Standing Committee B
Thursday 29 March 2001
[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]
Resolution of Disputes
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 8, in page 4, line 20, after `authority', insert `, acting in good faith,'.[Mr. Boswell.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking amendment No. 9, in page 4, line 27, at end insert
`and the authority must make that right clear to parents in advance of any procedure under this section.'.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): Before we broke for lunch, I was trying to convince hon. Members that the resolution of disputes procedures proposed in the clause would be both neutral and independent, so amendment No. 8 was unnecessary. I had been questioned about the extent to which it was possible to ensure that all local education authorities fulfilled certain standards in the performance of those services. It is worth pointing out that, as a Department, we fund the national parent partnerships network, one of whose jobs is to share good practice in this area as well as in the area of parent partnerships, which we discussed when we considered the previous clause.
I emphasised, too, that we were in the process of finalising the chapter in the revised code about working in partnership with parents, in the light of consultation responses. The code will set out minimum standards that we expect dispute prevention and resolution services to meet, as it does for parent partnership services. That will include the requirement for the services to be neutral and to involve an independent element, which will ensure that parents have confidence in them. As I said when I talked about parent partnership services, LEAs will have to have regard to the statutory guidance in the code of practice that will set out those minimum standards, with the same safeguards that I outlined in the previous debate. I hope that, with those reassurances, the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I can help the hon. Gentleman on amendment No. 9, too. I reiterate the response given by my noble Friend Baroness Blackstone at the Grand Committee stage, as reported in the Official Report CWH 112. Hon. Members will remember that the discussion centres on the question whether engaging dispute resolution would affect a parent's right to appeal to the SEN tribunal. As my noble Friend said in another place, the Government recognise that it is essential that parents know that engaging in the new informal arrangements for preventing and resolving disagreements does not compromise their right of appeal to the SEN tribunal. We believe that that is best achieved through regulations.
I am happy to give an assurance that we will use the regulation-making powers provided for in the Bill to require LEAs to inform parents about their arrangements for preventing and resolving disputes and that, if parents take advantage of those additional services, their entitlement to appeal to the tribunal will not be affected in any way. LEAs will also need to inform parents of the statutory time limit for lodging an appeal and that the dispute resolution can run alongside the appeals process.
We envisage that chapter 2 of the revised SEN code of practice will reiterate the need to inform parents about how the arrangements will work and that they do not affect their right to appeal. The regulation-making powers mentioned earlier are set out in the Bill, in clause 8 and schedule 8. I hope that, having heard my assurances, the hon. Member for Daventry feels able to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Once again, I am grateful to the Minister for taking pains to go through the considerations put before her. A potentially negative way of interpreting the search in which the Committee is collectively engaged would be to put pressure on local authorities, which are not behaving as well as they might in this area. More positively, one might encourage them gradually to emulate good practice and to ensure that the measures are a positive benefit to their affairs and not an awkward hoop through which they must leap.
That thought is nowhere more appropriate than when considering the potential for putting pressure on inevitably vulnerable or comparatively inexperienced parents who feel that their rights amounted simply to a friendly chat and did not extend as far as taking the matter to a proper tribunal, if necessary. Having been involved in the establishment of the tribunal and having served, although in a different capacity, on a tribunal, I consider it important to have that backstop.
The Minister will remember my saying on Second Reading that we would not want the tribunal to be the first resort, but it is essential that there is a last resort. She has helpfully explained the guidance and how it is being set up to encourage local authorities to act well, and she repeated the specific safeguard that was enunciated by her noble Friend Baroness Blackstone. We are satisfied with her response. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 4, line 38, at end insert
`(ca)such other educational institutions within the maintained sector as may from time to time be designated by the Secretary of State with the approval of both Houses of Parliament.'.
I need not detain the Committee long. The other day, we had a discussion on the multiplication of various sorts of educational institutions, if not in substance, in nomenclature. Some of those may be and, in this case are, non-maintained but within the private sector, and local authorities may buy into them and secure provision for pupils with special educational needs. The amendment would ensure that no one is left out and that, if a new category comes along or there is some arrangement about which we had not previously thought, it can be relatively easily accommodated within the entirely sensible rules. We want people to be able to use a wide range of different educational establishments. It is concomitant on that that if disputes arise, the dispute procedure should cover the whole area, not part of it. I am sure that the Minister will say that that includes the private non-maintained sector as well as the maintained sector. That is a sensible approach and I look forward to her reassurances.
Jacqui Smith: The hon. Member for Daventry is right about the purpose of new section 332B(8). It will ensure that the resolution of disputes procedure is carried out in relation to disputes between parents and the broadest possible range of schools. That is the reason for the list. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the same would apply for any schools that came into being under future legislation. We do not believe that the amendment is necessary, for similar reasons to those that I outlined on Tuesday.
The Bill is not an appropriate vehicle to provide for categories of schools that may come into being in future. Any such schools will be created by primary legislation. Their classification will be subsequently inserted into the necessary legislation to achieve the effect that the hon. Gentleman wants. I agree that any future categories of schools that a Government might consider appropriate to determine would need to be covered by the dispute resolution measures. I assure the hon. Gentleman that our proposal would have that effect.
Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the matter. She might be tempted to say that I tabled the amendment twice in order to hear her answer twice. It was the same answer, and I believe that it is substantially convincing. However, she has an even greater faith in the Bill's draftspeople than I might have, given my previous experience. I hope that neither she nor I will ever find that a little error has been made. I shall discuss that in a subsequent debate, but not now. Following those assurances, I need merely beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Compliance with Orders
Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 15, in page 5, line 6, after `order', insert
`as promptly as practicable, and in all cases'.
This is unlikely to be a long or especially contentious debate. It is consistent with our recent debates on amendments that relate to what might be called the good faith of local authorities. The purpose of the amendment is to secure not simply literal-minded compliance by a local authority with the terms of the tribunal hearing but what might loosely be termed a proactive and positive response.
As an analogyand a confessionI am sure that we are all familiar, perhaps as a result of writing articles for the local press or working for colleagues in the House, with being up against deadlines. Most of us find them helpful, as about two hours before D-day or H-hour we suddenly realise that we had better do something about that article that we have known about for the past six months, and we do it. They are a good catalyst for action.
In saying that, I do not suggest that it is acceptable for people to go beyond the requirements of the tribunal order. However, if a local authority, whether through ineptitude or because it is resisting or has not accepted the tribunal's decision, runs right up to the wire and does nothing about an order until the last possible moment, that is unacceptable.
It is to be hoped that the tribunal's order has been realistic, and realistically the matter may not be concluded until the last possible moment. However, the amendment relates to circumstances in which the matter could have been sorted out earlier and in which the authority could quickly take action. It is designed to avoid creating a perverse situation whereby the authority has a disincentive to act until the last possible moment, rather as I jocularly described in relation to our writing articles to deadlines.
If the action required is the right action to take and the authority could take that action promptly, the authority should not wait until the deadline but make a fist of starting. The amendment involves a reasonable test of the reasonability of an authority's actions in relation to special educational needs and whether it should start the process as soon as possible rather than waiting for the last possible moment. It was tabled with that consideration in mind.