parent is founded on the evidence before them, whereas the LEA has at the time of the request no evidence at all upon which to found its decision as to whether or not to make a new assessment. It will have evidence as to what the last assessment made of the child was but it will not yet have any evidence as to what changes have since occurred to the child's assessment and, therefore, to the child's needs.

If we are to have Clause 8 at all--I think that we should--the LEA has to become the servant of those who know the child and not their master. The LEA must assume that each request is well founded and get on with it, arranging and making the assessment. In the course of doing that, the odd request might well prove to be less than well founded. I might add that any school putting in a poorly founded request risks not being trusted in future on that or any other issue.

The first and consequential amendments in the group put the parents back in the frame and put the LEA in the position of being obliged to respond to the request rather than having a discretion as to whether or not to do so. One other amendment of mine in this group seeks to cut the time which the LEA has to respond to the request. The Bill at present commits the LEA to have six months between receiving the request

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and making the assessment. My amendment proposes to cut that down to three months. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in his reply in Committee mistook the situation when he said,

    "Three months is just not long enough for any changes which there may have been to a child's special educational needs since a previous assessment to emerge properly".--[Official Report, 29/1/01; col. CWH 129.]

The situation, in fact, is that before the six month period, or the three month period as proposed in my amendment, even starts, the child has been under observation by teachers and parents. As a result of such observation they have judged that the child's condition has changed--it could be for the better, it could even be for the worse--and that such observed change now needs a renewed formal assessment to be made. The three month period starts from the making of that request.

What we seek from such a new assessment is a revision of the education provision which we make for the child. Having, through observation, judged that an assessment or reassessment is needed, the teachers, through the governing body or the parents, have asked for the assessment to be made. Under other amendments the LEA must then get on and arrange an assessment. Three months is plenty of time to do so. What the noble Lord seemed to think, judging from his response, was that any possible change to the child's condition started at the beginning of the six-month period and, thus, much of the six months would be needed to observe whether or not change was happening. I hope I have made clear that that is not the case. The changes perceived in the child have already occurred before the request for the assessment has been made; otherwise, the request for the assessment would not have been made. It is not up to the LEA to sit back to see what further changes might occur in the subsequent six months. By then a year or more may have passed.

In responding to other amendments in Committee Ministers quite rightly emphasised the need and value of as early an assessment as possible for each child. The earlier we can identify a child's problem, the earlier it can be remedied. There is no need for the LEA to sit back for the best part of six months before getting on with the assessment. It is quite true that in the exceptional case where the child is rapidly going downhill in whatever learning difficulty he or she may have, several assessments might be needed in quick succession. That is no reason for giving six month periods of grace. On the contrary, I believe that it is a reason for acting even more quickly.

On Amendment No. 49, in Committee the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, gave a most detailed response to a series of amendments which amounted to a concern that the reassessment of a child's statement should be made as quickly as possible following a request for that reassessment to be made. That response amounted to agreement that any reassessment needs to be made as quickly as possible in order that the provision for the child can be altered to meet the needs shown by the reassessment.

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Our discussion at that time highlighted the frequent need for reassessment upon transfer, particularly from primary to secondary school. The noble Lord did not explain why in Clause 8 the LEA was given a full six months between a request for reassessment to be made and that reassessment having been made. Six months is too long. All the other provisions, guidelines and so on, requiring quick decisions, to which the noble Lord referred, can be overridden by the LEA in this simple requirement in Clause 8 to allow a full six months to pass before the assessment is made.

I ask again: why six months? Why not three months or less? Why not a statement within at least seven days of the request being made as to how and by whom the reassessment is to be made and with a clear schedule of the expected timescale for that reassessment? I beg to move.

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