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Mr. Boswell: With respect, the hon. Lady is a member of the Government, and she and her colleagues need to decide what they are going to do about those legitimate issues. They might even spend a little time in Committee explaining to us what they propose to do.
Mr. Levitt: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, even when it has the right to do so, the Disability Rights Commission prides itself on not going all the way to court and resolving cases before they reach court?
Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman graciously allowed me to intervene twice during his speech, so I am ready to allow him to participate, even though time is short. He is aware that I am in close touch with the Disability Rights Commission. I admire very much the good sense of Bert Massie and the way in which the commission has set about its business. I am sure that litigation should be the last, not the first, recourse. However, once one starts granting legal rights, litigation will not be confined to the commission; the odd barrack room lawyer, who may have nothing to do with the commission, may wish to take a case to court and create difficulties. All I am asking, quite reasonably, is that Ministers think about the possibility and come up with some answers.
In conclusion, those matters all give rise to genuine concerns among parents; they cannot simply be shrugged off. In a moment, we are going on to debate a motion on the handling of the Bill. I fear that the House will hear from me again on that subject and I do not intend to rehearse my remarks here. All that I would say is that we owe it to parents, children and special education providers in this most sensitive of educational sectors to give the Bill--whatever its objectives, aspirations, and highly acceptable aspects, and however improved by a helpful definition of how the Secretary of State will approach statementing and how local authorities are to tackle it--proper consideration. We need to explore the concerns which we have expressed in good faith and to which others have added.
We need to be sympathetic to the case and need to handle it sensitively. We need common sense; in fact, we might say that we need sound sense, rather than soundbites. The children, for whom we are all concerned, deserve no less.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): We have had a useful and wide-ranging debate on the Bill. Many right hon. and hon. Members have used their considerable experience of and interest in the subject to make important
I am pleased that there has been general support from Government Members for the broad thrust of the Bill. However, I am disappointed that the Opposition will vote against the Bill. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) seemed to suggest that because it is not possible for the Opposition to muster enough votes to defeat the Government, it somehow does not matter that the Opposition intend to vote against Second Reading. People outside who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood pointed out, are keen to see the Bill get through, will note the attitude of the Opposition this evening.
Through the Bill, we will give our attention to the needs of pupils with special educational needs and the rights of disabled pupils, students and adult learners to access education. To put that in context, one in five pupils will be identified as having a special educational need at some point in his or her school career. There are more than 1 million young people aged 24 and under who meet the definition of disability in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. In addition, there are more than 60,000 adult learners with disabilities. Those are the people whom the Bill will benefit directly.
The Bill in its present form reflects the changes that we made after considering representations made to us and amendments tabled in another place. We believe that the Bill is better for that. As regards the operation of the new duties in the Bill, we are not interested in a dogmatic or a one-size-fits-all approach; rather, we are concerned with what works in practice. We want an inclusive education system that offers excellence and choice.
Opposition Members made much of their concern to safeguard the needs and interests of children with special educational needs. It was implied by several Opposition Members that the Government were not concerned about those needs. In fact, as several Government Members pointed out, the entire SEN framework supports the best interests of children. Our concern is that the requirement to recognise the needs of the child as a caveat in the inclusion clause has been gravely misused.
For example, a boy with a physical and hearing impairment was successfully included in a mainstream nursery school. When the time came for him to transfer to primary school, the local education authority directed him to a special school, miles away. The LEA said that a mainstream school would never be able to cope. It never considered what could be done to facilitate his continuing inclusion.
The child's parents had to battle to persuade the LEA that a mainstream school could cope. After an appeal to the SEN tribunal, the boy was welcomed into a mainstream school, where he is thriving. The parents should not have had to fight for their child's inclusion. The retention of the "needs of the child" caveat would mean that children who could and should benefit from inclusion would continue to be denied a mainstream place.
Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. For the record, can she tell us whether that was under the present regime, where the "rights of the child" caveat is embodied? If the decision had been left to the LEA exclusively, would there have been a change? Is it not the case that the rights of the child were embodied and were eventually enforced by the tribunal, and that that effected the change in provision?
Jacqui Smith: No. The point is that the parents had to fight for the child to get into a mainstream school. We want a positive commitment to inclusion. Clause 1 is supported by the Special Educational Consortium, an umbrella for 250 organisations. It is also supported by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Mencap and the National Autistic Society, even if it is not supported by the Opposition. I know to which of those bodies I would rather listen.
The Opposition have also suggested that the Bill prevents LEAs from funding independent placements, but that is completely wrong. The abilities and duties of LEAs in respect of funding such placements, which are set out in section 348 of the Education Act 1996, are specifically preserved by proposed new section 316A(3), which is contained in clause 1. They also argued that clause 1 would make it harder for parents whose children have statements to gain special school places. Again, that is simply untrue. We have always argued that one size does not fit all, which is why we keep signalling an important and continuing role for special schools.
Clause 1 strengthens the right of children with statements to obtain mainstream places and fully preserves parents' rights to object to mainstream provision. It does not make it harder for parents to gain special school places for children with statements. The Bill underlines the fact that parents' wishes should be listened to.
It has also been argued that the Bill is an attack on special schools. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out, we want mainstream and special schools to work together and we see an important and continuing role for them. The overall size of the specialist sector has not reduced. Since 1996, it has remained broadly static and has catered for about 1.2 per cent. of children, or about 97,000 of them. Changes will continue to be made to ensure that provision reflects local circumstances and needs, as has always been the case.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) spoke about the special school in his constituency. I am sorry that he chose to attack Ministers personally for not turning up at his meeting. I must tell him that I received his invitation only this morning. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), who has lobbied hard, will confirm my willingness to meet those concerned. The delegation that she brought to me represented a special school in her constituency, and I was happy to meet its members and discuss their concerns. I told them that we are committed to a buoyant and vibrant specialist sector, which explains why funding per pupil for maintained special schools has increased by 20 per cent. in real terms under the current Government. It is also why we have made available to non-maintained special schools direct grants, the standards fund, information and communications technology training, devolved formula funding, funding for teachers to pass thresholds and laptops. All that provision was not available under the previous Government.
The hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) rightly raised the issue of resources. Of course, not everything needs money to change. Much of the change that is needed will be brought about by shifting attitudes, but resources are important, which is why the £500 more per pupil that the Government have put into schools and the increase in the standards fund from £55 million this year to £82 million next year are so significant. It also explains why the schools access initiative has increased to £220 million over the next three years. That comes on top of the general increase in capital spend, which has risen threefold on the amount that we inherited from the previous Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) spoke passionately about her constituents and has lobbied hard for investment in her constituency, so I am pleased that children in special and mainstream schools will see the benefit. We have made money available for excess in further and higher education. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced £25 million more for early years. We learned today that the Conservatives are still unclear about whether they will match our funding for those purposes. The reality of their policies is that the money that LEAs currently spend on placements in independent schools would not be safeguarded under their spending plans. We have also heard that they are unclear about their free schools policy. Having said that all the money for special educational needs would go to schools, we now hear that it would stay in the local authority. Presumably the sign on the SEN officer's door would be changed from "local education authority" to "local authority". The Conservatives cannot have it both ways: they cannot promise more money to schools and then do U-turns such as tonight's.
My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak raised important issues about early years education and my hon. Friends the Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) and for Aberdeen, South discussed Scottish Executive responsibilities and particular issues for Scotland. As they said, I have written to the Scottish Executive because it is for Scottish Executive Ministers to decide how to respond to the disability rights taskforce recommendation on the statutory duty to plan to increase access. I am sure that their call for quick action has been heard.
The codes of practice were also mentioned. The Bill will confer powers on the Disability Rights Commission to produce either Great Britain-wide codes, separate codes for England and Wales and for Scotland or Great Britain-wide codes with Scottish chapters. Although the education and legal systems in which the new duties will apply differ, the duties themselves will be the same. When my hon. Friends met the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), she made it clear that we would be careful about using experts from Scotland on the drafting groups for the code. There will be a GB-wide consultation and we shall consider separate chapters for Scotland.
The Bill will strengthen the SEN framework to improve the education services provided to children with SEN and their parents, and it will put right the previous Government's omission by removing the unjust exemption of education under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. No longer will an education provider be able to discriminate against a disabled pupil, student or adult learner on the ground of disability.
Education is the key to ensuring that everyone, regardless of individual needs and whatever their background, has the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Attitudes have shifted a long way from the days when disabled children often had little choice but to attend special schools or institutions and were frequently separated from their families and friends. Schools, colleges and universities are increasingly inclusive, but we are determined to maintain that progress and to support good work such as that which I saw last week at George Green's school in Tower Hamlets, which is an excellent example of a school where inclusion and high standards work together.
The school is unfazed by the diverse needs of the pupils it serves, including six who use wheelchairs and several with limited mobility, complex medical needs, severe communication difficulties and learning difficulties. The school's belief in inclusive education, like that of the Government, comes first. Everything else is then a challenge that can be surmounted. When that can-do ethos is combined with a strong focus on teaching and learning, visionary leadership and, increasingly, financial support from a Government who share its vision and are willing to invest in it, the result is a successful and popular school that achieves despite difficult circumstances.
The Bill and the Government's investment will ensure that many more schools can develop like George Green's and that many more children can benefit from what schools like it have to offer. As we said in our recent Green Paper, inclusion and equality of opportunity are an important part of our drive to promote higher standards. They represent the start of lifelong learning opportunities open to all, regardless of disability.
The Bill, which the Opposition oppose, demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that pupils, students and adult learners have the opportunity to meet their potential. It will ensure that we move one step closer to a society in which all are valued for what they can do, rather than judged for what they cannot, and I commend it to the House.