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Lord Lucas: My Lords, although Amendment No. 54 is not within this group, the Minister knows what it is about. If the noble Lord chooses to reply to the amendment so that I do not have to move it, he is welcome to do so.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I shall indeed address my remarks also to Amendment No. 54. I begin with the amendments which the noble Baroness moved and to which she has spoken. We discussed the issues at length in Committee. We stated that the amendment is unnecessary because, as the noble Baroness well knows, Section 328 of the Education Act 1996 gives parents the right to request assessments for their children. Therefore if Amendment No. 48 is linked to Amendment No. 49, it would mean that the statutory interval between requests for assessment of children by schools and parents would be three months instead of six. The noble Baroness asserts strongly that three months is long enough. I do not believe that to be the case.

For children whose previous assessments had led to statements, the amendment would mean that their parents or school could request reassessments within two weeks of receiving the final statement. For children where the LEA had refused a request to assess, it would mean that the parents or school could make a new request within six weeks of the refusal, which would not be time enough for the child's needs or circumstances to have changed significantly. If three months were to be accepted, it would hold out the prospect--it was discussed in Committee--of a constantly revolving door of requests for reassessment with which LEAs would have to deal. We do not regard that as a sensible use of LEA officers' time.

Of course, parents can appeal to the tribunal if they feel that an LEA is wrong to refuse to assess their child's special educational needs. Surely that is the most sensible way forward rather than continuous requests for assessment.

Amendments Nos. 50, 52 and 53 would deprive LEAs of the right to refuse to carry out an assessment where a parent or a school requests it. We do not agree with the proposal. Not every request for assessment either from parents or schools is well founded.

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Although the majority are well founded, it is also possible for such requests to be ill founded. In consultation with parents and schools, LEAs can often show how a school working within its own budget can adequately meet a child's needs without going through the assessment and statementing process. Surely it is right that LEAs should continue to be allowed to exercise their judgment in deciding whether an assessment is necessary. When an LEA decides not to assess a child's special educational needs following a request from a parent, under Section 329 of the Education Act 1996 it is required to inform the parents of its decision. We intend to use the regulation-making powers in Schedule 7 to ensure that LEAs explain to parents why they have decided not to assess. The Bill imposes a similar duty in respect of decisions made following requests from schools.

Amendment No. 54, which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, wants to degroup, would allow LEAs to decide whether to assess a child within the period specified for parents to make their representations. In Committee, on 29th January, we agreed to respond in due course to the issues that the noble Lord raised on Amendments Nos. 76 and 78. He referred to possible delays arising from the specified arrangements set out in Clause 8. He also raised the potential for LEAs to decide on whether to assess and to get on with it if parents were happy for the decision to be made before the end of the specified period.

We have carefully considered the noble Lord's comments and the amendment. I hope to clear up any misunderstanding about what LEAs can and cannot do during and after the specified period and any confusion that may have crept into our discussions about time limits in the regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, painted a picture of LEAs being able to extend the specified period for as long as they liked--I think that he suggested that they might even take two years--and not being able to do anything about a request for assessment from the school until the specified period had finished. That is not so. LEAs will not be able to specify unreasonable periods. We shall impose a six-week time limit on LEAs to tell parents whether they have decided to go ahead with an assessment following a request from a school. That is the same time limit as for requests received from parents. We shall not make regulations directly to limit the specified period--this is where confusion may have crept in--but LEAs will not be able to make the specified period longer than six weeks because they will have to have taken parents' representations into account before informing them of their decision.

The specified period is not a period during which LEAs are unable to do anything about requests while they wait to see whether the parents are going to make representations. The only thing that LEAs are not allowed to do during the specified period is decide whether to assess. That ensures that the LEA is aware of any views that parents may wish to put forward before it makes its final decision. We expect LEAs to get on with requesting and taking advice from other

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sources than the parents during that period. That is what currently happens when LEAs are considering whether to make an assessment under Section 323 of the 1996 Act. That section also allows LEAs to specify a period of not less than 29 days for parents to make representations. LEAs would be unwise not to request and start considering advice during the specified period because they have to make sure that they are in a position to give the parents the decision within six weeks.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, clearly expressed his dislike of unnecessary delay. I share that feeling and I hope that he will accept that we want to ensure that no such thing occurs.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, when he began his response, the Minister almost ridiculed this group of serious amendments and insulted the mostly caring and sensitive parents. Let me give some evidence for that. First, he said that the amendments would allow parents to require reassessment within two days of receiving a statement. That is an absolute absurdity. In order to produce evidence for assessment the first thing a parent would require is a period of observation of their own child. They would have had to notice a discernible change in the condition of the child and the situation in which the child finds itself. That would require perhaps some modified provision which would also need to have been observed sufficiently for the parent to be able to present a case for re-assessment. It is ridiculous to say that a parent could do that within two days.

The noble Lord used two examples. He said two days and he also referred to six months. That is doing a great disservice to some very serious amendments and to situations which could be very real for the parents. The rest of the noble Lord's answer was predicated on what I thought was a monstrous caricature of the way in which parents would behave. I am singularly unimpressed by the noble Lord's response. These amendments are serious. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is unable to be at present. He was also calling for a time limit. He will present his amendment on the next occasion. These amendments are so serious. I simply will not accept the tone and the wording of the reply that we have just received from the Minister. I shall certainly return to this matter at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 49 to 54 not moved.]

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 55:

    Page 8, line 13, leave out paragraph (b) and insert--

("(b) Any setting recognised by an early years development partnership set up by a local education authority under section 119 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I note that the Chief Whip is in the House. I have been constantly asked this evening what the plans are for the House

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rising. No one seems to know and not even my "usual channels" appear to know. I ask this for four reasons. First, there has to be a concern for the staff of the House. We all know that the House will be sitting at 11 o'clock tomorrow. The Hansard writers will have to return tomorrow and we should at least have some concern for them.

Secondly, if we spend only five minutes on each of the amendments we have to deal with tonight, we would still be here for between three to four hours yet, with both the noble Baroness and myself involved in the first debate tomorrow.

Thirdly, there is a discourtesy to the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth who has a late amendment. I ask this for information. If the House intends to rise any earlier than at the very end of this list of amendments, then it would be a courtesy to her to know whether she need to wait for her amendment. It would be helpful to many people throughout the House, including members of staff, to know what the plans are for the rest of the evening.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I have offered an arrangement with the Opposition by which we can go home at 11 o'clock and finish the Report stage of the Bill on Monday. The Third Reading would be on Thursday, which was the date agreed originally some time ago. In the planning of this Bill we have tried extremely hard to accommodate the diary commitments of the noble Baroness. Unfortunately, the Opposition have felt unable to accept that offer. They believe that the interval must be maintained. This Bill is already a week late, which I can live with if it is delivered to the Commons next Thursday. But I cannot have the Government's programme decided by the Opposition. I have offered an arrangement. I am very concerned about the staff. There is an arrangement which will enable the House to rise at 11 o'clock or soon after, finish Report stage on Monday and complete Third Reading on Thursday.

The noble Baroness is shaking her head. The reason why we are in this position--and I have the figures before me--is that 72 amendments have been brought at this stage by the noble Baroness. I understand that the Liberal Democrats brought back one and the noble Lord, Lord Baker, returned with two. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, brought back one. There is no earthly reason why the Report stage of the Bill could not have been properly completed in a reasonable day's work today. The draft grouping presented to the noble Baroness yesterday had 49 groups. It was ungrouped by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who produced 65 groups. If we sit late tonight--I agree with the noble Baroness that if we do so, we shall sit very late--the responsibility will lie entirely with the Opposition.

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