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Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am in sympathy with the amendment moved by my noble friend. Indeed, my own amendment in the next grouping, which we may not need to discuss, looks at the matter from much the same point of view. The Government made a good point when we discussed this matter in Committee. A local education authority should not be compelled to hold open a place for ever while a parent is swanning around an independent school and simply not stating that the place was not wanted. Nor, however, is it reasonable for a parent faced with looking after and educating a severely disadvantaged child to be able to do nothing for that child for a couple of years while the process of statementing grinds on, so that the local authority then has to make a statement.
Why should parents with the means and ability to provide for their child privately for a year or two while the local authority is making up its mind be prevented from doing that simply because, if they do that, then the local authority will not make a statement? Surely the right way to approach this is, while the local authority is making up its mind on what should be done for a child and while the appeals process is grinding its slow way through, parents should be free to make whatever provision they can for their child? That should not disadvantage the child's chance of securing a statement.
The right arrangement, if the parents can afford it, is to provide for the child privately; the statement arrives, it is agreed, and the child then moves to whichever school is specified in the statement. Under Clause 9 as presently drafted, that will no longer be possible. I do not understand why the Government are insisting that children should not be educated for a couple of years as the price of getting a statement.
We value the role of the independent or non-maintained special school sectors. The Bill preserves parents' freedom to choose to send their children to these schools. Nothing in the Bill jeopardises existing packages of funding provision in non-maintained or independent schools. It will still be for LEAs to determine or for tribunals to order the decisions in that respect. Nothing in the Bill indicates anything other than a continuation of existing arrangements so far as concerns the independent sector.
Amendment No. 60 is not required, because the effect of the clause as currently drafted is that if parents cease to make suitable alternative arrangements for their children, the LEA must then find a suitable alternative placement for them and include the placement in Part 4 of the statement. There is consequently no need to specify the name of a school or institution where parents are currently making suitable arrangements: if this situation changes and the parents cannot make their own arrangements, the LEA certainly cannot wash its hands of the child. I hope that noble Lords will recognise that it would not be right--and I think there have been indications to that effect in the contributions of both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas--to require LEAs to hold places open on the off-chance that they might be required by children educated at their parents' expense which are then denied to other pupils. That is why I am hopeful that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
On the further issues with regard to the importance of Clause 9 as drafted, there is no intention in the clause to allow LEAs to cut a child and its parents adrift simply because, for one reason or another, the parents have chosen to place the child at a fee-paying school. LEAs must arrange provision for pupils with statements of special educational needs whose parents are not making suitable arrangements for them. Amendment No. 62 would have the effect of making the clause unworkable in practice and could cause school places to be kept empty to the detriment of other pupils and require local education authorities to absorb the cost.
We also consider Amendment No. 63 to be unnecessary. LEAs are already required to arrange that the special educational provision set out in the statement is made unless they establish, following notification by the parents, that suitable alternative provision is being made. That is the obligation of the LEA. I recognise that this amendment is also intended to protect the position of parents who have placed their children at an independent school and are appealing to the tribunal to have that school named in the statement. They may be concerned that if they lose the appeal, the place in the LEA's choice of school will be lost. However, we do not think that this strikes the right balance.
LEAs should not be required to keep places open for children whose parents do not really want them. If the tribunal agrees with the parent about the school to be named in the statement, the child will continue to be educated there and the place kept open by these amendments will have been wasted. If the tribunal disagrees, the LEA will be required to name a school in the statement, possibly the school it originally wanted to name or another school suggested by the LEA, the parent or arrived at through agreement.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am sorry that the Minister was not at least sympathetic to the plight of the parents who, out of sheer frustration, buy a place that they can ill afford in an independent school pending the outcome of all the procedures which have to be gone through and, because they have done that, the LEA and the Government write them off. They say, "They have gone off to the independent sector. They can stay there now and the place can be given to somebody else".
If the parents' preference is for a maintained place and out of sheer frustration and wanting to make some provision for their child they go temporarily into the independent sector, then the small breathing space asked for by the amendment should be made available so that the child can have that preference honoured. The tone of the noble Lord's reply was that if they go to the independent school, whether or not they can afford it and whether or not they are sent there out of frustration in the interests of the child, tough! If that is the noble Lord's attitude, we shall have to return to this amendment at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in the course of the last amendment I found myself agreeing entirely with the Minister and entirely with my noble friend Lady Blatch. I agree with the Minister that it is unreasonable that local authorities should be made to hold open school places. I agree with my noble friend Lady Blatch that it is also unreasonable for parents to be forced to leave their child unprovided for if they can, on however temporary a basis, afford to have that child educated while the local education authority is making up its mind.
Perhaps I can put a scenario to the Minister. Suppose I have a child in the middle of her school years and, through some accident, she is suddenly made blind or deaf, or made nearly blind or deaf. I have £20,000 or £30,000 and my reaction in those circumstances is to use that money to help her as best it can to overcome the consequences of what happened to her. I cannot provide for a blind school or deaf school for long on that money. But I can do something while the local authority is getting into gear. It may take the local authority a year or, under current practice, a couple of years before my child is properly provided for, years which she could be spending with properly qualified people getting used to her new disability--learning Braille, lip-reading or whatever provision may be made for her.
Under Clause 9 I am faced with the position whereby, if I use my money to do anything for my child, I jeopardise her entire future because she will then not be statemented. I have to sit by and do nothing for her because, by doing something, I can cause her great harm.
Suppose I put her in an independent school so that she is cared for and helped through the trauma of the accident. Yes, when I run out of money she will again be available to be statemented. But it will then take the local authority a year or two before there is a place for her. She will therefore have an enormous hiatus in the middle of her education. Therefore I dare not buy a private place. That situation is utterly unreasonable. Surely the first duty we owe to our children is to do everything we can for them, particularly in the hardest circumstances.
Surely most of us, in those circumstances, would mortgage our house and do the best we can with all the money that we can make available to look after our child who suffered whatever the accident might be. Surely the state should support us in that action and say, "Yes, you make provision for the child for a year. We will move as fast as we can to bring her into the mainline system. When we get to the point where we know what the statement is to be, you will be given a limited time to decide whether or not you take the statement or continue with your present private provision".
That seems to me to be entirely reasonable. The state should not be left hanging. A parent choosing to make a sacrifice with whatever money he has to hand, to do something a bit faster or better for his child, only to have the state bite back and damage the child as a result is entirely unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some comfort on that. I beg to move.
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