Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: In the light of the Minister's helpful assurances, I do not wish to press my amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 116, in page 7, line 16, leave out subsection 4.

This is essentially a probing amendment. I am concerned that the Bill may have the effect of excluding persons, perhaps from another country, who do not speak English as their native language, from being treated as having a learning disability in relation to their education or training activities. It may even stigmatise them. A person's linguistic inability in English or—as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales leaves momentarily—English and Welsh might create difficulties for them in the learning process. It is clearly important that that should be dealt with by adequate initial instruction in English, or the relevant language of education. Whether that is best secured by the clause or otherwise is debatable. Subsection (4) certainly limits the council's responsibilities in this respect.

I shall take the opportunity to flag up another concern that relates to persons with special educational needs. We should not assume that such needs necessarily relate to learning difficulties, on which the clause touches, or physical disabilities. In certain cases, persons may have long-term chronic conditions or habits that make it difficult for them to receive education or training. I am thinking of alcoholism, for example, which is not normally regarded as a disability. It is important that persons with such problems are not shunned or excluded, and that adequate provision is made for dealing with them. In no sense do I suggest that such problems are easily superable, but we must tackle them.

Moving out with the narrow definition of special educational needs and/or learning difficulties, which is the rubric of the clause, I hope that the Under-Secretary will respond sensitively to the issue of persons who experience language difficulties simply because English is not their native tongue and to those with chronic habits or other difficulties not normally defined as learning difficulties.

Mr. Wicks: I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman and his general comments on the need for sensitivity towards those with various disabilities or difficulties. Of course, I wholly appreciate that point, and we must be determined to enable all children and young people to benefit from education and training, whatever their difficulty or disability. Having said that, I cannot support the amendment, but I hope that I can to some extent reassure the hon. Gentleman in respect of our intentions.

The amendment would remove an important qualification that the clause will place on the definition of learning difficulties. The definition specifically excludes a person whose difficulties result solely from the fact that the language in which they will be taught differs from that which they use at home. That definition remains unchanged from the 1992 Act in respect of further education and was provided by the Further Education Funding Council. The qualification of the definition of learning difficulties is consistent with the legislation—section 312(3) of the Education Act 1996—that applies in schools to students with learning difficulties.

In case there is any doubt, I should point out that the definition does not refer only to people with learning disabilities or mental disabilities. People are deemed to have a learning difficulty if they have a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of persons of their age, or if their disability either prevents or hinders the use of facilities that institutions generally provide. In summary, a learning difficulty is defined in terms of access to learning, and the definition is wide.

It is important that people are helped to develop their language skills. Existing arrangements in further education and work-based training already enable targeted additional support to be given to people who need to develop their language skills properly to engage in other learning or employment. That must continue, and the LSC will give the matter the attention that it deserves.

I resist the amendment because it would allow people to claim that they have a learning difficulty simply because tuition would be conducted in a language that is different from that which they speak at home. For example, under the amendment, a 17-„year-old child of a French business couple who live in England would be defined as having a learning difficulty. That would not be a sensible social policy to include in the Bill, and I doubt whether that is the intention behind the amendment. Of course, if, for example, the language used at home was sign language, provisions in clause 13 give the LSC a duty to have regard to the needs of that person, perhaps by providing access to a signer while learning. In addition, some individuals who need language support also have a learning difficulty. We will be sensitive to those circumstances.

That apart, it would not be sensible to expand the definition of learning difficulties so enormously. That would only damage the interests of people with learning difficulties as we currently understand them. It would divert resources from them and from people who also have limited mobility or difficulties seeing, hearing, concentrating or retaining information.

11 am

It is not appropriate that people solely with language needs should be drawn into the definition of learning difficulties and the legal provisions that underpin the LSC's support for that group. I would also have to apply that principle to other disadvantaged groups. The arrangements allow the LSC to fund a broad range of provision and the ConneXions service to provide personal adviser support. They provide a framework for learning that meets the needs of a wide range of people, including those who are disadvantaged, perhaps because of language difficulties.

Mr. Boswell: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Willis: I rise briefly to say that I am disappointed with the Government amendments. They fail to pick up on Lord Addington's splendid amendment in another place which had strong cross-party support, especially from Lord Baker and Lord Rix. We need to provide proper access to transport, especially for people with learning difficulties, sensory handicaps and physical impairments. It should be a key duty of the LSC to introduce mobility training. The problem for people with severe learning difficulties who lead a relatively normal life is not the ability physically to get on public transport, but the ability to have regular mobility training.

When Lord Addington and Lord Rix made that point in another place, Baroness Blackstone made it clear that

    The Government recognise that more needs to be done to improve transport for post-16 year-olds—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 February 2000; Vol. 608, c. 823.]

and would continue to examine the issue of mobility training. Have the Government considered that problem, especially as it affects people with severe learning difficulties, sensory impairments and so on? Is it possible to reconsider the amendments that were moved in another place and to table an amendment on Report that makes it the duty of the LSC to provide facilities for mobility training?

Mr. Wicks: This is an important matter. I read the debate in another place with great care. Indeed, I discussed the subject with Lord Rix yesterday. There is no easy answer. The mobility needs of an individual will vary a great deal. The transport infrastructure and requirements will vary depending on the part of the country. I am talking not just about the particular needs of rural areas, but also, for example, of the difficulties of travelling in big cities. We must approach this in a number of ways.

As Baroness Blackstone said in another place, the LSC will be able to give mobility training. We will consider the implications of that. I would also point out that for the younger age group, 16 to 19, the development of education maintenance allowances, which we have been piloting across one third of the country, include in some of the pilots a transport element. In these pilots, we are assessing whether some incentive covering transport costs will increase participation rates. That is a general provision for students from a low-income background, but it also has relevance for students with disabilities or mobility difficulties. We are aware of the issue. It would be wrong of the Government to prescribe in the Bill or anywhere else a grand vision for post-16 education and training if, due to immobility and/or transport costs, many citizens were still denied them. I assure hon. Members that we are concerned about this problem and will be exploring the ways in which the LSC can address it. The new ConneXions service will work with the younger age group. It will provide personal advisers, who will work with those with disabilities and, in some cases, with those up to the age of 25. Its purpose is to enable students to have full access to training.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clause 15

EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY

Mr. Wills: I beg to move amendment No. 148, in page 8, line 8, leave out from `year' to end of line 9.

Mr. Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 149.

Mr. Wills: I should like to say a few words in support of the amendments tabled by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North. I hope that the Committee will welcome the simplification that the amendments are intended to achieve. Clause 15(4)(b) provides for the national council's plan for a financial year to include proposals on how it plans to keep to its budget in addition to the council's financial proposals. Clause 22(d) provides for a similar requirement to be placed on the local councils. The hon. Member for Daventry has been sent a letter stating our intention of tabling the amendment.

We think that the provisions are too prescriptive and inflexible. They perhaps give the impression that the sole objective of planning is budget monitoring. Financial accountability will be crucial, but the provisions create an overly top-down approach. Therefore, these changes are further evidence of our wish to avoid that and have a proper balance between top-down and bottom-up. I hope that hon. Members opposite will note this.

We wish to amend the clauses so that the LSC, both nationally and locally, can function in a situation where budgets may not have been finally determined by the time plans must be published, which is before the start of the financial year. As clauses 15 and 22 stand at present, by the time the LSC must produce its annual plan, it may not know its annual budget, so would not be able to state how it proposes to keep to it. Also, we need to recognise that a local council's budget may change during the year from the point when it was set out in the national council's guidance under clause 21.

I believe that the provisions relating to the national and local councils' budgets should simply require that their plans contain their financial proposals for the year. Such proposals will certainly include how the national and local councils will perform their duties with the financial resources available. I, therefore, commend the amendments to the Committee.

 
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